Modern table tennis is all about attack. Topspin, flick, smash. Attack this. Attack that. Don’t push! Attack, attack attack.
When players train, they almost always focus on their attacking shots. A pushing drill? Nah, that’s for wimps. A blocking drill? Pfft, waste of time.
Is defence important any more? Is there any benefit in practising our pushes, blocks, chops and lobs?
Well, yes, I believe there is a huge benefit. Let me explain why…
The decline of the defender?
Back in the 1920s-1950s, there were a lot more defensive players. Defensive chops were just as important as attacking drives. When sponge rackets became popular, the benefit shifted towards attackers and playing with topspin. And table tennis evolved – like all racket sports – to become more physical, more aggressive, more attacking. Technique evolved allowing players to attack balls from any position.
Now in the men’s pro game, there are no all-out defensive players in the top 100. Any defensive players over the past 20 years attack as much as they defend. But in the female pro game – where power is a little less – defenders can still be found in the top 100 and can reach the latter stages of tournaments. And below the pro level, in amateur leagues and tournaments, there are still many defenders, who play to a very high standard.
So whilst it’s true that defenders have been nearly wiped out in the men’s pro game, there are still many successful defenders competing in all other formats of table tennis. The defenders are not extinct yet.
FUN FACT: The player in the image at the top of the article is Joo Se Hyuk from South Korea – probably the last great defensive player in the men’s pro game. One day he turned up at our small club in Cambridge. He is friends with one of our club players and came to Cambridge on holiday. Word spread and the best player in our club turned up to have a hit with him. He had no chance. Joo Se Hyuk’s chopping was so good – and deceptive – our top player couldn’t tell whether it was heavy backspin or float and kept missing. A real nightmare to play against.
Learning from defenders
Since defenders don’t attack that much, they have to win points in other ways. How do they do this? They force errors from their opponents. They use heavy backspin. They use awkward ball placement – short, wide, long. They get a lot of balls back on the table – testing an opponent’s ability to hit multiple attacks in a row. They vary the spin and speed of their defensive shots – forcing their opponents to constantly adapt.
A good defensive player is very consistent, and also very creative. They may use a variety of defensive options – touch, quick push, sidespin push, slow block, fast block, chop block, fish, lob, chop – anything to mess up the rhythm and timing of an opponent.
Defenders are usually tactically very strong too – quickly identifying strengths and weaknesses. The defender will pick away at an opponent’s weakness until he starts to lose confidence in his game. When the defender’s opponent starts missing and starts doubting himself, he often implodes. All the defender now has to do is put the ball back on the table and his opponent will mess up again and again.
There’s a lot we can all learn from this, such as using a variety of shots, changing the tempo, exploiting weaknesses and making the other player miss.
And here’s the thing – whilst there may not be any all-out defenders in the men’s pro game anymore – all the top players will use a range of defensive strokes. Even though we consider them attacking players, their defensive skills are a vital part of their game.
The best example of this is the Swedish player Truls Moregard. Yes, he has very strong attacks, but he has a very varied game and will use short touches, aggressive pushes, controlling blocks, punching blocks and chop blocks. He has a lot of variety in his game and is always changing the tempo to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm.
Even Ma Long – the most successful player in the past 20 years has a tight defence. His touch shot is excellent, as is his backhand block. As his career has evolved he has started using the chop block more. It’s not possible for Ma Long to attack all the time. So if he can’t make a strong attack, he needs tight defensive shots to frustrate his opponent (and prevent strong attacks). Or if his opponent attacks first, he needs options to return these attacks. Without his defensive skills, Ma Long would never have made it to the top of the game.
Defence is still vital in modern table tennis. At the local league level, you can enjoy huge success as an all-out defender. And you can definitely do very well as an all-round type of player, mixing up defence and attack. But even if you consider yourself an attacker, have a think about how you can incorporate some defensive skills into your game. The added variety to your play will challenge your opponents more and help you win extra points.
If this is a topic you are interested in, I highly recommend joining Tom’s TT Academy. I have a course called ‘Defensive skills for attacking players’, which has loads of great tips on developing your defensive game There are lessons on the following topics…
- Deep, fast push
- Short touch
- Pushing tactics
- Push and block
- Fishing and lobbing
- Defensive mindset
To access this course, please join Tom’s TT Academy.
I also have quite a few free video tutorials on my website, which go into detail on how to execute various defensive shots. Here’s some worth watching…
- How to do a FOREHAND CHOP – tips from a defensive expert
- How to FISH your way to victory
- BACKHAND CHOP – top tips from a defensive expert
- How to block high arc topspin AND low, fast topspin
- Tactics for defenders to beat attackers
- How to do an EVIL attacking push
- 5 backhand push tactics to beat your opponent
- How to return serves with a touch shot
- Blocking tactics to mess up your opponents