Taming the Tennis Player

Introducing tennis players to table tennis strokes

How do you spot a gifted tennis player if they are playing ping pong? If you’ve coached a few tennis players who’ve decided to take up table tennis, it’s not that hard. I’ve never really played much tennis, so I’m not an expert on analyzing tennis strokes. I have developed a pretty good radar for spotting table tennis players who grew up playing tennis. It’s entirely possible to excel at both sports. It’s not possible to play table tennis very well using tennis strokes.

The first thing you will notice with tennis players is that they really hit the ball hard. It’s not that they hit some shots hard. They want to hit every shot hard. They will favor their forehand and have terrible backhands. It’s not all bad though. They never hesitate to move their feet. They have a basic understanding of spin, and good hand-eye coordination. Good tennis players are usually in excellent physical condition. There’s reason to expect that they have great potential as table tennis players.

In order to tap into some of this potential, there’s going to have to be a major makeover. It seems like the best tennis players have the hardest time adapting to learning table tennis strokes. Really solid muscle memory is going to work against the elite tennis player, at least initially. Old habits die hard.

Like most new players, tennis players don’t fully appreciate the significance of spin in their new sport. It will be a challenge to get them to not hit line drives at full speed. You can explain that the table is only a fraction as big as a tennis court, but their brains struggle to adjust. Backhands are particularly problematic. Tennis players will try to hit shots from the side of their body that could easily be played in front of them. They also have over-sized strokes, and are uncomfortable making shots over the table. Blocking and changing speeds don’t come very naturally either.

The reality is that excellence in tennis is not a real advantage for learning table tennis. It could help against novice players, but eventually the skills that are unique to table tennis will have to be learned. To develop tennis players and turn them into table tennis players, you have to tear down some of the tennis skills. In many ways, tennis players should be trained as if they were beginners. They may be very athletic beginners, but they are essentially beginners with really strong forehand attacks. But, even their impressive forehand shots are frequently erratic. 

To tame a tennis player, you’ve got to start with the basic shots. Emphasis should be on consistency. Spin should replace raw power. Extra time should be spent on finesse shots that require a light touch. Extra time will need to be spent on backhand shots. Backhands won’t come very naturally to someone who has spent a life refining their tennis strokes. Tennis players will need to learn to play at a different pace, with different footwork. When they are able to make strong shots, they’ll need to be prepared for fast shots coming back. Tennis players don’t realize they are overhitting. If they can learn not to overhit, they can eventually be tamed. 

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