Table tennis rallies are short. In fact they are very short. Various studies over the years have shown that the average table tennis rally is anywhere between 3 and 5 shots.
My own research supports this. I recently counted the length of rallies of eight matches at the ITTF World Championships in May 2015 (I stopped at eight matches – life is too short to count table tennis rallies!). My average figure? 4.8 shots per rally.
What can we do with this information?
For me, it seems fairly obvious. If you want to increase the number of points you win, you should focus a lot of your training on the first five shots of a rally. This is where most points are won and lost. Why focus on skills which are rarely used in match-play? Instead, focus on the skills you actually need.
This means you should prioritise:
From my experience, players don’t practice their service nearly enough. Yes, service practice can be a bit dull. But it is so important. Every point starts with a serve. It’s your opportunity to gain an advantage. You shouldn’t be satisfied with serves which simply get the ball into play. You should try to develop serves which cause your opponents difficulty or produce weak or predictable returns which are easy to attack.
When I attended the Werner Schlager Academy in May it was interesting to see some of the professionals turn up early so they could spend plenty of time practicing their serves before their group training session. This is how they get so good!
When practicing your serves, you should practice different spins (backspin, sidespin, topspin, no spin), different lengths (short, half-long, long) and different positions (forehand corner, middle, backhand corner). Use a physical target, like a piece of paper, to improve accuracy and set yourself challenges, e.g. aim to hit the target 10 times in a row – if you miss, start again from 0.
Again, this is another area where players are often underdeveloped compared to other areas of their game. How often has another player said to you “Can you serve to me over and over again? I want to practice returning serves”. I’m going to guess hardly ever. But why not? Players lose so many points through weak return of serves. They just seem happy to get the ball back on the table.
But being the receiver does not have to be a disadvantage. By using well placed or aggressive returns you can take control of the rally – forcing your opponent into an error or giving you an easy ball to attack. To do this you need to work on a variety of returns – flicks, touching short, pushing fast and long, top-spinning long serves.
Practice with a range of different players, so you get used to different serves. If you practice with the same person every time – you will improve against their serves, but may well struggle when you come up against something you’re not used to.
3. 3rd, 4th & 5th ball
With each extra shot in a rally the number of possibilities of spin, speed and placement increase. But there are common patterns of play in the first five balls, which you can prepare for through training drills.
This will usually involve a serve, followed by a push or flick return, a topspin 3rd ball attack, 4th ball block or counter topspin and 5th ball topspin or drive.
There are lots of different combinations – too many to focus on at any one time. So you should pick a few which suit your style of play. If you like to finish rallies early, work on 3rd ball attack training drills, aiming to finish the rally on the the 3rd ball.
If you play with a bit more control, then it may be better to work on 5th ball training drills where a slow spinny topspin 3rd ball, sets up an easy 5th ball attack.
If you lose too many points when you’re the receiver, work on 4th ball training drills. Practice well placed or aggressive return of serves to force a weak reply from your opponent, then attack the 4th ball.
For some training drill ideas, take a look at my blog post 10 training drill ideas for the first five shots in a rally.
Top tip: There’s also a useful chapter on a 5 ball training system in Table Tennis: Steps to Success, which includes lots of training drill ideas for the first 5 shots. A useful book to buy.
Of course, not all rallies are under five shots. In every set there will be points which will last much longer. So you also need to have the general rallying skills for those points which go beyond five shots.
But you have to prioritise. If most points are over by the fifth shot, focus most of your training on the first five shots. It’s absolutely fine to make time for shots you use less regularly – lobs, chops, smashes and big loops from 10 metres back – but don’t get distracted. You won’t use them that much in a match, so don’t allocate masses of time in your regular training.
Focus on service, receive and patterns of play for 3rd, 4th and 5th ball. This will help you win more points in competitive matches much quicker than anything else.