Novice's guide to table tennis: A five-part series to help you on your table tennis journey.
Table tennis is an easy game to pick up and play at a beginner and social level but what happens if you wish to take it more seriously and start playing competitively? There may be many questions that you have, and I will attempt to use this five-part blog series to pass on some advice to make your entry into the sport a little less nerve-wracking! Points I will cover include:
Is there a table tennis club near you? How do I find a club? How do I know it is the right one for me?
How much practice does it take to become “good”? How much will it cost? How to find a coach and what should I be looking for in a coach? Group coaching or 1 to 1 coaching?
What equipment do I need? What type of competitions can I play in? Is there a pathway to elite performance?
This guide is aimed at adult players who are new to the sport as well as for the parents of youngsters who have just taken up the sport.
In this episode we will look at the various table tennis equipment including bats, balls, clothing, footwear and tables.
In the UK, there are very few dedicated table tennis shops where you can physically browse products and try them out. You can go to a general sports shop where they might have some very basic (not match standard) balls and possibly some pre-made bats which tend to be overpriced for what they are. Some table tennis clubs will carry a small range of items for sale and there are some coaches who are agents for some of the major table tennis suppliers in the UK. But in general, the vast majority of table tennis equipment purchases are made remotely, either online or over the phone after browsing through a catalogue. You will see supplier trade stands at some of the bigger tournaments and some clubs will organise bat testing days where you get the opportunity to try out a range of equipment. These bat testing days and trade stands usually favour a certain brand depending upon who their main supplier and contract is with. These trade stands can offer plenty of advice on the various equipment as well as provide services such as cutting and gluing rubbers for you. A good coach and/or club should also be able to advise on equipment relevant to a player's needs, style and ambition and will also be able to prepare a bat for you (or better still teach you how to do it yourself).
When it comes to the most hotly debated topic in table tennis, then the choice of which blade and rubbers to choose is probably the number one most talked about topic (closely followed by the illegal serving rule no doubt!) whether that be on internet forums, social media pages or at club venues and tournaments up and down the country. Bats are available to purchase pre-made or can be assembled to suit a player's style, ability and ambition. By this I mean that the blade (the wooden part of a bat) and the rubbers can be purchased separately to create your own, distinct and unique bat. There are literally hundreds of thousands of various different combinations available and it can be an absolute minefield for even the most experienced player let alone the novice player! Things to consider when buying a new bat include:
1) Buying the most expensive or newest equipment on the market is not necessarily the correct choice for a novice player. In fact I would say that it is hardly ever the correct choice for a novice. You wouldn't learn to drive in a Formula 1 racing car would you?
2) Choosing a setup is about finding the right compromise. A faster setup will give you more power but will be much harder to control and conversely a slower setup will help you with your control but at the expense of some power.
3) Changing your setup frequently (often known as being an equipment junkie) can slow down a player's development.
As mentioned previously, there are hundreds of thousands of combinations available. For example, the blade will have several choices when it comes to the shape of the handle. It could be flared, straight or anatomical in design. It could alter in weight (usually a blade will weigh between 70g-95g). It could be a 5-ply wooden blade or 7-ply wooden blade. It might have some carbon in it. Or maybe made of balsa wood.
When it comes to the rubber sheet, it gets even more confusing and complicated! For example the sponge attached to the rubber might be available with different levels if hardness and will most likely be available in a range of thickness, usually varying from 1.0mm up to 2.2mm. It is also possible to buy rubbers with no sponge at all. Generally speaking the thicker the sponge, the faster the rubber. It is advisable not to opt for the fastest equipment until you have developed a good grounding in the sport and have mastered the basic shots as well as having a good understanding of spin and how it reacts off of a rubber surface. "Better" (more expensive) equipment does not mean you will play better.
When it comes to balls, there are a large variety available from the various table tennis brands, whether they be practice balls or match quality balls. Although most of the balls are manufactured in the same factories, there are slight differences between each brand due to each company having a unique specification for their own ball. These differences are very small though as all the balls have to follow certain design specifications as laid out by the International Table Tennis Federation. For those that follow the 'marginal gains' mantra, it is always worth finding out which brand of ball an upcoming tournament will be using and practice with these balls in the week leading up to the event.
When it comes to clothing, the main rule is that the shirt has to be a different colour to the ball being used (which is usually but not always white). As such you will not see any all-white shirts on sale from the various table tennis suppliers. Any sportswear is fine to play table tennis in but many clubs will have their own club shirt which will be available to buy, very often at a discounted rate. By playing in a club shirt (or recognised table tennis branded shirt if the club doesn't have it's own shirt) it helps to promote the game as a serious and professional sport.
As for footwear, branded table tennis shoes from the major manufacturers are available to purchase but there are also very good alternatives available from other companies. If buying a non-table tennis specific shoe, then I recommend looking for a "court" type of trainer as they tend to offer enhanced support and stability. Again if we are looking at marginal gains, I know of players who have different trainers depending on the type of flooring a venue has. Ideally, you should only wear your table tennis footwear indoors so that you don't bring a trail of mud into the sports hall.
I feel that I should also briefly mention tables in this blog in case you are thinking about buying a table for home use. The first thing to consider is will the table be set-up indoors or outdoors? Indoor tables generally have a wooden top surface so are not good for outdoor use. You also risk damage to it if it stored in a garage or shed as it can become damaged due to high humidity or variable temperatures. Tables come with varying levels of thickness. A thicker table top (25mm) will give a better and more consistent bounce than a thinner table top. I've seen tables that can have a table top as thin as 12mm. Most clubs tend to have tables with a thickness of at least 22mm in my experience. Again, if you are playing in an upcoming tournament then it might be an idea to find out the brand of table being used and see if you can find a club that uses this brand to get some practice on them.
I hope you have found this blog helpful and it has given you some understanding of the various types of equipment in our sport. I could have gone for hours (days?) regarding the many types of blades and rubbers that are available that's for sure! Perhaps it is something that I will go into more depth about in the future. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.