The Tactical Mindset in Table Tennis

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Just like any other table tennis skill, developing a tactical mindset takes discipline.  As I work through the various styles over the coming weeks and teach you how to play against various table tennis opponents, I want you to understand that you too can think of your own tactics.  I’m not very smart, I’m just an average guy.  However, I do spend quality time thinking.  You too can develop this same discipline.

The best time to think of developing future tactics for your own table tennis game is at the conclusion of a club night or on the way home from a table tennis tournament.  Think about the various tactics that were used against you, think about all the annoying things that your opponent did to frustrate you.

Remember that first opponent who kept pushing sharp angle pushes to your backhand.  By reaching for the ball, you weren’t able to spin much and your opponent kept blocking your weak opening quick to your wide forehand.

Remember that second guy who kept serving no spin to your forehand.  He was waiting for your weak flip and just teed off on every flip.

Remember that third guy that took his time and walked slowly to get the ball, then proceeded to bounce the ball 5 times before every serve.  Remember how it frustrated you to wait a few seconds before every serve.

Remember that fourth guy who initially couldn’t return your serve.  Then suddenly just started pushing deep and high to your backhand.  Remember how your own spin high to the backhand gave you issues.

Remember how that fifth guy kept blocking quick to your middle transition point.  After you gave a weak loop, he would just counterloop wide to your forehand for a winner.

Between each point in the table tennis match, you have a few seconds to think about tactics.  However, on the ride home, you have plenty of time to think about more details.  The longer that you think deeply about the tactics, the more possibilities will arise.  Let me illustrate, you are playing a game of chess and your opponent just made a move; it is now your turn; you quickly decide to move your queen to F3; it looks like the best move.  At the time, that was as tactical as you could have been in 10 seconds.  However, let’s suppose that I gave you two hours.  In two hours, you can think through more possibilities… possibly 7 or 8 other moves that would be better.  The same is true in table tennis.  You start the match with you serve short backspin and your opponent kept pushing to your backhand, you loop into the net several times.  If I gave you 10 seconds to give me a solution, you would probably say, “Oh, I could just solve this problem with pushing!”  True!  That is ONE answer!  But if I gave you 2 hours to solve the problem, could you come up with other solutions.  Before reading the rest of the article, I want you to take out your pen and paper and list other solutions to this problem.

Here are some other solutions:

  1. Push the ball back with your backhand
  2. Push the ball back with your forehand
  3. Forehand loop
  4. Backhand loop but adjust your racket’s starting position
  5. Backhand loop but adjust your racket angle
  6. Backhand loop but use more wrist to generate more spin
  7. Backhand loop but use more legs to help lift
  8. Serve no spin instead so the push will be lighter
  9. Serve deep topspin so that your opponent is less likely to push
  10. Serve wide off the forehand side to the table with sidespin so your opponent is less likely to push to your backhand

As you contemplate the hundreds of tactics that were used against you, then you too can begin practicing these tactics against others.  Just remember that more years playing doesn’t necessarily mean that you will play smarter and have better tactics.  The key is that you need to have the discipline to think deeply for 20-30 min after each session about the tactics used against you.  Think about which tactics you can implement immediately and which tactics take longer to develop.  Adjust your table tennis training sessions accordingly so that you aren’t merely training your basic strokes, but you are also implementing tactical drills into your practice sessions.

By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach

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Table Tennis Tip - Devastate the Short Pips Smasher

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The short pips smasher is often described as one of the scariest opponents in table tennis… unless you use the proper tactics.  You give a weak push – bang! It gets smashed at 90mph!  You give a weak loop – bang! It gets smashed at 90mph!  You block the smash and it goes into the bottom of the net!  Wow, how frustrating! 

Before I jump into the tactics, I want to first give you an explanation on spin.  When both you and your table tennis opponent are using normal, grippy inverted rubber on your table tennis paddles and rallying backspin to backspin, the rubber grabs the ball and changes the rotation in order to maintain backspin.  The grippiness of the rubber is what allows the spin to maintain backspin back and forth.    When playing against short pips, it is very important to know what type of rubber they are using, the grippiness of the pips, length of the pips, width of the pips, the thickness of the sponge (if any), and hardness of the sponge.  Remember, if you and your opponent are both using grippy inverted rubber and you push at 50 rotations per second backspin, when he pushes back, his grippy rubber grabs the ball, changes the rotation, and gives 50 rotations per second backspin back to you.  The grippier the short pips and thicker the sponge, the more the short pips will act like inverted.  Keep in mind, that a thicker sponge gives more spin – hardbat (short pips without sponge) has very little spin, 1.3mm sponge has more spin, and 2.0mm sponge has even more spin. With the spinniest short pips available, your 50 rotations per second backspin push may actually come back with 45 rotations per second backspin.  With the least grippy short pips on the market, your 50 rotations per second backspin push may actually come back with 20 rotations per second topspin!  It also makes different of the skill level of your opponent.  At the beginning of a table tennis match, you may not know your opponent, but you need to know his table tennis equipment.  Ask to inspect his table tennis racket.  Using the ball, test the friction and the bounce.  He is obligated to let you see it.  If he doesn’t, then ask a tournament official and they will force him to show it to you.

So how are you going to form tactics if there are so many different types of short pips in table tennis?  We are going to go middle-of-the-road assuming that your opponent is using a somewhat grippy short pips with very thin sponge.  For the sake of this article, when you push with 50 rotations per second backspin and your opponent pushes back, it come back with 5 rotations per second backspin.  We are also going to assume that this short pips smasher is playing with the shakehands grip and using both backhand and forehand fairly equally.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the short pips smasher might be scary to play against.  When he smashes, most of the energy on the swing is transferred to ball speed instead of ball spin.  This is why the ball often comes faster, flatter, and louder.  With a thinner sponge and using the smash touch, your opponent hits deeper into the wood giving it a louder “crack” sound when making contact with the ball.  No need to fear, it may look scary, but there are plenty of weaknesses.  Lacking in spin, your opponent won’t likely be able to play nearly as consistent as you can.  Instead of landing 80% of his attacks, maybe he will only land 70% of his attacks.  Not only will he be less consistent on powerful attacks, but he must be more selective by picking and choosing only higher balls to attack.  Instead of your focus being to keep every ball short, your focus should be on keeping the ball low.  The short pips smasher will likely have a tough time with low pushes and low loops because the pips don’t give much arc.  With the 6” net in the way, it is difficult to smash a very low ball with pips.

Tactics

#1 Adjustments

If you can watch your opponent in a previous table tennis match, that is a really good idea.  If not, you can begin your adjustments by inspecting his table tennis racket prior to the start of the match and testing to see how the ball reacts off his racket with counterdriving, looping, and blocking during your two minute warmup.  Realize that you will need to make adjustments to your stroke, positioning, and timing.

#2 Angle

The one main adjustment to your table tennis game will be racket angle.  Typically you will need to be slightly more closed when pushing, slightly more closed when looping against the push, slightly more open when looping against the block, and slightly more open when blocking an attack.  Why?  Because there is typically less spin on the ball.

#3 Positioning and Timing

This is the toughest part.  Imagine that you loop first against a short pips block, should you stay close or back up slightly?  It depends.  Short pips give the most depth variation in table tennis when blocking.  By popping the ball with a quick block, it will be a very fast deep block, you need to back up a bit.  When relaxing the grip and deadening the block, it will be a very short, almost two-bounce type of block; you will need to move forward.  So how in the world do you know which one is coming?  It is based on two main things, the quality of your opening loop (speed, spin, height, depth) and the action of your opponent’s block.  If you see him take a big backswing and forcefully approach the ball, you need to quickly step back while staying on your toes leaning forward.  If you see him take no backswing and pull back or to the side at the point of contact, the block will likely be dead and very slow.  Just remember, you prefer to loop the ball at the top of the bounce, this will require much better in-and-out movement from you.

#4 Height

As I mentioned earlier, I must remind you to keep the balls low.  Keep it low!  Keep it low!  This is one of the key tactics.

#5 Depth

Deep pushes, blocks, and loops are most effective against the short pips smasher if they are in the last 6” of the table tennis table.  Typically, short pips players stay very close to the table and are looking to smash down and forward on the ball.  If the ball hits in the last 6” of your opponent’s side, it will cause your opponent to hit the ball on the rise, often forcing him to hit it into the net.

#6 Percentages

Without spin, your table tennis opponent will likely have lower percentage shots when attacking.  How can you decrease the percentages even lower? By hitting quality shots!  By tricking him on the placement, giving quick pushes, giving spinny lower deep loops, you will be able to decrease his percentages.  The next time a short pips smasher blasts every ball past you and starts of 6-0 in the first table tennis game, then just step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Is my ball quality good enough?  Am I just returning the ball and allowing him to smash?  Can I be trickier? Can I vary the depth of my short and long pushes better?  Can I loop wider?  Can I flip more to the transition point?  Can I block lower?”  You will often find that your opponent is ON FIRE because your ball is weak!

#7 Counterattack

If your serve and serve return are very good quality, it is likely that your opponent will need to give a gentle attack when faced with your deep push, deep serve, or half-long serve.  This is really an ideal time to counterattack.  His opening likely has less spin, making this a much easier shot for you.

#8 Practice

Before playing this guy in your next table tennis tournament, try to find a short pips player and practice with him for 20 minutes before your table tennis match.  Make necessary adjustments in your game and you will dominate against all the short pips smashers.

By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach

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Table Tennis Tip - Devastate the Long Pips Blocker

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The long pips blocker is often described as the most frustrating opponent in table tennis, unless you use the proper tactics.  Before I jump into the tactics, I want to first give you an explanation on spin.  When both you and your table tennis opponent are using normal, grippy inverted rubber on your table tennis paddles and rallying topspin to topspin, the rubber grabs the ball and changes the rotation forward in order to maintain topspin.  The grippiness of the rubber is what allows the spin to maintain topspin back and forth. When playing against long-pips, the ball usually doesn’t grab when it hits the pips causing your own spin to come back at you.  For example, when you serve heavy backspin to the long pips table tennis player, regardless if he hits or blocks or pushes, the ball will come back with some topspin.  If you loop the ball with extreme topspin, regardless if he hits or blocks or pushes, the ball will come back with backspin.  It isn’t so much a matter of what stroke HE did, it is a matter of what spin YOU did.

Now here is one pitfall.  When beginner table tennis players play against long pip opponents, they often give a weak loop then try to push the next ball, the balls goes flying 8 feet high.  What happened?  The loop was so weak with practically no topspin; when the long pips player blocked, it actually came back as “no-spin”.  You must understand that the amount of spin coming back to you is proportional to the amount of spin you impart.  If you loop with 80 rotations per second topspin, the long pips ball will likely come back to you with about 60 rotations per second backspin.  If you loop with 16 rotations per second topspin, the long pips ball will likely come back to you with about 12 rotations per second backspin. 

Now here is where it gets very complicated.  When you are playing against a long pips table tennis player that has some friction to his pips, the ball will be different from an opponent that has much less friction on his pips.  Unlike inverted, the pips with some friction will give less spin.  Less spin?  Samson, are you sure about that?  Absolutely!  When the pips with some friction slightly grab the ball, they deaden the spin a bit.  The statistics that I quoted in the above paragraph will actually be different based on the type of long pips used.  If you loop with 80 rotations per second, the grippy long pips ball will likely come back to you with 40 rotations per second whereas the less grippy long pips ball will likely come back to you with 75 rotations per second.

There are many myths floating around table tennis clubs worldwide as to how tricky long pips players can be.  For the long pips player without much friction, the only thing that they can be tricky about is depth and placement.  Regardless of the stroke he used, the spin will be very predictable.  The trickier version in the long-pips table tennis player is the one who has some friction.  If the rubber has some friction, then the player can give some slight variations.  If you push to the long pips with friction and he pushes very aggressively, then it is possible for him to deaden the ball more.  If you push to the long pips with friction and he does a slight loop swing, then he can add more topspin to the ball.  If these concepts are too difficult to grasp, then I recommend returning to the first paragraph again.  Once you have mastered the basic concept then continue reading the tactics.

Tactics:

#1 Basic Spins

The basic table tennis tactic against long pips is to know the spin and get in the groove.  If you try too many spin variations, the spin will confuse you more than it will confuse your opponent. Try to avoid varying the spin and definitely avoid putting sidespin on the ball.

#2 Your Serve

Start with a deep backspin serve.  Deep is critically important because your table tennis opponent will be forced to likely return deeper, which gives you an easier first attack. 

#3 Attack

Next, loop forward with good speed and spin.  After you serve the deep backspin serve, you will be getting a topspin ball that is likely to be an easy attack.  Drive forward on this shot.  In order to maintain your consistency, make sure that you add spin which makes it more controlled.

#4 The Next Ball

This is the tough one!  When your table tennis opponent blocks back your powerful loop, it will be a fast, line-drive chop coming at you like a bullet.  You need to push it early or late and push with spin.  If you contact the ball high, your push will go flying long.  Push it as soon as it bounces or when it is dropping to keep it low.  This is the most critical ball in the tactics against long-pips.  If you can push well on this ball, then you can again begin the cycle of loop then push.

#5 Repeat

Repeat the pattern of loop one then push one.  If you stay with the pattern, then you will be always be looping topspin and always pushing backspin.  If you “double-up” on your push or your loop, then you will likely get confused by the spin.  If you constantly have to change from various amounts of pushes and loops and dealing with different spins, the joke is on you.  Of course you will be confused.  Keep it simple.

#6 Plan B

Ok so you are using the Samson Dubina long pips table tennis tactics and it isn’t working!!?!!?!!  What next?  Is there an alternative?  Good news!  Yes!  You must remember the various ways to win points ¾ with speed, spin, placement, consistency, and change-ups.  If it isn’t working, maybe you haven’t worked the point long enough.  Instead of five ball table tennis rallies, maybe you need to be mentally and physically prepared for 15 ball rallies.  Maybe you are looping all the balls to the middle, why not try to serve backspin deep to the sharp angles and loop wider and push wider?  Maybe you are looping at 50% speed and you need to ramp it up to 80% speed.  You see, even within the framework of the basic table tennis tactics, there are always adjustments within the tactics that can make you more dangerous.  I have used these tactics for years and haven’t lost to a long-pips blocker table tennis player for at least 15 years.

#7 Practice

Before your upcoming table tennis match against that long-pips legend, try your best to find a long-pips practice partner and warm-up for 20-30 minutes against him.  Chances are that the long-pips opponent is used to playing against your style.  If you can have a 20 minute adjustment period prior to the match, then the adjustment will be much easier when you actually begin the real battle!

By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach

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Table Tennis Tip - Devastate the Offensive Chopper

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There are many different types of choppers in table tennis; however, I’m going to lump all the choppers together into two categories ― offensive choppers and defensive choppers.  Today, I’ll be talking about the offensive chopper ― he likes to move back from the ping pong table, chopping with pips on his backhand, while fishing and counter looping with his forehand.  Even though he is away from the table, he is looking for the opportunity to move in and smash with his backhand or loop with his forehand.  He wins about half of his points with consistency and half with his power shots.  If you are having a difficult time picturing this style, I recommend that you watch some YouTube videos of Hou Yingchao or Chen Weixing.  Watch how they win points with offense and defense and watch how they are looking for every opportunity to step in and rip a winner.

Tactics:

Rubber - Before starting the table tennis match, make sure that you inspect your opponent’s rubber – especially the backhand side to see if he is using short pips or long pips and to see if it has sponge and to see if it has friction or not.  Also, during the course of the match, watch your opponent carefully to see which side of the table tennis racket he is using.  Choppers are very good at twiddling so that they can use inverted or pips on the backhand.

Consistency - At the start of the table tennis match, try to evaluate your own consistency as well as your opponent’s consistency.  If you are more consistent, then focus on playing steady and allow the chopper to panic while going for wild shots.  If your opponent is more consistent, then you will need to find ways to finish the point early or give enough variations to lower his consistency.

Opportunity - Choppers prefer to push, chop, and loop deep.  It is vitally important that you be able to move in-and-out against a chopper.  If he mistakenly chops a ball short, you should see the opportunity and move in for a stronger loop.  If he fishes or counter loops, you will likely need to move back slightly to continue looping, if he chops again, you will need to move forehand to continue looping.  This is one of the main differences of playing a chopper vs playing an offensive looper.  Typically when playing topspin, you prefer to stay about the same distance from the table.  When playing a chopper, you often need to move in-and-out, out-and-in, in-and-out, out-and-in based on which shot he plays and the depth, height, and spin quality of the shot.

Transition Point - When attacking, the main location to loop the ball is spinny to the middle transition point.  Sometime it will take about 8-10 loops to win a point spinning over and over again to the backhand.  Sometimes you may not want to risk going to the wide forehand because you are afraid of the counter loop, so often the middle will be your preferred location.  When you loop spinny and deep to the middle and your opponent decides to backhand chop, he will then be slightly out-of-position for the next ball.  The next ball you should loop slightly further to the forehand (about 3-4” further to the forehand) or possibly target the wide angle backhand.  Regardless of what you choose next, you are forcing him to move into an awkward position in the middle.  When you loop spinning and deep to the middle and your opponent decides to forehand counter loop, this will again be an awkward ball for him because he is contacting the spinniest back location on the ball.  Most counter looping choppers prefer to reach to the forehand and contact the side of the ball for a lateral sidespin counter loop; this makes is much easier to counter loop because they will only be feeling about 50% of the spin when contacting the side of the ball.  For this reason, most of your loops should be spinny to the transition point.

Short Forehand - It is difficult and sometimes unnecessary to continually loop over and over again.  Sometime you need to push short to bring the chopper in.  If you push short and low to the forehand, the chopper will have an awkward time smashing the low ball.  Once you bring him forward, then try to attack the middle or wide backhand.

Deep Backhand - If you loop deep and he chops deep, it will be difficult for you to push short.  If you choose to push and can’t go short, then usually pushing deep to the backhand is preferred.  Even if the chopper knows how to backhand loop, it is very difficult to move in from 12’ back and backhand loop.  The only time that I would recommend pushing deep to the forehand is when the chopper is looking to pivot from the backhand side and play a strong forehand loop from the backhand.

Plan B - Typically, the offensive chopper can adjust his style playing more aggressively with his forehand counter loop, more passively with fishing and chopping, or even go to blocking from near the table.  As the table tennis match progresses, you also need to be willing to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation.  Just because you won the first game 11-1, doesn’t necessarily mean that that particular tactic will work the entire match.  Take your time between points, re-evaluate, and play smart to beat the offensive chopper.

Check out this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdzBiIty6BI

By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach

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Table Tennis Tip - Devastate the Defensive Chopper

Newgy Robo-Pong

In table tennis, there are two general types of players.  There are players who win most of their points by hitting strong shots; against these opponents, you need to stop their big guns.  Then, there are players who keep the ball on the table and win most of their points from YOUR errors.  Against these opponents, you need to eliminate mistakes, be selective, be consistent, and look for the right opportunity to dominate with your game.  The defensive chopper falls into the second category.  The defensive chopper might occasionally attack against a very easy ball, but he is looking to win about 9-10 points per game from your errors.  So what if you just pushed and pushed and pushed, would that be a good plan?  Well considering the fact that he specializes in pushing and chopping, you probably won’t outlast him.  So what should be your plan?  The plan is the keep the game simple, eliminate errors, and go for strong smashes and loops AT THE RIGHT TIME.  You can relax knowing that your opponent won’t hurt you.  You have plenty of time to work the point and play tactically.

Equipment - Before you begin the table tennis match, check his table tennis racket to see what type of rubber he is using.  Often times, choppers have inverted on the forehand and pips on the backhand, so be sure to check if he is using long or short pips.  Long pips will give you more of your own spin back when you are looping and short pips will give more variation.

Serve - When serving against the chopper, I would recommend serving deep no spin serves with good placement variation.  Especially deep serves to the middle tend to be difficult to return with quality.  Also, try serving short topspin to the forehand.  If the chops pushes it, it often comes back high.  If the chopper flips it, then you can immediately begin with a quick attack before he has time to get into position.

Receive - Get the ping pong ball on the table.  This player doesn’t attack.  There is no reason to try to rip the heavy backspin serve sharp to his wide backhand.  Just make a simple loop or push with plenty of arc and begin the rally.  REMEMBER, he is counting on YOUR errors in order to win.

Rallies - Again, be consistent in the table tennis rallies mixing up pushes and loops.  Hopefully, within the first 1-5 balls, he will chop high enough for you to hit a power shot.  If he is good at keeping it low, then also consider pushing and looping higher. 

Placement - Playing to the middle of the ping pong table and using the angles are often good.  If the chops and pushes are coming deep to you, then attacking the middle is usually better.  If you get a short one, then go for a sharp angle push followed by a sharp angle attack the other direction.

Mindset - You mindset needs to be shifted slightly.  I know that you have programmed yourself to loop all the long balls and to loop low and deep with decent power.  However, if you begin losing then you must change your mindset.  Slow down about 5000 rpms, calm down, take some deep breaths, and remind yourself to work the point longer.

Fatigue - During the long table tennis matches, fatigue might become an issue.  Remember that you as the offensive table tennis player will likely tire out before the chopper.  With this in mind, try to take at least 8-10 seconds between points.  Even if you are winning initially, try to resist the temptation to play the next point fast.  Think of the table tennis match as a marathon, not a sprint.

Practice - As with all the various types of opponents in table tennis, making proper adjustments is important.  With a few minutes of pushing and controlled looping practice before the beginning of the table tennis match, you can physically and mentally be prepared to control the match against the chopper, work the point, and go for it at the right time!

By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach

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