by Han Xiao
Table tennis rallies often resemble a game of chicken. Balance and positioning are huge factors in determining which player gets the upper hand and takes the initiative. There are other factors as well, such as technique, but often times one player will begin to lose their balance and center of gravity before the other, especially in lower levels of play. This allows the other player to press the advantage, and this advantage can snowball as the unbalanced player has to scramble to cope with the additional pressure of increasingly stronger shots.
There are a number of reasons why we might lose our balance. The first reason is if we guess the direction of an upcoming shot, and guess wrong. This might be because we made a weak return and expect the opponent to go for the kill, or it simply might be force of habit. We’ve all experienced that moment when we make a weak serve return that pops up, and the opponent hits an easy winner behind us as we try to guess the direction of the finishing blow. Another reason might simply be trying to be very proactive in our movement, especially in prolonged rallies. Intermediate players often try to stay active on their toes to make sure they are moving, which is a very good habit to have. However, too much unnecessary movement can lead to false moves, eventually causing a loss of balance. Yet another reason we might lose our balance is because we feel pressure due to the opponent’s speed, power, or placement puts the ball in a position where we are forced to lean or reach on the run. Some of these reasons may overlap in certain situations, but the end result is the same. We lean or move one way, the ball goes another way, we lose our balance and end up reaching. This leads to slow recovery, weak returns, and poor consistency, and allows the opponent to press their advantage.
To illustrate how movement should be proactive yet minimal if possible, a good player to watch is Oh Sang Eun of South Korea. As we watch him, pay special attention to his movement, his stance, and his overall balance. Here is a clip of some of his better points:
Oh is a taller player overall, which means it can be difficult for him to start, stop, and change direction compared to a smaller and more nimble player. Additionally, he plays quite a reactive style compared to many top players, often scoring on the counterattack rather than taking initiative. As a result, Oh plays a game where he is under a great deal of pressure against most opponents. The opponent is constantly attacking him because he isn’t taking initiative until he sees an opening to put the opponent off balance.
Notice that in these points, Oh only moves enough before the opponent’s shot to put himself in good neutral position where he can easily cover all the angles the opponent can hit to. His excellent positioning means that it’s easy for him to move to the ball once he sees its placement, and doesn’t have to reach or lean much. He does step around and take some risks against some opponents, but that is relatively rare since his strength is on the counterattack. Even under extreme pressure when the opponent is taking the ball early and putting lots of spin and power on the ball, Oh moves very minimally and stays balanced. He doesn’t lean too far to the left or the right, meaning his recovery is very good. We also see that Oh uses smaller strokes and uses the opponent’s pace when he’s under pressure instead of attempting to overpower the opponent. Finally, Oh is really good at moving his opponent out of position using his placement. Once the opponent is in a poor position, Oh surprises them with the next shot’s pace and placement, putting them at a disadvantage for the rest of the point by putting them off balance.
As we can learn from Oh Sang Eun, positioning ourselves properly, keeping our balance as much as possible, and putting the opponent off balance whenever possible is a great way to give ourselves and advantage in matches. Now let’s look at some ways we can practice this:
- In all drills and matches, really focus on putting yourself in good neutral position before the opponent hits the ball. Remember, neutral position depends on where the opponent is hitting the ball from, since you want to be close to the center of the range that the opponent can consistently hit to from his or her shot position. If you’ve hit a shot to the opponent’s wide forehand and both of you are right handed, then your neutral position for the next shot should be just to the right of the center of the table, not in your backhand corner. This is mostly a habit that needs to be trained until it’s second nature, so the more you can do it the better.
- Do some drills specifically designed to have a random element rather than always doing fixed placement drills. For example, one ball from the middle, one ball from either corner is a very common drill for footwork and balance. If you’re practicing forehand looping, allowing your partner to block randomly to half or two thirds of the table is better than doing too much looping from a fixed position. Try not to lean too much. Sacrifice timing for balance sometimes if you need extra time to move to the ball.
- Do full table random drills where your partner can hit anywhere on the table while you hit to your partner’s backhand side. Make sure your partner applies some pressure rather than blocking slowly and softly all the time. Let your partner change the timing and the pace of the ball so you can practice adjusting. If you’re particularly advanced or if you’re a defensive-minded player, do some drills where your partner loops or attacks randomly while you block to one area, so you can practice staying balanced under heavy pressure.
- Don’t forget to practice staying balanced in and out of the table too, not just left and right. Multiball is an easy way to practice this, where the server can serve underspin either short or long anywhere on the table. If you don’t have an easy way to practice multiball, you can have your partner drop shot as many times as he or she wants, followed by a surprise deep push, after which you play the point out.
- Advanced players should focus on doing some physical training, especially drills meant to improve acceleration and change of direction. This can come in the form of something as simple as side to side sprints or shuttle runs. Having more confidence in your ability to start and stop will prevent you from feeling like you need a head start.
- Remember to practice putting your opponent off balance as well. As with practicing neutral position, this is something that you must develop through experience and doing it so often that it becomes second nature. In practice, focus on placing the ball and using timing when you get chances to attack or counterattack rather than hitting the ball as hard as possible. When you find yourself on the defensive, look for some opportunities to place the ball in an awkward spot for the opponent rather than being content to put the ball on the table.
There are many more creative ways to practice your balance. Each player will have different weaknesses since as I mentioned before, there are different reasons why we might lose our balance. Being able to analyze why you are losing balance and then focusing on those areas in practice will yield better results. As always, practicing smarter will lead to more effective practice. I hope that these tips will help you analyze your own movement and balance and improve your game.