Table Tennis or Ping Pong?
First thing’s first. Table Tennis is the same thing as Ping Pong. Ping Pong is just the commercial/brand name for the game. Originally the International Table Tennis Federation was going to be called the International Ping Pong Federation but since it was trademarked they needed to find an alternative. Ping Pong was simply the most recognised brand at the time. It’s still widely used and is considered synonymous with Table Tennis. But I’m sure there are puritans who insist it’s “Table Tennis” but it’s really not worth arguing the point. Same game, same rules.
tl:dr – They’re the same thing.
WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG POST! The reason why is because it’s no small thing to try and summarise the entire sport into one article. Sure, I could go half-assed into it and just muddle about with vague descriptions but I really want this to be a one stop shop for anyone looking for an answer about the game. So bookmark it if you need to, use the navigation menu to the right of this text, or grab a cuppa and get comfortable. Here goes…
Table Of Contents
- Table Tennis or Ping Pong?
- How Do You Play Table Tennis (Ping Pong)?
- Table Tennis Fundamentals
- Shots & Techniques
- Returning Serve
- The Loop
- The Lob
- The Chop
- The “Push”
- The Drop
- The Drive
- The Counter Drive
- The Block
- The Smash (AKA: The Kill)
- Adding Spin
- Strategies & Tactics
- Comp Prep & Conditioning
- Lessons & Coaching
How Do You Play Table Tennis (Ping Pong)?
In many ways, Table Tennis is similar to a game of normal tennis, but smaller. One of the best ways to learn how to play the game is to watch some of the excellent players on youtube. Throughout the article, I’ve linked to some excellent videos to demonstrate the techniques, rules or scoring. There are also some pretty neat trick shots too. Basically, it’s a points scoring game usually played 1 on 1, but can be played 2 on 2 a well. (Unless otherwise specified I will be referring to the 1 on 1 match)
Table Tennis rules in a nutshell:
- A match is played best out of 5 games usually… but can be best out of any number of odd games. (ie, best 3/5 or best 5/7 or 9/11 etc)
- Games are scored first to 11 points, but you must win by 2.
- If both players achieve 10 points each then play continues until one side achieves a lead of 2 points, who is then the winner.
- After each completed game the players switch sides.
- Points are scored each time the ball is put into play. (This differs from squash or volleyball where you must be serving in order to win the point)
- The entire upper surface of the table is playable area, but the sides of the table are not.
- A coin toss is used to determine who serves first.
- Each player serves once, and then the serve swaps to the other player who then serves once.
- A legal serve begins with the ball resting in the open palm and then tossed at least 6 inches into the air. The ball is then hit to bounce on the server’s side, over the net, and then on the receivers side of the table.
- A let (replay of the serve with no point awarded) is called if the serve is legal but it touches the net on the way over. (There are other forms of Let but this is the most common. Clarification below)
- In singles, the serve can start at any point on the table and can be delivered to any point on the opposite side of the table.
- In doubles, the servers on the same team take turns and must serve diagonally across the table to the opposite corner.
And that’s the basic version of the Table Tennis (Ping Pong) rules!
Scoring in Table Tennis
You can get access to the official rules book here if you need to clarify any points: 2017 ITTF Handbook (pdf)
OK, so we covered the basic gameplay above, but how do we keep score?
Well, the goal is to win 3 out of 5 games to 11 (each game to 11 must be won by 2 points)
Points are scored up to 11 and you can only ever win points (ie, your score doesn’t go down if you lose a point! But your opponent’s goes up by 1)
Here’s the important stuff.
You will win a point in table tennis if:
- Your opponent fails to make a correct service (excluding a let)
- Your opponent fails to make a correct return (ie, hits it off the table)
- The ball passes through the net or between the net post and the net or under the net after being struck by your opponent.
- The ball touches anything other than the net after being struck by your opponent. (ie, hits it into the roof and it bounces back onto the table)
- Your opponent strikes the ball twice in succession deliberately
- Your opponent’s clothing moves the playing surface or net assembly
- Your opponent obstructs the ball
- Your opponent’s free hand touches the playing surface
There are other rules but they’re mostly specific to disabled players and the doubles game. If you need to narrow down those rules too then I suggest you check out the official guide book)
Note: I’ve published a Big List of Table Tennis Tips, Tricks & Strategies all in one place too so check it out if you’re looking for a great strategy guide to help you hone your skills!
tl:dr – Make your opponent make mistakes by keeping the ball in play and forcing them into awkward positions. When they mess up, you score a point.
A let is defined as any stoppage of play that is not scored. This can occur for a number of reasons like an external interference, or the player not being ready when the serve is made, but usually it’s a result of the ball hitting the net and going over on the serve.
The let on serve is a fault on the service which is granted if everything about the serve was correct except it collided with the net and went over to the opponent’s side. If a let occurs, the serve is replayed with no penalty. Any number of lets are allowed.
tl:dr – If the serve hits the net and goes over into court then a let is called. Other lets exist but are less common.
Table Tennis Etiquette
If you’ve played any competitive sport you’re probably familiar with the majority of these “rules” of etiquette, as it’s usually just a sense of respect for the game, the players and the referee that hold true. However, in the spirit of being specific, I will go ahead and list through some of the essentials of Table Tennis Etiquette.
- Obey The Rules. This is pretty much a no-brainer, but still catches some people. If you’re in a competition, agree on the rules before the game and stick to them. It’s pretty rude to debate the rules part way through the game, so get it sorted before you even start. If you’re playing casually or against kids, just remember: you’re there to have fun and practice more than to win. So, unless you’re specifically working on improving understanding of regulations, then just let it go. It’s just not worth it. If in doubt, check the complete and official Table Tennis Rules here: http://www.old.ittf.com/ittf_handbook/ittf_hb.html
- Serve Correctly. This is an extension of the “Obey The Rules” but worth mentioning as many players try to fudge this one. Make the serve visible & “The Serve shall start with the ball resting freely on the OPEN palm of the server’s STATIONARY free hand.” (2.06.01)
- Shake Hands at the end of the game. When the game is over, it’s good manners to shake your opponent’s hand. In addition, you should shake hands with the umpire, your opponent’s coach and your own coach.
- Be honest. If a call is made in your favour that’s incorrectly called, point it out so the correction can be made. Your integrity is worth more than the point, especially if you needed dishonesty to win it.
- Help each other warm up. Remember, the match hasn’t started yet so don’t worry about “winning” the warm up. It doesn’t matter. There’s great advantage to seeing how your opponent plays during warm up, so let them show off their shots a bit while you defend.
- Apologise if you miss-hit a shot. Even if you win the point, it’s better to win on purpose and respect the skill of the game. It’s common to lift your index finger as acknowledgement if this occurs.
- Don’t celebrate a lucky point. Or if you’re a spectator, don’t cheer a lucky point. This can upset the opposing player.
- Don’t celebrate too much. It’s great to win, but being a good sport means being a bit humble about it too. If you make a lot of noise or fist pumping when you win it can be considered being rude to your opponent.
- Respect your opponent’s equipment. When inspecting their racket before the match, be sure not to put your hands on the rubber playing area as this can disrupt the surface causing it to respond differently. Look with your eyes to see what kind of surface it is, then get on with the game.
- Don’t hit stuff. Hitting the table with your hands or racket is bad form and can get your game defaulted. Same goes for other abusive behaviour like swearing, yelling, throwing things, hitting the balls away or any other similar behaviour.
- Call the score at the start of each game and before each point (umpire). It’s the umpire’s job to call the score before each point in a way that’s audible to both players. If you’re playing a casual game with no umpire, the server is to call the score before they serve stating their own score first, followed by their opponent’s.
- Don’t wipe your hands on the table. It can be considered a delay tactic, but not only that, it transfers oils to the table making it dirty, and can impact the playing surface. Your opponent will have to deal with it on the change of sides too. Use the time given in the rules every 6 points to use a towel to dry your hands.
- Don’t bring equipment onto the court. Any equipment like towels or water bottles are to be kept near the umpire’s chair, well away from the area of play.
- Interruptions to play. If there’s an interruption to play, a let should be called and the interruption removed before play is re-commenced. A common example is if a ball is hit from another game into your playing area. If you hit a ball into another game, you should wait until the let is called and the ball is returned. Under no circumstances should you call “let” for the other game just so you can retrieve your ball. Wait for them to complete their point. Usually they’ll return the ball to you, but if they don’t, make sure you ask permission before entering their game space.
- Don’t involve spectators in decision making. If a shot was hard to call, don’t ask spectators to contribute if they thought the ball was in or out. The best thing to do if it’s a one off occurrence is to play a let. If it happens frequently, then an umpire is required.
- Call lets immediately. You don’t get a chance to call a let after the point has been played or the point is over.
tl:dr – It’s not hard to use your common sense when playing Table Tennis either professionally or casually. Respect and patience play a big part of these rules of etiquette and if you can control your emotions during the game it’ll make you a better player anyway.
Here’s a great video with some examples of how professional players behave during a match:
Table Tennis Game Play
One of the best ways to get a handle of how the game flows is to watch some experts go at it. So, check out the following video to see some of the best Table Tennis rallies and points played by the professionals.
Now THAT’S some intense gameplay. Of course, these players have exceptional skill so it’s something to aim for, but notice the way they move around the table. They’re athletes, and Table Tennis isn’t just a kid’s game. This is serious sport!
Table Tennis Fundamentals
Whenever you play sport or participate in strenuous activity of any kind you should warm up your body. Generally speaking, it’s wise to perform whatever task you’re going to be doing, but in a slower and more controlled manner. This way you’ll be warming up the same muscle groups you’ll be using when you perform the exercise. The same goes for cooling down. This lets your body transition easily from a state of high exertion to one of relaxation. Your body will thank you in the long run as this prevents lactic acid build up which is a know cause of muscle soreness and “The Doms” (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) a few days after your exercise.
Contrary to popular belief, static stretching isn’t the best way to warm up before exercising. As stated above, it’s important to emulate the activity you’ll be performing, so if you’ll be making frequent changes of direction, you ought to warm up those muscles involved by activating them. That’s where dynamic stretching is important.
Your muscles and tendons can be thought of as rubber bands, or putty. When it’s cold, they don’t stretch very well and if put under pressure they can even snap or tear. The best way to gain flexibility in these muscles before using them is to put them under tension slowly and with control until they’re warm and “activated” enough for you to be able to perform the activity you intend.
So yes, bounce your stretches. A good warm up for sports like table tennis is skipping. It helps your increase your over all body temperature and heart rate, while also giving your calves and lower body a similar movement as if it were bouncing back and forth changing directions on the court.
Gentle squats, lunges and leapfrogs are another good addition to help warm up that lower body for any major movements you might perform during the game.
Upper body movements that will engage similar muscles would also be useful. Arm swinging, trunk rotations, side bends, circle shrugs etc. Keep your body moving and push gently to gain that elasticity needed, then step right into the warm up to focus on accuracy in your strokes.
After the game or training is complete, incorporate your static stretching to help your muscles maintain length and elasticity.
tl;dr – Dynamic stretch to warm up, static stretching to warm down.
How to grip the racket
There’s a great article over here written by
Ben Larcombe about choosing the best grip for you. So if you’re having trouble with your grip, or you’re a beginner and want to make certain that you’re doing it right so you can develop good grip habits early on then I highly recommend you check it out.
For the rest of us, here’s the low down…
- Firstly, everyone’s hands and grip will be slightly different, so don’t concern yourself with being too exact. Let the results guide you to what works best and adjust accordingly.
- Grip the racket handle softly and loose so as not to create tension.
- Slide your hand up the handle of the bat until the crease of your thumb and index finger collides with the edge of the bat. Your “crease” should align with the edge of the bad nicely so you have equal balanced play between forehand and backhand.
- It should feel very similar to if you were shaking someone’s hand.
- Place your index finger along the backhand rubber to allow you more control. (Don’t let your finger stick over the edge though)
- Develop good grip habits and stick to it. Changing grips mid rally might work while you’re playing at an amateur level but as soon as you progress to the more competitive ranks you’re not going to have time between shots.
tl:dr – Just grip the racket like you’re shaking someone’s hand.
(Note: If you have particularly long fingers you might benefit from a longer handle so your fingers don’t impede your stroke.)
Check Your Stance
Your overall stance should be one of readiness. Feet shoulder width apart, knees bent, leaning forward at the waist, elbow cocked and racket facing forward. You want to be ready to move in any direction when the ball comes to you.
When you set up before the table, check your positioning too. If you’re right handed, set yourself up on the backhand side of the table so you can receive most of your shots on your (more powerful) forehand. Check to make sure your right foot is slightly to the left of the centre line, and your left foot is slightly forward so you face the table at a slight angle.
tl:dr – see the pic. He looks like he’s about to be tackled by a lion. Do that.
How To Move – Your Footwork
Remember, your footwork should be able to set you up to receive the ball and return a powerful shot. You don’t want to be having to reach for the ball. Unnecessary movement should be avoided and economy mastered.
Use a side to side shuffle to allow your body to remain facing the table and ready to receive, and your waist cocked and ready to unleash the shot with precision and power.
When moving left, the left foot slides left first, then the weight shifts to the left foot while the right foot follows behind to settle into a position to take the shot.
You won’t always have time to move completely and become set up to take your shot, so be prepared to adapt on the fly! The combination of shot execution and managing footwork is something that takes practice and is the mark of a good player. It takes time to learn.
Timing of footwork is also important. If you move too early, your opponent might hit the shot to the opposite side to where you’re moving. Too late, and you’ll be stretching to reach the ball… or miss.
Watch the player make his stroke, but don’t move until the’re committed. When you move, move cleanly to the area where the ball is expected to land and make your shot from a stable base (wherever possible).
When you’ve played your shot, get back to your ready stance as quickly as possible. As the game speed increases with your skill, these movements must be made very quickly so be prepared to practice.
tl:dr – Shuffle your feet when you move and try to keep your centre of balance. Move your feet first, then your body. Get in position before playing each shot.
The Forehand Drive (Your Bread & Butter)
The forehand drive is probably the most reliable and effective offensive shot for returning and winning points. The drive is a shot that is hit low and tight over the net, with some light topspin. Keep your arm close and tight to the torso, with your arm drawn back about 30 degrees. Relax your body so your waist turns with the rotation, not just your arm, and your weight is shifted slightly forward onto your right foot.
- Drive forward with your arm in a slightly upward motion, while shifting your weight back onto your left foot as you turn your hips.
- Use the pivoting of your hips to create extra power to your swing.
- Contact with the ball should be made at the top of the bounce, with the racket “closed” (facing at an angle downwards). This will impart topspin to the ball.
The forehand drive is used mostly to put pressure on your opponent so as to force them to make errors. It’s also great for setting up your next shot.
This shot, like every other offensive shot, uses the entire body to deliver power, consistency and accuracy.
tl:dr – See the video above for some great visuals on how it looks.
The Backhand Drive
The backhand drive, like the forehand, is a regularly used offensive stroke used to keep the pressure on and maintain control of the rally. It’s important to develop both forehand and backhand drive to allow you greater flexibility of play, and reduce your opponent’s ability to exploit weakness.
It’s not every day that you find a great video to teach a sporting technique, but this one is perfect. Watch and learn the backhand drive performed perfectly in the video below:
The backhand drive is an attacking shot usually played from closer to the table than a forehand drive. The reason is because there is less freedom to move with the backhand swing. Unlike other racket sports, which have plenty of time and space to create a full backswing turning the body and taking the ball side on, Table Tennis doesn’t allow for that. So the backswing shot is played more in front of the body with the majority of the action occurring from the arm and wrist.
While the shot may be shorter by comparison, don’t let this fool you as it’s a fantastic aggressive shot that, when developed, is an excellent tool in any player’s arsenal.
Combined with the forehand drive, the backhand drive make up 2 of the most fundamental shots played in Table Tennis and ought to be practised regularly. When mastered, the backhand drive will not only help you create room to play winners, but will make up a large proportion of them too.
tl:dr – The backhand drive is an essential shot, while not as aggressive as the forehand, nor used as frequently in long rallies, it’s an excellent tool to keep pressure on to remain in the game.
Shots & Techniques
Wanna see a guy who knows how to serve? Check out the video below.
So, this is not necessarily what we’re going for, but I wanted to share with you an example of an amazing service player who could do it all.
The service is one of the most important parts of the game, especially if it’s your turn to serve!
Following are a variety of options for serving. The more options you have, the better results you will get with your serves.
The short serve is utilised by many professional players as it is great for placing your opponent on the defensive from the start of the rally. A short serve is a serve that would usually bounce multiple times on the other side of the table if allowed. What this does is force the receiver to reach forward to hit a return. This can cause the receiver additional trouble as they cannot get a full swing to the return, therefore reducing their return’s effectiveness even further.
A short serve is delivered in any number of ways, but one of the most common (and effective) is to chop the ball underneath and impart backspin so as to further slow the progress of the ball.
As you practice this method and can get the ball reliably over the net and to die on the other side, try adding a bit of side spin to mix it up a bit.
With backspin, and side spin mastered, move on to the short topspin serve. This is done by chopping or brushing at the ball, the stroke is delivered UP instead. This is a bit more difficult as it will encourage the ball to go deeper but a bit of practice will allow you to surprise your opponent with a faster short serve now and then.
All short serves have one main advantage: They’re hard to attack. This in turn allows you to set up for an aggressive reply to their return, hopefully winning the point in a 3 hit rally.
Introducing spin will allow you to change up your approach based on your opponent’s skill and preferences. So make sure you don’t just have one good serve… get good at a variety so you can keep them on their toes.
Note: A short serve is a great way to keep your opponent busy working on their return, but keep in mind that a short serve is also a serve that can be fairly easily returned short at an angle, resulting in an exchange of short shots which might bring you forward and force you to make the error. To reduce the risk, keep your angles tight and attack the side which they find more difficult to return.
tl:dr – Short serving is the cornerstone of strategic play. Learn to keep your opponent guessing &playing defensively by bringing them forward to the net with your short serves targeting their weak side. Also change it up a bit so they can’t predict your serve.
Serving Mid Court
The mid court serve is a great way to confuse your opponent. While the short serve puts pressure on the receiver (and the deep serve puts pressure on them for a quick reply), the mid court serve is kind of like a surprise attack. The serve is delivered so that it is short enough to bring the player forward, but have them guessing if they can play a full swing on the ball or not. See, if left alone, the mid court serve will bounce twice which leaves the player wondering if they can hit it aggressively or not. If they decide to, they’ll battle with the table for room to cleanly strike the ball. If they decide on a defensive return, the ball has that additional length so as to pop it up nicely so you can clean it up on your reply.
tl:dr – The mid court serve is too long to be returned short, but not long enough to be attacked cleanly. A great serve to confuse your opponent.
The deep serve is normally very fast and directed at one of the corners. Alternatively, the deep serve can be directed at the centre of your opponent’s body to have them second guessing whether to receive on the forehand or backhand side. The deep serve, because it’s fast and low, is ideal when attacking a slower opponent or when you’re looking to catch them off guard. (ie, when they’re expecting a short serve)
One of the most exciting things about racket sports if you ask me is the ability to engage in deception on the serve. Now, I’m not talking about interfering with the ball or hiding it from view on the serve (both illegal btw), I’m talking about getting your opponent off guard and exploiting their expectations.
Of course, as outlined above the depth of the serve is one of the most effective ways to manipulate the ball so as to create variety.
But spin is much easier to disguise and is a more subtle layer of deception.
Now, you’re not allowed to use your free arm to hide the contact of the ball to bat, but there are other ways to make it difficult for your opponent to read your serve.
The way to add spin to the ball deceptively is to use different parts of the racket to contact the ball. So, instead of changing your swing motion (which is easy to read), you’re simply connecting with the ball in a slightly different location.
For example: Through the motion of your swing, the top of the bat moves faster than the bottom (closest to the handle). So, by impacting the ball during the service at, say, the top of the bat, you’ll apply more spin than if you were to hit it closer to the handle. This makes it very hard to detect any change in your serve, since your motion stays consistent, but the results will vary based on the actual impact point! Radical!
The “Double Motion” Serve
Also known as the “Pendulum” serve.
This is much more of an advance skill that takes quite a bit of practice, but once mastered, opens the door to so many options regarding deception. It’s a bit difficult to describe adequately in text, so I’ve done my best to find some video examples so you can see how it works.
Essentially, the motion of the racket is such that as it’s moving toward the ball you have 2 opportunities to hit it. Swing a little early and you can connect with it as your hand swings down and toward your body. Swing a little late and you can hit it as your hand moves away as part of your follow through sending the ball in the other direction.
The shot produces a lot of spin, but not a lot of speed. But that’s the idea. Deception here is the key.
The “High Toss” Serve
This one is not so much a matter of deception, but physics. Essentially, by tossing the ball higher into the air you will allow it to gain more momentum before you strike it with the bat, therefore, you get more action. So in practice, this means your serves can obtain more speed, or spin where a regular serve height would come up short. Generally speaking, it’s easier to read but does give your opponent reason to watch out as something special is coming. Great way to disguise this added build up as a short or slower serve occasionally to really keep them guessing.
tl:dr – The ball gains more momentum on the way down so you can hit or spin it harder.
One of the best ways to practise serving is to get a box of balls and just practice over and over again. Like any skill, you’ll improve through repetition.
Of course, practice many different serves so you can have a lot more options in your tool box for when you’re in competition, but make sure to focus on each one and drill it repetitively until you’ve mastered it.
A typical serving practice drill might be to do 100 short serves, 100 mid length serves and 100 deep serves, then do the same again while adding spin.
Yes, that’s a lot of serving! But remember, if you have a great serve then you will be in good stead to win the rally before your opposition has even played a shot. It’s really worth it to hone this skill so don’t skimp out on the effort here.
Focus on improvement on each previous serve. Don’t worry about every little detail, but just put your attention on just one new improvement each time you hit the ball. If the ball prior went a little to the left, then adjust your racket to compensate and hit it again. If there wasn’t enough spin, focus on adding more spin in the next serve. But don’t try to do both at once. Drill each adjustment until it’s routine and then move forward again with another tweak. The accumulation of minor adjustments will add up to some big changes over time, but don’t underestimate the power of these little changes.
One other major tip I can share for practising (any skill) is to perform the action in practise exactly the way you would in competition. That means, don’t lean forward to pick up another ball immediately once you’ve served in practice. Follow through as though you’re expecting a return. Practice as though you’re in a game. This gets the entire skill integrated into your style, rather than just a soundbite you’ve then got to work to integrate later.
tl:dr – Practice regularly (30-60 minutes at a time) and work on incremental improvements. Nobody got good overnight. Learn multiple serve styles so you have more options in a game.
How to Serve During a Match
When it comes to match time, your serve game should be flexible enough to allow you to choose what approach works best for each opponent.
What that means is, you’re going to need multiple strategies!
For me, rather than trying to be all things at once, I think the best approach is to focus on what YOU’RE best at first, and try to set yourself up to play those shots to win.
So, if my best winning shots are forehand topspin cross court or down the line, then I’m going to try to serve in a way that sets me up to play THOSE shots easily, so I can gain more winners.
Now, this will vary depending on your opponent’s return style and strengths too, so often there’s a period of discovery during the beginning of the match or warm up where you can try to assess your best approach.
A question I often hear is: “Should I practice my serve during warm up?” and my answer is generally: “No”
Sure, hit a few tight serves back and forth to test the other players’ skill in returning, but don’t “practice” your serve to improve it. You’re there to win, training should have been done well before the game.
So test your serve in a variety of ways to see how they respond, but don’t over do it. You want to save up your good stuff for the match
tl:dr – Develop a serving strategy which sets you up to play to your strengths. Test your opponent during warm up to see how they respond to your strategy, and identify weaknesses to exploit with your serve and follow up shots. Don’t give away your strategy up front, and be prepared to change your approach if they alter their style to compensate.
Reading The Spin
Returning To The Best Location
How To Do The Drop Return
How To Do The Flip Return
The Counter Drive
The Smash (AKA: The Kill)
Strategies & Tactics
Tall/Short Player Tactics
Playing a Southpaw
Other Playing Styles
Choosing a Table Tennis Racket
Choosing a Table Tennis Table
Finding a Table Tennis Club
Official Rules & Regulations
Official World Rankings
Comp Prep & Conditioning
Lessons & Coaching