Technique, Tactics and Style

Rowden 2012

Many coaches will tell you that ‘Technique is the basis of all Tactics’. But just how does this work and how does style fit in as all players are individual and even players who are very similar will do things in different ways?

From a young age coaches should be assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their players and evaluating in some detail which ‘weapons’ will be required for the senior game. These weapons are the techniques, but obviously they will have to be tailored towards the needs of the player’s style. A defender will need differing techniques to a drive player or a looper. The next aspect is to consider whether or not there are certain basic elements on which these techniques are based. And in fact there are!

There are 5 basic elements of table tennis, which are at the core of every technique:
• Speed
• Power
• Spin
• Flight (of the ball)
• Change

Speed (which is the most important of the 5) covers all aspects and is the central core and the prime factor of development; it doesn’t just cover the ability to play fast and to control speed, but to think and to react swiftly, to adapt quickly, to move rapidly and with the right footwork patterns. It also covers the aspect of combining the other four elements at differing speeds.

Power adds force and potency to our playing style. This consists of the capability to apply power at various levels (how to use power), hard medium and soft, but also to absorb the opponent’s strength and to respond with the slower ball.

Spin gives stability to your game and puts the opponent’s control under test. In addition it should reflect the player’s aptitude to create differing levels of spin, at slow and fast speeds and to control, counter or even hit through the opponent’s spin.

The trajectory or flight path of the ball has many lessons for the player and is crucial in terms of accuracy and on-the-table consistency; the gyroscopic effects of modern topspin cannot be underestimated. Equally the trajectory of the shot will often highlight weaknesses/strengths in your own player’s game.

Finally change in all its forms is the heart and spirit of table tennis. This can be in respect of pace, fast and slow; length, short and long; spin, slower and quicker; trajectory, higher and slower arc and lower, flatter flight path, together with placement and angles. We impose our tactics fully if we win the battle of the change! And even against the world’s best, we win if we change first before the opponent is able to.

Top-level players will invariably be very good in at least three of these 5 elements.

It is important too to consider the 5 core elements of technique in tandem with the 5 timing positions. These are:
• Early rising
• Late rising
• Peak
• Early falling
• Late falling

Most of the world’s top players take the ball at the late rising timing point in modern table tennis, particularly if they are trying to win the point with power. This can of course differ dramatically dependent on style. Many defenders used the late falling timing years ago, now the tendency is to use early falling or even peak as this gives a faster, flatter return which causes more problems to the attacker. Women will often keep pressure on the opponent with early rising timing and quick over-the-table play until they can feed in power and win the point.

Power and spin assume more importance in the men’s game and speed and change more in the women’s. The harder you can hit the ball with a closed racket, the more topspin you will produce, so this suits the more powerful male game. Women don’t hit the ball as hard as men do, so they achieve less spin and have less on-the-table control (gyroscopic effect of the spin). It is speed and control of speed which is rather more important with women’s play and the ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement. Instead timing is vital as women drive much more – the power timing window in drive play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and as early as late rising.

Length also assumes much more importance with women’s play, as does placement. In the men’s game, power with strong topspin means that the ball accelerates after bouncing and leaves the opponent’s side of the table with a much flatter trajectory. The vast majority of men counter from a deeper position and give themselves time. From this deeper position it is of course much more difficult to vary angles. Men, more often than not, look to place the first opening ball (to the body for example) and once the rally deteriorates into control and counter-control back from the table then power and spin are the main elements.

In the women’s game almost all players assume a much closer-to-table position and it is rather easier to vary placement, long and short or to the angles and to vary speed. Because women have a closer position it is inevitable too that a bad length ball is easily smashed. It is crucial that women can spin short or long and not mid-table.

As a result women really need to open in a different way to men. The ability for example to open hard against the first backspin ball and not spin all the time is a vital asset. Even the way that women loop, if they open with spin, is critical. This should not be as hard and fast as in the men’s game for without the extreme spin that the men are capable of creating, the fast loop executed by women is more predictable and easier to block or to counter, particularly when the opponent is much closer to the table.

Women should be looking rather more to open with a slower ball, with finer touch, good spin and good length. More often than not this will create openings to drive or smash the next ball. Indeed rather than regarding topspin as an end in itself as the men do, women should look upon it as a weapon, a means to create openings from which they can win the point.

To develop full potential the prime criterion is that the player has full understanding of his/her own style of play as early as possible in the developmental stage. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention to the individual development of the player and to maximising personal strengths.

In all of the above we should not overlook the scientific factors of table tennis. With the bigger 40mm ball there is now less spin and spin is lost more rapidly through the air because of the larger surface area. This means that playing away from the table requires more physical strength from the player. Women trying to play topspin off the table are therefore at an immediate disadvantage.

In addition we must look to what may happen in the future. There is still a great deal of ‘boosting’ or ‘treating’ of rubbers of one kind or another, especially in the men’s game. If means are found by the ITTF to stop this then many players will be much less effective and the game will change. Equally once the new plastic ball is introduced the game may well change anyway and players will have to adapt to differing spin levels and bounces.