How do you do that vodoo when you reglue?
What is Speed Gluing / Boosting?
First of all, let’s look at what table tennis players mean when we talk about speed gluing and boosting. In simple terms, speed gluing is the process of attaching the rubber to the blade by putting a new layer (or layers) of glue on the rubber’s sponge (and usually the blade as well). This fresh glue then increases the speed and spin that the rubber is capable of producing for a short period of time, usually a few hours. After this time the effect wears off and the rubbers will return to close to normal. The rubbers can then be removed from the blade and reglued to achieve the same speed glue effect again.
Since the speed glue ban of 2008, most (if not all) professional players have shifted to using booster instead of speed glue. Whereas speed glue originally contained a high amount of VOCs which produced the extra speed and spin (just before the ban, there were some speed glues that were VOC free), booster does not contain anywhere near the same amount of VOCs, and generally is an oil-based product. Note that boosters do not have a glue component, so after boosting a rubber, you still need glue to attach it to your blade. Another thing to note is that the effect of most boosters lasts a lot longer than the old speed glues, even up to a month!
Opinions vary as to whether boosting is as effective as speed gluing. The general consensus is that it is pretty close if not the same, and without the risk of detection. Pretty much the only way players are caught boosting these days is if they accidentally put on so much booster that they expand the sponge too much, making it exceed the maximum thickness allowed by the ITTF. (Some players have reportedly got around this problem by slightly hollowing out the surface of their blades, leaving a thin rim around the blade to make it unnoticeable when the rubber is attached. Then they don’t put booster on the part of the sponge that goes around the edge.)
Advantages of Speed Gluing / Boosting
This process of removing the rubbers and regluing them every few hours sounds like a lot of trouble, doesn’t it? Why would anybody bother? Surely the effect of speed glue can’t be all that important?
Well, speed glue was probably one of the most important innovations in table tennis in the last 40 years or so. Up until the speed glue ban of 2008, almost every male professional player used speed glue in competition (nowadays they use booster, which the current ITTF testing devices cannot detect). The increase in spin and speed that speed glue or booster produces allows modern players to hit the ball harder, while at the same time producing more topspin to allow the ball to dip and still hit the table.
How can this be? Imagine this scenario. The ball is at the level of the playing surface. If the player wants to hit the ball with no spin but still have it land on the table at the other side of the net, he has to use gravity to make the ball fall on the table. So the player cannot hit the ball very hard if he does not want the ball to go over the end of the table completely. If he puts on a little bit of topspin on the ball, he can hit the ball a bit harder and the topspin will actually pull the ball down onto the other side of the table. If he puts on a lot of topspin, he can hit the ball very hard and still have the ball strike the table on the other side as the topspin pulls the ball down.
Using speed glue has been estimated to increase the spin on the modern 40mm ball by up to 30%. This may not be entirely accurate, but the fact remains that a player can put more spin on the ball with a speed glued or boosted rubber, allowing him to hit harder than normal and still have the ball land on the other side of the table.
This is only one side of the coin. The other half is that the speed glue also increases the speed of the rubber, allowing the player to hit harder as well. So the player can actually hit the ball harder with speed glue, and also have more spin to still bring the ball down onto the table. This is a very big advantage, and this is why almost all advanced players who attack use speed glue.
The increased speed and spin also allows those players who are not as strong as others to still hit the ball with ferocious power and spin. I can personally attest to playing 13 year olds of short height and small frame who can hit very nearly as hard as adults playing in the professional leagues. The use of speed glue has narrowed the gap between those players who are physically strong and those who are not, especially in the upper body.
Improved Control – Sometimes
Another advantage of speed glue is that it actually tends to improve a player’s control of the ball in most strokes that involve spinning the ball. The speed glue allows the player to put more of his own spin on the ball, making it easier to ignore the effect of his opponent’s spin. This can often be seen in modern looping rallies, where both players are reversing their opponent’s spin by topspinning at each other. Another good example is in the return of serve, where aggressive loop returns are made easier since the speed glued rubber makes it easier to ignore the opponent’s spin when looping the ball.
Improved Control – All the Time
There is a point at which attempting to hit the ball any harder means you will lose your good form, and make more mistakes, as you put too much strain on your muscles and nervous system. Speed glue allows you to hit harder with your best technique, which can be helpful in three ways:
- Imagine your best match play technique means that you hit 80% of your forehand loops on the table. With speed glue, you can keep the same technique, and you will be hitting harder and with more spin due to the glue, and you will probably get a increase in your consistency as well, to say maybe 85%, due to the extra control from the increased spin.
- Because the speed glue increases your speed and spin, you could instead decide to slow down your stroke a fraction to allow better technique, up to the point where you are hitting just as fast as when you did not use speed glue. But now you are hitting with better technique, so your consistency should increase to somewhere more like 90%.
Of course, you could also steer a course somewhere in between these two examples, allowing slightly better technique and slightly quicker and spinnier shots.
- Because speed glue increases the speed and spin of your strokes, you can also use a shortened stroke to still attack with power and spin, even when you are unable to use your normal full swing. This can be a tremendous advantage when you do not have time to swing fully, such as when an opponent has made a strong attack to your playing elbow. A modern professional will simply sway his body to the side and use a shortened counterhit or reloop to return the ball with an amazing amount of power and spin.
These are the major advantages of speed gluing and boosting. But surely there must be a downside? Well, yes there is, but it’s certainly not as bad as the advantages are good. I’ll discuss the downsides of speed gluing and boosting below.
Disadvantages of Speed Gluing / Boosting
When you speed glue, your rubbers will wear out faster. This is due to a couple of reasons, these being:
- the constant removal and reattachment of the rubber helps to break the little cells inside the sponge, causing it to lose its bounce; and
- the speed glue that is absorbed into the sponge can sometimes damage the original glue holding the pimples to the sponge, cause them to come apart or ‘bubble’, making the rubber illegal.
It has been estimated that a normal unglued rubber can withstand more than a hundred strikes of the ball in the same place on the rubber before needing replacement, while a speed glued rubber can only last for about 25 strikes before it is worn out. I can’t vouch for whether this is completely accurate, but as someone who has speed glued many times in the past, I can say from personal experience that my speed glued rubbers lasted about a third as long as those rubbers I did not speed glue.
Note that this is much less of a problem with booster, since the effect of booster lasts much longer, meaning that you don’t need to constantly remove and reattach the rubbers. Also, booster doesn’t seem to weaken the bond between the pimples and sponge as much, so bubbling of rubbers has become less common in recent years.
In fact, these days many players use booster to prolong the life of their rubbers. Many modern rubbers are factory tuned, meaning that the manufacturer puts some VOCs or booster in the rubber during production, giving a catapult effect. When this effect wears off, players apply booster, giving the rubber the catapult effect again, so the rubber plays like almost new!
As we’ll see in later parts of this guide, back in the days of speed gluing it was fairly normal for players to remove the rubbers from their bat before putting them away for the day – to avoid stretching the rubbers and wearing them out prematurely. This meant that they needed to glue their rubbers onto their bat whenever they wanted to play. The speed glue effect only lasted a certain time as well (typically 3-4 hours), so there were times when the effect was beginning to wear off and they still had matches to play. If they didn’t have time to reglue their bat, they either had to play with a bat that was losing its extra power and spin, or have a second bat ready to go – which also means extra expense in gluing up two bats at once.
Again, with booster lasting so much longer, this is much less of a problem since players can boost and then leave the rubber on their racket for many weeks before needing to boost again.
Decreased Control – Sometimes
When using speed glue or booster, you will lose some control when you attempt to play softer strokes that do not involve you spinning the ball. When you try to float the ball, the increased speed that you get is not countered by the increased spin, and so you will have a loss of control.
Increased Speed of the Ball – But What About You?
The increased speed that you get from speed gluing or boosting can also be a disadvantage at times, if you are not careful. It is very easy to get caught up in enjoying the extra pace, and forget about whether your reflexes and footwork are fast enough to cope with it. Remember, if you hit the ball 20% faster to your opponent, the ball will get to him that much faster, and the ball will come back to you off his racket faster as well – this means that you have less time to get ready for your next shot!
So unless your footwork and reflexes also improve, you may actually play worse against an opponent who is capable of returning the faster balls that you are hitting! It takes a very self-disciplined person to realize that this is happening in a match and decide to slow down his shots to compensate.
Because of the advantages in using speed glue or booster, some players come to rely on the catapult effect to help compensate for flaws in their technique or footwork. As they start to rise in level, these players will find that their opponents will also be speed gluing or boosting, and will be able to take advantage of these flaws. So it is important to keep using good technique and footwork when boosting, in preparation for those more advanced players. Remember, at the top, all players are boosting or speed gluing – so you will be on a level playing field. You can’t afford to allow your opponent the sort of edge that your poor technique or footwork will give him.
Human beings being what we are, we don’t always do thing exactly the same way twice. This means that every time you reglue or boost, the effect will be slightly different. Provided that you are fairly consistent in how you do it, this will not be important most of the time – but there will always be that odd occasion (usually at the worst possible time!), when you reglue or boost and the rubbers feel completely different to normal. You will have to decide very quickly whether to try and reglue or boost again, and possibly make things worse, reglue or boost a backup bat, or try to play on with a bat that now feels very unfamiliar. This can be a tough decision to make when you are in an important tournament and the clock is ticking. Although with length of time booster lasts, this is less of a problem these days.
There is also the matter of your health to consider. Table tennis speed glues used to certain VOCs which can be hazardous to our health when inhaled. Although it should be pointed out that just before the speed glue ban, manufacturers had come out with VOC free speed glue, most of the players (mainly amateurs) who use speed glue these days are using glue that contains VOCs. While people will argue from both sides as to whether the risks are significant or not, it is still something to be aware of.
Despite the cons, almost all professional players and most advanced amateur players boost their table tennis bats, simply because the advantages heavily outweigh the disadvantages, especially in the case of modern boosters, who have all the pros of speed glue with much less of the cons. But what if you are not a professional or advanced amateur – should you boost or speed glue?
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