Science 2

Can we use the Body more in Stroke Play?

Rowden Fullen (2004)

We often lay much emphasis on the movement of the bat arm in stroke play and acquiring good technique and do not perhaps stress enough or understood the use of the body and legs. With the development of looping and especially counter-looping techniques the player is not only required to strike the ball hard and with power but also to have a high level of control at all times and in a fast moving and fast changing situation. This is not easy. It is made more difficult in that the centre of gravity must start lower with the loop stroke so this entails moving, turning and lowering the body at the same time, all before executing the shot.

It also entails playing the stroke with good coordination and recovering with balance to play the next shot. This is why now and in the future the role played by the body’s centre of gravity in striking the ball should assume a higher level of importance. To give full play to one’s centre of gravity within the action of playing the stroke, one has to coordinate the movements of the waist and hips with those of the knees and feet. To play with the centre of gravity means that when the player swings his or her racket forward to strike the ball, he or she should consciously use the shift of the centre of gravity to enhance the striking force in the stroke and to make the whole movement more controlled and steady.

In many cases players pay some attention to their waist and leg movements but neglect those of the hip joints. In fact the hips are of rather more importance in that they are much closer to the body part where the weight is evenly balanced, the centre of gravity. It is therefore perhaps a wise practice to ‘borrow’ an exercise from the martial arts and add a few movements before striking the ball – first pull in and tense the abdomen and turn the hips, then relax the abdomen as you turn the hips forward. With the strength properly applied not only can the player reduce the extent of his or her movements but also enhance the striking force to a much higher degree.

The Specific Consciousness of Players

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Table tennis practice is guided by table tennis theory. Training at all levels needs theoretical guidance and players of all levels should absorb theoretical lessons. The concept of table tennis consciousness has not come about of itself, it has emerged only after long years of practice on the part of countless coaches and players. Unfortunately most publications concerning our sport contain little or no information on this subject and many trainers work their whole lives and never even consider this aspect of table tennis. Such a serious gap on the theoretical side should call for comprehensive attention from all coaches, players and researchers. In fact table tennis consciousness and the methods of cultivating this should be an obligatory theoretical course for all coaches, trainers and players.

The state of consciousness refers to the degree of awareness of your own feelings and of what is going on around you. A high level of consciousness means a state of mental clarity, where the player is not only well motivated but also well aware of the differing demands on him or her and how he or she is going to handle them. A healthy person’s state of consciousness is in fact variable, fluctuating from highly conscious, to moderately conscious, to absent-minded. The same can be said of the player in training or in competition. Other things being equal, a player in a good state of consciousness shows greater concentration in play and will achieve better results in training — also with accurate judgement, quick reflexes and good adaptability to changing circumstances, he or she will perform better in competition.

Coaches have for example carried out simple consistency or accuracy tests during training sessions and have discovered that their own approach to training can considerably affect the consciousness of the group. There can be a considerable difference if they speak in a quiet and mild manner and then give exactly the same instructions with a much more forceful and aggressive attitude. Results over a variety of test cases were markedly different because of the changing state of consciousness of the players being tested. According to the views of some 20 top level coaches, a change in the degree of a player’s concentration (which depends on the state of consciousness), can make all the difference in a match even though he or she doesn’t alter the tactics! Sometimes a little ‘nap’ may cost him several points but once he arouses himself and plays with a high degree of concentration, he can often make up the deficit extremely quickly — in other words his level of play goes up dramatically. This is why in tournaments the support of coaches and team-mates can often be of value in altering the level of consciousness of the player.

Table tennis play whether matches, tournaments or training is characterized by intense exertion punctuated by brief breaks. While the ball is in play, the player is required to attain the highest level of consciousness so that he or she is extremely clear-headed and capable of displaying a high degree of concentration. But as soon as the ball goes out of play between the points or games, the player can immediately switch off, relax and rest. It is important that all players fully comprehend this situation and are good at taking advantage of it. The value of being able to switch off cannot be underestimated, no player can keep going at 100% concentration level all the time and it’s crucial to be able to relax — however it’s also crucial that the player is capable of switching on and off at a moment’s notice, so that this ability becomes second nature.

The actions of a player in training or competition are bound to be governed by his consciousness. With a good state of consciousness he can train efficiently and quickly improve his overall competitive ability. However generally speaking, technical problems are visible and tangible and can therefore be easily spotted and resolved, whereas problems pertaining to consciousness are more difficult to detect and once they reveal themselves one may have to make tremendous efforts to overcome them, if indeed they can be overcome at all! Those who are not scientifically minded often pay little attention to the aspects of table tennis which they cannot physically see. They take the attitude that if you work a player hard enough you will eventually get the results and that those who sweat more will progress faster. Actually the hard toil of these people in many cases fails to bear fruit commensurate with the efforts they have put in. This is because things don’t really work in this way and all players are different, often a different approach is needed. It is important that coaches in particular are prepared to think scientifically.

In teaching theories about table tennis consciousness, great emphasis should be laid on integrating the theory with the practice. Skills are acquired through practice but consciousness is cultivated through the powers of understanding. Often we can use examples outside our sport to help players understand the essence of table tennis consciousness. In training we should stress that players cultivate consciousness in conjunction with technical and tactical practices. In judging incoming balls for example emphasis should be laid on making conscious efforts to ‘stare’ at the ball, especially at the salient points in its flight (just before the bounce on your side so you see the spin or lack of spin). In technical drills try to instil awareness of what is happening and what they are doing into the players’ minds. If they hit a ball out don’t just explain the cause of the error which may be faulty timing but stress the vital importance of feeling the stroke and the contact with the ball in play and the necessity of constantly adjusting the swing of the racket to compensate.

While doing technical exercises one must always have tactical aims in mind if one is to learn solid skills that are of practical use in tournaments. You often hear coaches say that their players progress very rapidly at the start of their career but then development slows down when they reach a higher level. One of the main stumbling blocks can lie in the lack of tactical awareness within their technical training. Tactics are a means of using and applying techniques and skills, which in turn serve as a means of operating tactics. Negligence in developing tactical awareness amounts to forgetting that the ultimate aim of training is competition! Training is aimless unless you know clearly what tactics to adopt against various types of game and which tactics are most effective against a particular opponent. On the surface all players may train in almost the same way but they may achieve very different results if they have different ideas in their heads. If you take the practice of block and push strokes for example, players may practise varying the direction and the placement of the ball as the exercise requires. However if the player does not have any tactical sense he or she may be able to acquire the skills but find it extremely hard to apply them properly in tournaments. One may even find the practice boring with all the endless repetition. But if we teach the trainees that some tactics can be applied with even block and push strokes, such as play to the wings then the middle or to the body then down the sidelines, they can at the same time learn to use their skills in competition and heighten their interest in training.

Some players fall into the habit too of playing too much control play in training and neglect cultivating a strong urge to attack. It becomes then very easy in tournaments to settle into grooved stroke play and it becomes very hard to break the habitual way of playing and actually break out and take the initiative.

When talking to the few coaches who understand the concept of table tennis consciousness, the vast majority of these are of the opinion that a player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but it is only with great difficulty that the quality of consciousness can be improved. Some players with poor consciousness are not aware of their problems until they have played for many years, others even remain ignorant after their retirement!

Consciousness of what is happening is vital when you play in all aspects of table tennis. Draw up programmes for cultivating consciousness with your players.

Stage 1

  1. In the initial stages teach your players to develop a scientific approach to training, to set higher aims and to combine industry and ingenuity in all table tennis practice.
  2. Cultivate consciousness in ‘staring at the ball’. Use different methods, hitting the ball against a wall, staring at a ball hanging from a string, looking at a ball in a dark room, during stroke practice etc.
  3. Try to attain a good state of consciousness with your players and explain the meaning and importance of maintaining such a state. Try to work to maintain the state for longer and longer periods till they can operate at maximum capacity for a complete training session.

Stage 2

  1. At this stage in which basic skills and simple tactics are learned, work at cultivating consciousness in judgement. By feeding the trainee shots with differing properties, placement and trajectories, you can help the player to understand that judgement is the basis and the prerequisite for a good stroke, so he must exercise judgement in returning each and every shot.
  2. Consciousness in recovery. It must be clear to the player that one stroke will end where the next begins. He must consciously recover his balance during the brief instant between to ensure smooth execution.
  3. Consciousness in movement of the feet. The aim is not only to learn how to move the feet but, what’s more important, to develop awareness in movement of the feet during stroke play.
  4. Consciousness in seeking the optimal point of contact in executing the stroke. Emphasize this in training so that players think about the best contact point for each individual type of stroke.
  5. Consciousness in combining ‘flat’ and ‘brush’ strokes during play. Such a combination is the very essence of table tennis skills.
  6. Consciousness in feeling one’s stroke movements. The player should be aware of each stroke he plays so that he knows the reasons for its success or failure.
  7. Consciousness in placing the ball to differing table areas. Combine theory with practical and organize quotas for placement hits to improve player’s awareness.
  8. Developing a good state of general consciousness. The importance of effort in this respect should be emphasized again and again. Play one-point games where your players go all out to win a single rally, making concentrated mental preparations beforehand. Play from 8 – 10 down and serving, 9 – 10 or 10 – 10.
  9. Cultivate consciousness in attack. Watch videos of top performers live so your players can see for themselves the importance of taking the attacking initiative in competition. Work with special training games where the player must win the point in three strokes or less or in which only one push stroke is allowed before attacking or only two backhand strokes before stepping round to play a strong forehand.
  10. Cultivate consciousness in producing different spins and teach your players the importance of using spin in stroke play.
  11. Emphasize to your players that the purpose of training is to achieve good results in tournaments and matches. They should develop the urge to make a good showing in competition. The only test of the player’s skills is his or her actual performance in the competitive situation. In the day-to-day training they should make every endeavour to cultivate an irrepressible desire to do well and to give of their best.


  1. At the advanced stage in technical and tactical development, set higher demands in respect of cultivating consciousness in ‘staring at the ball’, exercising judgement of incoming balls and ‘feeling’ stroke movements.
  2. As the player’s skills improve try to break away more from conventional practice and ‘feel’ the stroke movement more at the instant of impact.
  3. Cultivate consciousness in making adjustments (in the amount of force applied, the method of applying force, the back-swing of the racket, the timing of the stroke, the angle of the racket, the direction of the stroke, the use of the wrist and fingers).
  4. Cultivate consciousness in understanding the relationship between stability and variation in play.
  5. Cultivate consciousness in memorizing the salient points of a game, where you are winning and losing points, which serves are more effective, whether you are winning on serve and receive and in what proportion, what are the strengths of the opponent, which tactics are working best etc.
  6. Cultivate consciousness regarding speed and variation in speed. Teach trainees the meaning of speed and methods for speeding up and slowing down their play. Instil into them a strong urge to vary pace, spin and placement of their shots.
  7. Cultivate consciousness in tactics, seizing the initiative in attack, adapting to changing circumstances, awareness of time and space in executing a stroke.
  8. Players are required to carry to a still higher level what they achieved in the previous stage in cultivating an urge to make a good showing in play.

Stage 4

  1. At this stage in which styles are becoming firmly established cultivate consciousness in evolving techniques. With both theoretical and practical sessions look at variation in playing styles and how players should approach matches against opponents with specialist styles and techniques.
  2. Cultivate strategic awareness and an urge to assert one’s advantage even if only partially as early as possible.
  3. Cultivate consciousness in developing one or two fortés, setting up continuous attacks and in improving containment techniques, defence and counter-attack.
  4. Cultivate consciousness in making innovations. Introduce new skills and give examples from table tennis history to illustrate the importance of technical innovations.
  5. Cultivate consciousness in preparing files, keeping notes on their own play and development and even on other players (how to beat them etc).
  6. Cultivate a good state of consciousness and emphasize this repeatedly. Play many ‘one-point’ games to focus the player.

More Agility, Shorter Strokes

Input from Blasczyk, Schimmelpfennig and Dr. Kondric 2008 — 2009

At the Worlds, Asian players showed especially in the longer rallies, just how perfect their physical preparation is; most European players were not prepared so well and in most cases they lost longer rallies against Asian players! As we have seen with China, Asian players pay much more attention to speed in their physical preparation, while this kind of preparation is often neglected in Europe. We get the impression that physical preparation in Europe is mostly based just on elements of the physical side such as muscle power, maybe coordination, but agility and specific table tennis quickness are not practised enough. We saw this in the match between Bojan Tokić and the Japanese Yoshida, in which Tokić was not able to parry the speed of the Japanese. We have to work much more on speed, there is no alternative and we have to improve in this area. Asian players compared with European players are much faster in coming to the ball, the effectiveness of their shots is therefore much better. Our advice to European players must be not only to practise specific speed on the table but to practise as well basic speed and speed endurance, but above all to pay much more attention to agility. Agility is in particular important when a player has to change the type of stroke which is quite often the case in modern play.

Physical preparation must be good enough in order to enable the player to come to the ball fast and therefore be able to produce a technically correct stroke. Without perfect physical preparation good stroke technique in the game is not possible. When we compare the training of top players in Europe and Asia we must come to the conclusion that Asian players spend significantly more time having top quality training than is the case with European players. The length of training is maybe the same but the intensity and quality of the training are not and these aspects are obviously better in Asia. How this problem can be solved is a task not only for coaches, but for European players as well.

As a result of the world-wide ban on the use of speed glue and boosters, new rubbers have generally lost speed and spin. The strokes and especially the smashes, are not as hard as they used to be. In order to compensate for this, it is necessary to learn to play using the entire body. This is especially important with the forehand-topspin technique, which depends not only on the movement of the hitting arm, but also on more hip and shoulder rotation and on the player’s weight being shifted forwards in the direction of the shot particularly when back from the table. Improved smash techniques are therefore considered one of the most important priorities for training at all levels in the year 2009.

After so many years playing with speed glue we have automated techniques adapted to the game with glue and it is extremely difficult to change such automated movements. There is so little time to react and to hit the ball, but when the ball has a rather different trajectory or bounces unexpectedly then we try to change the stroke in an extremely short time and try to abruptly change the direction of the movement, which brings the danger of injury. The adaptation time to the new game could last even one whole year but even after that will we have as attractive rallies as we have now? The ball will be slower as topspin duels with speed glue will be sadly missed. When the players get used to the game without glue maybe we will have very long rallies but it is doubtful if the spectators will appreciate this aspect. However in the current situation will it even be possible to have long topspin rallies? If somebody like Timo Boll or Vladi Samsonov has a good slow first topspin attack it is extremely hard to do anything now with this ball.

After the Olympic Games when players started to practice without speed glue and boosters all the time they had muscle inflammation as they had to use a technique of executing the strokes which they were not used to! As they were trying to put into the ball as much speed and rotation as possible but without the help of speed glue they had to use more power and a different technique — the end result was that they were injured, which in many cases had never happened before.

Because of the speed of the game and the need to play and stay closer to the table the strokes are now shorter and more abrupt leading to more injuries anyway. This was the direction of modern table tennis even before the big ball and the banning of glue and boosters. But it is unfortunately the case that these measures have accentuated the situation without really making the game more attractive to spectators and the media as was originally hoped.

Achieving Perfection in Performance

Rowden Fullen (2004)

It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. This is why with players who have trained for many years and whose habits are firmly ingrained, you can often only change small aspects. You can only restructure the player’s technique by destroying his or her game and starting again. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably, are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to operate more in the tactical areas and how to gain advantage here.

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 one step 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 will have difficulty in adapting in time.

The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to an ever changing situation. Unfortunately the way we train is often significant in reducing our chances of achieving this ideal. Training is repetition in the right environment, with the right content and the right attitude. As a result of this repetition our strokes become ‘grooved’ and automatic. We train so we don’t need to think about what we are doing — so that we can in effect play on auto-pilot.

Once we are in this position of playing completely automatically just how are we supposed to handle thinking about something new and different, much less being actually able to cope with and adapt to new aspects? This is the reason why players who have something unusual or unconventional in their game are so difficult to play against and why the Asian coaches, especially the Chinese, are always on the look-out to give their players some extra ‘specialty’, something that bit different to give them a big advantage over others.

This is of course why it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the 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 him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.

Technique for example is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. Only when the player has mastered all-round technique successfully can he use various tactics to the fullest extent. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow the player to use his 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.

Another aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development 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 him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.

How many players really know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not even seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example.

If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply. How many even know where they are going and more important, how to get there? At a personal level 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 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 (especially women players) 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.

How many players even know how to train properly and to train in the right way for their type of game? How many have the right attitude and the optimal level of nervous excitement in the training hall to get the best out of the session? So often training operates at a lower and less intense level than it should because the players bring the wrong attitude to the training hall.

A player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but attitudes and the quality of consciousness are difficult to improve. The cultivation of table tennis consciousness should be an obligatory theoretical course for all players. Each player should be aware, should be able to ‘feel’ how he or she is contacting the ball, how he or she is moving, how his or her own body is performing during play. Many players are in fact quite insensitive and indeed ignorant as to just what is happening with the various parts of their own bodies when they play!

Cultivate awareness in seeking for example the optimal point of impact when striking the ball or in combining ‘drive’ and ‘brush’ strokes during play (such a combination constitutes the very essence of table tennis skills), even in getting the feel of the movement of one’s racket during each stroke (being mindful of each stroke you play so that you are aware of the why and wherefore of its success or failure). In many cases the ability to be totally aware of exactly how you are performing, only evolves after some research or exploration into the mental side of the game. In fact many athletes in many differing sports are becoming much more conscious of the value of the ‘mental side’ of performance, especially now that in many areas we are perhaps closer to reaching the physical limits than we were some years ago.

If you are to be more aware for example of how you function and how your body operates in a playing situation, it is important that you study relaxation techniques and are first able to relax. The beauty about learning to relax completely even if you do this off the table and away from table tennis, is that soon you become aware of tensions in your body as you play, train or compete. You know yourself better and are then in a better position to control and to take action to change what is happening with your body.

It is quite important also to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let yourself be side-tracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition. We must bear in mind too that although we know that the level of performance is affected by tension, we know very little of exactly how. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures and we should understand this if we are to be effective.

If you are to aim for the top levels it is critical that you start to analyse your performance and what is happening when you compete and train. This should become a regular part of your development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme should be systematic and goal-oriented and it should indeed be on-going and continuous and progressive. This doesn’t mean that you need extra time to train, the mental side should indeed be integrated into and become an integral part of your everyday normal training.

No player is going to become extremely successful at the highest levels unless he or she is adaptable enough to contend with all variations of play. Most top players also have strong fortés which help them to win through even against the toughest opposition and they are invariably mentally tough themselves. In fact it is often this quality of never giving up, of extreme stubbornness, which many competitors refer to when they talk about the ‘real’ champions.

Control of the Racket

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Many table tennis players have experienced great difficulty in producing strong, spinny loops no matter how hard they try to lift the ball, speed up the racket or adjust the angle of the bat at the instant of impact.

There are many ways of increasing loop spin. One aspect however which many players tend not to consider, is the importance of having good control of the racket swing, especially in the preparatory phase and just before the instant of contact with the ball. If you wish to produce a loop that has the qualities of high speed, good power and heavy spin then this aspect is vital.

Generally the faster the bat-swing, the stronger the spin in the loop, but this is not always the case. We are aware that it is necessary to have a ‘thin’ contact in order to achieve good spin. However if the contact is too fine, we will not produce strong spin, however much force we apply. This is of course because the ball is not given enough friction and it will just slide off the bat surface without being held long enough to obtain the required effect. Let us look at three experiments by way of illustration.

  1. Put a slip of paper on a table with a table tennis ball placed on one end of the paper and the other end which extends beyond the edge held by your fingers. Use a ruler to strike down quickly on the overhanging part of the paper strip. The paper will slide out from under the ball leaving it motionless.
  2. The same as 1. except that the paper is pulled out quickly with your hand from under the ball. As the movement of the paper is slower here it will move the ball a little and give it a little spin.
  3. The same as 2. except that the paper is pulled out slowly at first so that the ball starts to spin and then with increasing speed so that the spin increases and becomes stronger.
  • Experiment 1. shows what happens if you get too ‘thin’ a contact when you try to loop the ball powerfully. The ball just drops off the racket surface.
  • Experiment 2. although a little better is still not satisfactory.
  • Experiment 3. shows us that accelerating the speed of the racket at the moment of impact is vital to improving the spin of the shot.

From these experiments we can see that the quality of the loop depends not just on the sheer speed of the arm and the racket but on good control of the swing. Many of the world’s best players, including Ma Wenge, Gatien, Waldner and Saive, do not accelerate the speed of the racket swing until the moment of impact. In this way they are able to produce loops with immense spin.

To control the speed of the bat-swing the looper must fully relax his arm before hitting the ball. Only at the instant of impact should he suddenly contract his arm muscles to produce an explosive force. He should almost in fact try to feel that he has ‘acquired’ the ball with his racket (that it is being held by the rubber and sponge), before he accelerates the bat up to maximum speed!

Timing over the Table

Rowden Fullen (2005)

When you watch many of our young stars performing on the table, one of the first things you notice is the inadequacy of the short and the ‘mid-field’ game. Usually the power strokes, the loops, drives and smashes are quite strong and well developed, but it appears that youngsters ignore the value of the short and linking play. Yet it is in fact expertise in just these areas which will allow them to get their strengths in during the game.

In almost all cases players are predictable and safe in pushing play — they take the ball at ‘peak’ or relatively late and give the opponent time to think and to play. In addition they often do very little with the ball, just return safely. By playing in this way they don’t obtain any advantage from ‘mid-field’ play, rather they allow the play to drift into a control situation where both they and their opponents have an equal chance to break out and win the point.

It is vital to retain the initiative in over-the-table play. In this way you can create many opportunities to get in and open up the play. How many players consider the point that there are basically 4 different ways to push — with control, speed, spin or deception? In addition there are all the various timing points from very early to very late. Just think if you combine the different methods of pushing with a variety of timing points, you increase the options enormously!

Quite often at top level players take the ball early so that they allow the opponent as little time as possible. However they use variation in the racket angle at contact to create lesser or greater spin. The opponent then faces a fast return with very much backspin or almost none and has limited time to react. Top players are also good at varying length with the same stroke movement. The half-long serve can be dropped back very short or pushed back long and fast, but both from the same early timing point.

However it is not only early timing that you can use to good effect. Many players overlook the value of very late-timed strokes, which can in fact be just as effective and deceptive. Consider the scenario where you come in to push the ball at a late timing point and just roll the wrist instead and play an attacking shot. Both early and late-timed strokes can be difficult to ‘read’ as the player has a variety of options and can change from one to the other almost instantaneously.

With the older type of push stroke, with much use of the wrist and the ball taken closer to the body, it was a little harder to create time and room to open on the next ball and to achieve enough back-swing to engineer good spin. This type of push was also often played from a low stance, so if the opponent were to hit the next ball hard, not only was it necessary to move to the ball but also to come up into a counter-hitting position.

It is obviously of particular importance to consider the technique involved in executing early timed push strokes and consider this in the light of how you play the stroke, where the racket finishes and how your execution of this individual stroke will affect the next shot you will play.

The most common modern technique is to take the ball well in front of the body, with little or no use of the wrist. Instead the stroke is executed from the elbow and the primary input is from the forearm. The stance is relatively upright and subsequent movement in any direction quite simple. If you consider this action in some detail, you may well arrive at the conclusion that there are a number of advantages.

Less use of the wrist gives rather more control in early ball play, without lessening the amount of spin you can feed into the shot. It is also possible to use a very fast action with this type of stroke, which makes it difficult for the opponent to ‘read’ the amount of spin and the length. But most important of all as the stroke is taken well in front of the body and finishes in a central position from a relatively upright stance, it is very simple to switch on to the attack. Because you switch on to the attack from a forward position and the arm is drawn back quickly, not only do you have space to play the shot but also you have good elastic energy input which you can use in the stroke.

The Modern Blocking Game

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Over the last few years there has been a shift in emphasis in the blocking game. Blocking used to be more a question of control and waiting for the opponent to make a mistake. Now it is rather more aggressive and the aim is to break up the play and to break out of the control situation and on to the attack as soon as possible.

At the higher levels and especially on the forehand side, the old type ‘control’ blocking game has almost completely disappeared. However it would be wrong to assume that it is no longer necessary for young players to concern themselves with the block. The original block is in fact the basis for the ‘stop’, sidespin and forcing strokes, which are used even at the highest levels in world play.



  • close to table.
  • racket higher than the elbow.
  • racket facing the opponent.
  • relaxed.
  • weight leaning forward.


  • early timing, before ‘peak’ ( especially important to emphasize this with the forehand block, which is almost always too late).
  • the weight forward.
  • ‘closed’ racket, but the angle varying depending on the opponent’s spin.

After ball contact

return to ready position so that you are in a position to counter-attack.


The best method of learning to block is by using multi-ball.

  1. 1 player). The coach stands a little back from the table and loops with topspin. The player blocks. Begin with light topspin and increase the spin element. Work then at varying the topspin so that the player understands the importance of varying the racket angle.
  2. (2 players). The coach plays backspin to player one. Player 1 loops and player 2 blocks.
  3. It is often best to use the better player to loop against the player who needs to improve his or her blocking play.



  • close to table.
  • racket higher than the elbow.
  • racket facing the opponent.
  • relaxed.
  • weight leaning forward.


  • early timing, before ‘peak’ ( especially important to emphasize this with the forehand block, which is almost always too late).
  • start with the racket a little higher in the case of the ‘stop’, chop or forcing block or a little lower for the topspin block.
  • acceleration of the forearm is essential.
  • work with a little rotation of the upper body.
  • closed’ racket, but the angle varying depending on the opponent’s spin.
  • contact the ball in front of the body and at the back or top of the ball.

After ball contact

  • return to ready position so that you are in a position to counter-attack.


The best method of learning alternative blocking is by using multi-ball.

  1. (1 player). The coach stands a little back from the table and loops with topspin. The player trains at ‘stop’, chop, topspin or forcing block. Begin with light topspin and increase the spin element. Work then at varying the topspin so that the player understands the importance of varying the racket angle.
  2. (2 players). The coach plays backspin to player one. Player 1 loops and player 2 blocks.
  3. Players can work at 1 or 2 together without the coach.
  4. The various blocks can be incorporated into normal on-the-table exercises.

There are of course a number of varying ways in which you can block from control to forcing and all the various chop, ‘stop’ and sidespin strokes. Try to bear in mind the modern theory of blocking, unpredictability rather than control. As well as varying speed and stroke, think to vary placement and particularly length. The purpose is to break up the control game and to create attacking opportunities and as early as possible in the rally.

Life after Technique

Rowden 2011

What comes after technique and why is technique important? Let’s first look at what technique does.

1. Provides you with the weapons to play the game you want to play and to do this to the best of your potential.
2. Is the crucial base for tactical development and for the refining of your individual style.

Many coaches unfortunately focus on technique to the exclusion of almost everything else and fail to understand fully where this leads and to understand the basic relevance of technique in the context of the development of their individual player.

Techniques are fundamental to the development of tactics. But these must be the right techniques for you the player and for your game so that you are able fully to implement the winning tactics which complement your way of playing. In other words you must not only have the right weapons, but you must be able to use these effectively and they must be the ones best suited to you, your character and your individual style.

This of course brings us to a further crucial point which coaches fail to fully appreciate and it is this: technique does not in fact predate tactics and style development. There are many aspects in the early stages of a player’s growth which are pivotal to just what he/she will achieve and also determine how far he/she will go. This means that early techniques must be refined in the light of the player’s end-style and the tactics he/she will then use in the future. This of course means that coaches should even from the earliest stages work with the ‘whole package’ and not treat technique in isolation.

What must be identified early on is how the young pupil will play as an experienced performer. The clues will for example be in the character, in the mental and physical strengths, in the grip, the ready position, the mobility and the movement patterns and the ability to play ‘body accented’ strokes. What the coach must of course fully understand is which techniques are appropriate to the player’s end-style and which will be most relevant to the tactics he/she will usually execute in the future.

Selecting and refining the appropriate weapons to suit the player’s end-style is very akin to the physical trainer’s job. If you ask the top experts on the physical side to devise a detailed training programme for your player their immediate response will be: ‘I can’t do that, because I don’t know how he/she plays. I can give you a general programme to build up basic fitness foundations but on a detailed personal level I don’t know whether to focus on stamina, reflexes and explosive speed etc. I only know the best approach if I know in detail how the player plays and how he/she uses the body and to what purpose’.

Equally if you the coach have 3 players with totally different playing styles, for example a backspin defender, a mid-distance topspin attacker and a close-to-table blocker/counter-hitter, then the physical requirements for each will be radically different. But similarly the technical requirements and the forging of suitable weapons for each of the 3 styles will also differ fundamentally. Technique of course doesn’t just apply to the stroke-play; it also embraces areas such as footwork and footwork patterns and these too in some cases will differ drastically.

Many trainers unfortunately do not understand the inter-connectivity involved in many areas of table tennis. Nor do they fully comprehend, especially those who are less experienced, the value and effects of the physical and scientific factors (such as upper body strength, ball speed and spin). European coaches must more fully understand the close relationship between techniques and tactics and that the appropriate techniques must be cultivated and refined so that the player is more easily able to execute the tactics suitable to his/her personal end-style. Only if we do this and try to help each player to achieve his/her individual maximum will we get anywhere near being able to match the Asians.

Science of the Plastic Ball. Initial Thoughts

Rowden January 2015

Some spin on serve but not in rallies.
Best spin side alone or combined with backspin. Side-spin balls stay shorter and kick sideways earlier than with the celluloid ball.
Easier to attack serves.

More long or half-long serves, far less short serves.
Ball slows off table and sits up.
Topspin doesn't kick forward off table but stands up and comes through more slowly.
Less topspin in play but backspin less affected

Counter-loop less effective, best to counter-drive or block.
Blocking very easy against loop or drive, especially against the faster ball.
Chopping still effective but only if heavy and low over the net.
Only really effective topspin is the slower ball, fast loop is very easy to control.
Push returns easier to attack due to less spin.

The speed of the ball is slower through the air and after the bounce.
The slower shot or the slow-roll ball can be very effective and often results in an unusual bounce due to the polymers used in manufacture.
Spin is much less in the rallies.
Rallies will be longer and players will need to be fitter and stronger.
Power will be important, especially if you can win the point in the first few balls, otherwise you will have to wait for the right ball.
Placement will assume a much more important role.
Variation in trajectory, pace and angles will be much more important.
The quality of the balls is poor and a number of balls don’t behave as expected in the rallies.

Pimple players especially long pimple players may need to change material. Such players have always had more problems against flat hit balls and no spin shots and will now be further disadvantaged. Pimple players who stay close will be better off than the orthodox defenders who play further back. Defenders will need more alternatives and may have to attack more and earlier in the rallies as well as staying in and blocking/stop-blocking more to change the form of the rally and to create openings.

Short pimple rubbers may well be the most effective with the plastic ball as not only are they ideal for changing speed and spin, but also they can easily return very short balls to the opponent. This will be highly efficient when using change of pace and playing short and long and may well be one of the dominant tactics with the new ball.

The topspin game off the table will now fall behind, as players will not get the same spin or penetration, especially in the women’s game. It is far too easy to hit hard and drop short with the new ball, especially as your opponent’s topspin tends to ‘sit up’. The shorter drop shots on the other hand will not come through and will tend to drop below table level very quickly which will cause big problems to the player who retreats too far. Power often will be decisive factor and younger, fitter players who can strike the ball with real force will have the advantage. On the other hand players who try to control and contain will have difficulty in winning points.

Small Gains and Alternatives

Rowden September 2019

The success of Sir David Brailsford in British cycling is truly legendary. One of the main planks of his success is ‘marginal gains’, the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts and improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together.

So what does this philosophy actually mean in practice and particularly for our sport of table tennis?

Basically it means breaking down the way we play into specific units and then working to develop and improve these individual items. Aspects such as:
• Serve short
• Serve long
• Receive short
• Receive long
• Push
• Backhand drive
• Backhand spin
• Backhand blocks
• Forehand drive
• Forehand spin
• Forehand blocks
• Footwork in/out
• Footwork side to side
• Smashing
• Off the table
• Reaction times
• Physical fitness
• Work rate
• Mental strength and willpower
+ The right racket and rubbers for you

Just think how much your overall game could improve if you were only able to make marginal gains in each of the 20 areas listed above. The total improvement could be phenomenal!

But let’s take this whole concept a stage further to a yet higher level. If we don’t just create a marginal gain in each of these 20 individual areas, but also diversify, producing several alternatives within each of the 20 areas, we are then in the position of being able to work with over 60/70 varying possibilities. This then takes the total overall improvement levels right off the map!

So for example 4 different short receives, drop short, flick, push long with backspin or float. Or more than half a dozen long, fast serves; topspin, backspin and sidespin or any combination and with both FH and BH. On blocking for example, forcing block, soft or stop block and sidespin block. In the case of topspin, early and fast, later and slow or introducing sidespin elements. The possibilities are endless.

It is really up to each of us to examine our own game and make the decision which alternatives suit our individual style of play and to build on these. First however we should decide how far we want to go in our sport and how we’re going to get there.

Table Tennis and Reaction Times

Rowden April 2017

● Factors affecting reaction time include age, sex, left or right hand, peripheral vision, practice, fatigue, breathing cycles, exercise, personality, focus and intelligence. Many scientific studies in different sports have proved that men have faster reaction times than women in both the audio (ART) and visual (VRT) categories.

The speed of response in any individual is due to the lag between identification of the stimulus and the beginning of muscle contraction; motor responses in males are comparatively stronger than in females. Reaction times for trained athletes are much faster than those of ordinary people who exercise little and sedentary types of both sexes will be similar. In the case of top-level athletes responses will be much faster than the norm and there is generally a gender gap of between 20 to 30 milliseconds between males and females. However with VRT this does not apply to left eye – left hand dominant females. This suggests that female left-handers have an intrinsic neurological advantage.
● It is also well known that left-handers have better developed right hemispheres and therefore better developed motor, attentional and spatial functions, all supporting the notion that left-handed people have neuro-anatomically-based advantages in performing visuospatial and visuomotor tasks. In fact studying major events in tennis and table tennis over several decades it is found that left-handers are significantly over-represented in the final stages of major events.
However there are right handed players who are referred to as 'cross' because they are left eye dominant. People who are cross are able to process more information quicker, which is to do with the side of the brain they are using and the greater increase of neuro channels created for the messages to reach the body. To check for eye dominance search the Miles Test on internet.

The 40mm Ball

Rowden Fullen (2000)

The 40mm ball has a larger surface area so it will suffer more air resistance, which will tend to slow it down in flight. This however is offset by the fact that the ball is heavier and a heavier ball does not suffer so much retardation as a light one. If the weight is increased pro-rata with the size, then the two cancel each other out and the two balls will travel at the same speed through the air. The I.T.T.F. specification for the big ball is not quite a pro-rata increase which will mean that it will travel around 2.5% slower. To achieve the required weight the material for the big ball will need to be slightly thinner. Perhaps the I.T.T.F. recognized that it could be difficult to produce a ball that was consistently hard, for in the quality assurance tests they specified a median value which is slightly higher. Balls meeting this value will travel only about 1.5% slower. They further specified a maximum value which gives a pro-rata increase, meaning that the two balls would travel at the same speed!

Without accurate scientific testing (this would of course mean testing in the way in which table tennis strokes are played, where the racket contacts the ball usually at an angle and propels the ball forward) it remains to be seen what can be achieved practically but it would appear that the big ball will travel around 1 – 2% slower through the air. If you just drop a big and a small ball, they will both reach the ground at the same time but the big ball will not bounce up so high. Therefore it is in the reaction off the bat and off the table where any significant reduction in speed is likely to occur. Any specific reduction is not easy to assess because practically balls do not meet the table or the racket perpendicularly and even more importantly contain spin, which affects speed through the air and after the bounce. In some of the initial tests done in the research centre in Ottawa, they found that the harder the hit, the less difference there was between the speed of the big and small ball! Perhaps a really hard hit and the big ball will travel faster than the small one! Indications at the moment are that speed at the fast end of the game has not been affected very much but that speed at the slow end is rather slower.

Most players agree that the ball is more visible, slows down more quickly and tends to dip at the end of its trajectory. It also drops down to floor level rather more rapidly and doesn’t ‘carry’ so far after bouncing as the small ball did, especially with a lesser power input. As far as the ball coming off the racket is concerned, the sponge and rubber combination we use cannot create energy, it can only minimize energy losses. The ball will deform as will the racket surface — such deformation represents a loss of energy and the rebound speed of the ball (other aspects being equal) will always be less than the impact speed. The bigger ball with a larger surface area and the racket surface will both deform more, leading to higher energy losses. A similar situation will occur when the larger ball hits the table, there will be a little more deformation, a little higher energy loss.

It is in the area of spin rather than that of speed where most players are going to notice a difference with the big ball. The critical factor is air resistance which will slow the larger ball quicker, accelerating the dissipation of spin and causing it to ‘dip’ more rapidly under topspin conditions. The speed of revolution (spin) will be in inverse proportion to the size of the ball. The larger ball will clearly spin slower and less and since any point on the surface will travel further to complete a revolution, the spin will decrease quicker due to air resistance. However there is also the possibility that because of the larger surface area it is feasible that more friction can be transmitted to the larger ball, so that in service, very thin contact or over the table shots the opponent who stays close may face more spin! This is of course an equally valid argument with the hard hit ball but if the opponent takes this at a deeper position much of the spin will have dissipated.

A particularly important aspect is what happens after the ball hits the table. Spin is converted into forward or backward momentum. Topspin will add to the speed of the shot after the ball has bounced — the bottom of the ball stops but the top shoots forward increasing the topspin. With the larger ball where we have a larger surface area contact this will tend to dissipate the spin, but at the same time the bottom of the ball should be gripped more on contact thus increasing the topspin effect after the bounce. Which will predominate? Players seem to agree that the big ball dips more both before hitting the table and after the bounce.

Only months after the introduction of the 40mm ball many manufacturers were already producing quicker or oversize blades and faster glues. One of the answers is obviously to increase the power input so we have more spin and speed off the racket and thus to restore the status quo. But is this really the smart thing to do? Surely we the innovative players should be thinking of how to turn any new situation to our advantage not to restore things to what they were? Do we really want to end up slugging it out topspin to topspin two and a half metres back from the table till one or other player tires? If the ball drops rather more quickly, especially with spin and if there’s more effect with the slower shots, perhaps we should look into these aspects rather more — spin and variation rather than power!

It is perhaps also of interest to think a little of the difference in the power element between the men’s and women’s game. We must touch on science here for a brief moment — we know that a modern ‘sandwich’ rubber racket can be swung in a much flatter plane than the old ‘hard’ bat, thus giving the ball more forward speed. The harder the ball is hit with this type of stroke, the more topspin it will contain. The sponge does much of the work in lifting the ball over the net and the spin in bringing it down on the other side of the table. However women don’t hit the ball as hard as men and will therefore achieve less topspin effect than men on the power strokes such as the loop drive. At the very highest levels in the women’s game those players who use the power strokes are going to achieve less spin through the air, less ‘dip’ on to the table and less speed off the table after the bounce. It should therefore be rather easier for the close-to-table women players to cope with those who like to back away and topspin from a deeper position.

Is Trajectory Important?

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Can you make life more difficult for your opponent by changing the trajectory of your topspin shots? If you lower the trajectory and play as low over the net as possible, then it becomes much more difficult for your opponent to counter with force, especially if you feed in rather lesser power. Faced with a lower, slower ball, he or she is obliged to initiate both speed and spin to play positively and get the ball over and down on your side of the table.

There are basically four different types of topspin trajectory which can be produced by varying the angle of the racket surface, the direction of the stroke, the time of hitting the ball and the method of feeding in force to the stroke.

  1. When the stroke movement is directed mainly upwards and slightly forwards, with the racket angle almost at right angles to the table surface, the ball will travel slowly in a high, lobbing trajectory, will bounce a little high off the table and then drop down very quickly as the topspin takes effect. This type of loop can be extremely effective if taken at a late timing and played very short (just over the net) or very long (on the base line) and is a useful weapon against certain styles of play (defenders for example).
  2. When the stroke movement is directed mainly forward and slightly upward, with the racket surface tilted forward, the ball will travel fast over a lower trajectory that is almost parallel with the table top and will fly forward over a relatively long distance after striking the opponent’s side. Such a loop drive type stroke is usually taken at an early timing point or before ‘peak’.
  3. When the stroke movement is directed forward and downward the ball will travel very fast and low over the net and dip on to the opponent’s side of the table. After bouncing it will ‘shoot’ forward and dip again, often throwing off the opponent’s timing. Such topspins are usually taken at a timing point from just before ‘peak’ to after.
  4. When the ball is given a sidespin element, it will fly in a trajectory that curves forward and sideways and after bouncing, dip away quickly in a downward and sidewards direction. Sidespin loops are usually taken at a later timing point.

The trajectories achieved in 3 and 4 are rather superior to those in 1 and 2, although they too may have their uses from time to time. Trajectories 1 and 4 are easier to use with a slower ball.

Technique Without Direction is an Empty Shell

Rowden Fullen (2003)

Many coaches seem to spend most of their lives focusing on the technical side. Sound technique in itself is a worthwhile aim but of course not the be all and end all – indeed many coaches do not seem to know where to go next after the technical phase is coming to an end as it surely does. In fact one aspect which most top coaches in Europe do agree on, is that the technical development should be completed by around last year cadet or at latest first year junior.

Technique of course forms the basis for the evolution of tactics and ultimately of style development. Unfortunately bad or incorrectly developed techniques can cripple the player’s future progress as he or she does not have the right tools to execute the required tactics or to fully cultivate the chosen style.

Good technique is nice, to be effective is better, to understand how you perform at your best and get optimum results is best of all. Each player has to understand how he or she wins as an individual and all individuals are different. It should therefore appear to be fairly obvious that direction along the right path for you the player is of some importance and that this needs close contact with coaches and other members of your support team and some considerable and on-going discussion. You the player must also have an input and in some aspects of coaching this should be more pronounced than others – for example only you know whether you feel comfortable or not with the way you play or how positive or aggressive you will choose to be under pressure.

Nor is there as some National Coaches seem to think ‘a style of play’ to which our players must conform if they wish to reach top level. This is a recipe for disaster for we start to move players away from areas where they have a natural talent and often into areas where they will only ever be mediocre. It is the natural talents of the player which we must direct into the appropriate channels for his or her style, so that the individual player realises full potential. We cannot effectively force players into styles of our choosing.

The content and method of training of players, especially girl players, assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought 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 top level in the women’s game requires a high ‘adaptive intelligence’ and this is not something which happens automatically – it is a capability which must be carefully nurtured and cultivated right from the early years.

It is of course the function of the coach to foster self-sufficiency so that in the long run his services are no longer required. However it is above all vital that with each and every player there is ‘continued progress’. Perhaps the single most critical aspect of the coach/player relationship is to promote an awareness that without progress there can only be stagnation. In the final analysis winning or losing is not really important – we learn from both – but the process of growing and evolving is.

The Mechanics of Direction

Rowden Fullen (2007)

Direction is about knowing where you are going and how to get there. It’s about being effective and knowing what is needed for you to play at your absolute best. It’s about continuous analysis and reassessment of your game so that you don’t take any wrong turnings on the way. It’s about asking the right questions – ‘Am I going in the right direction – for me and my end-style?’ ‘What is new in my game? Am I progressing, developing? What should I be working on to make my game more effective, to achieve maximum potential? How am I going to play as a senior?’

Unfortunately what often happens nowadays is that players are being removed, often at a much earlier age, from their own secure coaching environment with a great deal of individual attention and placed into national high performance squads where the majority of the training is group oriented. Sparring is a high priority but not individual development. Often these selected stars see their own performance and results steadily deteriorating while the not so good players who have managed to avoid the system continue to progress and often to overtake them.

The system of course in many countries is not and never was interested in individuals or only in the sense that it is quite prepared to destroy fifty or a hundred players to produce one European Champion. It is usually a question of the survival of the fittest and the vast majority will be used as the cannon-fodder to achieve this end and are expendable in the cause of developing the chosen few. Players entering the system or having dazzling opportunities presented to them must not be blinded to the harsh truths which are inherent in their acceptance.

Yet strangely enough when you talk to top coaches in Europe and discuss the way forward in terms of developing top talent and trying to compete with the Asians, more often than not the coaches stress the vital importance of individual development and that players should come to select high level training camps in Europe not with their National Trainers but in fact with their own personal coaches. They stress the importance of having the coaches on hand who are actually working on a day to day basis with the players. Coaches from countries as diverse as Ukraine, Germany, Slovak Republic, Sweden, Austria, Poland and Italy are all in favour of much higher involvement by the players’ own coaches in any European development programme.

Too many coaches even at National level seem to be biased too towards certain styles or to not fully understand others. Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of being encouraged to play a certain type of game, whether the influence is from coaches, media, other players or role models, is that there is a lessening of the individual input.

What should always be remembered is that all players are unique and they should be urged to accentuate and develop their own personal style and to do what they do best. To imitate others often means that you try to develop areas of your game where at best you will only ever be mediocre.

Some coaches even seem to think along the lines, ‘we’ in our country have ‘our own National style’. This too is a rather dangerous assumption as there is then a tendency to ignore potential which doesn’t fit in with the ‘National Plan’!