The Big Ball: Girls, Thinking Points

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The big ball has now been with us for some time — however just how many girls have taken the time to consider how this will affect them personally? Whether it will be of benefit with their own particular style of play or if it will in fact cause them problems? How many have introduced changes into their training regime to focus more directly on the tactics required to win points with the big ball? And the sixty-four thousand dollar question — how many coaches have actively considered the implications of the big ball in the women’s game and how their approach to the style development of the young girl player should be restructured?

Science has given us certain undisputed facts about the big ball — it’s bigger and heavier and compared to the small ball slower through the air and takes less spin ( in a proportion of about 10 – 20 percent). However it doesn’t explain many other aspects — why so many net balls (top of the net and out), why world class players miss so many simple shots, especially when they try to play very early or very late. It appears that the big ball has a slightly different trajectory through the air, behaves differently after the bounce and drops more quickly as it comes off the table. Some problems in the initial stages have been due to poor ball quality, but this is not an aspect which will persist. Others have been due to the fact that the player has been in the wrong place. The player is in fact in the place where experience has led her to expect that the ball will be — but in fact experience can no longer be relied on in a situation where some factors have changed! This however is also a situation which will not persist, new experience will be formed. Our game of table tennis is changing, if we are to progress we must meet the challenge and change with it. Otherwise we may be left behind. To give us a little more basis for discussion let us listen to what some of the world’s best players say about the big ball.

  • slower tempo, less spin, harder for blockers and speed players to win points.
  • need to hit harder and develop more power.
  • must play the ball more rather than let it hit the racket — better technique and better footwork is required and slightly longer strokes to achieve the same effect.
  • it’s going to call for changes in playing style, nearer the table for example.
  • a little higher bounce, harder to serve and play short.
  • the quality of many balls is bad, because of this and the way the ball plays the level of top play is suffering – you need to be much more active and positive now.
  • it’s harder to win points from back, mainly because you have less spin, the difference in speed is not so much.
  • it’s harder to take the ball very early especially with a short stroke, slightly different bat angle needed on blocking.
  • reactions re serve and receive are very mixed, especially with the women. Some find it harder to take serve, others easier. Most find it harder to win on their own service. Men who generally serve with much more spin don’t stress any big differences.
  • players who hit hard and have power in reserve will benefit.

It is obvious in the future that there must be a different direction and emphasis in the coaching of young girls. Less speed and much less spin will affect all players who prefer to be at a distance from the table — it is harder to win points from back. Is there any way to dramatically increase the power? Unlikely. Women are already at a big disadvantage compared to men in the power department. We could look at faster blades and weight training to strengthen the body, but we must also be realistic. To achieve a power increase of at least 15%, which is what we need, is not easily or quickly achievable. Equally it is hard to envisage any new rubber or technique which would increase spin or deception in the same ratio. It would therefore appear that girls who prefer to play at a distance from the table will rarely win points through disguise of spin or with topspin — rather they will only win by getting the ball back so often that the opponent eventually misses, hardly a recipe for long-term success!

Conversely the blockers and counter-hitters who stay close and use their reactions, (and there are many of these in the women’s game), will benefit from facing less speed and especially less spin. They will have more control in the rallies and more time to select the ball to hit hard. The end result could well be that we shall see rather more control or negative play, especially among the younger girls and at the lower levels in women’s table tennis! If it’s actually harder to win points with the big ball, then there’s less incentive to be positive (many girls are a little negative in attitude anyway).

What exactly does this mean to the coach/trainer of the top young girl player, who is expected to make an impact at European or even world level? Certainly some training areas must now be accorded a much higher priority. One of the prime development areas must be to increase the player’s capability to break up the control game and to accelerate from a control situation into full attack and to look at different ways of doing this. In the majority of cases this is going to involve more emphasis on closer-to-the- table-options.

  • variation in all its aspects must assume more importance.
  • girls have always had more problems than boys in producing good serves, especially with spin and in receiving in a positive manner. If they wish to play at top level it is now rather more urgent that they achieve mastery of these areas and of the second, third and fourth balls.
  • the first hard attack or counter will often win the point – more than ever it is vital that girls have a positive attitude and look to attack early in the rally.
  • the need to play the stroke more and have a little longer action to get good effect (and the necessity to try and generate more power), imply directly that better technique and better footwork are significantly more important.

In view of the differences in both power and spin between men’s and women’s table tennis perhaps it would have been a rather wiser decision to have brought in the bigger ball just for the men’s game. However the powers that be rarely consider the ramifications or how in fact players will be affected, when they make such decisions.

What it means for the young girl who wishes to aim at the highest level, is that she is going to need rather more individual and specialized guidance and more often. From a young age technique, tactics, footwork patterns and the appropriate style development will need close monitoring. She will require specialist help on serve and receive and following up on the second, third and fourth balls, as well as guidance in the strategy of variation. Above all she must be able to take that step from mere control of the play to actually winning the point, always bearing in mind the vital importance of the first good hit or counter.

Such a level of individual emphasis coupled with the appropriate insight into the requirements to succeed at the top in the girl’s game, is rarely available outside Asia. Asia dominates women’s table tennis at world level — the last time a non-Asian team won the Worlds was in 1969 in Munich (U.S.S.R.), the last time a European won the women’s individual title was the legendary Angelica Roseanu back in 1955 in Utrecht. By adopting the big ball it is highly probable that the I.T.T.F. has in fact increased the gap in Asia’s favour and ensured their dominance for a further fifty years.

The Mechanics of the Long Serve and why Women use it more

Rowden Fullen(2003)

At top level in the men’s game the shorter, tight serve is used quite often. Usually it is not very short but rather half-long and delivered with a mixture of backspin, sidespin and float. Thus it is too long to flick and too short to loop and the deception in the spin element also causes problems in dealing positively with the serve. However all the top men are capable of initiating long serves and use them from time to time. In fact the shorter serves because they are increasingly familiar to players are no longer as effective as they were and there is a need to produce more long serves. Even those players who use the shorter serve as an integral part of their game are finding that better results can be achieved by mixing in the occasional long serve.

Certain technical requirements should be observed when executing long serves

  • The first bounce of the ball should be close to the end line in the server’s own court.
  • The contact of the racket with the ball should be just above the level of the playing surface.
  • At the instant of impact an explosive forward momentum should be applied not only with the action of the waist and the legs, but even more important, with the wrist and the fingers. The ‘shakehands’ grip player should emphasize the use of the forefinger in forehand serves and the coordinated action of the forefinger and especially the thumb in backhand serves (or alternatively the wrist alone can be used in the case of the fast sidespin serves). The pen-hold player must apply force with the middle finger behind the racket.
  • Never hit the ball downwards. This results in a larger angle between the line of flight and the table surface, causing the ball to bounce higher. The smaller the angle between the table surface and the flight path, the lower the trajectory. However high you throw up the ball in the service action, always try to have the actual point of contact as close to the table surface as possible and hit the ball forward. This has an additional advantage in that the opponent has less time to read the spin on the ball, because the distance between the ball hitting the racket and then the table may be as small as 4 – 5 centimetres. If you combine this with a fast racket action, then the service can be very deceptive.

In the women’s game the long serve is used much more often and for two main reasons.

  • Women don’t topspin with as much power and such a high spin element as the men. Therefore women can’t hit the ball as hard and on the table as easily as men and it’s easier for other women to control the power and spin that they do feed into the shot. If you remember your theory less power means less topspin and less on-the-table-control for your shots (the ball doesn’t dip down so much on the opponent’s side of the table). For the women who drive more than spin then timing is absolutely critical and to obtain maximum effect they have only a very narrow ‘window’. Basically women have less control against the long serve and especially if they try to return with power. Even at international level the top women do not always even return the long serve on the table!
  • Most women play closer to the table and counter better than the men from this position, it’s an integral part of their game. What better than to serve long, let the opponent open, then just kill the ball past them? Generally women counter extraordinarily well and in many cases from an extremely early timing point. If they use the short service too often they get ‘bogged down’ in a pushing game; many women in Europe are not good in the short game. Even in this situation they will on many occasions push long to tempt the opponent to open so that they can counter once again!

What women players should really be looking at is to return the long serve with something other than power. A ‘stop-block’ for example, which returns a different pace and spin and denies the server the opportunity to use the return speed which they normally expect. Or a slow ‘roll’ ball from a later timing point which gives the server neither much speed nor much spin to work with. Or even the occasional chop or float return. All these returns have the advantage of taking the speed away from the server so that she is not able to use it against you on the third ball. Why play into the server’s hands and do what she wants, why not do something different?

The serve/receive scenario is of particular importance in the modern game. By the way they play it looks as if most European women train far too much control play, loop to loop or loop to block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they will have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

Rarely if ever for instance are the Asian women afraid of the European serves and follow-up ball. They consider that the Europeans have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball. Often at the highest levels against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use their strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time. Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians.

Perhaps now at last is the time for a rather different method, the ‘soft approach’. Instead of thinking power and spin (and women must bear in mind that the big ball will have proportionally less spin and effect, especially if they play further back from the table) why not move in the opposite direction and consider the virtues of lack of power and particularly on the receive of the long serve!

Women Close-to-Table; Square or Not?

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Even in this day and age many coaches still insist on the right-handed player having the right foot back when playing forehands close to the table.

So just what is the reasoning behind this – do we think that we somehow create power by pushing off with the right foot from a position this close to the end of the table? And do we actually have time to do this? And does power come from the legs anyway when we are this close? Power comes primarily from the racket arm in the close-to-table exchanges – there is rotation but this is crucial not to the power input but to the recovery so that the player ends up facing the opponent and is ready for the next stroke.

Coaches then compound the misinformation by telling the player that the right foot which starts from a deeper position, should be brought forward during the stroke so that the player finishes square! Why not just play square in the first place and rotate from the waist into the shot? Another aspect which seems to escape the attention of many is that the ease of rotation becomes more and more difficult as you move round from square to off-square. The hips which are in the area of the centre of gravity rotate much more readily and efficiently from a square position.

There can be other problems too in adopting a side-to-square ready position in that as players move quickly wide to the FH they then tend to drift away from the table at the same time and end up taking the ball later. Technically there are few if any problems in playing the FH strokes square or even over-square, provided only that the player takes the ball early and in front of the body and that there is good recovery-rotation. A number of the top cadets and juniors are now playing like this in Europe, even in countries like Romania, which has a strong tradition in girls’/women’s table tennis – it would appear therefore that these square or over-square techniques cannot be too incorrect.

If one examines the world’s top women in action (at the last World Championships 2009 for example) we see that they stay very wide and square and move in to take the FH early. This is invariably a one-step movement with the right foot (for a right hander) or a jump-step as the top players fully appreciate that there is just no time for anything else. Too often in the West we are still talking about two-step systems (left then right) and a narrower stance – not only does the wider stance provide rather better stability but makes it easier to use the one-step or jump-step movements, which allow the player to come more quickly to the wider ball and give more efficient shot production.

The retained square-ness and width of the world’s top women within the rallies also mean that they not only economise on movement but also rotational requirements. As they move across to the FH they play the shot with limited rotation and a fast arm, so that they recover rapidly for the next ball. Whatever happens in the rally they are aware that the priority is to finish the present stroke in such a way that they are prepared to play the next.

Growth after Technique

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Just what happens when your player becomes reasonably proficient in technique and is able to get to most balls and play her strokes from all areas of the table? Obviously there must still be growth — technique on its own without the knowledge of how to use it effectively is an empty shell. Growth is also vital from the mental standpoint. The player will soon comprehend at least subconsciously that she has stopped progressing and this will lead to a general feeling of dissatisfaction.

It is however precisely at this stage of development where many coaches seem at a loss as to what to do next. They continue to concentrate on the minutiae of technique and work their players harder and harder physically and wonder why there is so often little improvement and diminishing motivation. Another aspect, which many coaches fail to fully appreciate, is that they are not starting afresh at a new stage in their player’s development. What happens next depends very much on whether the correct foundations have been laid in the formative years.

Of course before we even think of investigating how we are going to grow we must first identify exactly what we are going to grow into or in other words ‘destination’, where we are going. To do this we must first define the prime skill of table tennis. What qualities, abilities and capabilities should the prospective world champion possess in order to reach the very highest level? The prime skill of table tennis is quite simply to be able to adapt in an ever changing situation. Unless your player has the capacity to cope with all different styles of play it is extremely unlikely that she will ever reach the highest levels. Either she must be able to change and adjust quickly to the opponent’s game or her own game must be so different or unusual that other players have extreme difficulty in adapting to her style.

This is why too it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the early formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training of girl players assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more styles and many more ‘material’ players among the ranks of the women. To play at a high level in the women’s game requires a high ‘adaptation capability’.

Technique is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. When your player has mastered all-round technique successfully it is only then that she is able to use various tactics to real effect. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow your player to use and develop her technique to the fullest extent. New techniques will inevitably give rise to new tactics. A thorough understanding of the interaction between technique and tactics will enable us to better understand the vital importance of innovation in tactics in our work with young players.

It is important to fully appreciate that a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating her strengths and developing what she does best, not by working on her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get her fortés in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with your young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

In the case of many of the more advanced areas you will now introduce, the groundwork will have been laid and the preparation made some years before. What will occur now is a refining of tactics and strategies in areas such as control of speed, different permutations of block, short play, early and late timing skills, use of the table, variation in spin, speed, placement and angles and methods of opening up. There will of course be much more serve and 3rd ball and receive and 2nd ball training and most of the exercises you use will be irregular or random.

There will be too a refinement in the mental approach, an understanding of the need to be flexible and positive, of the level of risk taking required if players are to reach the highest levels. Above all there will be an understanding that growth must continue however slow this may be. Whatever level the player may reach, the only alternative to progress is stagnation.

The prime aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development above all must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for her then much of that potential can remain untapped.

It’s important that the player knows how to get the best out of her own game and knows what is effective with her own personal style of play. She should be aware of her most effective playing distance from the table and how much of the table she would cover with the forehand or the backhand. She should understand which serves and receives are most effective with her style of play against different types of opponent, how she should change her game against defenders or pimples and know how to take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball. She should know how she plays best — is she most effective in fast counter-play, in a slower game, is she good at looping or drive play, does she know how she wins points, can she change her game against different styles of play?

However at a personal level just how many players actually comprehend that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods? Even if you become involved with women players who have been in their national squads for some years and have played in European and World Championships, often they are still not aware how to get the best out of their own game or indeed where they are going. It would appear that a thorough understanding of the relationship of tactics to technique and the intricacies of personal style development are not considered necessary at national level in many countries.

If a player is to continue evolving, each individual should develop their own unique style and do what they ‘do best’. It’s of vital importance that girls understand how they play best and in which way they are most effective. It’s equally important that they train in the right way to accentuate the growth of their own personal style and that they keep developing.

Facts and Observations

Rowden Fullen (2007)

PART ONE – do coaches see what is happening?

Table tennis is very much like life itself. There are always new challenges and new things to learn and if you are to progress then you must keep your mind open and ready to accept new ideas. This applies even to those of us coaches who have been working in our sport for many decades. The moment you think you know it all then your development and effectiveness as an instructor is strictly limited.

Many years ago I learned an important lesson from a young girl of 9/10 years old. She came to my club with her mother but it was she who did the talking. “I am going to be the national number one and I want you to get me there”. My first question was obviously why me. “You have all the best girls in your club and when I talk to them and their parents I find that you coached almost all of them from beginner level. You made them and you have already made 6 or 7 national number one girls. So you know how to do it. The best trainer to take me to the top is one who has already been there and done it before”.

The girl impressed me not only because of her obvious self-confidence and motivation, but because she had done her homework more efficiently than most adults. To achieve her objectives and arrive at the best solution for her situation she had used observation in the right way and had seen the salient aspects. She had also paid close attention to the facts and facts are above all important.

Observation is of course an essential part of our work as coaches but I sometimes think that we do not approach this in a scientific enough manner. We gloss over things, we see the general over-view without seeing the individual details which are often of prime importance. And above all we do not take enough account of the facts — facts are always important. On many occasions for example when I watch a big match and talk to coaches after, I wonder if they have been watching the same match as I have. They have been watching but they don’t seem to have seen what has actually happened!

Coaches cannot possibly examine technique and tactics if they are unaware specifically which components determine effective performance and how best to observe them. Any assessment is about scientific observation in such a way that you SEE what is actually happening. I spend a fair amount of time videoing the world’s best players. But if I wish to assess performance then I must break this down into its component parts to see what is actually happening and to see how they achieve results. Observers who try to see everything, often end up perceiving nothing. I may start for example with the 2nd ball, playing back all the receives of serve perhaps 20 times and looking at the different aspects – for example was the receive with B.H. or F.H., what was the stroke and the state of readiness for the 4th ball, which timing was used, was the shot negative or positive, which tactics were used against the short serve and what was the percentage of short serves, tactics against the long serve and percentage of these, where was placement on the opponent’s side of the table and why? I will then do the same with the 4th and 6th ball before going on to the serve and 3rd and 5th ball tactics and looking at playing and tactical plans in general. Overall I can examine the same series of video clips a couple of hundred times before I isolate the various individual aspects.

Equally if coaches are going to be involved in women’s training at any level then they have to be aware of the differences between the men’s and women’s game and of which tactics are successful. Yet I see little indication in many countries in Europe that coaches have much understanding of how women actually play! They often seem to have in their mind an ideal of how they would like their female players to play but this differs in most cases quite considerably from how women in reality do play. It seems to me that coaches watch women play but they don’t actually SEE what is happening!

When I talk to coaches about women’s play I hear a lot of generalities but few specifics. I hear comments such as – ‘Well the girls are getting closer to the boys and playing a more masculine type of game with more use of spin’. I would really like to see some of these female players because they seem to be conspicuously absent when I go to tournaments! Nor do I necessarily think that it’s a valid deduction to conclude because something works well for the men that it is going to be equally effective in the women’s game.

Why for example do we have women in the training hall working at looping 6 or seven balls in a row and even doing this back from the table? Look at the best 30 women in the world – do any actually play like this? Why are we pressuring girls to take the 2nd ball with the F.H. from the middle of the table? All the top European women, Boros, Steff and Struse (and most Chinese too) use the B.H. from the middle and even from the F.H. side. So do the world’s best juniors Guo Yue and Fukuhara and Pota. Even some of the world’s top men, Boll, Kreanga and Chuan are now using this tactic so they must consider it’s advantageous to do so.

Why too do we require female players to work more with F.H. serve and 3rd ball follow-up like the men do? In the women’s game the B.H. serve is used much more often and to good effect. And finally why do we have girls training against boys and often the wrong boys in terms of playing style? Do we really think it’s a good idea for girls to train against a style of play and a level of spin which they rarely if ever meet in the women’s game?

It would seem to be obvious that if the world’s best women use certain tactics then they do so for a reason – that THESE TACTICS WORK. I would also draw the conclusion that coaches, if they really want to produce top girl players, would do better to concentrate on what tactics the top women are using and WHY they in fact use them!

Part Two – the reality

The characteristics of the modern sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a flat arc, giving more forward speed to the ball with topspin. This increased spin element has the major advantage of allowing much more energy to be fed into the shot while still maintaining control. With topspin you can hit the ball harder and harder because it is the topspin, which causes the ball to dip down on to the other side of the table. A fundamental point which many coaches fail to appreciate is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit. This means quite simply that POWER IS A VITAL FACTOR IN PRODUCING MORE TOPSPIN.

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input and the path of the stroke in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men or use the body as effectively as men in the stroke. Few too ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do. How then can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin, which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, mainly due to having less power than men, THEY HAVE LESS ON-THE-TABLE CONTROL THAN MEN DO.

With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control. With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with that much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. Because women play closer to the table any topspin ball that bounces in the middle is liable to be smashed back and because women achieve less topspin it’s easier for the opponent to control their loops even if they produce good length balls.

Top women are of course aware that constant topspin is not a viable weapon in the women’s game and they don’t use it. Instead they spin one ball and then drive the next often from an earlier timing point. It’s not spin and power that win points in the women’s game but speed, variation and placement.

Part Three – the facts

It is obvious that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the loop player to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will rather than loop several balls in a row.

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable. For two reasons men face a ball that behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected – it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces, which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long-pimple blocker will for instance usually be returned with backspin and sidespin. These two factors, a lesser level of spin and much more use of varying materials, mean that women face many more ‘unpredictable’ balls than the men do.

This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’. It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back swing and a shorter stroke action.

Perhaps now we begin to see why it can be tactical suicide to loop hard and without too much spin (and especially from back) in the women’s game, where most players stand close to the table, have good reactions, are used to coping with speed and block and counter supremely well. But just why do so many top women use the B.H. from the middle of the table and especially on the 2nd ball? And remember here we are talking not just about a few good players but about the majority of women in the top 30 world rankings. Also in many cases, Boros and Guo Yue for example, we are talking too of players who have extremely strong forehands – such players are not using the B.H. because of a weakness on the F.H. side, they are using it as a tactic, as a means to control the play or to create an advantage.

Quite simply table tennis is much faster than it was even five years ago, players are allowed less and less time to play their game. The top men use the F.H. receive over the table because they want to keep control of the table and to play the F.H. on the next ball if they can. However the men are fast enough round the table to be able to maintain a good position for the next ball – in most cases the women aren’t. And even some of the top younger men and the juniors are standing squarer and using the B.H. on the 2nd ball (Boll, Chuan and Kreanga for example). It is obvious they perceive a tactical advantage too in doing this.

Women have always played closer to the table, generally have a squarer ready position and are not as fast as the men round the table. Also many players, not only women, have better control of the opponent’s serve with their B.H. wing. Because of their closer table position and because they face less power and spin, women are often better placed to handle the 4th ball if they control the serve from the B.H. side. This requires less movement. Often too they can create a favourable position for the 4th ball as the B.H. is a shorter stroke and more difficult for the opponent to read in terms of length, spin and placement.

The same principle applies when using B.H. serves. The B.H. is a quick-recovery serve and saves time when recovering to the next ball. It is easier to hold a sound position for the next stroke and less movement is required. This is rather more important now that players can no longer hide the ball in service as the opponent can see the spin and play more aggressively on the 2nd ball. The server then has less time to recover and to prepare for the 3rd ball. The top women use these tactics in a planned way which indicates that they do so for a good reason and that they know what they are doing and why. It is also interesting to note that almost all the top women in the world both from Asia and from Europe use the same tactics to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it is time that coaches everywhere, but particularly in Europe, play closer attention to just what is happening in the women’s game, how women in fact are playing and just what tactics they do use to win matches.

The Time Element and Implications

Rowden Fullen (2007)


The demands on mental strength are amongst the heaviest compared to all other sports because in table tennis there is just no time!

If you look at a typical rally in the men’s game where even though both participants may be standing well back, say two to two and a half metres from the table, they hit the ball so hard and with so much spin that each player has often only around half a second to respond.

Just what is entailed in this response?

  • The player must assess where the ball is coming to on his side of the table.
  • He must also judge the length, speed and spin.
  • He has to move into position to respond and get his body prepared for the action he will take.
  • At the same time he is deciding where to play the ball on the opponent’s side of the table, which stroke to use and what power and spin input is required.
  • Then he must play his own stroke.
  • Finally he will move into the best recovery position with reference to the new angle of play.

From the time the opponent hits the ball, or rather to be strictly and technically correct, from 4 – 6 centimetres BEFORE the ball contacts the opponent’s racket, you have only between 0.5 and 0.7 of a second to execute the first five steps in the above list! We can say 4 – 6 centimetres before contact because almost all players are committed to a definite racket path this late in the stroke preparation.

Bear in mind too that the above check–list may be further complicated by the consideration of just what alternative responses it may be possible to play in the time you have available. Perhaps one out of three possibilities may have to be discarded because there is no time to play this effectively.

If we also consider in some detail how men and women play we can see that there is a significant disparity in the time for consideration between the sexes because of the differences in style and tactics. The men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table.

On the other hand the women use much more fast-reaction drive and counter play and from a closer position, either over or at the end of the table. The ball comes through much flatter and because they play with less spin there is less speed acceleration after the bounce. Bear in mind however that in the final analysis the racket contact points in the men’s game can be as far apart as eight to nine metres, while in the women’s game they can be as close as two and a half metres. The total response time can therefore sink from approximately 0.5 seconds to as low as 0.2 or less.


Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance – or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball. Equally movement patterns are vital – it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained squareness is vital – because they are closer to the table women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin for instance they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin is very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental, all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Gue Yue, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

Even a stroke which may have a high level of success in the men’s game (such as the fast topspin) is rather limited in its use and effect in the women’s. This is of course because women with much lesser power achieve nowhere near the same pace and spin and as a result the ball is easier to control. The return ball is therefore radically different – a block, counter or chop but rarely if ever counter-loop. There are many more reaction players in the women’s game and as a result women who loop have less time to play their shots and are almost always limited to one or two topspin stokes. It is much more usual in women’s play to loop one and hit the next ball.

Above all what coaches should understand is that coaching women as opposed to men is ‘a completely different ballgame’ and requires a different approach. Not only are we talking about the many differing styles of play and the extensive use of material, but also of the different mental and physical attributes. If you can’t communicate with women, if you can’t comprehend why so many women play with material or understand how to play with and against such material, then it’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution to their development. Direction is important with all players, male and female, whether you as the coach can point them in the right direction for their individual playing style. However this aspect is much more demanding in the women’s game and a much broader ‘experience’ background is required. If you are ‘blinkered’ and don’t appreciate that there are many more paths to the top level or indeed know what these paths are, again it’s hard to guide your player.

But just why do we have so many different styles of play, so many differing paths to the top, so many girls using material among the ranks of the women players? Again this is all down to the lack of time. As a result over the years women have devised diverse methods of controlling the faster speed which is inherent in and an integral part of the way they play. If girls are unable to control speed then their chances of reaching the highest levels are strictly limited.

Differences in Men’s and Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2006)

Q. What are the main differences between the men’s and women’s game?

  • Men play with much more spin and power. The men’s game is about control of spin – the topspin ball dips on to the table at the end of its flight and shoots forward very fast after the bounce. Almost all men tend therefore to take the ball later and the common tactic is counter-loop against loop. This never happens in the women’s game. The women stand closer and take the ball earlier, which is easier to do as there is less incoming spin and power. Women hit the ball flatter and with less spin (due to the lesser power input). This means that the women’s game is much more a question of control of speed. The counter to the loop is varied depending on the style of the player and can be a block, counter-hit or chop. In the case of top women playing against men it is noticeable that they have problems controlling the topspin element.

    Q. Why do men have better serves?

  • Men are stronger in the wrist and forearm and usually have a better understanding of the practical elements involved.

    Q. Why can’t women play like men and beat the men? What are the limitations?

  • Women are capable of and are often able to beat the men but not by trying to play the men’s game and trading power against power. Women have to play to their own strengths, soft-blocking the topspin and flat-hitting the balls with lesser spin at an early timing point.

    Q. Why are there so many more styles of play in the women’s game?

  • Because the women’s game is about controlling speed, women have over the years devised differing means of doing this. If there weren’t different styles in women’s play, then the faster players would always win.

    Q. Are there differences in how and why men and women loop?

  • Not quite so much in Europe but much more in Asia. Asian women often use a slower loop, with much more spin, especially against defenders or when opening against backspin. The usual sequence is to loop slow and hit hard and early. There is a big difference between men and women when it comes to the purpose of topspin. Men tend to loop to win the point, women to make an opening to kill the next ball.

    Q. Why do so many top women use pimple rubbers and the men don’t?

  • Pimples are another means of controlling spin and speed and returning different balls to the opponent. This then gives the pimpled player more time to play her strokes. Generally the men play with so much more spin and power that pimples are less effective. They are used more often in the veteran’s game when the older men start to lose their speed and power.

    Q. Why is technique more important with girls and why can’t girls and boys play the same strokes and with the same stance?

  • Women play closer to the table and have less time to play their shots. As a result aspects such as square-ness of stance, shorter strokes and the relevant movement patterns are of critical importance. By relevant patterns we mean those which apply to the individual style of the player – a block player will not move in the same way as a loop player. Because men play further back, have more time and are faster in movement, these aspects are not so crucial.
  • What is also of critical importance is what happens after the service and during the receive. Because women have less time on the 3rd and 4th ball it’s vital that they use women’s service area tactics and not those of the men. All top women for example use 2nd ball backhand on a fairly regular basis, even those with extremely strong forehands. The men on the other hand usually receive with the forehand as they want to play forehand on the next ball and are quick enough to do this.

    Q. What differing tactics do the top players use and why?

  • Top players are universally positive in their play, particularly after their own serve. Almost all take the ball at an early timing point over the table so that the opponent has limited time to react. Top players are almost always unpredictable in the way they play, variation in placement, spin, speed, angles etc.

    Q. What differing tactics do the top women use and why?

  • Top women use the backhand more than the men both in serving and on the 2nd ball. They push at an early timing point over the table, are always good in short play and are aware of the various possibilities to gain advantage from this situation. Spin and pace is often more varied than in the men’s game.

    Q.How am I individually going to play and what is my development path?

  • The 64 million dollar question. As we said earlier there are many more ways to the top in the women’s game and women world champions over the years have had widely differing styles. Any young female player starting her career has a wide variety of choice – attacking with or without spin, block and hit, defence and any of these combined with material of one sort or another on backhand or forehand or both.

When looking at style development two factors perhaps above all are relevant. How do I best control the speed factor which is inherent in the women’s game? What is my strongest weapon and how am I going to build on this?

Women's Table Tennis - Singles Progress

Rowden April 2017

The first World Championships were held in London in 1926. In the early years up to 1955 Europe dominated with Hungary winning 10 singles (Maria Mednyanszky champion in the first 5 singles and runner-up in the next 2 to Anna Sipos).

Gizella Farkas won 3 finals from 1947 to 1949 and featured in the next 4, being also a finalist 7 years in a row. From 1950 to 1955 Angelica Rozeanu from Romania established a new record winning 6 singles in succession. In 1953 she won 4 gold medals, in singles, both doubles and the team event and was the last European woman to win a world singles.
From 1956 Asia swept the board, with Japan dominating up to 1969. The only exception was in 1961 when Qiu Zhonghui won in Beijing in front of her home crowd. From 1957 the Worlds were held biennially.
Starting in 1971 up to 2015 China has won every women’s singles event with the exception of 3 years. Pak Yung Sun, the famous lefthander from North Korea was the winner in 1975 and again in 1977 and in 1993 Hyun Jung-hwa this time from South Korea was the one to again slow the Chinese steamroller.
In the Brasil Olympics of 2016 China won all 4 gold medals in both team and singles and in fact also had the losing finalists in both men’s and women’s singles. It might therefore seem that China are and will continue to be totally dominant in the foreseeable future, but in fact cracks are already appearing in their awesome machine.
If we look at the World Rankings for U21, U18 and U15 girls, China are in fact trailing way behind Japan in all categories. Japan has 8 out of the top 10 in U21’s the other 2 being from Hong Kong and Singapore; China does not feature in this age group. In the U18’s Japan is the number one ranked country in the world; it has 6 players, 1 to 4, 6 and 10, whereas China has only 2 at 5 and 7. And in the younger girls U15, Japan leads again with the 1, 2 and 8; two other Asian players are from Hong Kong and Korea, again China does not feature in this category and other players are from Europe or USA.
So this does not appear to augur well for the future of Chinese women’s table tennis at the highest levels. They have at present the world 1 and 2 in Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling, Chen Meng is at 5 and Wu Yang at 10. The average age is around 24.5, Ding is 27 and Zhu the youngest at 22. The Japanese are however much younger, have a system for developing top girls and are already packing the rankings at all levels.
The ascendency of the Japanese girls has already been demonstrated in the current Asian Championships which have just taken place in China. Miu Hirano, just 17 during the Championships, beat Ding Ning 3 – 2 in the Quarters, Zhu Yuling 3 – 0 in the Semis and Chen Meng 3 – 0 in the Final. Looking ahead it seems that the Japanese will be in a very strong position with their women for the 2020 Olympics. Hirano wasn’t even in the top 10 women and there are 3 Japanese women ranked above her!
Interestingly enough Japan have even younger players such as Mima Ito ranked at number 8 in the women’s top 10; she will not be 17 till October 2017 and has already won a number of doubles with Hirano in Senior Protours. She even won the German Protour singles beating both Feng Tianwei and Petrissa Solja. At the Rio Olympics she won a bronze medal in the team event for Japan again beating Feng Tianwei in the vital match.
It is also interesting that these young Japanese stars are far quicker than the older Chinese players and are capable of using the plastic ball much more effectively. They take the ball very early over the table and are totally unpredictable in placement, using line and body balls and also extreme angles, but rarely playing two balls to the same place in the opponent’s half. Far too often the Chinese women are retreating too far which leaves them vulnerable and out of position. It seems as if they are still trying to use the older style spin game which worked with the old celluloid ball but which gives much less advantage with plastic. Surprisingly it would appear that the Chinese women have not caught up with the changing science of our sport.
On the other hand the Japanese girls are younger, less experienced and still learning. There are a number of aspects which they can improve on in their play which will make them even more formidable on the world stage.

Women: Is practice in Europe relevant?

Rowden 2011

If we want to compete against the best women in the world, then we need to study how they play and what tactics they use. What do we find when we carry out an in-depth evaluation of how points are won and lost in women’s play at top level?

The first thing we discover is that usually where we have 2 normal attacking players, over 80% of all points are over by the 5th ball. This means that the serve, the receive and the next two balls are of critical importance and if we wish to live at top level this aspect needs a great deal of practice in every session. It is obvious that the receive and the serve and 3rd ball are vital and as much time as possible should be spent in developing these. However other aspects are just as significant:
• Opening
• Effective Pushing over the Table
• Flicking
• Placement
• Specialty Strokes

Even at the very top levels it is noticeable that women play better in a fast game and encounter more problems in opening or in using the push to create opportunities to get into the fast game. Also many of the women have some difficulty ‘flicking’ the short ball. It is therefore critical that these areas are addressed in training and from a young age.

Equally women are able to control the ball in the rally at quite high speed and from this situation manoeuvre to gain advantage. The control of speed and the ability to use placement to catch out the opponent are critical areas too. Any ‘specialty’ strokes which are unique to the player and different and unusual are obviously a bonus, as the opponent will not have trained against such shots and her ‘grooved’ automatic responses will often not be able to cope with new and unusual situations.

When we assess top women’s play we also quickly recognise that there are other relevant tactical aspects. For example:
• Serve is usually of some benefit and gives around a 2 to 3 point advantage every game
• Women still win points with the long serve and women even in the top 10 in the world still put the long serve off the table. This is also not just the odd point but as many as 3 to 4 points a game
• When the game is tight (9 – 9 or deuce) top women either play longer points or go for the 2nd or 3rd ball
• Many balls are played into the body

It would seem that far too often in Europe the women play nice-to-look-at, flowing, topspin rallies, but don’t try to win the point! Much of our training too seems based on rally play. When European women meet the Asians they are immediately at a disadvantage against the serve and receive and the early strokes and even more so against the Asian stop/start style of play.

Equally the Europeans are less effective in the ‘control of play’ situation and do not seem to understand the necessity for the control element prior to breaking out to win the point.

The true measure of a player’s level is in how she controls the safe play prior to making the opening.

In the women’s game much is about the control of speed (this is why so many women play with material which helps them to do this more effectively). Top women tend to play just fast enough and with enough variety to stop the opponent getting in a power shot, while at the same time sparring to make an opening to win the point themselves.

It would appear that if we are to make inroads into the Asian dominance in women’s play that many of the aspects we have highlighted need to be addressed in the training halls throughout Europe. This particularly applies to the serve/receive and first one/two strokes. If we cannot compete in this arena then we will never have the opportunity to utilize many of the tactics we work so hard on in training!

Loop Attack and the Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2003)

If you take a group of elite men and women, put them two to three metres away from the table and play loop to loop, who will win the rallies? Obviously the men almost every time. As far as fast loop with good speed and strong spin is concerned, how many women can produce a sustained and extensive range of successive topspin and loop strokes (say 10 – 15 shots) and have the capability of continuous offensive play from both wings? Very, very few, not only in Sweden, but even over the whole of Europe.

When considering loop play we must always bear in mind that not only are women different, but also that they usually face a different type of game to men. While men often loop to loop, women often loop to block or counter — the return ball is very different.

Women are not as strong as men, look at the world records for weight lifting (a big gap), they are not as fast as men, look at the world records in sprinting (getting closer though), but when it comes to reaction speed, the difference between the sexes is minimal. World class reaction players are few in the male table tennis world, yet in their time Lindh and Douglas were successful – take glue away and lessen the power in the men’s game and they would almost certainly have had even better results. But in the women’s game there are many more reaction players and they have less power to cope with — naturally they are much more effective, and it’s much harder for women loopers to make a real impact. Men also usually prefer to use their superior strength and loop their way to victory from further back, women facing less power and spin (especially Asian women) have the reaction speed and capability to smash decisively through the spin and often at a very early timing point.

If women loop from mid-distance (one to two metres off the table) and don’t win the point with the first two or three loops, do they really think they have more chance with five or even ten loops? The scenario has changed from a position with attacking possibilities where they were in the driving seat, with a good chance of winning the point, to a control situation where both players have a more equal chance. The blockers and counter-hitters are in fact much more likely to move them round, using the angles, until they miss or tire — from a distance it’s always the loop player who has much more ground to cover. Generally top women are so good at containing fast spin, that if you don’t win in the first two/three loops, you will lose — and if you do win, usually you will do so not because of the fast spin, but because of placement, angles or length or change of speed or spin, in other words you win with something different, not with power!

It would therefore appear to make sense that women look at the loop as a means to make an opening, so that they can finish the point in the next one or two strokes, not as a point winning stroke in itself. It would also appear logical to try and win the point earlier in the rally rather than later, as the longer they continue to loop, the more they lose the initiative and drift into a control situation from which they have less chance to actually win the point. For those women who loop as a main weapon it would perhaps be an interesting exercise for them to assess on a regular basis just what percentage of points they are winning when the rally progresses beyond the fifth and sixth ball!

Sustained looping requires good use of the waist and legs, good coordination, smoothness of movement with balance and rotation of the body and fast forearm fold. This last aspect is rather more important with women than men as it allows better balance and recovery with less strain on the body. Of course the loop can be played long-arm as the Hungarians did in the 70’s and 80’s, but this does require good strength in shoulder and back and often results in slow recovery to the next ball – it is often played a little further away from the table too.

Most women are more eminently suited to closer-to-table combat and more adept in the first and second round of looping — once they get forced back and the rally progresses, they usually lack the required power. This is therefore another compelling reason why women loop players should aim to achieve dominance in the first three to four balls, serve and the third ball, receive and the fourth ball. In these initial stages you are in the driver’s seat, you dictate, with a better than 50% chance to win the point — after that it’s not the same kind of game, the odds are more in the region of 50/50, with both players changing tactics, it becomes more a question of control and counter-control measures. But even then you should work to retain offensive initiative – you can do this by always looking to achieve quick changes in the first five to six balls in a number of areas, change of speed/spin, tactical switches, variation in angles, direction, length, quick transition from control to offence. From the receiver’s point of view it is vital to remember that control or counter of the first three loops is the priority, whether you loop to loop or kill through the spin. The single most important loop is the opponent’s first spin from a backspin ball, this is the one stroke women must be able to deal with.

The backhand side also of course has its role in the loop scenario. It is particularly important for example that players are able to maintain offensive speed/spin when switched fast from the forehand into the backhand side. There is little point in having a great forehand loop if the rally breaks down when the ball comes to the backhand or if a weak backhand stroke is then played. At anything above basic level women must be able to do more than just control and contain with the backhand wing, they should be able to put pressure on the opponent. This means the capability to accelerate action from mere return block, to forcing block, drive or spin and to be comfortable with more than one method of making openings on the backhand. It is important too in the women’s game that they can vary spin, speed and angles, on the backhand rather than just developing power. It is equally vital that even from a young age they can switch easily to the offensive from a neutral, control or defensive situation. Make variation the theme too in opening – slow roll, hard drive, spin both slow and fast.

Players and coaches reading this article may by now have arrived at certain conclusions – that sustained fast looping in the women’s game is a slow, laborious but reasonably certain way to commit suicide! Not necessarily so. There are almost always exceptions in every area of sport and we do occasionally see strong, athletic girls, coming through the system, who naturally play this sort of game. Don’t stop them, just encourage them to change their thinking a little. Sustained power and predictability are the problems. More power means less spin, predictability means the opponent knows where the ball is going and feeds off your speed and uses it against you.

The clue is in the loop the Chinese defenders use to change from defence to offence — slow, the main emphasis on spin, to a good length and sometimes even a little high! However many of the best attacking women in the world hit this loop off the table time and time again! As we said earlier in this article the first loop is the key, the first offensive topspin, where you initiate attack from a neutral or defensive position. Make this first loop a key to unlock the game, make it slow (no speed for the opponent to use), make it very long or very short and above all make it spinny and place it to difficult areas on the table, short to middle, long to backhand or body or wide to the angles. Then capitalize, follow up on the next ball, the priority should be a hard drive or smash – in this way you get a big difference between the two successive balls — slow, spinny, with a topspin arc — hard, fast and flat. Even the top women have problems with this type of variation.

Women's Techniques and the Implications of Time and Distance

Rowden Fullen (2009)

Women play closer to the table than men, this is a well known fact and few coaches would argue with this. Women create less spin than men, few coaches would argue with this either. Women are not as strong as men and not as fast as men; look at world records for weightlifting and sprinting and few people would argue with this assertion. However when we come to training and the development of women players, far too often coaches in Western Europe seem to look to male styles as a sound basis for the evolution of women.

When one talks to the top Asian coaches regarding our penchant in a number of European countries for producing women who play a man’s game and topspin back from the table, their reply is always the same – ‘Long may you continue to do this, with the bigger ball the superiority of the Asian players will be even more pronounced. If you continue in the West to work with this style of play you will only ever produce top 100 players at best, you will never succeed in getting women in the top 25 in the world.’

Unfortunately however in Europe there seems to be little thought and fewer ideas as to where we are going with our women and indeed how to get there. Many coaches even seem to ignore the fact that there are many more playing styles in the women’s game than in the men’s and that it can be a very useful exercise to explore the varied alternatives. Any top-level training group of women players should normally consist of many more varied styles than you would find in an equivalent men’s group. If European women only spar against one or two styles of play how are they expected to progress into the higher echelons of women’s table tennis?

Techniques are and should be different too with players who are closer to the table, but again in Europe we don’t seem to set much credence in aspects such as this. A number of top coaches stress the point that table tennis is faster and faster every year but we don’t seem to take this to the logical conclusion – if our sport is faster then it follows logically that better close-to-table technique is crucial simply because we have less time!

It is however not only the increasing speed factor which we must evaluate but another element which, although of crucial importance, is often overlooked. This is the fact, that of all the racket sports, table tennis is the one where the ball slows most dramatically through the air and where spin most affects the trajectory of the ball.

We must therefore consider time and the implications of the time element in men’s and women’s table tennis. Men more often than not play from further back, with more spin and a more pronounced arc. Because of these factors although they hit the ball harder it takes fractionally longer to reach the opponent on the other side of the table. Women take the ball earlier and play flatter with less spin. There is a big time difference between attacking close to the table and executing similar strokes say three metres back.

If we feed in an initial speed of 15 m/second, a ball hit at the end of the table will reach the other end of the table in 0.2 of a second or slightly less and will then have a speed of 10 m/second as it crosses the end-line of the opponent’s half – on the other hand if the opponent contacts the ball from 3 metres back he/she will have around 0.5 of a second to react and the speed of the ball through the air will have dropped to 7.0 m/second. If both players are 3 metres back they will have a second or slightly more to play shots, which at top international level is a long time.

Just what are the implications of this difference in the time element? It has for a start a direct influence on technique. When you have less time technical considerations such as stroke length and playing the FH across the face assume rather more importance – or for example playing the BH with the right foot or right shoulder a little forward. If the technique is sloppy you deny yourself recovery time for the next ball.

Equally movement patterns are vital – it is critical that women have the correct patterns for their style of play and can execute them with good balance. Above all retained square-ness is vital – because they are closer to the table, women need to be ready at all times to play either FH or BH without a moment’s hesitation. If you watch female Asian players who topspin for instance they loop from a much squarer position so as to retain the initiative on the next ball. The position of the feet for topspin can be very different depending on whether you are initiating power or using the speed on the incoming ball. Sound technique is rather more vital in the women’s game than in the men’s.

Tactical considerations also become crucial. Not only do almost all women stand closer to the table, they also stand squarer, use more BH serves, receive more with the BH from the middle and play more BH shots from the middle. Nor are these tactics accidental as almost all the top women both Asian and European utilize them and many women so doing, such as Boros and Guo Yan, have in fact extremely strong FH strokes. These tactics are used because they work and because they save time.

But the prime question we must ask is how do we produce power? Then, does the production of power vary from differing distances from the table? Men often execute forehands with the right foot back and further back from the table; this can involve transfer of weight from back to front foot. Usually however if you watch the top male players the rear foot comes through so that the player finishes the stroke square. Women play closer to the table and invariably stay squarer than the men and use elastic energy and rotation more effectively. Power close to the table is invariably produced by rotation and racket-arm speed and almost always from a square or over-square stance (bat-arm foot forward).

Starting with the right foot back when close to the table has several major drawbacks –

  • It limits strong rotation of the hips (centre of gravity) and ultimate power development.
  • It leaves weaknesses in the body and crossover areas.
  • If players bring the right foot through to square up this takes too long.
  • It encourages players to move back as they play wide forehands and militates against taking the ball early on the forehand side.

On the other hand using the square or over-square stance while close aids recovery and there is no lack in power input provided rotation is good. The most common fault is that players take the ball too late; if the square or over-square stance is to be used then early timing is vital and participants must be ready to contact the ball well in front of the body.

Coaches should examine in some detail the sort of strokes that European and Asian women produce. Asian women will for example often drive through the opponent’s topspin on the bounce at an early timing point. European women use this stroke very rarely as in most cases they have the bat-arm foot too far back and can’t get in quickly enough. Asian players such as Zhang Yining, Wang Nan, Ai Fukuhara, Liu Jia (Austria) and one or two Europeans such as Pota and Steff are able to execute such early-ball shots purely because of their stance and movement patterns. They play in most cases square or over-square and move in to take the wide ball on their forehand side.

It is also quite noticeable in the case of the younger girls from Europe (and especially from the Eastern-bloc countries) that square-ness is the in thing. Players such as Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyazhnaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao all play very square and in some cases pronouncedly over-square. This is obviously not accidental as countries such as Romania and Russia have a long history of producing high-level female players and their top coaches would not countenance obsolete or ineffective techniques.

One thing to bear in mind too is that close-to-table techniques such as good one-step movement sideways and in to take the early ball, are not just the prerogative of the attacking player. It is important that defenders also can break up the game and put attackers under pressure; in these modern times and with games up to eleven points to purely defend all the time is hardly a viable proposition. So defenders too should be prepared to use close-to-table techniques to their advantage.

If a woman is to reach the highest levels in table tennis a second feature to consider carefully is that one of the single most important aspects is control of speed. Without the capability to control the opponent’s speed it is extremely difficult for women to survive at any level in the female game. This is one of the reasons why so many of them play with material of one kind or another. If women adopt the type of stance, ready position and close-to-table movement patterns which encourage them to back away or to play the ball from a deeper position, then a number of the possibilities available to change the form of the rally are in fact lost to them.

Unfortunately even in a number of national centres throughout Europe the coaching and development of girl players and the individual attention given to them in terms of both technical help and ‘direction’ are woefully inadequate and considerably less than professional. In addition far too often the variety of styles is strictly limited as are the sparring and training opportunities available to the top girl players.

One further aspect that merits consideration with girls and women is upper body strength, which generally speaking is about 35% when compared with their male counterparts. As a result it is even more important for girls to have good technique from an early stage in their development as this generates full use of the torso and guards against injuries (especially to the lower back) caused by partial rotation and one-sided use of the upper body.

It is important too that women use elastic energy to maximum effect as this will both improve the efficiency of the strokes and also help to reduce stress on the upper body. In the case of the strokes in table tennis it is important that these stretch-shorten cycle movements be performed with a minimal delay between the stretch and shorten phases. This is much less important in the development of male players as not only do they play further back but because of their higher body strength it is easier for them generate power from a static position without any additional aids.