Innovation in Table Tennis

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Like many other sports table tennis is constantly changing. We can think back to the longest rally in 1936, the first time limits imposed and finger-spin banned in 1937, introduction of the flat-hand service throw in 1947, the first all-sponge world champion in 1952 and the first all-sponge final in 1954. Then of course the thick sponge was eliminated in 1959 and the racket colour standardized in 1961; we experimented with yellow balls in 1972 and the definition of ‘sandwich rubber’ was agreed in 1977. In 1983 the two colour rule was introduced for racket coverings and restricted to black and red in ’86. Glue came into common use in the early 1980’s and table tennis became an Olympic sport. In 2000 we had the ‘big’ ball and in 2001 we started to play to eleven up. Often new things especially in the areas of technique, tactics, or equipment, have substantially affected the outcome of competitions even at the highest levels. Innovation is in fact the motive power upon which the development and direction of our sport relies.

Innovation in table tennis embraces the following seven aspects –

  • TECHNIQUE
  • TACTICS
  • STYLE
  • TRAINING
  • EQUIPMENT
  • THEORY
  • ADMINISTRATION

Because table tennis is a very technical sport the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work so well any more and the player’s reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent is unable to adapt in time. Remember the prime skill of table tennis is to read the game and to adapt in an ever-changing situation.

The innovation of technique can be looked at from two points of view — to create something totally new (like the loop of the 1960’s) or to develop an existing technique to the point of qualitative change. There is great potential for example for the further development of service techniques through training. The acrobat can attain pinpoint accuracy through hard training, why not the table tennis player? The answer lies in the fact that table tennis is an antagonistic competition, acrobatic performance isn’t. Every stroke you make is based on correct and split-second judgement of the incoming ball, which varies in a thousand and one ways. Service however is the one exception. Much remains to be exploited with service in terms of spin, speed and placement and different ways of striking the ball.

Compared to innovation in technique and style much less has been done with tactics and this is an area which deserves much greater attention and research. Technique is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. Only when the player has mastered all-round technique can he use various tactics to the fullest extent. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow the player to use his technique to the fullest extent. New techniques will inevitably give rise to new tactics. A thorough understanding of the interaction between technique and tactics will enable us to better understand the vital importance of innovation in tactics.

Attack to the opponent’s forehand is for example a tactic seldom used in practice. Too many exercises and too much play in table tennis are from the backhand side of the table. With most players the forehand is the stronger wing and perhaps opponents fear to initiate attacks to this side of the table. However the forehand stroke is in fact often slower with a longer arm swing. If you play a fast left-handed blocker you may well find he can play 10 backhands in the time you can play only 6 forehands. Also many forehand strokes are not always played with power, especially those played for safety, transitional shots or when reaching. Players expect more play to the backhand and movement is much easier from this wing to the forehand rather than vice versa. For these reasons first attack to the forehand side followed by switch out to the backhand can be a particularly effective tactic and one well worth working at. If you train to attack the forehand corner only, from both sides of the table, then after a while you will find your ability to cope with the opponent’s forehand attacks is greatly enhanced.

We have always had very differing styles in table tennis often influenced by changes in materials and equipment and players and coaches in our sport are often innovative and inventive. Changes in technique, tactics or equipment will often in fact initiate new styles and methods of play — the thick sponge of the 1950’s, the loop of the 60’s, the pimple explosion and the high throw serve of the 70’s and the glue in the 80’s. However if you compare young players of today in Europe with those who have been at the top for many years and are now between 25 — 38, there seems to be much less individualism among the young and rather less flair and feeling in their game. Swedish players such as Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Lindh all have very different styles of play as do Primorac, Gatien, Saive, Korbel and Kreanga. Most of the younger players are more robotic in their play and there appears to be developing in Europe a sameness of play, a universality of style, strong, efficient and workmanlike but without the personal, unique touches that differentiate the really special performers from the run of the mill players.

If our European style of play is changing, the first question to ask is why. What has changed over the last twenty years since the older players were in their formative period? Is it the coaches, the players or the system or some combination of all three? Or is it that with more interaction between European countries, more joint training ventures, more mass media, magazines and internet, there is now a standardization of coaching, less invention and fewer ideas? Is it perhaps that in many countries we now have more top players being involved in coaching, especially in the National centres, who as a result of their own background look at the development of style in a rather different light, or even consider certain styles of play more preferable to others? It would appear that whatever the reasons there are fewer ‘extreme’ styles coming through in Europe at the moment, and fewer trainers working with the more unusual type of game as played by Carl Prean or Ni Xialan for example. Perhaps now is the time to once again look at new and different styles and even adapting and rediscovering some old ones ( like stronger backhands and more use of backhand spin), especially in view of the shorter games and changes in the service rules. We now have less time to learn to cope with and to adapt to new things, therefore these will be more effective.

Training is now much more professional as our sport has advanced and the quality and direction of training have become the important things. The basic principle of training is repetition. However optimal nervous excitement (the right approach and motivation) is also an essential. Without the right mental approach progress is impossible. Achieving the optimal mental condition is something that players often don’t understand or work at enough. Training is repetition in the right environment. The following two questions are often asked — how do we train for a particular player’s style and what sort of training, the content? The content should obviously be geared to competitive needs and what the player will face in the future in both the short and long term. How the player should train is quite another matter. Many players don’t in fact train in the best way for their own individual style of play. Many don’t understand in the first place how they are most effective and they don’t have clearly defined aims, nor do they have any idea of how to get to where they may be going even if they have some end-goal. If a player does not achieve progress after much training the reason can be the content (not well chosen or appropriate), or the methods or direction of training, or indeed the player’s own approach and attitude.

Over the years changes in equipment have had significant consequences. The sponge revolution of the fifties, better and better ‘sandwich’ rubbers, anti-loop and pimples, glue and innovations in blade manufacture. We now have bigger blades, ones with different speeds either side, some using glass, carbon fibre or metal mesh such as titanium. There are some limitations with rackets in terms of weight, for example very few players want blades in excess of 100 grams — once the rubbers are added the whole thing becomes a little unwieldy. There are however indications that the most effect achievable with long pimples is with the use of heavier blades, so perhaps some compromise will be arrived at. It is of course by no means impossible that we are arriving near the limits of what we can do with the racket (some manufacturers are even experimenting with new revolutionary shapes) but this was also thought to be the case many times in the past! Also needed are more sophisticated training aids, better robots and serving machines, better net assemblies for multi-ball and upgraded ball-picking apparatus.

Innovation in theory is often overlooked and research in this area should really be upgraded. The prevailing system of table tennis theory was established in the 1950’s and 1960’s and there have only really been minor amendments and supplements since then. There is an urgent need to make a thorough examination of the whole theoretical system in the light of the way modern table tennis is played today.

If a country is to be successful in our sport then the Administration must also be progressive and forward-looking. Methods of assessment, selection, ranking and national centres and training must be constantly monitored and up-graded. It is important that more and more countries throughout Europe demand not just some ‘movement’ from national bodies but actual achievement!