The dark arts of serving

I recently held a training camp in Cambridge on the topic of service. I was fortunate to have three very strong servers to help me deliver the training camp – Ferenc Horvath, Adam Fuzes and Craig Bryant. 

As well as teaching service techniques and tactics, we also talked about the mental side of serving. This included developing a service routine and using visualisation before serving. We also had an interesting discussion on gamesmanship – how to psychologically unsettle your opponent. Or what I call “the dark arts of serving”.

Below are some of the psychological tactics which players use when serving. All of these are entirely legal to do. They are not guaranteed to unsettle your opponent, but they often do…

1. Take your time

Some opponents like to play quickly and give you no time to settle. They serve quickly and are impatient for you to serve quickly. If I face an opponent like this, I will purposefully take more time when serving. I’ll bounce the ball on the floor a couple more times. I will take a little longer to get into my service position. I will delay the start of my ball toss. I will slow the whole game down. This helps me focus on my game, and can have the big benefit of irritating my opponent. My opponent wants to play the points quickly. I won’t let him. Occasionally I’ll hear an opponent complain and tell me to get on with it. This is when I know I have really gotten under his skin!

2. Speed up

There are other times when I will do the opposite and speed up my service routine. I typically do this when I have a comfortable lead and my opponent looks flustered. I don’t want to give the player any time to reset and regain composure. I want to keep imposing my game – keeping turning the screw – so that my opponent remains flustered. This time there is no need for the extra bounces and the pauses. No, get the ball. Get into the serve position and get on with it. Don’t let up. Keep suffocating the prey!  

3. Foot stamping

I don’t do this one, but I know a few players who do and it can be very off-putting. Whilst serving, a player will stamp aggressively on the floor when contacting the ball. This loud stamp can make it harder to hear the sound of the contact – so you have less idea how much the ball has been brushed (more spin) or hit (less spin). But it can also be quite intimidating. Stamping is an act of aggression and can be used to signal to your opponent that you are ready for the fight. On a sprung wooden floor, a stamp can also make the entire table wobble momentarily, which is another distraction. All of which can make an opponent more tentative when returning serves.

4. High toss serve

Using a high toss serve – so the theory goes – allows you to generate more spin, as the ball is moving faster when falling from the high toss. I’ve never really been that convinced of this. Players can generate tremendous spin no matter how low or high the ball toss. But a high toss serve can have a psychological impact. Firstly, a high toss can give the illusion of making the serve appear better than it is. “Oh wow, look how high that toss is. It must be a great serve”. This can often result in the return of serve being weak. Secondly, if you use a high toss, your opponent may get distracted with the high flight of the ball and forget to watch the contact. This may lead to a misread receive. And third – something Ferenc highlighted in the training camp – a high toss can affect the rhythm of your opponent. If you usually toss the ball head height, your opponent gets used to this rhythm. If you throw the ball higher, the rhythm has changed and your opponent might struggle to adjust, resulting in a weaker return.

5. The stare

Have you ever felt your opponent’s eyes burning a hole right through you before he serves? It can feel a little intimidating can’t it? What you are experiencing is “the stare”. There are a couple of reasons why a player may do this. Firstly, the server is looking at the receiver to see where he is standing, how he is holding the bat, what the body language looks like. The server is looking for any little clues which might help him choose which serve to do next. Secondly, a stare can be confrontational. The server is signalling his determination. He is using his eyes to communicate his desire to dominate with his serve. “It’s my serve. I have the ball. I see you. Watch out!”. The receiver may become a little more self conscious – a little less confident  – a little more passive. The result? A weaker return.

6. Fake movements

And finally, some players (ahem, Craig Bryant), will purposefully use fake movements in their service actions to disguise the spin. For example, you could serve backspin and finish the action with an upward movement to signal it was topspin. Or you may serve topspin and finish the action with a downward movement to signal backspin. This can be a nightmare to deal with. When your opponent loses confidence, you can then double bluff. You could do a topspin serve, with an exaggerated topspin follow through. “Was this really topspin? Or was he faking this and really it was backspin?”. When your opponent descends into this level of self-doubt, he really is done for! 

There are some players who will use another dark art, which is against the rules and not fair in any way – the illegal serve. If these players are losing and want to change the momentum they will use an illegal serve. Or if the score is tight and they are desperate to win, they will use an illegal serve. 

This is cheating and shouldn’t be done. But players do it because they get away with it. I don’t recommend you do this, but you should be aware of other players who do this to you. You should call it out to both the player and the umpire.

Everything else in the list above is within the rules. Table tennis is both a battle of technical ability and mental agility. We mostly focus on the technical side of the game, but you shouldn’t neglect the mental side. If a simple thing like taking your time before you serve helps you focus and unsettles your opponent, then do it. It’s up to your opponent to manage his/her mental state. There is nothing wrong with testing both the technical and mental skills of your opponent.

If you want to watch some of the demonstrations from the service training camp, I recommend you join Tom’s TT Academy.  In addition to training camp footage, you will get access to a wide range of coaching content, including 

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