Back Off! – The Table Tennis Hokey Pokey

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This blog post is not about social distancing. I’m still doing some coaching, and keeping the length of a ping pong table between me and my students or opponents. That’s my preferred distance for most people anyway. 

Even before the recent crisis, I was planning to write about playing at the correct distance from the table. Let’s get started.

  • Playing too close to the table – We all know the obvious problems with playing too close to the table. By giving yourself a little extra space, it’s still easy to step in for short balls, without getting jammed by deep shots. Essentially, it’s easier to step in than to have to suddenly back up. Lots of beginners are playing too close, but more advanced players may find they are occasionally guilty of this as well. If you are playing with a fast racket designed for looping, playing up close is not a good idea. I recently went to a slightly faster setup for my racket and discovered I was going to have to adjust my default position. A little more speed requires a little more space. Even if your game is built around hitting early and staying close to the table, you will still need to be comfortable taking a step back if you have to.
  • Playing in no man’s land – Coach’s need to recognize this type of player early. Some beginners are not used to playing balls over the table. You can identify them by their tendency to start their strokes off the table, even on very short balls. They aren’t skilled enough to back up much, and since they don’t play short balls correctly either, they end up in table tennis limbo; only in position if the ball magically finds them. They’ll need to start learning about judging the depth of shots. Neither moving in or backing off will come easily.
  • Playing too far back – Former tennis players seem to be the worst about backing up too early, and too often. The trend in table tennis is to stay closer to the table than players did twenty years ago. Whatever your reason for playing away from the table, it can work against you. There are good reasons to back up, and occasionally to back up quite a bit. But, if you think you are playing too far back, simply try to gradually move your default depth closer. Train closer, and resist the urge to play around with extended counter- looping (as fun as it is) with other long distance loopers.  

Sometimes it’s necessary to step up, and sometimes you need to back off. The skill of judging the depth of a shot and responding appropriately is often overlooked. It’s up to you to decide which way to go. Good luck! There’s never been a better time to keep your distance.

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