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.

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