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Can You Learn How To Play Table Tennis By Watching Other Players?

Look and Learn

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Photo of Table Tennis Coaching Session

Can You Learn Table Tennis Just By Watching?

© 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Just Do It! is the famous Nike slogan. But in light of recent studies on how watching other people perform skills can help you learn faster, perhaps the slogan should be Just View It?

While learning by doing is an established teaching technique, learning by watching is also important. After all, you want to learn the best way to perform a table tennis stroke - not the worst! Having an excellent role model to watch and copy is a much better and faster way to achieve success than trying to work everything out for yourself.

I think most table tennis players would agree that it can only be benefical to have a good role model to emulate when learning your ping-pong strokes, but in recent years science has found more benefits than you might think from watching top level table tennis athletes play the game.

The full sources can be found at the bottom of the page, but here's the nitty gritty as it relates to table tennis.

Benefits of Watching Top Level Ping-Pong Players

  • You can learn complex motor behaviours (such as a table tennis forehand loop) by watching other players perform the stroke.

  • By watching videos of table tennis players, you activate your neural systems that take care of your own movement planning and control, and help build a neural model of what is required to perform each stroke.

  • If you watch somebody playing a table tennis stroke incorrectly, this may actually impair your own performance.

  • It appears the learning process when watching others is unconscious, and you do not have to concentrate hard while watching.

  • Your brain patterns when performing a task (such as a table tennis stroke) are similar to your brain patterns when you are watching someone else perform the same task.

  • It is possible that your brain is attempting to understand the action in order to prepare you for performing it later on.

  • If you are skilled at the task already (e.g. you already possess a good forehand loop), then your brain patterns are different to an unskilled person. The 'mirror system' in your brain will have greater activity when you watch someone perform a task you have already been trained to do.

  • This 'mirror system' allows you to simulate the skill without moving your body, just by watching others perform the action.

Implications For Table Tennis Players and Coaches

While I'm not claiming to be a scientist by any means, the above research does spark a few neurons of my own into action, with the following thoughts and questions coming to mind:
  1. If ping-pong players can learn by watching others play, perhaps it would be best to watch as many good players as possible, and try to avoid watching players with poor technique?

  2. As a coach, if you have poor technique in certain areas, it might be better for your students if you show them videos of table tennis players with good technique before having your student attempt to learn those strokes?

  3. If you see another player who has a stroke or technique that you would like to copy, you should probably spend some time watching him perform the stroke, to allow your brain to build up your neural circuitry for the stroke. Then attempt to perform the shot yourself, and build your skill up through doing the stroke through trial and error. Finally, once you have developed some skill in performing the stroke, go back and watch the player do the shot again, taking advantage of your own 'mirror system' in your brain, which should become active now that you have developed some skill in performing the task.

  4. Researchers mentioned using videos to train subjects - I wonder whether watching another player up close and personal would be better than watching on video, or even in the stands at a tournament? What if you watched from close behind and slightly to the side of the player, attempting to replicate what he sees as he performs the stroke? Would that work best of all? If you are a right hander, would you get better results watching a left hander from face on - since that would be a direct mirror effect? Or do our brains automatically compensate?

  5. Is this one of the reasons why it can be hard to coach and play at a high level? Does watching the mistakes and poor techniques of his students affect the brain of the coach? Will the coach unconsciously absorb the errors of his students, interfering with his own natural skills?

  6. Does the 'mirror system' come into play if you can perform mental visualization really well? Is this why mental visualization works, and why it is recommended by many champions in a variety of sports?

Conclusion

As you can see, I've probably managed to raise more questions than I've answered, but it seems certain that watching top table tennis players perform can be beneficial to your own table tennis game in more ways than one. If nothing else, watching someone playing table tennis who has techniques you want to copy has to be better for you than watching somebody with poor technique making a hash of things!

Sources

  1. EurekAlert - People can learn motor skills by watching
  2. Science Daily - Brain Patterns The Same Whether Doing Or Just Watching, Queen’s Researcher Discovers
  3. Science Daily - Human See, Human Do: Ballet Dancers' Brains Reveal The Art Of Imitation
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