Speed equals coordination. Author / Translator: Gunter Straub

Stefan Weigelt

Stefan Weigelt wrote his Doctoral thesis on ‘Motor speed in Sport’.

His main proposition is bold: He states that basically speed is coordination. Some coaches might be shocked by this statement because – at least in Germany – speed and co-ordination are conceptualized as two different animals. Speed usually is seen as a component of physical fitness and very often theoretically separated from coordination which is assigned to motor fitness.

Metaphorically speaking Stefan Weigelt wants to loosen the link between speed and strength on the one hand. And on the other hand speed is moved closer to the idea of a well-timed movement sequence. In fact Weigelt shows that the inner structure of speed is significantly different from other components of physical fitness such as strength or endurance. He confirms this hypothesis by measuring arm velocity within the field of table tennis. Young table tennis players, who took their sport very seriously, were observed under two different conditions: They were told to produce a forehand topspin as quickly as possible in shadow practice (i.e. just by imitating this stroke without hitting a ball) and at another time in multi-ball training.

One could suppose that in shadow practice there’s no need to care about ball flight and the right contact point. Therefore one could guess that arm velocity is much higher while doing shadow practice than in doing multi-ball training. But for almost all subjects the opposite is true: when playing multi-ball acceleration was much higher than when just imitating a stroke. It seems that the athlete needs the “feeding” of an incoming ball and the arm movement of the coach feeding it. For the player both these stimuli can function as points of orientation. In addition strokes were video taped and later on the technique was analysed. Weigelt found out that the shadow version of a forehand topspin was performed quite differently compared to the multi-ball version of this type of stroke.

This speaks for itself. Multi-ball training has been proven to be a functional practice instrument because it´s rather difficult for technical mistakes to slip in. Multi-ball training enables the player to work on his strokes in a manner which is close to the requirement which faces him in competition later on. Thus, speed training by using multi-ball is theoretically and experimentally backed up by Weigelt´s study. In German table tennis it is said that the rapidness of a shot can be trained by hitting 6 to 8 balls explosively in a row with a rest after the sequence has been done.

Shadow practice is on the other hand the ‘poor relation’ of this study so to speak. The usefulness of shadow practice as a means of increasing one´s velocity or improving one´s technique has to be questioned – at least in regard to high-performance sport (Weigelt 1995). Weigelt´s finding encourages me to think further. A shadow movement might be also ‘affected’ when an elastic rubber band or a light dumbbell is used for imitating topspin. So these classic methods of training motor speed seem to be somewhat less than perfect – methods based on resistance training in order to enhance motor speed by increasing explosive strength. In conclusion imitating strokes by the use of dumbbells and rubber bands has to be blacklisted too.
Let’s transfer this fundamental idea to leg velocity. The best instrument to practise rapid leg movement seems to be quick footwork drills with multi-ball. Sprinting on its own or leg movement without a ball (e.g. sidesteps or agility runs) are not bad in principle. But when we follow the logic so far explained these training forms are a number-two choice. They cannot function as an appropriate alternative to footwork practice with multi-ball. I even would be quite cautious in using weighted rackets and weight vests in order to practise speed in spite of the fact that both tools could be used in multi-ball training. Indeed a player might feel inspired by Weigelt´s work to make contrasting experiences by using their ordinary bat and a weighted racket in an alternating mode. The scientist from Germany tested this special method of alternative training by means of elementary wrist movements. He found positive results but the improvement observed wasn´t very lasting and the amount of enhancement was not higher than the advance arising from conventional speed training (without additional loads).

Although Stefan Weigelt concentrates on the coordinative aspects of speed, this does not mean that muscular strength has no impact on motor speed. In 1980 a man named Dietmar Schmidtbleicher wrote his dissertation about the relationship of maximum power and motor speed. By doing this he was taking up a cudgel for the fight against the common myth that strength training makes you slow. Schmidtbleicher´s study includes two more interesting results: Power does even make sense for an athlete who only has to quickly overcome small amounts of resistance. And: Power training (with heavy weights) does improve one´s velocity more efficiently than explosive strength training (with smaller loads). Thus, people who work on their maximum power seem to be right on their way to enhance motor speed. But after all we mustn’t forget that we have to incorporate this strength enhancement accurately into the dynamics of arm and leg movement while training at the table.

Considering this close connection of power and speed another question comes to my mind: Wouldn´t it be better to work with higher intensity while reducing the number of repetitions when we think of speed training in our clubs? Klaus Wirth and his colleagues recommend sets of 10 to 12 reps for those table tennis players who want to work on their power (2006). I guess creativity is in demand when we look at our training facilities. Uncommon exercises are needed, for example pull-ups, dips at the parallel bars or donkey calf raises (with a partner at the back). And exercises which are somewhat old-fashioned must be revised or made more difficult (e.g. push-ups with legs higher than the upper body or one-legged squats). So what is left in my basket at the end of this article? Well, it remains the idea that motor speed in our sport should not be trained by just imitating table tennis-specific arm or leg movements (with or without elastic or dumbbells) but ought to be trained by methods which have been proven as scientifically valid – that is multi-ball practice + power training.