What should beginner table tennis players learn first?

I recently started coaching two complete beginners, both adults. One had never played table tennis before, the other played a little bit for fun when a kid, but nothing for the next 30 years. Both have a similar goal – to be good enough at table tennis to join a club and possibly play competitively in a local league. This is a great goal to have, but it’s not easy. There is a lot to learn. And when there is so much to learn, what should you focus on first?

I like to think this is an area of expertise for me – so much so, that I created an online video course for beginners. In the course I focus on five key areas: grip, stance, movement, drives and pushes. These are the fundamentals every player needs to master before they can move on to more advanced strokes.

Here’s why:

1. Grip – If you hold the bat correctly it is much, much easier to control the ball, generate spin, deal with incoming spin and play with a high level of consistency.

2. Stance – A good stance will allow you to move quickly from left to right, right to left, backwards and forwards without losing balance.

3. Movement / footwork – Good footwork and good movement, for me, is probably the most important aspect of table tennis. It doesn’t matter what style of table tennis you play – you could be a forehand attacker, a backhand attacker, a blocker, a lobber, a chopper – you need to get your feet and body into position to play shots effectively.

4. Drives – Forehand and backhand drives are the foundation of all attacking strokes and the easiest to learn. Focusing on drives is a great way to learn about the key elements of an attacking stroke – bat starting point, contact point, bat finishing point, bat angle, timing, waist rotation etc. You’ll also have a great attacking weapon!

5. Pushes – The push is a more defensive stroke, where you brush under the ball to generate backspin. Practicing your pushes is a good way to learn about brushing the ball to generate spin and making small adjustments to your bat angle to deal with different levels of incoming spin. Plus you will also have a shot which is difficult for your opponent to attack.

When a beginner gets the grip, stance and footwork right and can consistently play drives and pushes, it is much easier to progress to more advanced strokes, such as topspin, flicks, chops, lobs and blocks.

How long does it take to learn the fundamentals?

This depends on the player. I have coached beginners who have progressed very quickly. In 3 or 4 lessons they have achieved a decent level of consistency. I have coached others with less developed eye-hand co-ordination, and it takes longer.

I coach one beginner infrequently, and due to current work commitments he isn’t able to practice at all – but he has made remarkable progress by doing shadow practice in between lessons.

From my experience it is possible for most beginners to achieve basic consistency with drives and pushes (regular and irregular drills) with 5-10 hours of coaching or practice.

What’s the best way to learn?

Find yourself a table tennis coach! A few 1-to-1 lessons will really help. The coach will be able to show you exactly what to do and will identify, and correct, any bad habits before they become ingrained in your muscle memory.

Alternatively, if you can’t find a coach, sign up for my online video course. I will show you how to hold the bat, how to stand and how to move. I will also show you the correct technique for the core table tennis strokes – a forehand drive, a backhand drive, a forehand push and a backhand push. I’ll also show you lots of training drills you can do to help you improve your skills.

Once you’re confident you know what you’re doing, the next stage is practice, practise, practise. I can’t stress this enough. Table tennis takes a long time to master. And the only way you will improve is with a lot of practise. And when you practice, don’t worry about hitting the ball too fast – just focus on consistency. When you’re consistency improves, then you can gradually start playing a little faster.

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