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This column discusses the use of a table tennis robot in learning ping pong strokes, styles, and techniques. Richard McAfee is one of America's most active and recognized coaches. Certified as an International Coach by USA Table Tennis, he was selected as a USOC (US Olympic Committee) Developmental Coach of the Year. He organized and directed the Eastern Table Tennis Training Center and the Anderson College Table Tennis Team. He served as the Table Tennis Competition Manager for the 1996 Summer Olympics and recently was selected as an ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) Pro Tour Director. Currently he is Head Table Tennis Coach at the prestigious Sporting Club At Windy Hill in Atlanta, GA.
As table tennis athletes progress in table tennis, they pass through very definite stages of development. In order for students and their parents to understand where they are in this process, I created a tool called the “Table Tennis Pyramid of Success”. The Pyramid shows the nine developmental stages that athletes go through in their journey to becoming a complete player.
Table Tennis Pyramid of Success
Stage 1 – Basic Stroke Technique
At this stage, athletes are simply learning the fundamental techniques of the game such as basic strokes, elementary spin theory, simple serve and return, and the rules of the game.
Stage 2 – Basic Stroke Combinations
Once the student can control the basic strokes, the coach then begins to combine these strokes together to form combinations, bringing together both forehand and backhand techniques. This combining of strokes also requires that the student begin to move more, and lessons in footwork start during this stage.
Stage 3 – The 5-Point System
When the student can control the basic stroke combinations, the focus is turned to learning how to play points. As most points in a game are finished by the 5th stroke, the emphasis is placed on the first 5 possible strokes of a game. As all points must begin with either a serve or a return, these techniques are stressed during this stage. Third and fifth ball attacks are introduced, as well as 4th ball counter attacks or defense. The goal of this stage is to move the student from thinking of executing one stroke at a time, into planning out whole points.
Stage 4 – Style Awareness
During stage three, the student’s natural style begins to express itself. It can be seen in how the student chooses to begin putting their points together. Does the student naturally prefer to hit rather than loop? Does the student have natural early or late timing? Does the student prefer to play close to the table or at mid-distance? These and other telltale signs start to show as the student learns to play whole points. During this stage, students are introduced to the basic styles of the game through written materials and the use of videotapes. Students are told to watch the better players at their table tennis club and place these players into style categories. Finally, students write down a complete description of what they want their style to become.
Stage 5 – Advanced Stroke Techniques
Now that the student understands what their style will be, they must begin to learn the advanced techniques necessary to complete that style. What these techniques are will vary greatly from style to style. Pips-out hitters, all-round topspin attackers, and choppers all need to learn very different techniques. It is at this level that many athletes get stuck and do not advance. While levels 1–4 can be reached with a minimum of coaching assistance, Stage 5 really requires the personal services of a competent coach.
Stage 6 – Advanced Stroke Combinations
Once these advanced techniques are learned, they must be combined with the student’s existing strokes and blended into the desired style of play. During this stage, the 5-Point System is revisited and practiced using the new combination of advanced strokes. Again, this stage requires a lot of personal attention from the coach to keep the student on track.
Stage 7 – Self-Awareness
At this stage, the athlete has all the physical tools necessary to execute their desired style of play. The focus at this level of development is on gaining match experience and learning how to use their style to defeat opponents. As the athlete is still somewhat inexperienced, they are focused more on what they are attempting to do than on what their opponent is doing. The student has become self-aware but does not yet focus outward towards their opponent.
Stage 8 – Refining Style
As athletes begin to gather more and more match experience, they will continually make small corrections and additions to their style of play. Ideally, athletes will return to this stage over and over again throughout their competitive life. When an athlete stops learning and improving their game, their development is over.
Stage 9 – Full Awareness
This is the stage of development that all athletes strive for. It is often called “the peak experience”. During this stage, the athlete is almost totally focused outside himself. Fully aware athletes often report feelings of time moving slower, the ball appearing larger, and feeling that they can do anything they want to with the ball. While most athletes experience this “peak experience” at some point in their lives, the fully aware athlete can reproduce this experience much more often.
Please remember that an athlete’s development does not follow rigid, set stages. Rather, it flows as a process with each athlete spending more or less time in any one stage, as needed. Movement is not always in an upward direction. Sometimes, an athlete will need to return to a lower stage to correct some problem or learn material that was missed.
Most coaches feel that it takes about ten years of training to take an athlete to the top of their game. Hopefully, the Table Tennis Pyramid of Success will give you a guide to understanding your own development in reaching your goals. While many try to become champions, only a few actually make it. For that reason, I always stress to students, “that the quality of your journey is more important than your destination”.