What these players have done is performed their footwork drills over and over for many years, and much like a virtuoso in music, they can improvise their footwork when put under pressure by an opponent. Consider your footwork drills to be the table tennis equivalent of music scales practice.
- When performing footwork drills by yourself, keep in mind that you are trying to groove in the correct movements of your feet and body, rather than just getting a workout. Start off as slow as you need to in order to get the movements right. You'll get faster later on as you get used to the various steps.
- Shuffle stepping from side to side is one of the most common footwork exercises performed by players on their own. It's not a bad place to start, but I'd recommended extending this a little by also incorporating a little forwards or backwards movement as well. This will be closer to the conditions you'll encounter during an actual ping-pong match.
I'd also suggest than you play an imaginary stroke when you move into each new position. This will also help you to replicate match conditions more closely. One important proviso is to prepare for the stroke as you are moving, just like in a real game. Do not move to a location, then take your backswing. Good players are preparing their backswings as they move to the ball - now is a good time to start getting used to this.
- As I mentioned in my discussion of shadow play, practice your footwork combinations, such as serve and third ball. In every match you'll be serving and moving into a position for half the rallies, and returning serve and moving into position for the other half. Don't neglect these footwork patterns.
- Crossover footwork is used to cover large distances quickly, and should be practiced as well. Make sure that you are using it for covering a wide area - don't practice using it for short distances. Use your shuffle step for short distances, since you will maintain your balance better.
Another useful technique to practice is one step footwork. Although shuffle stepping is usually the preferred way of moving, there will be times when you won't have time to do a shuffle step. In these cases stepping towards the ball with your closest foot can often get the job done. You will find (especially on the forehand side) that you will lose some power due to not be able to shift your weight as well as normal. That is OK, just try to concentrate on getting as much hip and shoulder turn as you can while staying balanced.
This one step footwork technique is a little easier for players using speed glue, since the glue effect gives you a little more power.
- When practicing your footwork, concentrate on staying crouched low and being light on your feet. Top players have a smooth way of moving that almost makes them look like they are floating around the court. But believe me, it takes a lot of hard work to get to the stage where you can make it look easy! (Yep, I'm still trying to get there too!)
- Try to stick to the basics when practicing your footwork. Returning to my musical analogy, the basic one step, shuffle step and crossover step are the equivalent of scales. The footwork patterns such as serve, third ball, then fifth ball and ghosting are the equivalent of practicing a musical composition. The adjustments you end up using in match when under pressure are similar to the jamming of musicians, when a musician is improvising as he plays a familiar piece of music.