Doing the hard yards…
Many table tennis beginners don’t want to bother with training, preferring to play games instead. This is fine if you just want to have fun and hit the ball around a bit, but if you have bigger plans then you have to get to work on the practice table.
Once you have decided to train to speed up your improvement, a whole series of new questions appear. What type of training should you do? How often? How long? What strokes? What type of drills? And many others.
In this article I’ll answer these questions and more. To write about every aspect of training would fill a book (don’t worry, I’m working on it!), so I’ll keep things brief and to the point at this stage.
How Often Should You Train?
The answer to this question really depends on several things, including your level of commitment, desire to improve, amount of free time, availability of practice partners and facilities, and the costs involved. So one answer is not going to suit everybody.
I would recommend at least training once a week, and playing games once a week. Playing only once a week makes it difficult to improve quickly, since you are just not hitting enough balls. Two to three times a week is fine, but try to keep a ratio of at least 70% training to 30% games. Playing every day is probably a bit much, with 4 or 5 times a week ideal for rapid improvement. Be realistic with your schedule – unless you are planning a career as a professional player you are going to have other commitments competing for your time.
How Long Should You Train?
I wouldn’t recommend more than two hours for a training session – it’s pretty hard to maintain concentration for much longer than this. More frequent but shorter sessions of half an hour or an hour can work well, but you must then be sure not to waste any valuable table time.
What Type of Training Should You Do?
For most beginners, I would recommend spending as much training time as possible on the table hitting the ball. New players need to hit a lot of balls to groove in the correct technique, so the more time you spend on the table the better. You probably won’t need to worry about off the table training until you reach intermediate level, which is the first time that fitness will begin to affect your ability to play your best. Until then, you are more likely to be limited by your poor technique instead of physical conditioning.
Beginners should start with working on the ‘big six’ strokes for at least 80% of each training session. These strokes are the forehand counterhit, backhand counterhit, forehand push, backhand push, serve and serve return. Without a solid foundation in these strokes, you will struggle to make it to intermediate levels of play.
The other 20% of training time can be devoted to some ‘fun’ stuff, such as learning the forehand and backhand loop stroke, lobbing and smashing. As you move up towards the intermediate level the forehand and backhand loop strokes will be trained more often, but for now keep the focus on the ‘big six’ strokes.
Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude
Regardless of the fact that you and your partner may be opponents some day, remember that when you are training, you are working as a team so that you can both improve. When you are feeding the ball, concentrate on doing it as well as you can, so your partner is getting a good workout. Expect him to do the same for you, and politely ask him to try harder if he is not doing a good job. Good training partners are like gold – so remember to look after yours!
Make sure that you have the right attitude to training. You should be working and concentrating hard in training so that you can relax when you go out and play. Don’t goof around in training, and then try to go out and work hard when playing – by then it’s too late!
I’ve mentioned the subject of footwork for beginners elsewhere, so I’ll just remind you to use proper footwork in all of your training. It doesn’t matter what drill you are doing, or whether you are the feeder or the person working harder (feedee?), make sure that you are moving your feet correctly. This will help you master the correct footwork much faster.
Warm Up and Cool Down
Make sure that you have a warm up period before beginning training, to give your body a chance to prepare itself for the effort involved. Once you have finished training, a cool down period will allow your body to return to rest gradually, and help keep you from aching the next day. I’ll talk more about warming up and cooling down in the weeks to come.
What Type of Drills Should You Do?
A drill is simply a training routine used by two players, such as forehand topspin to forehand block, where one player is working on one part of his game (his forehand topspin), and the other player is working on another aspect of his game (his forehand block). In most cases, one player will be doing a more complex pattern than the other (i.e. the player hitting the forehand topspin might be hitting the ball from two different places). The player who is doing the simpler part of the routine (in this case, the person blocking the ball) is called the feeder. But just because he’s doing something simpler, it doesn’t mean that he is not training as well!
To start with, keep your training drills simple – there is plenty of time for more complex drills later. Keep the length of each drill around 5-10 minutes, otherwise you risk getting bored and losing concentration.
When planning your drills, it is easiest to think in terms of degrees of complexity. A simple drill has a low degree of complexity, while a difficult drill usually has a higher degree of complexity. I’ve included a separate explanation and examples of the degree of complexity concept here.
The idea behind drilling is to improve your technique while slowly increasing the amount of pressure you can handle. Simple drills are used to groove the correct technique, and then more complex drills are used to put you under pressure while you try to maintain good form. As you continue to improve, your drills will become more and more like match simulations.
Aim for an approximately 70-80% success rate when drilling. If you are making mistakes more often than that, the drill is too hard or you are trying to hit the ball too hard. If you are getting it right 95% of the time, the drill is probably too easy and you are not making the most efficient use of your time- you could be doing a more complex drill that would be of more benefit.
Always have a goal in mind when doing any drill, rather than just aimlessly going through the motions. Keep track of how well you are performing your drills, so that you know when it is time to move up to a harder drill.
When drilling, make sure that you are working on all parts of your game. If you ignore your weaknesses, they will always be vulnerable. Work hard at improving your weaknesses so that you do not have any areas that an opponent can exploit when playing you.
Having some variety when training is always a good thing. A variety of training partners will expose you to many different styles and techniques, and force you to adapt to different players. Varying your training exercises will allow you to approach each training session with eagerness, instead of getting bored with the same old routine.
Don’t overdo the variety though – you do need some amount of consistency to help you track your progress. If every training session is completely different, it can be hard to know whether you are improving or not, since you have nothing to compare your performance against. So keep a good balance between old favorites and new exercises.
Training is an essential part of any serious table tennis player’s routine. Hopefully the above tips will help point you in the right direction when it comes to beginning your own training routine. Remember that it is your own training routine, so if something works well for you, don’t worry about what anybody else thinks, just do it! It’s when you stop improving that you will want to be asking around for help. With intelligent use of these training basics, you should be able to go a long way before that happens.