Bounce with the ball

Ping pong footwork choreography

My friend Yazel Boudour told me he had mentioned "Bounce With The Ball" on, so this seemed like a good opportunity to make some long-considered thoughts known.

I coached pingpong for 15 years or so at Green Lake in Seattle, giving mostly beginning players the basics of an amateur but tournament-level game. I think I've given first-day lessons to hundreds, trying to put myself into the mind of each person to discover what they can absorb, how best to explain things, and what minimal essentials will bring the most return. The most essential thing is this.

The foundation of the game

Footwork is a deep puzzle in table tennis, (not just) for me.

Everyone knows how to walk, run, hop, side-step, step-hop, and cross-step. These pose no difficulties for a human player, indeed for a bipedal species. What everyone lacks in table tennis, is not knowledge of how to move but WHEN to move.

Table tennis is the sport of quickness. Things happen in pingpong at such a speed (frequency more importantly than velocity) that no amount of watching and reacting is going to be fast enough to get you in the right place. Your reaction time would have to be negative! You are stretching to reach a ball that you can't reach in the time that it gives you. This is the key to table tennis. Not even badminton requires the quickness of table tennis.

Therefore, anticipatory footwork, early detection of key information, and lots of training to make appropriate and effective response reaction-speed, are essential.

The foundation of table tennis is footwork.

Yes, the feet are at the bottom and support the structure against gravity, sure. But more importantly, the foundation of table tennis is footwork because if you can't use your feet to get generally in position, on time, to use your precious and tuned-up strokes, then your practice has all been useless and you'll stab at the air with some flimsy concoction of a stroke you've never practiced. During practice there's always plenty of time and the ball is fed to you in the right place, but that rarely happens with an opponent who actually trying to win. Reaching from out of position, you will make a quite different stroke, and you won't be good at it. To prove the point, wheelchair players who physically cannot move sideways into position must train three separate forehand strokes, depending on the required reach distance: sweet, more, and less distance. If you're out of position, even a lot of training for that specific scenario might not help you; the stroke might be intrinsically weak, like using a forehand-side stroke for a middle shot.

Yet footwork choreography linked to the timing of events on the table or movements of the opponent is badly understood and in the US seems to have not been generally taught or explicitly understood, except by a few professional Chinese-trained coaches and their few students. This knowledge is precious and rare.

So there is importance and need, combined with universal confusion and ignorance.

Some things.

I've noticed some things.

Bounce With the Ball

"Bounce with the ball" joins footwork choreography to the concept of the pre-tensioned stroke, giving simplicity and discipline to one and support and power to the other.

The pre-tensioned stroke and its advantages

The pre-tensioned stroke (as I learned from Joe Ching) begins not at the static and waiting bottom of the hand trajectory, but at the top of the high-front-ready position. The hand is thrown downward with supporting structure pre-tensioned, as a spring is loaded by a weight, timed with the ball contact on the near table, and the hand springs forward and up as the ball rises from the table. The hand bounces up from the bottom of its trajectory, releasing the spring energy that was stored during the downward stroke.

The pre-tensioned stroke brings several differences with it: courage, because you must wait with hand high late into the incoming ball's trajectory. Effortlessness because you gain a huge mechanical advantage from the spring effect. Quickness because a spring-loaded stroke requires much less acceleration time out of the bottom of the hand trajectory. Time to wait, watch, think, and plan, because the committing backstroke action is initiated so late.

It also enables "bounce with the ball".

One more time: Bounce With the Ball

In "bounce with the ball", there are two two-footed hops per ball contact: Attack and Recover, where the interesting one is Recover.

Because after you touch the ball in a rally, how many times does the ball bounce before you touch it again?

Not one: it has to bounce on the other side of the table, and then back on your side. People have to think about it. Two. Yes, two. (Three if you are serving.)

This is typical: I make a beautiful swing and hit a great stroke, and then I spend my precious recovery-and-preparation time watching my beautifully struck ball flying away, celebrating and cheering for it to hit the table, smiling stupidly with the thought of what a great shot it was and how my opponent will surely miss it. Then I reinforce my own insecurity when I discover it coming back to me. Oh no! Then I rush late to return the ball which I haven't planned to recieve. Result: bad, rushed, missed.

Instead I should stop paying attention to what I can no longer influence, and pay extra attention to getting ready for the next: Recover!

So by the time my ball hits the other side of the table (hopefully the shortest part of the cycle, if I am on offense), I should have touched down, compressed into a bounce, and be bouncing back to a recovered, balanced, side-uncommitted position and posture. I should HURRY to recover. I should CONCENTRATE on recovering. Then I'll have TIME to watch my opponent's intention and plan my third ball.

As you may imagine, this seems awfully complex, putting a lot together. But Yazel is right, "Bounce with the ball" simplifies and coordinates everything.

The Drill

I do teach my kids (and grown-up students, if they are humble (willing to humble themselves)) this very simple baby-level drill which teaches the footwork choreography to bounce with the ball.

First, grab a ball. Second, toss it in the air to bounce on your table, a kitchen table, any table. Third, wait to catch it until after the Second Bounce. Now, repeat: toss, bounce bounce, catch.

Now, with each bounce, use your knees to bounce. The moment the ball touches the table is the moment your knees are most bent. Ball-bounce, and knee-bounce: at the same time. Bounce with the ball.

(Don't be late! 70% of students bounce late on the first few tries and I correct them and they get it right away but without someone there you might not be able to see it. So just pay attention so you're not late. Video might help, if you don't have someone to watch you.)

Next step: Get yourself balanced on your two feet, pay a little attention, do it two or three times. Now instead of catching and stopping, just pat the ball back up into the air. Toss, bounce bounce, pat, bounce bounce, pat, bounce bounce, pat, repeat.

Use a hand or a paddle, it doesn't matter. It's about ground contact, not ball contact.

One or two players can do it together. Bend your knees and pat the ball up a few inches. Let it bounce twice, bouncing your knees with each bounce of the ball. The moment of contact, ball to table, is the moment of maximum compression and bending at the knees.

With a partner, alternate patting the ball up, in the middle of the table. No, not forward toward the other player, up. Somehow about 20% of students think straight up means forward toward the opponent. Straight Up. Just a few inches, to start with. The ball should nota travel any direction other than up and down, bouncing in place. Try to pat the ball up while it is on its way up from the table, just after the bounce. Increase bounce time by increasing ball height; make it small so you can make your movements gradually quicker and quicker.

In the entire cycle, if you have extra time, to pause and wait and watch and plan more, use the time after landing from the Recover bounce, while you wait for the opponent to touch the ball and the ball to fly toward your side of the table. Just wait, then bounce with the ball as it comes to your turn.

I recommend everyone does this a few minutes a day for a week or two. You'll train your body into this kind of footwork timing. Try to pat the ball up using your knees rather than your hand. Moving your feet is not always necessary, but bounce with your knees. Concentrate on the second bounce, after you hit the ball, not before.

This style can be seen in the play of Timo Boll, I am told. I learned of it from Joe Ching who uses it in his unique pongfu style, who himself reported it to me during a several-months period of daily lessons with Fan Yi Yong, so I believe it is from Yong, who of course is a prime exponent in the West of the Chinese National TT coaching knowledge base.

The advantages of pre-tensioned, sprung power with quickness of stroke plan implementation and plenty of time to react make this the ideal footwork choreography, as I understand it today.

How does the footwork support pre-tensioned sprung strokes? The downstroke of hand is timed with the compression of the knees in the Attack bounce, and the springing in the knees supoorts, adds power to, and is part of the springing of the hand. They are the same.

Good luck to you!

2021 examples

(Because if it's true, then it's true all the time, in 2011 and in 2021. In fact, you should be able to see it all the time everywhere in examples of good footwork.)

Set your YouTube -> Settings -> Playback Speed to 0.25

Wang Manyu and Sun Yingsha bounce with the ball.

Another clear example of the "bounce-with-the-ball" principle. Watch both players bounce with the ball. Great view in the 1st replay from 14s.

I have a friend, a thoughtful but possibly slightly undiplomatic guy, who heard me share this idea, and told me abruptly and with a contemptuous snort: You're Wrong!

Well, look, Friend, count how often it's right.

I count 17 ball bounces on the table during this point, at 11-11 in their first game at the 2021 World's in Houston.

Wang Manyu's knees and center of gravity bounce together 17 times, all within 1 to 3 frames of the ball-bounce frame viewed in 0.25-speed video. Including serve bounces.

On the other side, Sun Yingsha's footsteps, knee compressions, and/or center of gravity bounce 17 times, each overlapping with the ball bounce frame. On serve receive there are horizontal step pushes on the ball-bounce rather than a center of gravity bounce, but push-off is perhaps an equivalent concept.

So, please, enough with the contempt already, friend(s). You don't have to be appalled that someone outside the Chinese state coaching staff expresses a strong idea clearly, even if some players don't do it all the time, it's still a strong idea worth trying. Celebrate!


Liang Jingkun bounces with the ball, Liam Pitchford doesn't.

Watch Liam on his 4th touch after his serve; he hangs in the air through the far ball-bounce and bounces only on the near bounce for his stroke. So he missed the recover phase. Whereas Liang Jingkun is on the bounce exactly and often quite heavily, exaggeratedly, on every bounce. Which predicts the result of the point and the match. Good news for Liam, perhaps if he would humble himself and go back to 2nd grade and practice bouncing with the ball until it's in his brain stem and use it as the foundation of movement timing, then he might raise his level.

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Copyright © 2000-2021, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved. Modified 6/12/2020, 12/6/2021.