Technique and Improvisation
Rowden Fullen (2005)
If you watch top performers in the major events, Worlds, Olympics, Europeans etc. how often do you see players almost falling over, hitting the ball at full stretch or bending backwards at impossible angles to make the return. Our sport of table tennis is now faster than it ever was and the bigger ball has brought even the men closer to the table than ever before. There is just no time to go through the full gamut of preparatory movements to play each shot. More and more, players are having to improvise, to try not just to get the ball back (because at top level this is not enough), but to make a ‘winner’ from a difficult if not impossible position.
Often in fact it is only in the ‘set pieces’, the serve and receive for example, that you have the time to stay with your technique, for these are the few situations where you have a measure of control. Even here however risk-taking is prevalent with players coming round ‘blind’ to use the forehand from the backhand corner to try to win the point direct or to gain an advantage. In fact many national coaches worldwide are realizing the need to revise the risk-taking policy of their National Teams. This is moving up the scale from a medium risk approach to the higher risk areas. It is no longer an option to play safe however good your game may be.
It is often no longer possible now to play in measured fashion, to set the feet and begin the stroke through the hips and torso rotation. Many top players, even the men, stand closer to the table and quite square. As a result a response to the increased speed of the game is more often than not, an attempt to get the torso out of the way and at the same time commence the return stroke from what is usually the wrong end of the sequence. This occurs particularly with the power strokes and many such shots are initiated from the hand/wrist rather than the hips and body.
One of the reasons why it is possible to do this is that players are facing increased speed. Our game of table tennis is faster than ever before, much faster than 10 years ago, faster than 5 years ago. Most players even in the men’s game are standing closer to the table and taking the ball earlier. To retreat is more often than not a recipe for disaster. But all of this means that players are facing increased pace from a closer-to-table position. They often don’t need to initiate, rather they need to respond — reaction not action. Instead of feeding in spin and power they are using the speed already on the ball.
So many top performers are playing like this that we must really train in the same way and encourage our players to work at increased speeds and to bring more improvisation to the training hall. Virtually all movement patterns are now reduced to one big step rather than for example a number of smaller steps purely because of the speed of the modern game and the lack of time. We may well find over the next few years that extemporization will take over from a stable technical base in many coaching areas.
One final point that we must emphasize in all our training sessions is the importance of the initial strong attack in today’s game. It is the first player who gets in with a good ball who forces the opponent to react and who puts them under real pressure. Action is always preferable to reaction.