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Table Tennis Tactics - A Simple Framework

K.I.S.S. 4 T.T. Tactics


Table Tennis Tactics - A Simple Framework

Are tactics simple as tic-tac-toe?

© 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Every so often in table tennis, something happens that leaves me scratching my head and wondering if I have been looking at things the wrong way around all this time.

Case in point: table tennis tactics.

When analyzing tactics, we often look at a point on video, watch the result, then go back and work out what happened, treating it as if a player planned it along the lines of - I'll serve here, so he'll probably do that, then I'll do this, and he'll probably do that, and then I can hit a winner.

Based on this method, we have identified a number of tactics that players use during a match. We then tend to think that a player steps up to serve with one of these particular tactics in mind, and tries to execute that strategy. A common analogy is to view table tennis as a type of physical chess match, with each player making moves as part of an overall strategy to win a point, then game, then match.

But is that the way things actually happen?

I was attempting to put together a video on third and fifth ball attacking tactics, and I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities that could occur in even a relatively simple rally.

For instance, assuming that I serve a backspin/sidespin double bounce serve to my opponents backhand, he can probably:

  1. push it
  2. flick it
  3. play it short
  4. play it deep
  5. place it to my forehand side
  6. place it to my backhand side
  7. place it to my playing elbow
Now that is already 2 x 2 x 3 = 12 possible options. If he plays a good short return, I can probably push it or flick it myself, both short and deep, to the same three locations - another 12 possible options. If he plays a long ball, I can now push, loop, or drive the ball, probably deep, but to the same 3 side-to-side locations, this being 3 x 1 x 3 = 9 possibilities.

So now we are 3 strokes into the rally, starting with the same serve, and we already have 12 x 12 (144) + 12 x 9 (108) options - a total of 252 possible variations. Now granted that some of these are less likely than others, but even if you say only 1/10th of the possibilities are likely, that still leaves 25 likely variations in just 3 strokes. How exactly are we supposed to cover every tactical possibility?

Now I could serve perhaps 4 good different short serves (backspin/sidespin, sidespin, or topspin/sidespin, to 3 different locations), so you have maybe 4 x 252 = 1008 different stroke combinations for the first 3 strokes, with maybe 4 x 25 = 100 likely variations.

Do you think that each top player has a set of 100 tactics that he uses? And that's just for short serves!

I can't speak for elite players, but I did do a bit of thinking about how I approach my match tactics and I came up with the following conclusions:

  1. After I hit the ball, I use my experience, combined with knowledge of my opponent, to anticipate what my opponent is likely to do. This allows me to start getting ready for what I think is going to happen. I will also probably start moving towards where I think I need to go.
  2. I then try to read what my opponent is doing before he hits the ball, and while he hits the ball, to confirm my expectations. If I was correct, I can start doing what I had planned. If I was wrong, I need to change my plans based on what has occurred, such as changing my stroke or moving in a different direction.
  3. While watching the incoming ball, I again try to anticipate where my opponent will recover to, and what stroke he will want to play next.
  4. While still watching the incoming ball, I try to use my peripheral vision to read where my opponent actually goes, and how he is preparing for his next stroke. (This is kind of a subconscious thing, I am focused on the ball, but still aware of my opponent).
  5. I then try to use my own stroke to pressure and restrict my opponents options - I can use spin, speed, side-to-side placement and depth placement to achieve this. What combination of these 4 things I will use depends on my own strengths, and how much pressure I am under myself. If I am not under much pressure, I will have more good options available, but if I am under a lot of pressure, I may have only one (or no!) good choice. I can restrict the opponent's options through the sheer quality of my stroke, but if I can also achieve deception by confusing my opponent about the ball's spin, speed, and placement, even better.
  6. I then try to recover quickly and anticipate where the location I need to go to is. The more experience I have, and the better I know my opponent, and the more I have pressured him, restricted his options or deceived him, the easier it is for me to know where to go. This is actually back to Step 1, and the cycle begins again.
Meanwhile of course, my opponent is trying to do the same thing to me!


In a match, you are trying to anticipate what your opponent is likely to do, and read what he is actually doing. The more you can pressure him with the speed, spin, and placement of your strokes, the more you restrict his good options, and the easier it becomes to then anticipate what he is going to do next, and to prepare your next stroke based on this expectation. Conversely, if you play a bad stroke, you release the pressure on your opponent, giving him more good options, making it harder to anticipate what he is going to do, and making it harder to prepare correctly for your next stroke.

This type of tactical framework makes understanding what type of tactics to use much easier, and also explains why sometimes tactics that work well against one player don't work so well against another. Against different players with different strengths and weaknesses, a stroke that puts Player A under pressure and restricts him to one good option may still leave Player B with three good options, so it is easier to anticipate what Player A is likely to do compared to Player B. And of course, if you play a stroke that leaves Player A with no good options, but which Player B can handle with two good strokes, the difference will be even greater - you are likely to win the point very soon against Player A, but may find yourself losing the point against Player B!

Anticipate - Read - Pressure - Restrict - Deceive - a simple but effective framework for table tennis tactics.

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