Sometimes the most complicated games to master are the ones that are the simplest to explain. What can be simpler than the game of table tennis or ping pong? Two players on opposite ends of a table, separated by a net. Each with a paddle in his hand. One serves, the other returns. They continue to hit the ball until somebody misses. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. And yet, this simple game is one of the most difficult games to master for several reasons.
For starters, there is only so much you can do with a ping pong ball. You can hit it with topspin, back spin, or no spin. You can hit it hard or soft. But you can’t defy the laws of physics or gravity. Common sense will tell your opponent that if you hit the ball to your left, the ball is going to go to his right. It isn’t suddenly going to change direction and head off someplace else.
The point is this. Table tennis is actually a very predictable game if you’ve studied physics, math and other sciences. Of course most ping pong players have probably spent most of their youths in ping pong halls. Still, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the ball is going to react a certain way off of a certain hit.
So then what is it that separates the good players from the great players aside from just pure skill?
The main things that separate them are discipline and ingenuity.
The discipline comes from practice. Let’s face it, practice can be a real bore. Nobody wants to bring down a case of balls to the table and practice serves for an hour. Nobody wants to call a friend down to have him practice lob returns to you for fifteen minutes. The list of boring chores goes on and on. But without these practice sessions you’re simply not going to get any better, at least not mechanically. Plus, the more you practice the stronger you get. And anyone who thinks you don’t need strength to play table tennis hasn’t gone up against one of these power players who can send that ball back at you at blazing speeds. Unlike outdoor tennis, there isn’t a lot of distance between you and your opponent. That ball is on you faster than you can imagine. If you don’t build up your strength you can’t quicken your reflexes. Bottom line. Practice, practice, practice.
The ingenuity part comes with experience and isn’t something that can really be taught. Oh sure, somebody can tell you to mix up your serves and returns to keep your opponent off balance but to truly be able to do that you have to be able to feel each point. It’s hard to explain, but you need to develop a sense of being able to picture what the best course of action to take at any given moment during a point that will make your opponent scratch his head and wonder where that shot came from. This comes from mixing the obvious with the unexpected. For example. In a point where your opponent has just served up a big fat melon for you to smack into next Tuesday, instead of doing what he expects, you hit an easy lob just over the net, totally catching him off guard. In the heat of the moment with only a split second to react he’ll never be able to get to the ball in time. But this is something that can’t be planned in advance. It has to be felt through the course of the match.
The truth is, there are elements of table tennis that are like a chess match. Sometimes it is your mind and not your reflexes that wins.
Discipline and ingenuity. They’re a deadly combo.
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