Friday, February 27, 2009

Shenzhen Ping Pong: reverse penhold backhand flip

This entry marks the last of this series of posts about ping pong.

A summary of this series:

[Click on a number to go to the link.]
1My personal ping pong history.
2The Shenzhen Century South China Table Tennis Club and the coaches.
3The forehand forehand warm-up drill.
4The reverse penhold backhand warm-up drill.
5The reverse penhold backhand loop.
6The reverse penhold backhand loop against the underspin serve.
7The reverse penhold backhand flip against the short underspin serve (this entry).
(I might talk about other drills and more advanced topics in a future series. Or not...)

As we have seen earlier, the reverse side of the paddle permits the penholder to pursue a similar offensive backhand game to that of the regular shakehands player. (More specifically, the last post (link here) showed the use of a backhand loop against the underspin serve.)

However, not all serves will come long. That is, the backhand loop cannot be used against every serve that comes to the backhand. In particular, a low, underspin serve that falls short enough to bounce twice after crossing the net cannot be attacked in this fashion.

The solution is to step in and use a backhand flip (aka "flick") to attack the short ball. As with the shakehands grip, for the penholder with a reverse side backhand, the reverse side can also be used to flick the ball.

The following frames illustrates the setup. First notice it is necessary to decisively step in over the table to place the forearm in the correct position for the stroke. (Merely sticking an arm out and not moving in won't work.)

After that it should be a smoothly coordinated stroke that's like a two-stage rocket. This is difficult to see even frame by frame. A description:
  • As a pre-condition, the initial contact (towards the back and side of the ball) critically requires achieving good grip on the ball.
  • The first part is like the first stage of a rocket, i.e. accelerate slowly from a standstill. IOnce you're able to feel and "grab" the ball, the wrist initiates the topspin necessary to overcome the (possibly heavy) underspin on the incoming ball.
  • Like a rocket, the second stage accelerates faster. The forearm (going forwards and to the right) takes over from the wrist to power the ball forward, completing the stroke.
With this in mind, observe the following frames:

Okay, let's go to the video! Two clips (optionally available in HD):

[Direct link.]

The second clip is against a heavier underspin serve:

{Direct link]

Together with the backhand loop, we've shown how to cover the entire backhand side of the table.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shenzhen Ping Pong: reverse penhold backhand loop against underspin

This continues the discussion of the penhold backhand loop using the reverse side of the paddle that was introduced In the previous Shenzhen ping pong entry (see here).

In this entry, we illustrate the use of the reverse penhold backhand loop against the underspin serve.

Against a good underspin serve, the paddle must be dropped below table height during the setup phase as shown in the frames below:

[Scroll to see all the frames.]

As with the regular backhand loop, weight begins on the left foot and is transferred over to the right side.

Likewise, once contact is made, the followthrough is forwards and to the right. However, the finishing point is higher than that for the non-underspin ball.

Contrast the position of the paddle in the last frame above with frame #5 from the previous blog entry (repeated here):

With these two key differences in mind, let's go to our one minute video clip (direct link):

[This clip was uploaded in HD (1280 x 720). On YouTube, you can turn on HD in full screen mode for a clearer picture.]

There are various basic mistakes that are possible with this stroke. I'm going to take the opportunity to experiment with titling in video clips, and illustrate three common mistakes (that I usually make):

[Direct link.]

Next time: against the short underspin serve.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Shenzhen Ping Pong: reverse penhold backhand loop drill

If you're still with me at this point, we are now in a position to illustrate some of the rewards of learning the modern penhold backhand using both sides of the paddle (as opposed to the one-sided classic style).

If this is your entry point into my blog, you may wish to read the previous entry here first.

The most significant advantage of the modern style is the option to attack using a backhand loop.
(This means the modern penholder has the same options as the shakehands player.)

Here is the backhand loop (animated):

(The numbered animated gif is taken from the second clip at the end of this blog entry.) The major points to watch for in the numbered frames are:
  • Frames 1-3: Setup
    Observe weight is on my left foot (see foot flex).
    In the course of the stroke, the weight will shift from over the left foot to the right.

    Swing begins close to the body (from the stomach/belly).
    The contact point (at frame 3) will be in front of the body.
  • Frames 4-5: Followthrough.
    Notice arm finishes forward and to the right. The torso has also turned to being square to the table.
  • Frames 6-10: Recovery
    Not only does the arm come back, but the weight on the feet also shifts back.
  • Frame 11: Setup for next ball
    Notice how the weight is back on the left foot again.
Although on the tape, frame 1 doesn't actually follow frame 11, the animation is smooth - which shows that the recovery is complete.

I will postpone discussion of the reverse backhand penhold loop against underspin (e.g. a push or serve) to a later entry.

As you can see in the very first part of the clip, it's easy to transition from merely hitting to applying topspin to the the ball.

The coach also points out that my swing is not quite in one natural arc. I incorrectly spin the ball using one trajectory and then change trajectory after contact.

Second clip:

It's still a brand-new stroke that requires tinkering. The coach points out that I straighten my torso too much and do not bend enough at the waist to maintain a proper forward lean.

It is worth emphasizing that in both of these clips, the goal is to add considerable amounts of topspin to the ball.

Compare this with the clip in the previous blog entry (here) where I simply use the reverse penhold backhand hit, i.e. without adding topspin.

shenzhen Ping Pong: reverse penhold backhand drill

Last time I wrote about the warm-up before a training session really begins: in particular, the forehand forehand drill.

See blog entry here for discussion and video clips.

In the Shenzhen training sessions, after 8-10 minutes of forehand forehand warm-up, I always segue into the backhand backhand drill.

However, instead of the classic penhold backhand using the same side of the paddle as on the forehand, in Shenzhen I learned to make exclusive use of the reverse side of the paddle for backhand shots.

Let's call this the modern penhold backhand.

The modern style has significant advantages over the classic penhold backhand: principally, with respect to the the (topspin) loop attack, but also with respect to flicking the short ball. In later entries, I will attempt to illustrate the multiple advantages of the new style, for now I will simply discuss the continuation of the warm-up using the reverse backhand.

I'd like to emphasize that this is a new stroke that I picked up during my stay in Shenzhen. Here, the topic is the backhand backhand drill where I'm simply hitting the ball. Again, it's used mostly as a warm-up device. (The backhand loop against non-underspin and underspin will be covered in later entries.) In the following one minute clip (taken from a 10 minute session), you can also see the coach reminding me about the importance of a proper followthrough.

As anyone who has needed to retrain muscle memory knows, it can be difficult to make adjustments while attempting to time the ball correctly and still manage to place the return on the table. Patience and continual reinforcement is a necessary component of the re-wiring process.

Direct link to the Youtube clip:

Clip was uploaded in 1280 x 720 HD format. You may be able to select HD instead of SD sometimes...

Aha, I finally figured it out! I seem to have to play it once in SD in full screen mode. Then on replay, the HD symbol becomes visible/selectable on the tab:

As a result, changes can be small and rather subtle unless you specifically know what to watch for.

Can you see any difference in my followthrough as the clip progresses? Maybe better don't answer :-)

General points for the backhand stroke:
  • Start stroke from the stomach on out.
    The stroke is initiated from the body shift. Bring stomach back/in before initiating the stroke.
  • Try to think point of contact to be in front of the body.
    Not to the side. Quick recovery for the next ball is next to impossible otherwise.
  • Always lean forwards.
    Sometimes when the ball is unexpectedly deep, I tend to straighten the upper body and even lean backwards.
  • Be aware of the options to angle the paddle using the wrist.
    You can adjust the direction to return the ball to the same spot, for example, during a drill.

Friday, February 20, 2009

shenzhen Ping Pong: warm-up

This blog entry is about warming up by hitting forehand forehand balls. But first, a re-cap...

Recently, I've written about how I got started playing ping pong (here).

Having been away from the sport for a number of years, I've also mentioned that I've spent some time getting re-acquainted with the game at the 深圳市世纪南华乒乓球俱乐部 Shenzhen Century South China Table Tennis Club (here).

I used a Canon HF-10 HD camcorder (shown with a Sony 0.7x wide angle adaptor) to record my training sessions with the professional coaches there. I recorded over 100GB of high definition video for my own study.

This is also an opportunity for me to experiment with video uploading and share (and discuss) a few (appropriately downsized) clips.

Modern table tennis is ruthlessly fast. You've got a small 40mm ball that can be spun and redirected to so many different places. Seemingly inconsequential, sometimes nearly imperceptible, adjustments in terms of readiness, timing and stroke mechanics have large consequences on that 9' x 5' playing surface.

Because of the lack of time and possible variation, one has to marry conscious decision-making with well-trained (subconscious) muscle memory. All in all, a sometimes overwhelming real-time challenge to cognitive/muscular systems. And for a non-elite level player like myself, that muscle memory, programmed over long hours of repetition, is sometimes simply wrong. It's not easy to unstick those bad habits that have somehow become (seemingly hopelessly) ingrained. Learn something wrong, it may take twice as long to fix. But re-programming is crucial to progress.

Assuming I don't get distracted, I'm planning to write a series of entries lest I forget my Shenzhen training and experience.

Some caveats are in order at this juncture. First, this marks the beginning of an experiment. I'm merely a club level player. Second, the blogsphere is by no means the ideal venue for communicating technique and stroke mechanics. Video, even high-definition, coupled with words are not enough. Finally, it goes almost without saying the best way to learn is through one-to-one interaction with a coach who has excellent communication skills and the ability to highlight problems, debug and help re-wire our strokes.

Forehand to forehand warm-up

Nearly everyone warms up co-operatively using this forehand to forehand drill. (I use the term co-operative because there are some who don't co-operate in the warm-up.) And after a few minutes, we usually move on to the real training session. Being able to hit forehand to forehand comfortably is usually taken for granted. After all, we only do this on the warm-up, and in any case, points are never played this way. So why practice or study it? Personally, I think one can deduce a lot just from watching the forehand forehand warm-up.

There can also be involuntary non-cooperation. In other words, there are some who can't hit with any consistency, i.e. in ping pong parlance we say they can't keep the ball on the table. (Some days, I am that person.) It's about the ability to control one's stroke: to wait, also to be able to adjust the ready position, to time the contact at right point of the bounce, to stroke cleanly with a good arc, and to recover and reset (the arm and the body) in time for the next ball. These are not skills of little consequence.

For example, in the two clips below, it's abundantly clear who has the better stroke mechanics in each case.

The first clip is an unedited one minute out of my 8 minute warm-up with 景文婷 (Jing Wen Ting), introduced previously here.

It's early in the morning for me, and I'm adjusting to the playing conditions and trying to get a feel for the ball on my paddle.

Shenzhen ping pong: warm-up forehand (relaxed pace) from Sandiway Fong on Vimeo. [The above embedded video is SD (standard definition). A larger video is available if you click on the link to go directly to the vimeo page. You can turn on HD (highdef) but somehow it doesn't work for me on my macbook. (Maybe only in full-screen mode?) Anyway, there is also a link in the lower right corner of the vimeo page where you can directly download the 1280 x 720p video file I uploaded.]

Things I find useful to remind myself about when I (re-)watch a clip. These may or may not resonate with your requirements:

(January 2010: updated slightly.)
  • It's not just a forearm-driven stroke. Is my body doing any work?
    Waist and body rotation simultaneous with forearm is key to making the shot reliable and consistent.
  • How am I finishing the stroke?
    My stroke should have an unforced, relaxed, natural arc.
  • Am I spraying the ball around much more than my coach?
    Watch where my ball lands on the other side. And adjust.
  • How is my timing?
    Position myself so I can contact the ball at the top of the bounce each time.
  • Am I adjusting for the unexpectedly long or short ball?
    Despite the repetitive nature of the warm-up, it's not like the steady rotation of a bicycle wheel.
    I need to both be able to wait or step forwards to take the ball earlier.
  • Proper recovery and preparation for the next stroke?
    Weight goes back onto right foot, simultaneously backswing (arm goes back) and rotate the waist.
You get the general idea...

More to come...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

shenzhen Ping Pong: part 2

In my last entry, which was my first on the topic of ping pong (here) - but also happened to be my 100th blog entry - I mentioned that I (unavoidably... but that's another story) spent a month in Shenzhen.

In this second entry on the topic, I'd like to show some pictures of the facility and coaches where I got my training.

The name of the club is 深圳市世纪南华乒乓球俱乐部, which basically translates as Shenzhen Century South China Table Tennis Club. (The club business card uses the word "Epochal" instead of "Century".) Liang Kok Liung (Vincent) introduced me to this place. The club's (Chinese language only) website is


Use the scrollbars to get an idea of the size of the club:

The playing facility is divided into two sides. One side (shown on the left) contains 6 individually barriered courts. The right side contains a group of more closely-spaced tables. There is also a main court with red floor, where the picture above was taken. There is also a separate room with one table. The price per hour varies according to the court type.

Another picture below:

The club is often fully booked on weekends by players from Hong Kong (an hour or so to 90 minutes away). And I'm told, it's also extremely busy in the summer (juniors from Hong Kong on their summer holiday period).


During my stay, I had multiple opportunities to practice with four different professional coaches: all of whom were right-handed, and all of whom were well above my level of play. (The club has different levels of coaches from national team on down and priced accordingly.)

Name: 景文婵
Cost: 60 RMB/hour.

Very quick close-to-the-table shakehands player with smooth rubber both sides. Province team level.
Powerful loop and difficult-to-return serves. Hard to figure out the level of some of the coaches, but I estimate she plays at the 2500-2600 level.
May only speak occasionally during practice, but actually speaks English very well.

(She can also understand and speak Cantonese but I always ended up chatting in English.)
Name: 景文婷
Cost: 60 RMB/hour.

(The sister of the coach shown above.) Also two-winged with smooth rubber but practices at a more relaxed tempo.

Different personality. Offers more verbal feedback. She can speak English but I always ended up talking to her in Cantonese.
Name: 孔祥乾
Cost: 70 RMB/hour.

Penholder with a fearsome reverse side backhand loop. He must have an incredibly strong wrist, great power and can counterloop with it.

I wish I understood more often what he was saying. Unfortunately, he speaks only Mandarin and I don't.
Name: 王小瑜
Cost: 70 RMB/hour.

Hainan island ladies champion. Two-winged close-to-the-table with smooth rubber. Willing to back up some and trade forehand counterloops with me.

I was assigned to her initially. She speaks excellent Cantonese, no English.


I was surprised to find that this ping pong club (乒乓球馆) is marked on Google maps!

It's across the road from 深圳博爱医院 (Shenzhen Humanity Hospital) on Hong Ling Zhong Rd (红岭中路). See below:

I stayed at 寰宇大酒店 (Universal Hotel), website, which is at the bottom of the map.

Strategically located about 10-15 minutes walking distance (or one bus stop) from the ping pong club. It's also convenient for access to some of the major malls (万象城 Mix City and 地王大厦 Diwang) and the burgeoning Shenzhen subway system (stop: 大剧院).

The park on the left side is 荔枝公园 (Lizhi Park). A small but picturesque place in a very busy city, I sometimes went running here.

Picture looking north on 红岭中路. Club is up ahead on the left, hospital on the right:

As you get closer, you can see the white-on-blue advertising for the club:

Street level entrance at the white-on-blue wording:

Entrance on the 3rd floor:

To come...

More blog entries on Shenzhen ping pong to come... I hope to post some videos and talk about techniques I learnt (or re-learnt).

But here is an appetizer, an example of a cultural difference you might not expect:

When you rent a court, you get the choice of hot tea or hot (plain) water with free refills. (Cold drinks can be separately purchased at the front desk.) I always select the hot tea.

Being used to the United States, first day, the hot tea had me scratching my head a bit. But I worked out a system of pouring out 3 cups of tea, staging the refills from the pot to allow them to cool before drinking.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shenzhen Ping Pong

I've been away from ping pong for a long time.

[Reverse side backhand penhold loop.]
This hopefully marks the first (of a series) of blog entries on the topic. Let's begin with some history...

Just to illustrate how long ago it has been, last time I played on a regular basis the official ball size was still 38mm and games were to a lengthy 21 points.

The current 40mm ball was approved back in Y2K. And the change to 11 points happened after that. Since then, rules on serves and speed glue have also come into effect.

As someone who got into ultra distance cycling, marathon running, scuba diving, skiing and swimming, you might think I'd moved on. But recently, several events conspired to bring me back to ping pong, which (for me) predated all those other sports.

First, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester doing research at MIT in the first half of 2008, away from my normal duties at the University of Arizona.

That meant I reconnected with Liang Kok Liung (Vincent) who is now a full-time table tennis coach.

Back in the late eighties when I was a graduate student I learned to play at the MIT Table Tennis Club. Vincent, a player of Chinese descent, who became practice partner for the Indonesian National Team and later came to Boston to study at Northeastern University, was a regular at the club and taught me the basic strokes and the game. Began as a (short) pips out penholder. I went from a basic beginner to my first tournament and rating (1129) to a rating of 1900-something by the time I graduated.

Then I moved to the Princeton area and joined the New Jersey Table Tennis Club (NJTTC) up in Westfield. A fair distance away but I was a regular at this full-time club (link): gaining quite a bit of experience from the 20-odd players from around the 2000-level or higher, participating in Thursday night league, small tournaments hosted there. Even got some formal coaching from Lily Yip (then a regular US team member) in an attempt to make progress. (There's an old picture of me getting ready for a forehand loop on Lily's website here.)

I stayed a penholder but switched to smooth rubber. I ended up terminally hovering in the 2100s, never quite making 2200. Then for a variety of reasons I quit playing in the late nineties.

As I mentioned earlier, last year I got reconnected with Vincent, who became a full-time coach at the Boston Table Tennis Center (link). I was extremely rusty but the game had substantially changed anyway.

Vincent got me interested in updating my game by developing a penhold reverse side backhand loop from scratch, a stroke that didn't really exist in my day. In contemporary terms, you could say I got interested in Penhold 2.0.

The reverse side penhold loop brings the possibility of a two-winged loop attack game previously only available to the shakehands player. And for me, the chance to progress again. If you're still with me, let me briefly explain.

Normally, a player using a penhold grip uses the same side of the paddle for both forehand and backhand strokes. In fact, many penholders don't utilize the reverse side at all. (Like many penhold players up to my era, I ran around like a headless chicken looping on the forehand and merely blocked on the backhand.)

The newer style substitutes a backhand loop using the reverse side of the paddle. As a result you need to put smooth rubber on both sides, the paddle is considerably heavier but on the plus side it adds versatility because it's harder for someone to pin you on the backhand side (i.e. make you block and play defensively) and you don't need as good footwork (since you're not always trying to run around and use your forehand only).

There are lots of ping pong videos on YouTube if you search by name. For example, China's Wang Hao (王皓) is a brilliant player using this style (picture link). You could contrast his style with South Korea's Ryu Seung Min (柳承敏), who only loops with his forehand picture link.

Anyway, that's why I ended up doing Winter Table Tennis Training in Shenzhen hosted by Vincent. I spent January 2009 at the Shenzhen Century South China Table Tennis Club (深圳市世纪南华乒乓球俱乐部), (website here, update: the nanhua club still exists but the website seems gone) in an attempt to regain the ability to play some table tennis and add the reverse penhold backhand loop to my game.

More to come...