Coaching Development Course 3

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

  1. Modern ready position.
  2. Movement patterns.
  3. Service.
  4. Receive.
  5. Women’s play.
  6. Innovation and style.


One of the most important aspects of modern table tennis is balance, to retain good balance at all times. The game has changed much from the hard bat days of the 1950’s when the main path of the stroke was upwards — now we play forward with more rotation and it’s harder to retain balance after the stroke. The table tennis player is very like the boxer, he must be ready to move in any direction at any time. Also now the game is much faster, the modern player has much less time and as much as possible he must face the play at all times.

The majority of players will adopt a ready position facing the line of play with the left foot a little forward. (Explain with diagrams, videos, discuss and demonstrate). This enables the forehand to be played over most of the table with a minimum of movement. There will be exceptions — many defence players will stand with the right foot a little forward as they often wish to play the backhand from the middle. Some players also stand further back and jump in to take the serve, which can sometimes place them at a disadvantage!

Consider the following aspects –

  • Width — A little wider stance gives economy of movement and stability. (No problem with the wider stance in moving sideways only backwards).
  • Right foot position — Closeness gives better table coverage.
  • Bat position — Should be ready to play backhand or forehand, not too high and not too low.
  • Legs bent — It is not possible to have an effective ‘springboard’ to move quickly from the ready position unless the legs are bent. (Girls please note).
  • Free arm — Is an aid to angular velocity.
  • Proficiency — Try to adopt a position which does not require 2/3 movements to take the serve. Think economy of movement with absolute readiness.


The ultimate style of the player will dictate which type of movement patterns he or she should use. Close to the table blockers will use many one-step movements or small jump steps. Strong loop players will inevitably use the cross-step to reach the wide ball and defenders should train on moving in and out. However with the modern game both close and deep, movements which retain squareness are preferable. Movement is one of the most critical parts of any young player’s development and yet very few countries in Europe work constructively with footwork patterns at an early age. It is particularly important that you establish a pattern with a young player that can grow with the player, (can a sidestep pattern be easily developed into a cross-step?). It is also a priority in the ‘modern’ game, where we have limited time that footwork is economical, one big step is preferable to many small ones.

  • One-step in or out — The one-step in or out is important for depth play close to the table, especially to the short balls and to make room to use the forehand from the middle. For the right-hander note that the prime mobility function is on the right foot (the left may be sometimes be pulled in after). This gives better coverage of the table with the forehand for the next stroke and is why you see many top players using forehand push from the backhand court. Care not to put the foot too far under the table, you must retain upper body mobility. If you watch young players especially girls, many often change feet, sometimes right, sometimes left under the table.
  • One-step sideways — This can be either short or long and is important for balls on the forehand wing. It’s also important that you think body turn as you move, so that you are in a position to feed power into the forehand stroke. If you just reach you have very limited capacity for power or spin. In the case of wider movement to the forehand side, the left foot will be dragged after — the pattern can therefore be easily developed into a cross-step.
  • Two (three) step sideways — Especially in the girls’ game you will often have a two or three step pattern to the forehand side, either left/right or a small movement of the right then left/right. Again it is important that you turn the body as you move. Girls often play closer to the table and like to face the play. Also consider two additional aspects. Extra steps are not to be encouraged in modern table tennis (economy first). When establishing patterns with a young player try to avoid sometimes commencing sequences with the left foot and sometimes with the right. This pattern is not suitable for girls who play a strong loop game.
  • Jump step (short or long) — The small jump step, where you adjust position with a little hop and where both feet are in the air at the same time, is one of the most frequently used steps in table tennis. A long jump step is used mostly by Asian men players. They turn the right foot and bring it back at the same time pulling the left over and jumping to the forehand side. The body will turn prior to contact with the ball, which can occur with both feet still in the air.
  • Cross-step — Many trainers in Europe still don’t seem to be aware of the necessity of crossing the legs to reach the wide ball. Coaches from as diverse cultures as France, Poland, England and Sweden all tell me the same – ‘Face the play, never cross the legs.’ The Chinese coaches however say — ‘ If you know a way to reach the wide ball quickly, without crossing the legs, please share the secret, we would like to know.’ It should be quite obvious in the case of the really wide ball that players have very little choice — if you have just played a forehand from the backhand corner and the opponent blocks you wide out to the forehand how else can you move? The mechanics of the cross-step are that the right foot will turn first, so that the left can be brought quickly over and across. Quite often in match play a one-step short or long is converted to a cross-step as necessary. If you study film of players at world level as diverse as Gatien and Deng Yaping you will see that they all use cross-step.
  • Pivot step — This occurs when you wish to play a forehand stroke from the backhand corner. There are two different ways to accomplish this. Some players bring the right round behind the left and then adjust the left. Others move the left first a little out and then bring the right round after.
  • Postural — Movement of the trunk, the upper body. Although not strictly a movement pattern we must also consider such movements, where the player with limited time and sometimes not much other alternative, bends the body sideways or backwards to play a forehand stroke (sometimes combined with a one-step short).
  • Manipulative — Movement of the arm, hand or fingers. Particularly useful when changing direction and disguising where you intend to play.


Serve and the strategy of service have changed very much over the years. In the days of the old hard bat there was very little spin, now there is spin, speed and deception. Short serves are usually short or half long (with the second bounce on the white line) to tempt the opponent to push or to open with a less strong shot, whereupon the server can counter hard or open strongly. Long serves are usually very fast to the corners or the crossover point.

Examine and discuss the main serves and grips and which part of the ball to contact, where on the racket and where the ball should bounce on the table (where on the player’s own side first).

  • Forehand serve from the backhand corner, backspin, sidespin, topspin, reverse, float and a mixture.
  • Reverse spin, backspin, sidespin, topspin, mixed. (Discuss the different arcs used by western grip and pen-hold players.)
  • Backhand serve, backspin, sidespin, topspin, float, mixed. (Reverse).
  • Axe — back and side or top and sidespin or float. (Reverse).
  • Others or other possibilities.
  • Look also into the value and strategy of the high throw service.

Discuss 3rd ball strategy and return spin and how to use this. If you serve short, be ready for the short return, if long, expect a hard return.

Remember the serve is the one time you control what is happening, you are in the driving seat. Consider 6 aspects.

  • A sound recovery position (after your serve).
  • A quick recovery serve.
  • A ‘short’ contact to bounce serve.
  • A fast, short service action which gives less time to ‘read’ spin.
  • Try to play third ball attack or gain an advantage.
  • Try to play to the opponent’s weakness.

The first four are under your control, the last two partially under your opponent’s control.

A point to consider.

The acrobat can attain pinpoint accuracy through hard training, why not the table tennis player? The answer lies in the fact that table tennis is an antagonistic competition, acrobatic performance isn’t. Every stroke you make is based on correct and split-second judgement of the incoming ball, which varies in a thousand and one ways. Service however is the one exception. Much remains to be exploited in the service area in terms of spin, speed and placement of the ball.


This is probably one of the most under-practised of all aspects of our sport. If a serve is long for example we should always be prepared to be positive, loop drive and think placement at the same time. Also however we should think tactics too, some players especially in the women’s game want speed back so that they can smash the next ball. Sometimes you must be ready to change the speed, stop-block, slow roll. Equally if a player serves long chop you should always (girls too!) be looking to open. There is little point in pushing only to see the next ball looped past you. Quite often to return power with lack of power, or spin with lack of spin, or even just to return the server’s own spin to him or her, can be a very good tactic.

Short serves can always be dropped back very short to take the advantage away from the server. Most top players however are good in short play and in gaining advantage in this area. Try to take the ball at as early a timing point as possible, just after the bounce to give the other player little time to react. This is also a good tactic if you have to push back long, again early timing, fast return, sometimes with spin, sometimes without, (try to use the wrist as little as possible).

At top level, especially in the men’s game it is necessary to flick some balls — bear in mind you can do this at differing timing points, as the ball bounces up (very early) or drops down (quite late). This late-timed flick can often be effective as many players think you are going to push.

Above all work at the strategy of receive, training against good servers, training at returning with and against the spin and playing the opponents’ spin back to them, varying placement and length and angles. Work at doing different things with the 2nd ball so that the server cannot have an easy 3rd ball situation. Train to do enough with the 2nd ball so that you can perhaps create an advantage on the 4th ball.


Let us take a close look into the training of the female player and which areas of technique, tactics and development are of vital importance in producing players who can make a real impact. Particularly let us always bear in mind the value of early programming which is so significant in a fast reaction sport such as ours.


The establishing of sound movement patterns is one of the single most important factors in determining just how far a young girl can go in her career. Generally the top women move in four different ways (depending on how you categorize these), the men often have additional patterns. What you must appreciate however is that in a match situation there is often a combination of one or more patterns at the same time. That is why it is so important to train movement in a multi-choice manner and at advanced level in a random fashion. But what is most vital of all is that you the coach are aware that you are laying the right ground patterns — that you establish the patterns that are appropriate to the player’s end style and which can grow with the player.

Diagonal play for instance wide to the backhand followed by switches to middle or forehand result in one-step short or one-step long in the case of a block/drive player or one-step and cross step in the case of a looper (or a very small player). Variation between the short and long Falkenberg will involve the pivot step followed by one-step long or the cross step (preceded perhaps by the jump-step small, the most common of all movements). Strong attacking play especially if combined with spin is usually characterized by the cross step, jump-step and the pivot step, while control/block players more commonly use the one-step short, long or back.

One other aspect well worth looking at for young girls is the knee angle of top women in play — ready position 110 degrees, one-step long to forehand 104 degrees, left leg braking after long cross step 91 degrees. Playing with straight legs and being a top player are just not compatible!


— Many women play fast and flat — it is not essential that girls play fast, what is essential is that they are able to control speed, without this it’s hard to progress in a women’s table tennis world. Each girl must find her own method and work in areas most suited to her own individual style — drive play, blocking of one sort or another, topspin, defence, rolling ‘nothing’ balls, using different rubbers , variation in placement, speed or angles.

But above all it’s important to look at the psychology of speed and power. Women who play ultra fast like to have speed back right from their own long serve. Often their effectiveness is greatly reduced if they are faced with a return of little pace. Also often they are less comfortable against short play or slow spin.


— It is of particular importance that girls learn to open from a pushing situation as early as possible in their development. It is all too easy to win at a young age by being negative but the long-term development is slowed down. Focusing on winning in the 9 – 11 age groups should not really be an over-riding priority. The earlier the young player becomes confident in opening the quicker the next stages in development can proceed.

Coaches will be aware that there are a varying number of ways to open — drive, punch, sidespin, fast topspin or slow loop or even the roll ball. However they and their players should be alert to the fact that with women power is rarely the answer. Female opponents usually respond more easily to the fast ball, it is the slower one that more often than not causes problems. It is vital that girls learn to open with a slower ball, slow loop or roll, the main thing being that this first opening ball be to a good length, either very short or very long (and of course girls should be able to open on both wings).


— Just as important as opening is the ability to do something with the next ball. After the first opening spin it is vital that girls can be positive and if at all possible put the next ball away and win the point. Not spin and spin again till the rally degenerates into a control situation, but spin and drive or kill. Regard spin as a means to create openings, not as an end in itself. In this way the opponent receives two very different balls in quick succession and is unable to find a rhythm.


— At a higher level girls must be able to cope with short play, both the serve and the next ball. It is therefore important that they become comfortable in this area at an early age, and explore methods of being positive and creating advantage from this situation. We are not only talking about flicking or top-spinning over the table, but pushing also in a positive manner so as to make openings to create attacking opportunities, using very early timing and playing back a short, dead ball, or even long and fast to the corners or body with heavy backspin or no spin. This early-timed, deep ball especially with spin gives the opponent very little time to act positively. (To open with spin or power the centre of gravity starts from a lower position, so this entails moving, turning and lowering the body all at the same time, before playing the return ball.)

However it is not enough just to be able to deal with short play, the next stage is to cope with the opponent’s first opening ball. Again at high level it is not sufficient only to control the first drive or topspin — against the top players just being safe is inadequate. Girls should train to force the return with either power or spin or even to kill through the topspin from a close position, a technique not worked on enough in Europe. Other alternatives would be to return a different ball, stop block or slow roll.


— Girls with good serves invariably go far and the time to work on the different grips and actions is at a young age. Usually they have a little more difficulty than boys in achieving spin, especially good back and sidespin so it is important that they persevere. Girls also often need more help and individual training time before they fully understand the techniques involved, the stance, body action, grips, where they hit the ball on the racket, where the racket starts and stops, the contact angle, which part of the ball they hit and at what height they should make contact. It is important that they achieve a variety of different spins and speeds with the same or very similar actions. Also the young player should fully understand the differing ways in which her service may be returned and should always look to be positive on the third ball.


— Return of the short serve has largely been covered under ‘short play’ but of course variation in all aspects is vital, in spin, speed, placement and angles. The long serve often causes problems in the girls’ game usually because they return with too much power. It is well worthwhile looking at a variety of receives — drives, blocks, (soft, forcing, sidespin, stop and chop), spin, punch, slow roll and even chop and float. A different method of return may well prove effective against differing players.


— Too many girls are predictable in the way they play. To be effective at top level requires much more thought to variation — change of spin and speed, length and placement, not just to hit harder and harder. Girls should be encouraged to be unpredictable in the way they play, often straight or to the body instead of diagonal, with regular change of pace and use of the slower ball.


— There are a number of things we can combine under this heading — better length, (too many girls play mid-table balls instead of up to the white line), more short and long play, more angled balls off the side of the table, more straight shots and balls directed at the body or between 15 – 20 centimetres either side of the racket. Force the opponent to move to play the return.


— Girls should seek advice on and explore the possibilities of the many differing rubbers on the market. It is not a coincidence that around 60% or more of top women players use something different on one side of the racket or the other. They are successful because they are different and unusual — nothing wrong in that!


— With many girls the backhand is used in a supporting role to the forehand and as a control stroke rather than a point-winner. At top level it must be remembered that any weakness will be very quickly exploited. It is important that even from an early age girls work at strengthening this wing, so they have the capability to accelerate from mere blocking into drive play or spin. The other path is to use a different rubber to achieve a different effect, making it difficult for the opponent to win points here.


— Girls are always much more negative than their male counterparts. Throughout early development strong support should be given by parents and coaches and every effort made to strengthen positive aspects. Indeed girl players should be urged to attack at the earliest opportunity, to be alert for that first opening, to try to develop a sense of aggression, to cultivate the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is failure.


— Every player must have a strength, a way to win points. It is up to the coach and player to find this strength and to build on it. Sometimes it may be a combination, loop and kill, serve and third ball. Whatever it may be the player should be aware of her strength and how to use it to best effect.


— Above all girls should look to be different in style. Throughout Europe there are thousands who play the fast, flat, ‘typical women’s game’ – only the very best one or two will get anywhere. Even these are unlikely to succeed against the Asian players who play this type of game even better and put much more practice time in at it!

Not only should girls be encouraged to develop their own personal strengths and characteristics so that a unique individual style emerges, but also they should be prepared to be flexible in thinking. The effects of mass media and the many cultural and sporting interactions in Europe tend if anything to standardize training methods and style and to inhibit forward thinking.


— Progress and development entails change. If your game remains the same or your mind refuses to accept change then you don’t go forward, you remain as you are. This is the one great lesson that every player must absorb at as early an age as possible. Be receptive to new ideas, prepared to test new theories and methods, alert to new techniques and tactics, ready to keep your game fresh and alive and moving forward.


The table tennis player who refuses to change or who is happy or satisfied with his or her way of play, will remain at the same level and will stop developing. How many players train in the same way, with the same exercises, the same serves and tactics and do not even understand the significance of the fact that nothing new is happening in their game? How many more are sadly frozen in the mind and not even prepared to consider new or different ideas?

Each player is a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and skills — you cannot force him or her into a style of your own choosing. Rather you must help him or her to develop and flower in his or her own way. In the areas of technique, tactics and physical exercises the coach can lead, in the mental areas and in the choosing of a style, with which he or she feels comfortable, the player should have a large say. Only the player knows what risks he wants to take, whether he is more at ease playing close or back, fast or slow, spin or drive. A player’s style should always be based on and directed towards his or her greatest strengths and always he or she should bear in mind that style is a living, growing organism, developing all the time however slowly. When it stops progressing you stop also and stagnate!

At whatever level you play each and every one of you will only progress, if you are prepared to accept in your own mind that change is necessary to develop. Each of you must monitor your own progress and question what is happening with your game. Ask yourself — ‘How has my game changed over the last 6 months or one year? Are my strokes changing, different timing, sidespin, slower balls, change of speed? Am I considering the possibility of different equipment, faster, slower blades or rubbers or pimples? Am I happy with the way I play, my own style? Have I problems with certain types of players? What am I doing about these?’

In the final analysis, although others may point the way, you should bear the responsibility for your own fate. Always have an open mind, ready to listen and to question. Perhaps it is true to say — the greatest danger is in absolute certainty. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further progress is not possible because our mind is closed to other possibilities.


  3. STYLE

Because table tennis is a very technical sport the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being 'controlled' by the way the opponent plays. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The 'automatic' pilot doesn't work so well any more and the player's reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent is unable to adapt in time. Remember the prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever changing situation.

All content ©copyright Rowden Fullen 2010 (except where stated)
Website by Look Lively Web Design Ltd