Saturday, February 6, 2010

Shenzhen Ping Pong: drills for integrating the reverse penhold stroke

As an amateur I find it's sometimes frustratingly hard to make fundamental changes to my table tennis game. Sometimes it seems completely futile. No matter how many times I'm told I'm not doing it right, despite my best efforts, I'm repeating the same errors over and over again, especially when under pressure.

Table tennis is a fast game. Good reflexes and muscle memory are activated when we play shots. Since muscle memory is largely automatic, and many of us amateurs did not learn the strokes correctly to begin with, e.g. not everyone hits like Lu Yan (see here), changes to the way we hit the ball will involve substantial re-programming.

Therefore, when it comes to a new stroke, formal drills are a good first step towards proper integration.

In my case, learning the reverse penhold stroke (see summary of posts here) has changed not just my backhand, but has also revealed fundamental weaknesses in other strokes.

In other words, one has to take a totally holistic approach to the game. And thus a single change may involve a cascade of additional changes in order to take advantage of the new stroke.

One year ago, I went to Shenzhen to learn the new reverse penhold backhand only. Although I knew my (far from perfect) forehand loop had its quirks and limitations, I did not think it was the limiter in my game. I did not anticipate having to completely re-work it to accommodate the use of the backhand.

My approach has been to visit the Shenzhen Century South China Table Tennis Club (深圳市世纪南华乒乓球俱乐部), record my practice sessions, study (i.e. attempt to understand) and try to incorporate suggested modifications and improvements back home.

One doesn't necessarily need a professional coach to do the drills. Not every ball has to come back. A box of balls and a patient practice partner will do. Assuming one knows what to look for, I found video review to be invaluable in helping to close the gap between what I believe I was doing and what actually happened out there.

Here is a pair of drills I used. The venue is Warabi (蕨) municipal sports center, just outside Tokyo. I try to implement the lessons from Shenzhen through twice weekly practices with my friend Hideya Watanabe.

Let's go to the videos. First up, forehand/backhand to the practice partner's forehand. (He blocks alternately, one to each side.)

(Link (Link here.)

Second, forehand/backhand to the practice partner's backhand.

(Link here.)

Remember earlier I said I had to change my forehand stroke completely? Compare the above video with the following drill recorded 4 month earlier (from prior blog post here).

(Link here.)

Can you spot the key differences?


Video was recorded using a Panasonic DMC-TZ7 in HD mode (1280 x 720p) in the corner of the court at the widest possible angle available for the camera, a focal length of 24mm-equivalent for 35mm format. The difference between the two setups shown is one of height.

By using a center column extension such as those made by Habuka, one can increase the height of the camera from 1.5m to over 2m for a better position without buying an expensive, tall tripod with a huge footprint. (You can compare the relative heights relative to the notices on the back wall.)

Since the Panasonic compact only weighs in at about 220g, this does not make the tripod unstable.

The 1 minute forehand/backhand to the backhand drill below is an updated video clip taken at the higher camera position.
(Link here.)

Can you spot how my stroke has evolved from the earlier videos?


  1. Sandiway,
    You definitely have improved your forehand loop a lot. It's is so much more compact and you are keeping your balance much better.

    Can you tell us what sort of equipment you have set up to film yourself? I'm interested in doing something like that for my lessons, too.


  2. I use a tripod-mounted Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 (marketed as the DMC-TZ7 in some countries) with a couple of spare batteries. Records using the AVCHD format in 720p. It's a very compact camera with the 25mm EFL wide-angle capability needed to shoot video in confined spaces. I'll take a picture of the setup on Wednesday.

  3. That's a cool setup. First time I ever heard of someone using the video function of a digital camera for anything serious.

    Good luck with your training!


  4. Is it ok if the hand stretches while doing the RPB? I generally see that many coaches advice the body to be behind the handle while in RPB. (i am trying to learn this, and having the latter approach seems to be much tougher)

  5. Yes, good observation, if possible, the body should be backing up the arm. So we must move sideways. But sometimes one has to stick one's arm out to get to the ball in time.