(By Larry Hodges)
Developing your table tennis game is a steady progression from the simple to the more complex. Many players, however, get stuck at the beginning or intermediate stage, and never move on toward developing the more advanced parts of their game. It’s a common syndrome–players spending year after year trying to completely perfect their most basic shots, and refusing to learn anything more advanced until the basic shots are (in their mind) perfected–and so they never improve as fast as they should. It’s sort of like a sprinter spending all his time trying to perfect his walk while his rivals are practicing sprinting. Decide for yourself where you fit in the following six steps, and work your way toward the final step. It’s not an exact thing–even when you are doing drills from Step Six, you should still be doing some of the drills from all five earlier steps.
Although most of the drills given below are simple rallying-type drills, as you get more advanced, you should begin many drills with serve & receive techniques to simulate game situations. For example, rather than have your partner serve a simple topspin serve to start a drill, have him serve deep backspin, you loop, partner blocks, and the drill continues. Or partner serves short, you flip the short ball, and continue the drill. Or partner serves backspin, you push, partner attacks, you counter-attack, and the drill continues.
In all drills below, whenever your forehand or backhand is mentioned, that means either a drive or a loop – you decide. If you’re a beginner, mostly drive. As your loop becomes more advanced, use the loop more often. However, make sure you can do each drill competently with a drive before doing it with a loop. I’d recommend using your forehand loop in as many of the drills as possible as soon as possible. Depending on your style and level of play, you may also use the backhand loop in many of the drills. (Drills are written as if there were two righties; lefties should adjust.)
Step One: Stroke & Stroke Before you can run, you have to learn to walk. In table tennis, that means you have to learn the strokes before you can use them in more advanced drills. In practice, this means:
- Forehand to Forehand Cross-Court
- Backhand to Backhand Cross-Court
- Forehand to Backhand Down-the-Line
A common mistake is to over-practice the strokes by doing simple forehand to forehand, backhand to backhand, etc., over and over, session after session, sometimes for years. You have to start out this way, but don’t spend too much time each session on this. Once you can hit 20 in a row with good form, you can start doing drills from Step 2. However, you do need to make the strokes automatic–which means you should start most sessions with the basic forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand for 5-10 minutes until you can consistently get 20-100 in row. As the shots become more instinctive, spend less and less time doing forehand to forehand, etc. Think of this as a simple warm-up, and do no more than 2-5 minutes each session as you warm up each shot. Use the more advanced drills to fully warm up your shots.
Step Two: Move & Stroke Now it’s time to add footwork to your strokes. You have to learn to move to the ball.
- One-One Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide forehand, one ball to your middle forehand. You move back and forth, hitting all forehands and returning each ball to the same spot for your opponent, either his backhand or forehand.
- One-One Forehand Footwork from Backhand Corner. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one ball to the middle of the table. You return each with your forehand, moving side to side
- One-One Backhand Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide backhand, one to your middle backhand. You move side to side, returning each ball with your backhand.
Step Three: Different Strokes Now it’s time to combine your forehand and backhand strokes. Here are some drills you can do:
- Forehand-Backhand Alternating. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one to your forehand. You alternate hitting backhand and forehand, returning each ball to the same spot (either partner’s forehand or backhand).
- Two-One Drill (Falkenberg Drill). Partner hits two balls to your backhand, one ball to your forehand, then repeats sequence. You return the first ball with your backhand, step around your backhand corner and return the second ball with your forehand, then move to your wide forehand and return the third ball with your forehand.
- Cross-Court/Down-the-Line. Partner hits every ball down-the-line, while you hit every ball cross-court. Ball will travel in a figure eight. Next, you hit down the line, partner hits cross-court.
Step Four: Choose & Stroke Now it’s time to add some randomness to your drills. This is the step that many players never get to as they spend eternity trying to develop the perfect forehand or backhand. The key thing in this step is to keep it a simple choice between only two possibilities. Here is the key drill:
- Random side-to-side. Partner hits ball either to middle forehand or middle backhand. You return with either forehand or backhand, depending on where ball is going. Keep the footwork and stroking practice here to a minimum–the key thing to work on here is making the choice between forehand and backhand, and smoothly executing the stoke. Try not to anticipate; just react. You shouldn’t be moving in one direction, and then have to change directions. Make sure your first move is in the correct move.
Step Five: Choose & Move Now it’s time to combine decision-making, stroking and footwork. Don’t just use the drills given below–make up your own! There are an infinite number of potential drills.
- Random Forehands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your forehand side. You move to each ball and return with a forehand.
- Random Backhands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your backhand side. You move to each ball and return with a backhand.
- Backhand-Random Forehand. Partner hits one ball to wide backhand, one ball to either middle of table or wide forehand. You alternate hitting backhand from backhand corner, and forehand either from middle or wide forehand, depending on where your partner hits the ball.
- Random Deep Serves. Partner serves either deep to your forehand or deep to your backhand. Depending on your playing style and foot speed, you can attack either with forehand or backhand, and continue with any drill sequence, or attack all serves with forehand, and continue with any drill sequence.
- Alternate Two-One. Same as the Two-One (Falkenburg) given in Step 3, except after hitting the second ball to backhand, partner has option of either hitting to wide forehand (as in normal two-one) or hitting third ball to your backhand, and then going to your wide forehand. If partner hits third ball to your backhand, you return with your backhand–smoothly, without starting to move to your wide forehand.
Step Six: Whole Table Now it’s time to pull out all the stops and most of the rules and play almost like you were in a match.
- Whole Table Random. Partner hits balls to all parts of table, randomly. You return with forehand or backhand.
- Serve & Attack. You serve backspin, partner pushes anywhere on table. You attack (mostly by looping), either with all forehand, or with forehand or backhand, depending on your playing style and footspeed.
And now you can do Step Seven, the ultimate random: Matches!