www.tomveatch.com / Table Tennis

Greetings, Friend!

I know you. You play ping pong. You love ping pong. You might be pretty good at it. You might even be so good that you consistently destroy everybody you have ever played. You came to the club with a sporting-goods-store paddle, expecting to have some fun and measure yourself against the next level. Maybe you had to wait a long time for a table. Then, maybe, you got pounded, 11-1, 11-4, 11-3. You aren't sure what happened, except that you didn't like it. And you're about to go away and never come back.

I wrote this for you. Please read it. I think you will discover that I am your friend. Because I have been in your shoes, and I say:

Welcome to the Club

We are not what you are used to. We play Extreme Table Tennis. We welcome you. Few of us may say so out loud, but we are delighted to have you among us. We invite you to stay and to become one of us.

We want you to know what it's like, this game we play. How can we explain? Competitive table tennis has become an "Extreme" sport, so very different from the garage game we all grew up playing. It's a little like comparing Major League Baseball ("MLB") to T-ball. We could even call it Extreme Table Tennis: "XTT".

Actually, comparing baseball and pingpong is worthwhile. The core of baseball is the duel between the pitcher and the batter. And a pitching duel becomes very similar to pingpong after making 4 changes:

What's left? Similarity: But the new sport of modern, Extreme Table Tennis is a lot less like T-Ball than it is similar to Major League Baseball.

What both MLB and XTT boil down to is that fundamental and personal competition between pitcher and batter, where in XTT the `pitcher' has truly powerful tools to make the `batter' whiff or hit foul: a sticky rubber sheet on a flat `bat' that extends the arm's lever and can rip thousands of RPMs into the side of an oncoming ball, along with every conceiveable change of pace, direction, and curve to mess up the opponent's anticipation and highly-trained counter-strokes.

But the biggest difference between Extreme Table Tennis and Major League Baseball is that you yourself, Regular Joe or Jane, just like Regular Tom who is writing this, can learn the amazing richness of this sport, can build the skill to consistently create the Miracle of Spin, yes you can become a nationally competitive player in this sport in two to four years, no matter what is your age or sex or weight or height, no matter if you are in a wheelchair or have just one good leg or arm. You may never be an MLB pitcher, but if you play XTT you can do even more magic than they can. It is an open path, and you can do it.


> how can I break into the table tennis scene? thank you.  -Robbie
The path in has four parts: 1) get some modern equipment, 2) keep it fun, 3) get a coach, 4) practice practice practice. Without any one of those you won't get far. Pay extra attention to #3. No coaching means no progress. (Luckily coaches are quite affordable and easy to find at www.usatt.org).

Equipment

XTT equipment is always custom. With tens or hundreds of very, Very different kinds of rubber and blades, there's no such thing as a standard paddle. Touch on the ball is so precise that if you change to unfamiliar equipment you can bet you'll lose. Badly.

So although you can borrow a paddle on your first visit or two to a club, you can't expect to do that regularly. You need to buy your own.

First thing, chuck your Harvard paddle, or whatever you bought at a Sporting Goods store; they sell exclusively "recreational" Garage Pong equipment. State of the art, 1930. It's a hard fact that you can only get the good stuff from specialty mail-order places like PaddlePalace.com, butterflyonline.com, and the like.

Be ready to spend $100 to get a decent paddle, and some Nittaku three-star 40mm balls. Don't worry, you could hardly spend $200 if you tried. (My recommendation?: Buy a Butterfly Grubba All+ blade with 1.9mm standard Sriver.)

No, you'd rather think in detail about the many options out there? Okay, let me ask you a question. Should you buy a fast paddle or a slow paddle? Most beginners insist on doing the absolutely wrong thing, buying fast equipment. Don't do it.

If you have an all-around, good-control paddle and non-extreme rubber, it will teach you good mechanics: you can get more spin by just spinning harder, more speed by just hitting harder. If you choose uncontrollable, way-too-fast equipment, it will teach you to piddle and poke at the ball with unstable, small, always-a-bad-habit wrist movements, because any bigger movement makes the ball fly off the table.

No! It's only after you develop gymnastic movements and power strokes with good control, developing a feel for the ball as it dwells on the racket surface during stroke contact in the context of good footwork, body movement, and a pre-tensioned and explosive forearm stroke -- after that! -- when you want to speed up, and hitting it harder doesn't make it go fast enough, then you can go to faster/spinnier equipment. Not before three years of club play.

So get an all-around paddle and a good-control type of "inverted", a.k.a., "pips-in", a.k.a. "smooth", a.k.a. "sticky" rubber. Do NOT choose OFF+ (offensive-plus) paddles or extra-spinny/extra-fast rubber; that would be a Big Mistake for someone trying to learn the modern competitive sport. What you want to do is develop good technique, good strokes, good stroke-timing, good anticipation, good footwork, to hit the ball well and wisely in a variety of situations, and an all-around blade with plain Sriver rubber will help you to develop that a lot, A Lot, A LOT faster than JUIC 999 on an offensive blade, which will just enhance the bad habits that every uncoached player is certain to develop. So instead, for example, buy a Fan Yi Yong or a Grubba shakehand paddle with 1.9mm Sriver (not FX or EL) on both sides from PaddlePalace.com or butterflyonline.com for under $100 with delivery in a few days.

Keep it Fun

Remain Unintimidated! Keeping it fun means DO NOT be demoralized when you get beaten 11-0, 11-0, 11-0. No matter what kind of a star you have been in your garage or rec center with your home crowd, you have been playing nothing but fancier, higher-level games of T-Ball, whereas now you are walking out into a dome stadium, onto a Major League playing field, and (if it's game time) the pitcher is staring at you thinking about what kinds of balls newbies like you always prefer, so he can give you something Very, Very Different. So don't expect to win like you've been winning; it won't happen at the beginning (or you're in another garage). Just recognize that you're on a growth track and next year you'll probably be better than half the crafty old goats in the room. Patience, grasshopper! Let early losses sharpen your hunger to learn.

The best fun to concentrate on at the beginning is the fun of a correct and consistent stroke, which you can measure not by velocity but by accuracy and repetitions. Keep count! If you can achieve 10, 20, 50, and then 100 repetitions without a miss, that is Really Fun!

To me, the most fun of all is learning. Becoming better than you were.

Learning happens best when doing consistent repetitions at slow speeds, and it's much, MUCH better when your rep counts get up into the 30's and 60's. Go slower and even slower (Hello! I said SLOWER) until you can hit the table consistently; then, keeping it consistent, gradually find ways to make it easier and more effective. But stay consistent! Speed First means No Learning. The order is

SLOW -> CONSISTENT -> EASIER or MORE EFFECTIVE -> STILL CONSISTENT -> FASTER

Good Strokes are Easy, Effective, Consistent Strokes. Compact. Relaxed. Efficient. You'll learn a lot about that between 50 and 100. Inefficiencies are simply hard to keep up over hundreds of repetitions; in my own experience it's the technique adjustments I make AFTER 50-without-a-miss when I'm getting tired but still concentrating and struggling to get to 100, THOSE adjustments are the ones that have simplified my strokes and improved my control and power -- and consistency.

Did I mention, Keep it consistent? Slow down as much as you have to. A lot more speed than you ever imagined will come to you very naturally after you get your strokes down pat while practicing with slow consistency.

But you can repeat the wrong stroke forever and still never get anywhere. Which leads to the next point.

Get Coached

Get some lessons immediately, right now. Not "after I get better", but now. Get lessons early and as often as you can from teachers; you might have to drive a ways to get to one. Typically teachers charge $25-60/hour (their time is worth something, after all, even if it's a labor of love, and these rates are far less than a lawyer or a plumber charges even though coaches are very rare). You should have a one-hour or two-hour lesson each week to give you stuff to work on during the week.

Don't think that you'll just figure it out yourself. The myth of intellectual independence is a trap. The way to learn is to get expert instruction and feedback, and to study champions' techniques. Humble curiosity is the path to progress. I say this from experience: I spent more than two years figuring out a new grip (the V grip), and it has been Extremely Difficult without role models to copy.

Have a learning attitude. People that are attached to their way of doing things and don't want to learn from a coach never develop very far or very fast. If you have an open mind to learning and trying suggestions that experts can give, you will probably come up very quickly to high competitive levels of skill. My friend Gary Stonecipher started two years ago, got coached, and I think when we went to the US Open last week in Fort Lauderdale his USATT rating got to probably about 1800; he turned 40 yesterday.

You can also get a lot out of training and competition videos which you can watch carefully, in slow-motion, to learn what the experts are doing. Use world-champions as role models; everything they do is carefully tuned to work better than all the hundreds of alternatives that one might have made up yourself.

Respect China in table tennis.

The top players in the world don't so much Play at a world-class level as Learn at a world-class level. Higher-level competition is mostly a mental game, it's all about figuring out what your opponent's particular strengths and weaknesses are, and how to change your approach to match the particular style and complexities that they are serving up to you. So the game is truly all about learning. This is the opposite of what garage-pongers usually think, namely that you only have to learn a few things and then it'll all be automatic and unconscious. Actually if you try to be as conscious as you can about what you're doing, and try to always be learning, then you have the right approach to this sport. Do you think a pitcher in baseball isn't thinking hard about what to pitch next? Pingpong is an Intellectual Sport.

Which brings up Game Coaching: getting tactical advice between games during competition, from someone who knows your game, is a way to dramatically increase your competitive level. Pitchers have catchers to help call the next pitch. Table Tennis competitors have a coach or other adviser to talk to between games. Humble yourself and ask for help! Doubles partners do Much better if they talk to each other after every single point.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

1) Practice

Where are you located? In the United States, look at www.usatt.org and click on "Places to Play" to find some clubs near you. Elsewhere, try www.ittf.com to find your national association, which ought to have a list of clubs. (The point: a variety of opponents' styles is important.)

Help your practice partner, and make sure they help you, by hitting to the same place, and not too fast or wild. You can't learn Jack Diddly without learning some particular thing, and you can't learn any particular thing without doing it over and over again in a repetitive drill where your body can figure out what feels right and can begin to remember what it feels like to do it right. So help each other out and don't smash it because it feels good, don't hit it the wrong direction because you can. Demand the same from them so you can both learn. I really mean it: allow yourself to do one specific drill for at least five or ten minutes at a time before changing to something else. Use a kitchen timer.

If you are much better than your partner, work on your precision: hit a small target area on the table. Consider their scattershot returns as a footwork learning opportunity. But don't let them get too sloppy; demand some consistency.

Look at yourself in a big mirror and adjust your stroke so it looks good. A dorky looking stroke is probably not a good stroke. But nobody can tell how dorky looking (and weak) their stroke is without actually seeing themselves. So play air pong (no ball, just stroke in the air) in a mirror, and make yourself look better.

When you think you have a better stroke, practice it a bunch of times. I mean 200 repetitions, in the air, checking yourself in the mirror pretty often so you are really sure you're doing a clean stroke.

Try to learn to do things the right way from the beginning because if you stay involved then you won't have to unlearn and relearn everything based on early guesses which end up hardening into bad habits. It's so much more fun to play when you have the right mechanics to control the miracle of spin and when you can do what you want with the ball. And you'll still have your own style unique to yourself even with coaching.

2) Practice

Keep a balance between training and games; too much of just one without the other keeps you from making progress. No training? You won't learn much. No games? You don't discover what you really need to learn. A 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio of drill time to game time is good. The opposite ratio would be Not Good.

Try to get (at least) one table at your club to be declared the DRILLING AND COACHING table. Anyone who wants to drill instead of play matches has priority on that table. Buy a kitchen timer to rotate players every 20 minutes. Ask the higher-level players in the club to please take a turn, just for a few minutes, whenever they're waiting for a table, to come over and coach. They can leave you and go back to play whenever their turn is up.

A few words can be invaluable. Allow them to adjust your strokes as you hit with someone. Or they can hit to one of you until you miss the ball, then the next one can hit while you chase it, and keep rotating in. If you're at that table, it means you want feedback; keep asking for it. Actually you must ask for it, because people are polite and will assume you don't want any advice, unless you actually do ask. So, Ask!

3) Practice

So far everything I've said is just attitude adjustment. Finally here is the point (write it down!). What should you actually do?:

Drills.

Make up and do helpful drills. Drills can repeat endlessly (like forehand flat counter-driving), or they can follow a script (e.g., serve short, push long, attack, play out the point; repeat the script). Use both.

Drill to fix weaknesses and learn winning tactics. To fix weaknesses, play a game starting at deuce or 9-10. Observe what kind of shots were missed. Make up a script to recreate that problem, and repeat it. To learn winning tactics, do attack drills (serve-attack or serve-return-attack variations).

Learning is faster when it's neither too hard or too easy. So repeat your script 7 times, counting misses. If you missed four or more, it's too hard, so Change The Script; make it Easier. If you missed none or one, it's too easy; so Change It to be Harder. Progress is fast when you're trying to go from 40% success to 80% success. You're a Mario Brother, looking for ladders. Good ladders go from 40% to 80% (not from 98% to 99%). Keep finding good ladders; and climb them. This is the secret and the path. Remember it. And...

Practice, practice, practice!

I'll see you later

Okay, that might be more than you wanted to hear. Good luck in playing! I am delighted to hear you are considering getting more into this wonderful game.

I hope to see you at the Nationals, or the US Open, or the California Open in San Diego; if you come to any of those, look for a tall bald-headed (okay, head-shaved) guy in the 1800-level events. By the way don't be bashful about entering tournaments, especially you should definitely enter the most local USATT-sanctioned tournament you can find as soon as possible. They are skill-level based so that you play with people at your level, no matter how low or how high, so you can be national champion in an event that has only people at your level. My friend, Roscoe Lock, was a triple national champion after less than a year of serious playing, which is entirely due to rating events. Okay, so he's an animal, but still. Just don't think that you aren't already ready for a competition! Just call the contact or email them and get a registration form, sign up, and show up. You will be welcomed by everyone!

 

Copyright © 2002-2006 Thomas C. Veatch All rights reserved.
Modified: October 22, 2002; January 6 & 28, 2004; July 6, 2006.