Can a table tennis robot help you improve?

Two years ago I bought a table tennis robot to use in my garage at home. It was a hugely exciting purchase – a Robo-Pong 2050! Friends and family were amused by the thought of me thrashing it out against this strange named machine in my garage, but for me it had a serious purpose – extra practice.

I can’t always make it to my local table tennis club – work, family, coaching, life! – but I don’t like missing out on practice sessions. So I bought the robot so I could practice at home at a time which was convenient for me.  

So for the past two years, for roughly an hour a week, I have locked myself away in my garage, turned the music up loud and hit a lot of table tennis balls. (You can watch me and the robot in action in the video above).

The big question is, has the robot helped me improve?

The answer? Yes and no.

It has definitely helped with some areas of my game, such as:

Backhand topspin vs backspin – This was a very weak part of my game (and still a work in progress). But having the robot gave me loads of time to practice this shot. I could use it to feed me backspin over and over and over again and just work on getting the technique right. Through huge amounts of repetition, the stroke action has been drilled into my brain. I don’t need to think about it anymore – it feels much more natural – and I have been able to start using in competitive matches.

Footwork – I’m often guilty of being a bit lazy with my feet, so I use the robot to do various footwork drills. It’s really helped my practice the footwork movement when making the transition from backhand to forehand strokes (or vice versa). The robot can send balls in a regular or irregular pattern and it has lots of pre-programmed drills, so there’s loads of different exercises to do.

Flicking – The robot isn’t great at serving (more on this later), but it can do an acceptable short backspin serve. This is great for flicking practice for both forehand and backhand. Before the robot, I don’t think I ever really flicked, but now in matches, I am just as comfortable flicking short serves as I am pushing them.

Playing fast rallies close to the table – The robot can throw the balls very fast. When I first started using it, my stroke actions were too long, which meant I couldn’t recover quick enough and the robot would just shoot balls past me. Gradually I have shortened my strokes, which has helped me recover quicker and now it’s much easier to keep up with the robot. This, again, has benefitted my match play, as I’m able to dominate more rallies playing close to the table than before I had the robot.

Service – Just to be clear, a robot cannot return serves! But oddly, having a robot with  ball collector has encouraged me to practice my serves more as I don’t have to go around picking up balls off the floor. Before I even switch the robot on, I spend 10-15 mins serving a box of balls into the ball collector. This has been great for improving existing serves and experimenting with new serves. I have been able to develop an effective reverse pendulum serve which can cause havoc with some opponents.

So there’s plenty of positives here – things I’ve been able to practice with the robot and then use in competitive matches.

But the robot hasn’t been able to help with everything. In particular:

Reading spin – With the robot I have, you select the type of spin before it starts throwing balls. So you know what spin is on the ball. A big part of playing table tennis is adapting your stroke to different levels of incoming spin. You make decisions based on your opponent’s bat angle, body movements, flight of the ball, rotation of the ball, sound of the ball etc. A robot can’t replicate a human being in this respect, so when playing with the robot my decision making is far simpler – I set the robot to give me heavy backspin and it gives me heavy backspin.

Reading my opponent – Following the theme from the previous point, the robot hasn’t helped me improve at reading my opponent. It can’t, it’s a static machine! So all the crucial information your opponent provides you about their game (body movements, stroke actions, stroke choice, position in relation to the table, etc), can’t be replicated by a robot.

Receiving – Other than a short backspin serve (as mentioned above), the robot doesn’t replicate serves very well. Generally the quality of serves are not great. The robot head is quite high, which means the ball shoots down, resulting in a high-ish bounce. Obviously, good players don’t serve like this, so it’s not much use. Also a significant part of returning serves is reading your opponent’s body action, contact point and follow through. Again, a robot can’t replicate this.

Backspin, topspin combination – One of the most frequent combinations I play in table tennis is a topspin against backspin and then a topspin against block. My robot can only play one type of spin at a time (backspin, sidespin, topspin), so I simply can’t practice this combination. Some of the more expensive robots (e.g. the Practice Partner 100) have multiple heads, so it can alternate the spin with each shot. This is really useful and something I wish I could do with my robot.

Overall verdict

My robot has definitely helped with some areas of my game. I genuinely think I have improved by using it. It has been useful to have the robot available when I can’t get to a club session, as some practice is better than none. I also find if I use the robot a day before a match, I generally feel a bit sharper during the match.

It’s also a great physical workout. During an hour’s session, I’ll probably hit around 3,000 balls and by the end of a session I’ll be dripping with sweat and ready for a lie down.

It works best when I use the robot to compliment practice with a real opponent. Another player noticed that I kept attacking crosscourt with my forehand, which made me a bit too predictable. So I took this insight and used my robot to practice playing forehand attacks to the middle and down the line. Guess what? I’m now much more confident playing forehand attacks anywhere on the table.

The danger is if you always use a robot for practice and never a real opponent. When living in London I organised an open tournament. One guy turned up who proudly told me how good who was because of all the practice he’d been doing with his robot. I asked which club he played for and he didn’t. He just practised with his robot. And in the warm-up, he looked really good playing forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand. But when he played, he fell apart and looked like a complete beginner, because he simply hadn’t developed the skills of reading spin, reading his opponent and adapting to irregular patterns of play. He was only good at playing a robot!

If you have space in your home (and spare cash), a robot can definitely be useful for extra practice. Use it for what it does well, e.g. footwork exercises, not receiving. Use it to compliment practice with real opponents, not to replace them. And use it to work on specific areas of your game you want to improve, not aimless hitting. A robot alone isn’t going help you transform into the next Ma Long, but it can certainly help you make significant improvements to specific areas of your game.

Recommended table tennis robots

If you are looking for advice on which table tennis robot to buy, please look at my blog post Guide to buying a table tennis robot.

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