Table tennis is one of those games that is a lot of fun to watch, but can feel super tricky to learn – especially if you have never played it before! This is a high-intensity, fast paced game that can change in a moment, and offers a brilliant skill to add to your arsenal.
The nuances and subtleties of table tennis are complex, but that doesn’t make it impossible – with a little practice and research, you can break down the sport and get to grips with everything from terminology to technique in next to no time – and all while having an awful lot of fun!
A History Of Table Tennis
These days, table tennis is a popular pastime all across the world, and is seen in locations from community centers and casual halls, right up to a competitive sport – Asia and Europe in particular have taken table tennis under their wings at the elite levels.
The origins of the sport, however, lie in the early 20th century in England, and here the activity was referred to by its trade name – ping-pong. The Ping-Pong Association was formed in 1902, and this lasted until 1905.
Despite the breakdown of the official association, the popularity of the activity remained across England, and throughout the wider world.
By the 1920s, ping-pong was a popular sport across Europe, and 1921 saw the adoption of the term “table tennis”, as opposed to ping-pong.
The International Table Tennis Federation was formed in 1926 by the founding members – England, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Wales, India, Denmark and Czechoslovakia – and boasted over 165 members by the mid 1990s.
The first competition occurred in 1926, in the City of London, and Europe soon went on to dominate the sport, with Hungary taking the men’s title nine times, and Czechoslovakia twice.
Asia entered the playing field as serious competition in the mid 1950s, and have continued to excel at table tennis ever since this time.
In fact, the popularity of the sport across China was so high that it was even used to rectify political issues – while Cold War tensions were rising between the US and China in the 1970s, the so-called “Ping-Pong diplomacy” era arose – this was an effort to try and ease tensions between the two nations using a series of table tennis matches, and has even been credited with the 1971 visit by President Richard Nixon to Beijing!
The first table tennis World Cup was held in 1980 – with China taking the prize – and the event was officially granted Olympic status in 1988, with both singles and doubles competitions available for men and women, just as with lawn tennis.
An Overview Of Table Tennis
Before we take a closer look at the nuances of table tennis – also known colloquially and by the trademarked name “ping-pong” – it is a good idea to have a basic overview of the sport, its history and development through the years. In terms of style, table tennis shares a number of similarities with traditional lawn tennis.
Both are played on a flat surface – in the case of lawn tennis, a court, and in the case of table tennis, a flat table – that is divided into two equal sections using a net across the middle.
Both players have one main objective: to hit the ball and force it over the net, bouncing in their opponent’s half so that it is impossible for the opponent to reach or return the ball in the correct manner.
There are just three main pieces of equipment: a hollow, lightweight ball, the table itself, and small bats – also known as paddles or racquets – which are held by the players.
Each match is made up of the “best of” any odd numbers of games, and a game is won by the player who reaches 11 points first. Alternatively, a player may be crowned the winner if they win with two clear points ahead of their opponent.
If a server fails to serve the ball, either player fails to return the ball properly, or an infraction is committed by either player, a point is scored. Service will alternate every two points, and after every point once the 10-all mark has been reached.
Games can be singles or doubles, just as with traditional lawn tennis, and players may employ a number of strategies and techniques to help them win the match – we will see some of these when we take a closer look at how to play.
The Rules Of Table Tennis
It is useful to have an overview of the basic rules of table tennis; these will be the same for any match or game that you play.
Each game will play to eleven points, and one player must be two points ahead before a win can be declared. Services are alternated every two points, and this goes on until deuce is reached; at this point, service will be alternated at every point.
The ball must be served by starting with it in your open palm, placed behind the end of the table that you started at. The ball is then thrown straight up into the air, a minimum distance of 6”, and the player then uses the paddle to strike the ball on the way down.
As soon as the ball has left the hand of the server, it is officially in play, and so the point will be given to your opponent if you miss the ball!
The ball can then land anywhere on your opponent’s side of the table, but cannot bounce more than twice on the opponent’s side – if there are three bounces, you will get the point.
When serving, all serves must bounce in the right court of the server and the receiver, and any balls that land on the center line will also count.
It is permissible for the ball to hit the net during a rally, provided that it touches the top of the net before landing to hit the table. It is not, however, permitted to touch the net while serving – this is known as a “let” serve, and will need to be restarted by the server.
The ball cannot be hit before it bounces – this is slightly different to the rules and permissions in lawn tennis, where it is permissible to “volley” the ball by hitting it before it bounces.
In table tennis, however, a “volley” will result in your opponent automatically being allocated the point. This is also the case if you hit the ball, and it goes over the other end of the table before being hit by your opponent or their bat.
You will also receive a point if you hit the ball over the net with enough spin to allow it to bounce back over to your side of the net.
It should also be noted that in a game involving doubles partners, both partners are required to alternate hitting the ball during a rally, and this is the case regardless of where the ball lands on the table.
A legal hit or serve is also permitted to make contact with the top edge of the table surface, and still count as legal – even if it then bounces sideways. The vertical edges of the table will not count as legal surfaces, however.
When it comes to touching the ball with your hand, the rules vary depending on the circumstances. It is permitted to have the ball touch your bat hand, including the hand below the wrist and any of your fingers, provided that this then results in a legal hit – this will not be considered a violation.
If, however, the ball touches the non-paddle hand, a point will be automatically given to your opponent. You are also not permitted to touch the table using your non-paddle hand.
In many matches, a referee will be present to make the required calls on disputes and concerns. If, however, a referee is not present and a disagreement arises, the “honor system” swings in – this requires players to find a way to come to a mutual agreement, or replay the point.
Table tennis has a history of being fair and friendly, so it is important to try and resolve concerns and disagreements as peacefully as possible.
1. Gather Your Equipment
Before you get started, it is a good idea to gather any necessary equipment that you are likely to need; this ensures that you can hit the ground running, and be ready to practice at a moment’s notice, or whenever the opportunity arises.
One of the main advantages of table tennis is that it is relatively cheap compared to some other sports, which require a huge array of expensive equipment before you can get started. With table tennis, there are just three main items to procure: a paddle, a ball and a table.
Table Tennis Paddles
Also known as a bat or racquet, a table tennis paddle is one of the most important pieces of equipment to prioritize – this is what you use to strike the ball. There are four key elements to any table tennis bat, and these are:
- The handle is the part that you hold, and can come in a range of shapes and sizes – different handles can impact your game in different ways, and the best option will ultimately depend on your playing style.
- The blade is the main area of the paddle – the part that you use to strike the ball and play the game. This is made from different layers of wood on top of each other, with a thin sponge later above this. For newbies, opt for a paddle which offers a thinner layer of sponge at the top – usually around 1.2 mm. This will ensure that you have greater control over the ball, and can be more accurate. Some bats may be made from carbon rather than wood.
- The rubber is a layer on top of the sponge, and this is the area that actually hits the ball. Different paddles have different types of rubber, and this can impact the way you play.
When choosing your paddle, there are three main areas that you will need to consider: control, speed and spin.
When you are just starting out and investing in your first paddle, you should look for lower speed and spin ratings in favor of higher control ratings – this will help you to build accuracy and efficiency.
Then, as you gain confidence and get better at controlling the ball, you will be able to focus on speed and spin, and opt for a bat which comes with a reduced level of control.
Table Tennis Balls
After the bat, the ball is the next most important piece of equipment to consider; after all, no game can go on without this! Most table tennis balls are small and round in shape, and plastic is the most common material.
There are two main colors: white and orange, and the regulation size for competitions and matches is 40 mm. Balls are also rated on a system from one to three stars, with one being the standard for casual, recreational games, and three being the requirement to participate in an official tournament.
Table Tennis Tables
Once you have your paddle and table, you will also need to take some time to choose something to play on – and this means a table tennis table.
These tend to be the largest investment you will make, and prices range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars – when you are just starting out, don’t be afraid to opt for budget versions, which work just as well.
Alternatively, opt for a conversion top – these are smaller, more portable tables that can sit on top of an existing table, and are great if you are limited for space – you can enjoy the benefits of a proper table tennis table, but without the need to find room for a full-sized kit.
If you are really strapped for money or space, you may not even need to invest in your own table-tennis table; many clubs and community centers will have their own, and will allow you to practice whenever you want.
Joining a club is also a great way to ensure that you always have someone to play with and practice with, and will expose you to a wide range of competition, which can be invaluable in improving your game.
As you become more experienced and confident, there are a few other additions to your equipment collection that you may wish to consider.
These include a sturdy pair of shoes, designed specifically for table tennis – while standard sports shows will be fine in the early days, you may choose to invest in more comfortable and custom designed shoes as you progress.
A paddle case can also be a good idea once you start investing in more expensive bats and paddles, as these can be a little fragile, and easily damaged by knocks, water, dust and dirt. As you start to spend more on your equipment, it makes sense to protect it with a special case.
For those who are really taking the sport seriously, and starting to compete at the higher levels, a table tennis robot, also known as a “ping-pong robot” can be a smart investment – especially if you struggle to find others to practice with.
This is similar to a robot that is often found in lawn tennis, and will shoot balls at you from a specially designed machine, allowing you to improve on accuracy and consistency at any time, with no need to find a partner. This can also be very useful for building up speed, spin and strength.
In the early days, however, you only really needed a bat and a ball – and in some cases, these too can be borrowed or hired from clubs or local gatherings.
2. Understand The Basics of Table Tennis
When learning how to play table tennis as a complete newbie, the best place to start is with the basics. In general, there are ten “fundamental skills” to master – these are at the core of the sport, and form an important part of every match and game.
You will also need four pieces of equipment: a bat, a ball, somewhere to play and a partner to practice with. This could be an informal setting, such as at home, or you may find a local club or group – the latter is a great way to build your skills and experience, while actively competing against others.
The ten main skills you will need to focus on are:
- Forehand drive
- Backhand drive
- Forehand push
- Backhand push
- Return of serve
- Match play
Of these skills, the top three are the most important for helping you to establish strong, firm foundations – the rest of your practice and table tennis skills will come from this, and so it is important to ensure that you have these down before attempting to move on.
Drive and push moves will form the majority of your game when you are actually playing, and help to perfect the accuracy and consistency of the shots and moves you make, while serving and match play are crucial for helping you take your skills from practice to match, and will prepare you for a competitive situation.
According to experts, you should expect to put in around 50 hours of time in perfecting these basic skills – this will help to bring you up to the standard where you can feel confident in matches, and hold your own.
3. Master The Grip
As we have mentioned, one of the most essential skills to master when learning how to play table tennis is to achieve and maintain the correct grip, and there are two main options here: the shake hands and the pen hold.
Shake Hands Grip
The shake hands grip is also known as the traditional European grip, and this is the option that is becoming increasingly popular amongst Asian players.
Here, the head of the racquet is placed faced up, and the hand of the player is extended, as though you are preparing to shake the hand of someone you are meeting – hence the name. When playing with a shake hand grip, both the front and back of the paddle are used.
The pen hold grip was traditionally used across Asia, but increasingly appears to be falling out of use in favor of the shake hands grip.
As the name suggests, the racquet is held between the thumb and index finger, in the same way that one would hold a pen to write with.
This is a little tricker to master, and so not the best for beginners, but does offer greater movement in the wrist – this can allow for more effective spin.
With a pen hold grip, one side of the racquet is usually used for backhand and forehand.
For beginners, the shake hands grip is the easiest to learn, and it is important to get comfortable with it before you move on.
Take time practicing this before you move on – remember, your grip connects your bat to your body, so it needs plenty of confidence and practice.
4. Perfect The Stance
Once you have got to grips (excuse the pun!) with your grip, your next priority needs to be your stance, and there are two main areas to focus on here: it needs to be low, and it needs to be wide.
The goal is to ensure that your center of gravity is as low as possible, and your feet need to be slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
It can take practice to achieve and maintain this position, so make sure that you give yourself the time and space to practice and become comfortable – you will also need to build up strength in your muscles and bones to allow you to stand like this for extended periods during a match.
You need to stay relaxed while playing, and actively learning how to relax your arms and upper body muscles is a skill that needs to be practiced.
Relaxing your upper body allows your legs to stay strong, and places you in the best possible position to move, serve and return the ball.
Deep breathing can really help with relaxation – take a deep breath into your stomach, fill your lungs and when you exhale, allowing your upper body to relax as you do so – this will physically force your upper body to relax.
Once you are comfortable with your stance, you can practice agility and movements to get you used to your center of gravity, and allow you to pick up speed. Catch games and ball control are a great way to practice this.
5. Find Your Footwork
The final fundamental skill to learn and practice is your footwork, and you need to get this under your belt before you start playing and actually hitting tennis balls – this will get you used to moving and reacting to the ball, and should be implemented into your training as early as possible.
You need to learn to move quickly, but in small, controlled movements – this can feel very unnatural when you start, as the footwork required for table tennis is quite different to that required in any other sport.
Side stepping, and moving from side to side, is a key skill to master and get used to, and you will need to get used to fast, rapid changes of direction – the ball in table tennis tends to move very quickly, and you need to be able to respond instantly if you want to succeed.
Once again, this is a skill that you need to acquire and practice, and the more you do, the better you will get! Try sidestepping around the table in circles, and then suddenly changing direction.
Practicing with other players will also help you to build this skill – always keep your paddle in hand, and retain the appropriate stance, as this will replicate a real-life match, and help things feel more realistic.
Perhaps the most important thing to note is that you need to train your legs – table tennis players always have powerful legs and strong thighs, so focus on training this area!
6. Stroke 1: The Forehand Drive
Once you have mastered these basic, fundamental skills, you can move onto the next stage of your training – the skills you will need in the match. There are four main strokes to learn in table tennis – the forehand drive, the backhand drive, the forehand push and the backhand push.
This is an attacking stroke, and is a drive shot designed to be played with a small amount of topspin. In order to be successful, the forehand drive must be played against a float ball, or a medium to long length topspin – this cannot be played off a backspin or short ball.
The main things to remember here is that you need to concentrate on the consistency and accuracy of your move, rather than trying to play faster, or hit the ball as far and as hard as you can.
The main emphasis should be on hitting the ball consistently over and over again, while keeping yourself relaxed to help maintain accuracy; this will help the stroke to seep into your subconscious, and will become a habit.
Once this happens, you will find that things come much more naturally, and you will be able to hit the ball every time. From here, strength, speed and stamina can start to be built up.
There are a few common errors that many players make when it comes to the forehand drive – understanding these in advance can help you avoid making the mistakes, and can improve your game. These common errors include:
- Staying fixed, or leaning forward. Make sure that you are moving your weight from back to front as you stroke to give yourself flexibility.
- Rotating from your shoulders, but not your hips – this means that you lose both power and flexibility, and can cause injury and strain on your shoulders.
- Tucking your elbows into your body – this reduces your potential rotation, and limits your power.
- Moving your arm but not your body – instead, you need to allow the movement of your body to move your arm – the body should bring the power, while the arm controls the movement.
- Dropping your wrist – you need to try and keep your wrist as straight as possible. The paddle will then face down, and you will lose control and power.
- Over rotating the body – this results in the bat ending up across the neck or body, when you should aim to end every shot with the bat pointing in the direction of your strike.
- Making contact too late – for the best results, you should try and hit the ball at the peak of the bounce – this increases power and topspin.
- Changing the angle of the bat – aim to maintain the angle of the bat closed as you move through the stroke – anything else is bad technique.
7. Stroke 2: The Backhand Drive
The second essential stroke to master is the backhand drive. As a general rule, those who struggle with the forehand drive will find this easier, and those who find this tricky will have found the forehand drive a little easier.
Both techniques are different, but the basic principle behind them both is the same, and the emphasis on consistency and accuracy also applies here.
Once you are comfortable with the basic premise, you should combine this with the forehand drive, and get comfortable switching from one to the other quickly and while under pressure – this will replicate a game situation.
As with the forehand drive, there are a few common errors to avoid, and these include:
- Playing from the wrist or shoulder – when making a backhand drive shot, focus on playing from, the forearm and the elbow – this offers greater accuracy, and will give you more control over the shot.
- Playing the shot too short – you should still play a full, long stroke, or you risk simply tapping the ball and losing power.
- No follow through – it is important to always follow the ball through with your paddle once you have made the shot. Otherwise, you risk wasting excess energy lunging from side to side.
- Taking the shot too early – as with the forehand drive, many players try to take the shot straight after the bounce, and this means that you are more likely to lose height.
- Taking the shot too wide – unlike lawn tennis, table tennis requires you to make sure that you are standing directly behind the ball that is coming towards you. Aim to be in a position where if you miss the shot, the ball will hit you in the chest, rather than coming past you.
- Opening up the angle of the bat while making the shot – this is a common and tempting error, but it can bring your elbow up and throw your accuracy off.
8. Stroke 3: The Backhand Push
It is important to work hard to perfect the forehand and backhand drives -these are your topspin strokes – before you move on to trying to get your head around a new move – these are your backspin strokes.
In order to successfully play a game of table tennis, you will need to be able to play both a topspin game and a backspin game; too many players focus only on the one that they are best at, or prefer to play.
Always remember that you will never know where your opponent’s strengths lie, so you need to make sure that you can counter any particular strengths and skills that they may have.
Starting with the backhand push is recommended, as this tends to be easier to learn. The focus should be on boosting the amount of backspin that you have on your pushes by opening up the angle of your paddle, getting underneath the ball, and using wrist acceleration to improve power, accuracy and consistency.
Building this skill will help you with your backspin serve later on.
Some of the most common errors that players make when practicing their backhand push include:
- Using too much wrist – when you advance and become more confident in your skills, you can use your wrists to increase the spin, but this is not something you need to be worrying about when you start. In the initial stages, focus on moving your arm for power, accuracy and control.
- Using sharp strokes, or strokes that are too short – you need to keep your backhand push as smooth as possible.
- Taking the ball too quickly or early – always get into the habit of letting the ball come to you, and move at the bounce.
- Scooping the ball – avoid “scooping” the ball in a U shape, and instead brush the ball in a single straight line, with your paddle ending close to the table.
9. Stroke 4: The Forehand Push
This is one of the trickiest table tennis strokes, as the movement tends to be one that does not come naturally to most people.
Despite this, you do need to be able to pull this out of the bag when needed, as a good forehand push is essential when you receive a backspin ball.
The goal is to make sure that your push is long, low and fast, while ensuring that you are getting completely under the ball – this increases the pressure on your opponent, and makes you more likely to win the point.
Once you have mastered the move, start practicing alternating and combining the forehand and backhand push shots so that you are doing them automatically and without thinking – this kind of instinctive response comes from higher levels of skill and ability, and will give you a significant advantage in matches.
Some of the key errors that tend to arise with this move are extremely similar to those typically made with the backhand push, especially when it comes to using and placing your wrists, and the tendency to hit the ball down the back, rather than from underneath.
10. The Serve
One of the key things to remember with your serve is that you want to avoid predictability as much as possible – if your opponent is able to easily anticipate your move, their chances of winning the point escalate significantly.
Many beginners will opt for a plain serve, with minimal spin, and this can quickly be picked up by the other player, allowing them to gain the upper hand.
Table tennis contains a number of different types of serve, and some are more complex than others. You will also need to consider whether you are better and more confident when serving with a backhand, a forehand, or a combination – this will totally depend on your own skills and abilities, and will vary from player to player.
One of the best options for newbies is to opt for a heavy backspin serve; this means that you are playing enough backspin on the ball to allow it to physically bounce back into the net.
To achieve this, you need to focus on generating the maximum amount of backspin, and a large percentage of this will come from technique and practice.
This type of serve will have your opponent on the back foot from the get go, and this can create a psychological advantage in your favor.
You should also aim to make your serve as fast as possible; once again, this relies heavily on allowing the ball to drop close to the table before you go in, and ensuring that you are hitting the ball as close to the end line as possible – both of these elements will increase the speed of your serve.
As with the other elements and skills of table tennis, getting your serve up to scratch will take time, practice and effort, and playing against other competitors of all levels is one of the best ways that you can improve.
11. Returning Serves
Once you have learned how to serve, the next stage is learning how to return serves – and this can be a tricky and complex consideration. There are an almost incalculable number of combinations and ways that you can return a serve, each with their own speed, placements, and degrees of spin.
The most important thing to remember when returning a serve is that you want to match your opponent. To achieve this, you need to make sure that you can identify what they are doing, and the type of serve that they are using, as quickly as possible.
You will also need to quickly track the placement of the servers that they are sending you – this will tell you where you need to be, and give you a chance to adjust your positioning accordingly.
This takes confidence, time, skill and experience, and so do not feel disheartened if you struggle to return serves at the beginning of your training.
Once you are more confident in your skills, you will have the ability to “read” your opponent more easily; once you have worked out the type of spin and serve that you are receiving, you can quickly work out the best way for you to respond.
This all comes down to reading the ball, and reading your opponent—something that comes with practice in actual matches.
12. Determine How You Play
It is all very well practicing your skills in the abstract, but you also need to make sure that you have the right skills, technique, and ability to take you through a match, and have a decent chance of winning.
This involves determining how you play, and getting to grips with the type of decisions that you are likely to make under pressure, in a match situation – having a good, solid understanding of these beforehand will increase your chances of success.
One of the most significant things to consider is your own strengths and weaknesses – these will determine the kind of strategy that will work best for you.
Consider whether you are better at driving, or if you find pushing easier and more effective? Are you more proficient at sending the ball, or receiving it? Why do you think this may be?
Is your forehand stronger than your backhand, or vice versa? Do you have good footwork and positioning? Can you respond quickly when the situation changes, or are you slower to react?
According to one expert, the following strategy can be very useful for beginners and new players, and can be adapted according to your unique strengths and weaknesses:
- Serve fast 50% of the time, and with heavy backspin the other 50%
- Try to play a drive stroke on your returns, unless the ball that you receive has Try ton
- When rallying, push the ball if it is in backspin, and drive it if it is in topspin
- Focus on winning the majority of your points when you out-rally your opponent.
This is a basic outline for a strategy that can be tweaked and adjusted according to your own unique skills, experience, and abilities.
Though table tennis may seem fast-paced, intense, and complex to an outsider, once you start to get your head around a few of the basics, you will come to realize that this is a fun, exciting and competitive sport which can be truly thrilling once you are playing matches.
At the same time, the table tennis community is a friendly one, and so this is a great chance to try something new, learn a new skill, and make lifelong friends – all while improving your technique, and smashing your opponent in every match!
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