There are two good reasons for you reading this article.
The first is that you were on our site, saw the link, and thought to yourself: “Sure, these guys seem to know what they’re talking about. Let’s see if I can learn anything to help improve my chances of thrashing Ben, that insufferable office champ.”
I dunno… in my head insufferable office champions are always called Ben. Or Jane. Or something else monosyllabic. Like their parents were too busy teaching them how to be good at sports to come up with a better name.
The second reason is that you’re so tired of having your ass handed to you by Jane, that you took the time out of your busy day to Google: “How on earth can I get better at Table Tennis and stop being humiliated in front of my colleagues?” and subsequently stumbled onto our article.
Either way, welcome. I hope you enjoy our attempt at imparting some ping pong wisdom your way.
Since there’s no way of knowing your skill level, nor that of your nemesis, we’re going to take a logical approach with this article. We’ll assume you know absolutely nothing beyond how to hit the ball with the correct part of the racket. If you’re looking for some more advanced knowledge, feel free to skip over whatever sections your current skill level renders redundant.
We’ll start at the beginning – working our way through the normal trajectory of skill improvement, continuously stacking new knowledge on top of what you just learned. Although it’s not absolutely mandatory that you know one technique perfectly before moving onto the next one, I do recommend this approach. No one’s gonna show up at your house demanding you prove your knowledge. Sadly, we don’t have those kinda resources here at Above House.
What should be pretty obvious is that simply reading about how to get really good at table tennis isn’t going to make you good at table tennis. I tried this. Many times. With many different topics. I can confirm it doesn’t work. Ever.
What I’m saying is that it’s pretty important for you to supplement reading this article with practice. Lots and lots of practice. I’m sure, if I had the inclination, I could find scientific research to back up my claim that one gets better by practicing as much as by absorbing knowledge. Sadly I don’t. It’s just common sense. Especially when it comes to learning skills involving muscle memory.
So, read the theory, then put it to use by practicing. A lot. Practice until your arms bleed. Practice until you can’t feel the top half of your body anymore. Practice until… you get the picture.
If you do this, it’s a matter of time before you stride back to your desk after your office’s customary lunchtime ping pong tournament. Sweaty, proud, pumped. Exhilarated by the knowledge that you’ve toppled Ben/Jane from their throne. Certain that you’ll defend your newly acquired title from anyone foolish enough to attempt doing the same to you.
Let’s do this.
Position Your Body Correctly
Like any physical structure, you can only build on something that has a solid foundation. Similarly, you can only build a great table tennis technique on a foundation that’s simultaneously stable and flexible. In case it’s not clear enough, I’m talking about your body and how to keep it in an ideal position throughout a point.
Let’s start with the base of your foundation: your feet and stance. Essentially you want to be as low and wide as possible. Crouch down at the waist as far as is comfortable for you. Keep your knees slightly bent. Your feet should be 1.5 shoulder lengths apart from each other. That means that both of your feet should extend a tad beyond their corresponding shoulder. Your “weaker” foot should be slightly closer to the table than the stronger. Both of your arms should be extended out in front of your body.
This is the generic stance when receiving a serve and is also called the “ready stance”. At all times after playing a shot, you should get back into this position as quickly as possible. It’s the optimal stance to play a large variety of shots. It’s also the best stance from which to reposition your body, should you need to.
As hard as this might seem, you’ll need to remain as relaxed as possible throughout a point while in this position. If you tense up and hold your breath, you won’t be making use one of the main benefits the ready position gives you: flexibility. So despite how awkward this stance may seem to you initially, get comfortable with it. Don’t worry about how you look – you’re playing a game that’s essentially a miniaturized version of tennis. If you don’t look like a dork, you’re doing it wrong.
Use a Grip that’s Ideal for Your Playing Style
Yeah I may be getting ahead of myself here. The chances of you already having developed a “playing style” is unlikely. Be that as it may, knowing the different types of grip, and using one of them correctly, is one of the first steps to becoming a better player. Hence, this section appearing as early as it does.
There are two main categories of racket grips. The first is the penhold grip. You’ll often see Asian players making use of this complicated technique. Essentially, you’re holding the top of the racket handle, like a pen, between your thumb and forefinger. I have three words to say about the penhold grip: “Don’t use it”.
Seriously, if you’re Googling and reading articles on how to become better at table tennis, you’re not ready to attempt this grip. It falls way outside of the scope of what we’re trying to teach here. You’re far better off keeping things simple and using a more accessible, but no less successful grip.
Which brings us to the shakehand grip. This is, by far, the most common grip and the one I recommend you choose. I also recommend that you stick to using this grip. Use it until you become some kind of ping pong god, and an uncontrollable compulsion urges you to make life difficult for yourself.
Let’s talk a little more about the shakehand grip. Essentially, you’ll be holding the racket in the way that’s likely to feel the most for your hand. Your thumb and index fingers will be touching some part of the blade, with your remaining three fingers curled around the handle itself.
There are two variations of the shakehand grip. The first is the deep shakehand, which sees the thumb resting high up on the blade rubber. This grip is ideal for beginners and results in a very stable wrist position. The main trade-off is a slight loss of flexibility in the wrist.
The shallow shakehand hold is very similar to the deep shakehand, with the exception that the thumb is not resting on the blade itself, but rather extended across its base. This is ideal for more intermediate players, and allows greater flexibility and a wider range of shots. In this case, the trade-off is a little bit of power.
Use whichever of these two shakehand grips appeals to you most. Make a conscious decision to practice with both for a long period of time. Make sure that you’re noticing the pros and cons of each grip before making a decision on which is best for you.
Do Footwork Exercises
You’re never going to be traversing enormous distances during a table tennis match. What you will do, however, is move into a massive variety of positions within a very small section of real estate, and you’re going to be doing so within a ridiculously short space of time.
Table tennis moves at a lightning-fast pace. Getting yourself into the right position to play the ideal shot is undoubtedly one of the most important skills that a novice player needs to learn. Sadly, there isn’t much that can be taught in the way of theory when it comes to honing this skill. Only a coach who’s able to watch you play and notice mistakes you’re making in your positioning can do this.
What I can do, however, is recommend exercises that condition your body and mind to the movements needed to be a successful player. Great footwork is an essential part of stroke-play since you’ll never be able to play the right stroke successfully from an incorrect position.
These exercises help you build the stamina and muscle memories necessary to move with speed and economy during a match. Take them seriously and you’re laying another slab in the foundation on which you’re building your future as a ping pong champ.
So, to this end, I recommend the following two drills that were compiled by two Chinese table tennis coaches. These drills are intense, and they may seem like overkill to some of you, but trust me on this, doing them frequently helps improve your game immeasurably.
- Table Tennis Footwork Training Drill by World Ping Pong
- “Ladder Drills”: Chinese Table Tennis Footwork Training Methods by EmRatThich
As a bonus, here are two videos showing professional players training their footwork:
- Table Tennis Exercises to Improve Footwork by EmRatThich
- Improve your Table Tennis Skills Advanced : Footwork by Jean-Philippe Gatien
Master the Four Basic Table Tennis Strokes
Right, it’s time to move on to actually hitting the ball. In table tennis there are four strokes that form the fundamentals of stroke play. We’ll go through each of them individually in this section.
These are the most-used strokes in table tennis. Mastering them is one of the most critical steps towards playing a consistent game that avoids a player’s biggest enemy: the unforced error. This refers to strokes that causes you to lose a point through nothing that your opponent did. They’ve dished up a perfectly returnable shot, but because you’re unfamiliar with the basics of stroke play, you’re gone and hit the ball into the net, or failed to make it bounce on their side of the net.
Stroke 1: The Forehand Drive
The first thing to know about the forehand drive is that it uses a minimal amount of topspin. It’s NOT a spin shot. It’s essentially an attacking stroke that uses the entire arm, as opposed to a wrist flick.
Play this stroke with a sideways stance with your body close to the table. Keep it simple. Stroke your arm towards the ball and slightly upwards, aiming for the spot you want the ball to land. Your body should rotate naturally along with your arm’s swing. This is a full-body shot and the more comfortable you get with pivoting your hips while playing it the more accuracy you’ll achieve.
The racket should be held at a slight angle, pointing downward, to impart the bit of topspin I mentioned before. Don’t overdo this aspect of the shot. Remember that topspin is used here purely to achieve accuracy in placement, not to bamboozle your opponent.
The purpose of the forehand drive is to place the ball exactly where you want it. Successfully playing the forehand drive is to prioritize consistency and accuracy. Your goal when playing this shot is to successfully return the ball exactly where you want it to bounce on your opponent’s side of the table. You want to prevent your opponent from playing an attacking stroke back at you using intelligent placement. You want to create the opportunity for them to either set up a winning shot for you, or to make an unforced error.
Remember that your goal with this shot is simply to land the ball where you want it. Accuracy and placement is more important here than speed. With time, your ability to impart more velocity onto the ball with your forehand drive will come. Let that happen organically. Don’t force this.
Most players are able to play with more accuracy using forehand shots. Play this shot when the ball traveling towards your forehand area, but also get comfortable with positioning yourself to play it when the ball is struck directly at your body. Attempt to prioritize this shot over a backhand.
Always attempt to hit the ball at the very top of its bounce arc. The higher the ball is off the table when you strike it, the more space you have to aim at on your opponent’s side of the table. It also gives you more room to hit the ball harder and to create a bit of topspin.
Always try to make the ball land as close to your opponent’s baseline as possible. Too much of a downward angle will land the ball close to the net – giving your opponent plenty of room to play a winner and end the point.
It’s not possible to play a forehand drive against a short ball (when the ball bounces very close to the net on your side of the table). In these cases the ball simply won’t achieve enough of an arc for you to play the shot properly. Also, once you’re able to read spin, never play it against a backspin shot – you’ll only end up hitting the ball into the net or your side of the table. Which is super embarrassing and very frustrating.
Stroke 2: The Backhand Drive
The technical differences between backhand and forehand shots are so pronounced that this stroke can’t simply be described as: “the backhand equivalent of the forehand drive”. The purpose of the two strokes are exactly the same, though. You’re playing an attack shot that prizes accuracy over spin and power.
The major difference between these two shots is that you’re not going to be rotating your body as much with the backhand stroke. This is more of a “push” shot than it is a swinging shot like the forehand drive. Your body should be slightly squarer than with the forehand drive and there’s less of a weight transfer from your back foot to the front. The racket travels from close to your body in a forward and slightly upward motion. Again, the blade should be slightly closed to impart that little bit of topspin you’re going to need for placement.
Think of the backhand drive as a shot played predominantly using your forearm’s movement away from your body. Remember that you’re not trying to hit a winner here. Over-extending your arm because you want to hit the ball too hard will cause you problems with placement and may even result in an unforced error.
Play this shot only if the ball is very much in your backhand hitting zone. As mentioned above, if the ball is traveling directly at your body, attempt to reposition yourself for a forehand drive. This is a difficult skill to learn, but the payoff is huge. Most novice and intermediate players play with much greater accuracy with forehand shots.
Stroke 3: The Backhand Push
Push shots are used when drives aren’t possible because of the ball bouncing too close to your side of the net. They’re employed against “short balls” that will bounce twice on your end of the table unless you intervene.
Obviously, there will be instances where short balls are played with so much power that they’ll bounce high enough for you not to use a push, but rather get the smash out to end the point. These types of short balls are always an error on your opponents part and should be punished.
However, for the sake of describing the push shot, we’ll be assuming that the ball was played to deliberately bounce twice on your end of the table, forcing you closer to the net.
Another major difference between drives and pushes is that the latter are played with backspin rather than topspin. Again, as with the drive, your main priority is accuracy and placement rather than generating a ton of speed and spin. You’re using a push to place the ball in such a way that your opponent doesn’t have the opportunity to play an overly attacking shot back at you.
Despite being number three in our list of the basic table tennis strokes, the backhand push is one of the easiest shots to play. It’s also one of the most important shots to master since many good players will often deliberately vary the types of shots they play at you.
Out of necessity, to play the backhand push successfully, you need to position your body as close to the baseline as possible. You’ll never be able to generate a big backswing so forget about power here. The only way to generate speed from this position is to flick your wrist, but that’s a shot we’ll cover in another article. Right now, we’re focusing on the basics of returning the ball consistently and with enough accuracy to prevent a winner or create room for an unforced error.
The stroke is played with a forward horizontal movement of the forearm, with the blade open towards the ceiling to create a little bit of backspin. Your body should be square, facing the table front-on and your free arm should be pointing towards the ball.
As with all the basic strokes, aim to hit the ball at the top of its bounce arc. Also, try to hit it with the ball with the side of the blade closest to the ball to help create backspin.
As opposed to drive strokes, you should prioritize the backhand push over its forehand counterpart when the ball is traveling towards your body. Advice I gave earlier to get yourself into position to play a forehand drive over a backhand drive doesn’t apply here.
Stroke 4: The Forehand Push
The forehand push is used only when a short ball is traveling directly into your forehand hitting zone. Due to the nature and context of playing a push shot, using a backhand stroke is easier and more effective than a forehand.
Unlike the backhand push, there’s going to be more body movement with the forehand push. Your hips will rotate and there will be a slight transfer of weight from your back foot to the front. For that reason, you’re going to need to get yourself into a side-facing position when playing the forearm push, rotating your body slightly as you extend your arm forwards. What makes a relatively challenging shot to learn is the fact that you’ll also have to be “slicing” the ball with a downward movement of the blade to counter and impart backspin.
This is also a shot that has to be learned because it’s often the only option you have against a back-spinning ball. Attempting to hit one of these with topspin will always result in an unforced error. If you see your opponent hitting the ball with backspin, wide towards your forehand zone, your only option will be to play this slightly difficult shot.
Since most decent players know that the forehand push is a tough shot to master, they’ll often put you in a position where you’ll have to recognize the need for it and to execute it correctly. That makes it an essential stroke to master if your aim is to take your table tennis game to the next level.
The Basics of the Serve
Serving in table tennis is governed by some pretty specific rules. We covered these in our article on the rules of table tennis, but for the sake of keeping you focused here, I’ll give you a quick summary. Listed below are the rules that relate only to HOW you’re allowed to serve, I’ve deliberately omitted those that just relate to gameplay.
- The ball must be tossed 6 inches into the air before it’s struck.
- The ball must be tossed from an open palm.
- The ball must be tossed and struck from above and behind the server’s baseline.
- The server’s free arm must not obscure the opponent’s view of the ball.
- The server can strike the ball in any way they wish, as long as it’s with the designated hitting surface of the blade.
- After serving, the ball must bounce once on the server’s side of the table and once on the receiver’s side.
Whichever techniques you adopt as you expand your service repertoire have to fall within the restrictions of these rules. Some of these restrictions, especially the first two, place a lot of technical pressure on new players; learning how to serve is much easier when you can do it directly out of a closed hand.
There’s a lot to learn here for a novice player. That’s why I suggest first learning how to just do a legal serve without any spin or speed. Practice how to simply get the ball to bounce on your side and then on your opponent’s side of the table while obeying the service rules. Practice this until you can do it in your sleep. This will form the foundation of what will become a more rounded service game.
The Two Basic Serves
Once you can land a legal serve without making an unforced error every single time you have the ball in your hand, you can start practicing and mastering the first two “basic serves”. If your intention is to, as the article states, “raise your game to the next level”, I don’t recommend ever doing a standard serve in a match. A decent opponent will either play a shot that immediately puts you on the defense, or they’ll end the point with an unplayable smash. There’s a certain skill level where you can count on the latter happening far more frequently than the former.
I’m discussing two service types because it’s important to mix things up during a match. If you master only one serve, your opponent will become used to returning it. Crucially, you’ll lose the benefit of striking the ball first and forcing your opponent into a defensive stroke.
Serve 1: The Fast Serve
The purpose of the fast serve is to limit the amount of time your opponent has to position themselves for an aggressive return. The rules of table tennis state that a serve can be made to any part of the opponent’s side of the table. By mixing your target zone up, and doing so with a serve that moves fast enough, you’re going to catch your opponent off-guard. As I said before, you’re hoping for either an unforced error or a defensive stroke in return.
What this implies is that you’ll not only need to execute the fast serve perfectly every time, you’ll also have to be able to mix up your target “zones” without making mistakes. This sounds difficult because it is difficult. Fortunately, you don’t need an opponent to practice serving. Take advantage of this. Find yourself an open table, invest in a box full of balls and practice. Practice relentlessly. Do this and you’re guaranteed to see results.
Right, with the pep-talk out of the way, on to the technicalities of the fast serve.
Firstly, and this will be a challenge to implement consistently, you have to let the ball drop as low as possible before striking it. Do not hit the ball at the top of its arc. At the beginning you’re going to make many errors. Don’t be disheartened. You’ll find your groove here quickly if you practice frequently enough. Let the ball drop further than feels comfortable for you. Initially, rather err on the side of letting it drop too far than striking it too soon.
Secondly, and this kinda goes without saying, you need to hit the ball hard. Get your body into it. Keep your stance side-on, transfer your weight onto your front foot, and pivot slightly at the waist.
Lastly, when hitting the ball with speed, your biggest challenge is to not hit it too “long” and miss your opponent’s side of the table altogether. This is avoided by making the ball bounce as close to your own baseline as possible. I can’t overstate the importance of this technique. To avoid an unforced service error with the fast serve, you have to give the ball enough time to drop down onto the opponent’s side of the table.
Serve 2: The Backspin Serve
Imparting extreme backspin on a serve, to the extent that it even bounces back towards your own side of the table, is called a “ghost serve”. We’re not going to be going there in this section. Sure, this is a service technique that advanced players can employ effectively, but it’s important that we make a distinction between the normal backspin serve and the ghost serve.
Your aim with the backspin serve is to make your opponent move forward towards the net, catch them off-guard, and force them to play a defensive backspin return. This serve is particularly effective if you can successfully mix it up with the fast serve. Returning these two different serves requires different techniques and body positions. Force your opponent out of their comfort zone. This is critical if you want to take full advantage of having the first strike in a point.
Performing a successful backspin serve consistently is also not an easy thing to learn. My little motivational speech from earlier applies here, too. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t let failure stop you from mastering this serve. Always bear in mind that most novice opponents have no idea how to return a back-spinning serve with an attacking stroke. If you can consistently execute it, you’ve got a seriously dangerous weapon in your arsenal.
When you successfully execute the backspin serve, you’ll land the ball so close to the opponent’s side of the net that it will bounce twice before they can intervene. This is a very difficult thing to do and not what you should have in mind when you first start practicing it. It should be your end goal, however.
Let’s get into the details. How do you perform a backspin serve?
Essentially, you’re going to be performing a forearm slice underneath the ball as it travels downward from the toss. Hit the ball with an open blade that’s heavily angled towards the ceiling.
Creating the right amount of racket speed is critical here. You want to make the ball bounce as close as possible to both sides of the net; something that’s only possible if it’s spinning backwards towards you. Initially, you should be generating this speed by straightening your elbow at the right time. As you get more adept at this technique, you can create even more speed and spin by flicking your wrist forward towards the ball as you make contact with it.
Lastly, it’s important to know that the faster the ball is traveling as it makes contact with your racket, the more spin you’re going to be generating. The best way to do this is to toss the ball as high as possible and to hit it at the last possible microsecond, just like with the fast serve.
Something to bear in mind when performing the backspin serve is what I discussed earlier in the “push shot” section of the article. Remember that most players find performing a forehand push more difficult than a backhand push. Since a push shot is the only way most novice players know how to return a back-spinning ball, you’ll want to take advantage of this by aiming for their forehand hitting zone. This gives you a slight edge and will minimize the chances of a well-placed return that catches you off-guard.
Returning a Serve
The key to a successful return is in recognizing the type of serve you’re facing. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you’re playing against opponents of an equal skill level and that you’re mostly going to come up against fast or back-spinning serves.
When you’re able to “read” the serve early enough, you’ll be able to position your body correctly and know whether to play a drive (against a fast serve) or a push (against a back-spinning serve).
Once you’re able to do this, your next step is to focus on the placement of your return. Your goal must be to land the ball in a section of the table that forces your opponent into playing a defensive stroke back at you. The only way to do this is with practice. Reading the position of your opponent’s body and making it as hard for them to reposition themselves is something that takes time and a huge amount of practice. For now, all you need to do is have this in the back of your mind.
Occasionally you’ll come up against an opponent who can serve a side-spinning ball. Fortunately these aren’t too difficult to spot, given that the sideways movement of the racket in the opponent’s hand as they serve is very visible. Fortunately, if you’re working on everything I discussed in this article, you already know how to combat this serve.
Inmost cases, a standard side-spinning serve can be returned with a top-spinning drive stroke. The only difference is that you’ll have to aim for the section of the table directly opposite to the direction the ball is spinning to. I recommend making friends with someone who’s mastered this serve and get them to help you practice these returns.
Practice and Keep Your Cool
It feels almost redundant to say this, given how many times I’ve mentioned the importance of practice. I’ll say it again though: if you practice these techniques frequently, you will grow as a player. Your game will improve. That’s a promise.
What’s also critical to raising your game to a higher level is to avoid the frustration that so often accompanies learning a new skill. Keep your cool. Always. Think about each failure, each lost point, not as an obstacle towards improvement, but as a lesson learned.
If you maintain a healthy mindset about losing a point, you’ll start perceiving these moments not as failures, but as opportunities.
There’s a large psychological component to becoming good at something, and if you’re intent on becoming a great table tennis player, you have to get comfortable with the mental side of the game.
You’re going to make mistakes. A lot of them. So many that you’ll feel like you’re never going to escape the bottom-tier of your office or club leagues. This isn’t the truth. The truth is that practice and a healthy mental attitude will, without a doubt, see your game improve over time, regardless of your natural “talent”.
You can do this. See you at the tables.
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