DON’T PANIC! How to learn from your serve receive errors

Learning to read service spin is a vital skill in table tennis. 50% of points start with your opponent serving. If you can’t read your opponent’s serves, you are at a major disadvantage and will likely lose.

Even though reading service spin is essential, it doesn’t make it easy to do. You have to pay very close attention to your opponent’s bat – the way the bat moves and the type of contact the bat makes on the ball. All of this happens in a split of a second. Your opponent may be using subtle variations. Or he might be trying to disguise this spin in some way. 

Plus there are just so many different service actions – pendulum, hook, tomahawk, reverse pendulum, windscreen wiper, etc. Learning to read all the service actions and subtle spin variations is hard and takes a long time to master.

I have shared information in the past about how to read service spin. But in this article I want to focus on one aspect of reading service spin which is often neglected… learning from your errors.

Some players tend to panic when they mis-read a serve. They feel foolish. Their confidence takes a hit. They are uncertain what the spin will be next time. Doubts flood the mind. PANIC!

In this panicked state a player may miss a very obvious clue about the service spin. Where did the ball go? 

If you observe where the ball went, it will help you work out what spin was on the serve and how to return the serve next time.

  • Did you try to drive the ball, but your return went into the bottom of the net? Answer: it was a backspin serve. 
  • Did you try to push the ball, but it went up in the air? Answer: it was a topspin serve.
  • Did your return go off the side of the table? Answer: it was a sidespin serve.
  • Did your return pop up a little or drift past the end of the table? Answer: it was a no spin serve.

If you observe where the ball goes when you make an error, you will work out quicker what the service spin was. You then have a chance to correct your return the next time you face the same serve.

You still might not be able to return the serve straight away – a little experimentation may be needed – but you will get closer.

For example, your opponent serves, you try to drive the ball back and the ball goes into the bottom of the net. You observe the error. Where did the ball go? The bottom of the net. Conclusion? It was a backspin serve.

The next time your opponent does the same serve, you try to push instead. This time the ball hits the top of the net. Conclusion? It was a backspin serve, but maybe there is more backspin than you anticipated. 

The third time your opponent does the same serve, you push again, but brush under the ball a bit more. The ball goes over the net and you make a successful return. Hooray!

You learn from each error you make and eventually you find a way of returning the serve. Now that you have a better feeling of how to return this serve, you have options. You may decide to always return with a push. Or you may decide to flick (if short) or loop (if long). Try out different shots and see what works.

Making errors when returning serves is frustrating. But how you process the error can make a big difference. Try not to get too emotional. Take your time. Observe where the ball went. Make an adjustment the next time you see the same serve. Observe. Adjust. Observe. Adjust. Over time you will make fewer errors, and any errors you do make you will be able to correct quickly.

Returning serves – online course

If you would like more help on returning serves, I recommend joining Tom’s TT Academy. I have a 10 lesson in-depth online course all about returning serves. The lessons include…

  • Returning backspin serves
  • Returning topspin serves
  • Returning sidespin serves
  • Reading service spin
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Where to stand when returning serves
  • How to apply pressure on your opponent when returning serves

You will also get access to a wide range of coaching content, including 

  • in-depth courses
  • training drills
  • fitness videos
  • robot training videos
  • member discussions
  • video analysis
  • skill challenges 
  • coaching clinic
  • and lot’s more!

You can access all this content for less than £1 per week. New content is added regularly. Join hundreds of table tennis players around the world today at

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