Table tennis is a tough sport.
I have coached many beginners and improvers who are surprised by just how much there is to learn and how difficult table tennis is to master.
Maybe there is a perception in the non-playing table tennis world that table tennis is easy to play. Almost everyone at some point has played some form of ping pong. And they have probably been able to hit the ball over the net, “see, that wasn’t very difficult”.
But to play competitive table tennis to a high standard is a different matter. Table tennis is a very complex sport, with lots of different shots, spins and playing styles, played at a frighteningly fast pace. There is a lot to learn and master.
It does take time to get really good at table tennis. But how long? Can you become a really good table tennis player very quickly or will it take years and years? And what’s the best way to improve quickly? Let’s explore these questions…
What is a “really good” player?
Firstly, what do I mean by a “really good” player? This is a tough question, as there are so many different levels.
A bottom division local league player will be considered “really good” compared to a social player who has never played competitively, but wouldn’t be considered “really good” compared to a middle division local league player.
A middle division local league player will be considered “really good” compared to a bottom division player, but wouldn’t be considered “really good” compared to a top division local league player.
A top division local league player will be considered “really good” compared to a middle division local league player, but wouldn’t be considered “really good” compared to a player ranked in the top 100 in England.
A player ranked in the top 100 in England will be considered “really good” compared to almost all players in the rest of the country, but wouldn’t be considered “really good” compared to a player ranked in the top 5 in England.
A player in the top 5 in England is likely to be a professional player, so in most people’s eyes is absolutely amazing, but are likely to get beaten consistently by players in the top 20 in the world.
A player in the top 20 in the world is UNBELIEVABLE at table tennis, but is likely to get smashed by Ma Long or Fan Zendong.
So there is always a higher standard. There is always a better player (unless you are Ma Long). But it’s not helpful to use Ma Long as a benchmark. It’s not really that helpful to use professionals as a benchmark for “really good” either. This standard is out of reach for most of us.
For the purposes of this blog post let’s say a Division 1 local league player – ranked somewhere in the top 500 rankings in England – is a “really good” table tennis player. This is a standard most players in local league aspire to reach. And it is attainable. You don’t have to be a full-time athlete to reach this standard. You can play table tennis in your spare time and be a top division player. For US readers of my blog, I guess the equivalent is a 2000 rating.
I appreciate this is a subjective definition, but it’s better to have some sort of definition to work with than none at all.
How long does it take to reach this level?
From my experience, it can take 5-15 years of dedicated practise to reach a “really good” standard.
Yes, this is quite a wide timeframe, but so much depends on how much a player practices. A player who practices a lot may be nearer to the 5 year end of the timeframe. A player who practices less frequently may be more towards the 15 year end of the timeframe.
It can be done quicker than 5-15 years (more on this later). And for many players it can take even longer – a lifetime of playing and they still might not be able to get there.
This timeframe is not based on any data (although it would be fascinating to see a proper study of how long it takes players to reach a Division 1 local league standard). This timeframe is based purely on my observations of seeing players improve in local league table tennis over the past decade.
In short, it can take a very long time to get really good at playing table tennis.
Why does it take so long?
It takes a long time to master table tennis as there is just so much to learn.
Let’s start with the strokes. You need to be able to consistently play a lot of different attacking and defensive strokes. This includes:
- Forehand drive
- Backhand drive
- Forehand topspin vs backspin
- Backhand topspin vs backspin
- Forehand topspin vs block
- Backhand topspin vs block
- Forehand flick
- Backhand flick
- Forehand counter drive/topspin
- Backhand counter drive/topspin
- Forehand counter loop
- Forehand smash
- Forehand push
- Backhand push
- Forehand block
- Backhand block
- Forehand lob
- Backhand lob
- Forehand chop
- Backhand chop
But just playing single strokes isn’t enough. You also have to master the transition from one stroke to another stroke.
- Push > block
- Push > topspin
- Topspin vs backspin > topspin vs block
- Block > topspin
- Flick > topspin
- Lob > counter loop
- Topspin > smash
But the ball doesn’t always go to the same position. So you have to master switching from forehand to backhand and backhand to forehand for all of the above strokes.
- Forehand stroke > Backhand stroke
- Backhand stroke > Forehand stroke
But you can’t always play your strokes in exactly the same way. You need to adjust your strokes depending on how much spin is on the ball.
- Adjusting strokes for heavy backspin
- Adjusting strokes for light backspin
- Adjusting strokes for heavy topspin
- Adjusting strokes for light topspin
- Adjusting strokes for no spin
Your game is certainly coming along now, but to reach a higher level, you need to be able to play all of your strokes to different positions on the table.
- Forehand down the line
- Forehand cross-court
- Forehand to middle
- Backhand down the line
- Backhand cross-court
- Backhand to middle
Having good strokes, being able to switch between different strokes, making stroke adjustments and being able to place the ball to different positions is no good, if your footwork sucks. So you also need to have good footwork.
- Side to side footwork
- In and out footwork
- Close to table > mid-distance footwork
- Forehand pivot footwork
- Crossover footwork
So now you have good strokes, can transition between strokes, can adjust your strokes for different amounts of spin, can place your shots to different positions and can move well. But you’re never going to be any good unless you have decent serves.
- Backspin serve
- Sidespin serve
- Topspin serve
- No spin serve
- Service tactics
- Service variations
But serves on their own are no good. When you play advanced players, most of your serves will be returned. So you need to learn how to follow up your serves.
- 3rd ball attack
- 5th ball attack
- 7th ball attack
Your service game is only 50% of points. This won’t be enough to win matches. You also need to know how to return serves.
- Reading spin
- Receiving backspin
- Receiving sidespin
- Receiving topspin
- Receiving no spin
To make it even harder you need to know how to play against all the different playing styles. You need a book’s worth of match tactics stored in your brain, ready to use against every weird and wonderful playing style. What works against one opponent may not work against another. You have to choose the best tactics to use against each opponent you play.
- Tactics for playing a pusher
- Tactics for playing a looper
- Tactics for playing a long pimples player
- Tactics for playing a flat hitter
- Tactics for playing a one wing attacker
- Tactics for playing an anti-spin player
Having a good tactical game is no good if you freeze whenever you play a competitive match. You also have to deal with the psychological aspect of competing.
- Dealing with nerves
- Controlling your emotions
- Staying focused
- Playing without tension
- Keeping a clear head
As you can see from the list above, there is a huge amount you have to master. I have listed 70 things you need to do well to be a “really good” table tennis player. I’m sure there are many other things I have missed. The list is undoubtedly even longer.
If the list above isn’t daunting enough, it gets harder still. All of the above needs to be learned to the level where it is stored in your subconscious.
Table tennis is so fast, you do not have time to think about what shot you are going to play. You can’t freeze time, work out the spin on the ball, move into the right position, choose which shot to play, get you bat in the right starting position and then unfreeze time.
No, decisions have to be made in a split of a second.
The only way you can play such a fast sport is if you instinctively know what to do. And the only way you know instinctively what to do in any given situation is if you have practised all of the shots and all of the movements thousands and thousands and thousands of times, so that you don’t have to think about it.
You see the shot your opponent plays and you instinctively know where to move to and what shot to play.
This is why it can take so long to master table tennis. You have to practice to the extent that your muscle memory has been trained. Your subconscious knows exactly what to do because you have done it so many times before.
How to get better quicker
I told you, table tennis is a tough sport to master! It takes time.
But what about the outliers? Those players who have reached the “really good” standard before 5-15 years. I’m sure we all know players who seem to have progressed incredibly fast. What do they do differently? Are they just naturally talented?
I’m not a huge believer in the concept of “natural talent”. Nobody reaches the top of their sport or profession without a huge amount of hard work. From all of the coaching I do, it’s certainly true that some people have a capacity to learn quicker than others. But nothing which I would term as “natural talent”. I think this is largely a myth.
The players I see improve the quickest have three things in common.
1. They practise a lot. They practise several times a week, clocking up 10-20 hours of playing table tennis week after week after week. And not just any old practice. They are practising with a purpose – doing drills (regular and and irregular), practising service and receive, playing matches, developing strengths and eliminating weaknesses.
2. They receive coaching. They benefit from all of the knowledge and experience of people who have played the game for a long time at a high level. This massively speeds up the learning process.
3. They commit to playing an attacking topspin game. This is the playing style which almost all professional players use. When they reach a level of consistency with their topspin attacks, they are able to overwhelm most opponents with their relentless topspin shots.
Even with all of these conditions in place, the quickest I have seen players (mostly juniors) reach this “really good” level has been 3-5 years.
Long term vision
I coach many players. Some beginners. Some advanced. And lots of players in the middle. Sometimes I sense a player’s frustration that improvement is not happening as quickly as he or she would like and the player can’t work out why. I then explain the points I have made in this blog post (but a much shorter version!).
Table tennis is a difficult game. It takes most people a long time to master. You shouldn’t get despondent if your progress is slow. One of the great things about table tennis is that it is a sport you can play your entire life. To play at a “really good” level, you don’t have to be a young 20-something-year-old. You can be in your sixties and even seventies and still be able to compete at a high local league level.
The more you play table tennis and the more you practise, the more you improve. Of course, improvement doesn’t happen in a straight line. There are ups and downs.
But as long as you practise with a purpose, your general progress should be an upwards trajectory. Keep doing this year after year and you’ll reach a level where you can consider yourself a “really good” table tennis player.