(by Larry Hodges)
Table tennis is often advertised as a sport that all can play, where size makes no difference. However, it’s not necessarily true. While you don’t have to be tall to win (1971 World Champion Stellan Bengtsson at 5’5″ and three-time World and 2-time Olympic Women’s Singles Champion Deng Yaping was 4’11”), or short (four-time US Men’s Champion Jim Butler, 6’5″, or 1989 World Men’s Doubles finalists Zoran Kalinić/Leszek Kucharski, 6’5″ and 6’4″ respectively), being big or small does make a difference tactically and in choosing a playing style. It’s how you use what you have that counts. Current world #1 Fan Zhendong of China isn’t particularly tall at 5’8″. Here are some relatively current players:
- Tomislav Pucar (Croatia), 6’5½”, current men’s world #45, and #30 in 2020.
- Omar Assar (Egypt) 6’5¼” (196 cm), current men’s world #24, and #16 in 2018.
- Koki Niwa (Japan), 5’4″, who retired in Nov., 2022, was men’s #5 in world in 2017 and had 17 monthly rankings in the top ten.
- Mima Ito (Japan), 5′, current women’s world #6, and #2 in 2020.
Taller players generally have an advantage in power and reach. They have extra power primarily because a longer body (and especially playing arm) provide a naturally longer swing. They also create extra power by putting their weight into the shot. The extra reach allows them to more easily reach short balls and balls to the wide corners. However, the extra reach brings out a weakness: the center weakness. The farther apart the forehand and backhand strokes are (with the elbow roughly marking the midpoint), the larger the area that a player has to decide whether to use a forehand or a backhand, and the more the player has to move to cover for it.
The advantage of reach for a tall player can backfire. Shorter players have no choice but to move, and so are often forced to develop good footwork. Taller players aren’t forced to move as often, and so they often do not develop good footwork. To compensate, taller players need to really focus on developing their footwork.
Shorter players have an advantage in foot quickness. The lower a player’s mass, and the closer to the ground it is, the quicker the start. Taller players can compensate somewhat by bending their knees, using a wide stance, and crouching to lower their center of gravity. However, the larger muscles of a larger player do not fully compensate for their size, although training can. But a shorter player who trains equally will tend to be quicker.
The reason the larger muscles of a larger player don’t quite compensate for their extra mass is that mass increases to the cube, while muscle strength goes up to the square. In other words, if you double in height without changing proportions, you become four times as strong, but your mass goes up eight times – so your relative strength is actually half what it was before. That’s why insects and birds have such thin legs, while elephants and humans have relative tree-trunks for legs.
A shorter player also has an advantage in hand/arm quickness, both because the arm weighs less and because a shorter limb is easier to move quickly than a longer one, due to leverage.
Size is not the only factor in quickness. Constant practice of a specific motion increases quickness as the nervous system learns to react faster and faster. It’s called neuromuscular adaptation and is why an advanced player reacts to a shot faster than a beginner. The type of muscle also makes a difference – “fast-twitch” muscles move quicker than “slow-twitch” muscles, which are primarily for stamina. Everybody is born with a certain percentage of each, but training can change the composition to an extent, as well as the efficiency of the muscles. Great sprinters have mostly fast-twitch muscles, while distance runners have more slow-twitch.
A shorter player also has a slight advantage in reflexes. Nerve impulses travel from the brain to the muscles at about 300 feet per second (205 mph), and so a shorter player reacts slightly faster. If the distance from the brain to the wrist on two players differs by one foot, the shorter player will be able to change his racket angle about 1/300 second faster than the taller player. A 70 mph smash travels about four inches in that time–and table tennis is a game of inches. But the taller player can simply back up maybe four inches or more, and use their longer reach to cover the slightly extra angles that allows the opponent, and use their extra power to make up for the slight loss of quickness.
An extremely tall player has a disadvantage in that the table is only 30 inches high. To compensate, a tall player must learn to stay very low, which can be hard on their legs. However, the tall player has an advantage in hitting lobs, which shorter players may have great difficulty with.
None of the above should be taken as gospel when choosing a playing style. There are very quick players who are tall, and powerful players who are short. (In fact, some short players use their natural quickness and lower center of gravity to throw their entire bodies into the shot even in fast rallies, and so develop great power.) But as a guideline, the above is a short summary to what tall and short players have to deal with and how to do so.
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