Why learning to play table tennis is like learning to drive a car

Most players I coach have at some point had to listen to my dreaded table tennis car analogy.

I usually reel it out when a player is having difficulty learning a new stroke. He is so focused on his own body movements, that he doesn’t watch what I’m doing and isn’t ready to play the next shot.

The rally breaks down and the player says something like “it’s difficult to think about what I need to do and watch what you’re doing at the same time”.


This is my cue.

It’s time for my table tennis car analogy. For your benefit, here it is…

My table tennis car analogy

Learning table tennis is like learning to drive a car. When you first learn to drive a car, you’re a terrible driver. You’re not very good at seeing what’s in front of you – all of the potential hazards and dangers – because your mental energy is focused on the mechanics of the car.

You are preoccupied with the the clutch, the accelerator, the brake, the gear-stick, the indicator, the windscreen wiper, the speed dial. Your focus is just trying to make the car move and keep it moving. It’s difficult to consciously do this and consciously pay attention to what’s going on in front of you and use your mirrors to check what’s going on behind you.

However, the more you drive, the less you have to consciously think about the mechanics of the car. You have repeated the actions so many times, that you start to do everything subconsciously.

Your mental energy is now freed up and you can start to concentrate on the road and potential hazards in front of you – the car turning right, the cyclist pulling out without signalling, the pedestrian stepping out into the road. You adjust your driving accordingly and you proceed without incident. You’re a good driver!

Learning to play table tennis is very similar. When you first learn a new stroke, you are very focused on the mechanics of your own body. You consciously focus on your bat starting position, your bat finishing position, you arm movement, your wrist movement, your stance, your grip, your footwork, where the ball goes. All of your mental energy is focused on yourself. This makes it very hard to focus on what your opponent is doing.

But, like learning to drive a car, the more your practice a stroke, the more consistent and confident you become, the less you have to think about the mechanics involved. You play the shot automatically, without thinking. The shot becomes fixed in your subconscious mind.

Your mental energy is now freed up to focus on what’s in front of you, i.e. your opponent. When you watch what your opponent is doing, you can react quicker and close off any potential dangers and threats.

This is why top table tennis players are so good, why they seem to react so quickly and seem to know exactly what shot their opponents are going to play. They don’t have to actively think about their own strokes. It’s all subconscious. Instead they can watch their opponents and react with seemingly lightning speed.

So, if you’re struggling to learn a new stroke, don’t be too hard on yourself. You need to have patience. You need to practice the shot until you can play it without thinking. How long does this take? It depends. We all have different learning capacity and different amounts of time available to practice. What will take someone six weeks, may take someone else six years!

But the key here is practice and repetition. The more you do it, the less you will need to think. When you think less about what you’re doing you can concentrate more on what your opponent is doing. When you watch your opponent more, you can react quicker, get into position sooner and play your shots better.

Analogy over! Let’s get back to playing…

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