Twenty five miles per hour….That’s not very fast. Professional baseball pitchers can throw four times faster. A really well hit table tennis ball might go fifty miles per hour, but 25 mph is the speed that most players play at. If you spend a lot of time hitting with beginners, you start to appreciate the difference between balls hit much slower than 25 mph and the occasional 50 mph smash from more experienced players. The truth is that a ball hit a mere 10 mph will still travel the length of the table in less than a second. Twenty five mph is not fast for a car, but it is pushing the limits of how fast a human being can react appropriately in table tennis.
It takes about a third of a second to blink your eyes. It takes less than a second to smile, frown, cough, delete an email, or play one beat on a drum. We tend to think that a second is the absolute smallest measurement of time. Nobody has ever said, “I’ll be back in a few milliseconds.” Milliseconds, microseconds, nanoseconds, and picoseconds are relevant in table tennis. Perhaps we don’t need to think in terms of picoseconds, since it takes a trillion of them to make one second, but you get the idea. Table tennis moves fast, and what happens in fractions of seconds determines the outcome of points, and ultimately matches.
Determining the speed of an incoming ball, moving to the right position, and deciding what type of shot to execute, are all decisions that will have to be made in less than a second. Some of these decisions will have to be made simultaneously, requiring microsecond multitasking. The difference in two players could be the speed at which they can process information during a rally. If one player is completely comfortable with balls hit at 25 mph, they will have a huge advantage over the player who can only handle balls coming five miles per hour slower.
The implications of fractions of seconds can be seen in nearly every aspect of table tennis. We’re just not used to considering how long a ball stays on a paddle, or how a extra tenth of a second might affect us. Backing off from the table allows for a little more time to operate, as the ball slows down, and has to go further. You’re still having to react in less than a second. To really get a good idea of how long a second is, try turning on a stopwatch, and immediately turning it back off. It will probably take about .15 seconds to accomplish this. This small increment of time is approximately one seventh of a second. That’s about how much time you’ll have to react to some shots. If you play table tennis, you should never be thinking in terms of seconds. You’ll need to think smaller than that. Let that sink in for a picosecond.