It seems to me that most table tennis players are pretty smart. And some of them have plenty of credentials to prove it. Doctors, lawyers, professors, graduate students, engineers, and all types of players with college degrees can be found at table tennis clubs. One can also find plenty of players who seem to know an awful lot about table tennis and seem to enjoy talking about it nearly as much as playing it. All of this would seem to make sense, given that table tennis is now being recognized as perhaps the best sport for the brain.
How literally can we take this claim about our sport’s effect on the brain? Assuming there is something to it, what can we expect would be the effects of regular play? Even casual players view playing as a positive experience that gets them moving, forces some degree of concentration, and provides interaction with others. All of these things are generally good for us, but are they actually helping us get smarter?
Aerobic exercise is also considered very good for the brain. Having been a distance runner and a table tennis player, my suspicion is that both of these activities do in a sense make you smarter, but not in the way that we normally speak of intelligence. Walking, running, and other aerobic activities appear to be good for brain health, much in the same way that they are good for your heart and lungs. A healthier brain may in fact function much better than one with poor blood flow, so the aerobic exercise may be said to make you smarter.
Training for distance running is, in some ways, much easier than table tennis training. There is definitely some strategy involved in running, but most of the training is designed to make the body stronger. While it might be possible to be successful at running with only minimal use of the brain, such could never be said about table tennis.
Table tennis intelligence is actually much more than strategic thinking in a match. Strategy may just be the icing on the cake when it comes to how your brain affects your play. Most table tennis coaches realize that when they work with a player on strokes, footwork, hand skills, and balance, they know that they are really training the brain. Consider a typical forehand drive that occurs during a rally. Yes, the eyes see the ball. Ears hear the sound off of the opponent’s racket. Feet move to the proper location. Muscles prepare for the shot. The ball is felt through the paddle in the hand and finger tips. All of this happens, but it is all coordinated by the brain.
Perhaps table tennis players are a little smarter than most, but not because of any formal education or high IQ tests. Playing regularly, and especially training with enough intensity to make it a truly aerobic workout, will boost your table tennis intelligence. There are plenty of smart people playing our sport. In my own experience, I came across a club player who was in fact a mathematical genius and former National Scrabble Champion. He was also pretty good at table tennis. In the same club there was a player with very little formal education, but he played, coached, and trained nearly every day. Needless to say, he was by far the better player and – in my opinion – had a higher table tennis IQ. If we want to play at a higher level, no book or video can do it for us. If playing table tennis makes us have a healthier brain, won’t we also get better at table tennis when we train in a way that gives our brain a real workout?