In table tennis the focus always seems to be on speed. Players want to hit faster, faster and faster. And the game has got faster. If you watch old footage of professional table tennis, it seems so slow compared to the lightning fast exchanges of the top players today.
Speed is important. Playing fast is going to help you win more points. But sometimes we may obsess about the speed of our shots too much and forget about the benefits of slowing down.
In this article, I look at some examples when slow play can be useful. And to keep in with the theme of slowness, I encourage you to read this article slowly. Let the words sink in and then take some time to reflect on the advice I give.
When we watch better players – whether very good club players or professionals competing in international tournaments – we often feel a strong urge to emulate them. Their shots are superior to our own. They play with such speed and accuracy. If we could play like them we would be so much better.
So we try to copy them and play with great speed and power. Except it doesn’t work. Our shots are wild and rarely go on the table.
“Hmm… something isn’t right with my technique. Or maybe I need to change my rubbers. Yes, that will fix it.”
New rubber = problem solved? No, I don’t think so.
When developing any new shot or technique, it is much easier to start slowly. Professional players make their shots look so easy because they have practiced them thousands and thousands and thousands of times. But they didn’t start by blasting the ball. They started slowly. They focused on basic shot mechanics, at a slower pace. When they achieved a good level of consistency, they increased the speed. Eventually, over years of practice, they became both fast and consistent.
The same applies at the amateur level. If you want to develop fast and consistent loops, flicks, drives and smashes, you need to start slowly. Start at 50% speed. This may feel very slow. And you probably won’t hit many winners. But you will develop good technique, which is consistent and you have confidence to use. When you have confidence in your technique, it then becomes much easier to increase the speed to 60%, 70% and 80%.
It’s not just developing technique. Slowness can help you win points when playing matches. A good example of this is the slow ball. This is where you deliberately take the pace off your shot to disrupt the timing of your opponent. It could be a slow block or a slow push or even a slower attack. When the pace changes from fast to slow in a rally, your opponent has to react to this change of pace. If your opponent doesn’t read the change of pace, he/she will often reach for the ball and mist-time the shot, either making a mistake or playing a weak shot. Here’s a video lesson with Mark Mitchell about how to play a slow ball.
Another example is a slow loop. This is where you attack a backspin ball, but rather than going for lots of speed with a low arc over the net, you maximise the spin using a higher arc over the net. This results in a slower and very spinny loop. Some opponents hate this type of loop and find it difficult to keep their block or counter on the table. The slower pace gives them too much time and they hesitate and mess up. Here’s a video lesson on how to do a slow forehand loop.
And a final example is a recovery shot. Sometimes you may find yourself forced back from the table and out of position. You are on the backfoot and struggling to stay in the point. In this situation you could risk a spectacular counter attack. Sometimes it works, but mostly you will miss. A better option may be a slower counter attack. This is where you play a topspin shot, but not with huge speed. Again the focus is on spin with a higher arc over the net. The slower counter attack buys you a bit more time. The ball literally takes longer to arc over the net . With this extra time you can move into a better position. Now you have a stronger chance of winning the point. I don’t have a video for this one yet, but will add a link when I make a tutorial.
Slowing the mind
You can also apply a slow approach to managing your emotional state during matches. It is very easy to let the stress (or excitement) and pressure of a competitive match make you rush playing points. You just want to get on with it. If you lose a point, sometimes you may rush to quickly start the next point.
Instead, try taking a slow approach. Take your time in between points. If the ball has gone to the back of the court, slowly walk to retrieve the ball and slowly walk back. Use that time to focus on playing the next point.
When serving, take your time. Bounce the ball on the floor or your bat. Breathe. Visualise the serve you are going to do and your recovery position. Take some more time. Then serve.
When you are returning serves, also take your time. The server cannot serve until you are ready. Come to the table in your own time. Focus on your process for returning serves. Adopt a good ready position.
I find this slow approach helps me control any nerves and allows me time to focus on my game plan and shot execution.
Long term improvement
Playing fast is important. But playing fast is only useful if you can do it consistently. To get consistent at playing fast, you need to start slow and gradually build up the speed, whilst maintaining consistency.
Over the past few years, I have improved quite a lot at playing topspin rallies. I believe this improvement is partly (possibly mostly) due to doing a lot of slow rallying drills in my coaching sessions with beginner and intermediate players. By slowing down, the consistency of my technique has improved a lot.
A slow approach will allow you to develop a solid foundation to your technique. This will give you confidence in your strokes. When you have confidence in the consistency of your strokes, it is much easier to add extra pace.
And remember, for almost all players, improvement happens very gradually. It is a slow process of repetition and purposeful practice. Don’t expect to master any new strokes or serves quickly. It takes time. Don’t put yourself under unrealistic time pressure. Focus on achieving high levels of consistency and developing high confidence in your strokes. It will take as long as it takes.