Watching the Ball
by Han Xiao
Today we’re going to discuss something extremely basic: watching the ball. It’s so basic, in fact, that it sounds like it should be obvious that everyone who plays table tennis already knows how to do it. Yet, almost every player I’ve coached from beginners all the way up to national team members has had problems with it at some point.
Failing to watch the ball has several consequences. You may mishit the ball completely or whiff due to a failure to judge the bounce. You might not be able to read that obvious nospin serve where you didn’t quite see the contact by the opponent. Or you just might not be able to react very quickly to the ball and find yourself scrambling every point against a very fast player.
The number one mistake people make in terms of watching the ball is seeing the ball but not paying attention to it and focusing on it. This means that you see where the ball is but you don’t process what the ball is doing and what your opponent is doing. It’s very similar to the difference between hearing something and listening to it. Another mistake people make is not watching the ball enough of the time. Sure, you may not need to see the ball hit your racket, but you should be focused on the ball the majority of the time. An effective way to watch the ball is to focus on the ball from the moment the ball is about to contact your opponent’s racket all the way through to when you begin your motion to contact the ball. Not only do you need to watch the ball, you need to really consciously focus on the ball and think about what it’s doing and where it’s going until it becomes a subconscious habit. The Chinese have a name for this type of skill that roughly translates into “staring at the ball.” This translation is telling, since it implies a far more focused effort than what we generally say, which is watching the ball.
The most basic way to practice this skill is a random drill where you hit to your partner’s backhand, and your partner blocks anywhere on the table. The idea is to be so focused on the ball that you can begin to react as soon as the ball leaves your partner’s racket, rather than waiting until the ball is clearing the net, for example. Many players I’ve coached don’t focus enough on the ball during a drill like this, leaving them slow to react. As a result, they struggle with these types of random drills and feel like they need to guess where the ball is going. Try to improve your reaction time while doing this drill by watching the ball at all times and reacting to it as quickly as possible.
Another area where this skill can help tremendously is the serve and return game. On the return, the benefit involves focusing on the ball enough to process how the ball is bouncing as well as even seeing the rotation or lack of rotation on the ball. If you can see the label of the ball floating towards you, you know that the serve is nospin. If you see the label spinning quickly, you know there is some type of heavy spin on the serve. If you see a subtle change in the bounce of the ball you can use this information to read the serve. You should also be able to react more quickly to any fast deep serves or other changes in the service location by focusing on the ball more. When you serve, focusing on the ball right before the opponent receives can give you a jump on the third ball attack. If you position yourself well, focusing on the ball can be the difference between a quick first step and a strong attack or an off-balance recovery. This is especially important if the opponent makes a fast push or a flip. These are aggressive returns that are easily attackable if you are able to react, but otherwise are very difficult to deal with. Do some drills to practice focusing on the ball on the third ball attack, and see if your reaction time improves by watching the ball through the entire process.
There are plenty of other benefits to focusing on the ball and really watching it. One of the interesting side effects is that it will make you a better doubles player. One of the easiest mistakes to avoid in doubles is watching what your partner is doing too much of the time, especially when your partner is serving or receiving. Watching them too long usually takes away from your reaction time during the point and forces you into poor positions. Instead, if you are trained to focus on the ball, you should face this problem less and be able to make stronger returns in doubles matches, giving your team a big advantage.
Again, watching the ball is something simple and fundamental but extremely important. There isn’t any instructional video or analysis that can really be done to show you how it’s done. There isn’t any real technique involved either. It’s simply one of those things that players can do but forget to do. Discipline and focus are the biggest factors involved, along with repetition in practice. The next time you get a chance to practice, try focusing on the ball more in your drills and see if there is a noticeable difference. I’m willing to bet that watching the ball more will improve your overall game.