Flappy Bird… and Table Tennis


In case you dont already know, Flappy Bird is (was?) a game for your phone created by a Vietnamese developer in mid-2013, and was removed from the app stores earlier this month despite huge popularity and amid huge controversy.  Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the story, is that after it was no longer available, merchants started selling used phones with the app still installed, with some receiving bids as high as $90,000.

I realised that some aspects of the game can teach us about table tennis. So without further ado, lets look at them now:

#1 Helps Us Understand Frustration

What makes Flappy Birds so frustrating is the fact that it looks so simple, but is deceptively difficult. You feel like you should easily amass a big score. When there is a difference between what you feel you should be able to do and what you actually can do, frustration arises. This is not unlike table tennis. Professional players make everything look so simple, we can become frustrated when we cant replicate their technique.

Frustration in itself is not a bad thing, as it means that we really want to achieve something. When we feel frustrated, it means we need to take a look at our goals. Put simply, if you cant achieve something you initially thought was easy, its not actually easy at all, and you need to change your expectation into a goal to be strived for.

#2 Timing is Everything

In Flappy Bird, timing of your taps is everything. A split-second too early or too late can be the difference between moving ahead and Game Over. Timing is everything in table tennis too. A perfectly timed shot takes such little effort.

#3 Teaches The Value Of Focus

When you achieve a high score in the game or play a great match, you may realise afterwards that you missed a lot of things going on around you. People talking, spectators moving around, noises from the next court all become non-existent. A useful exercise after you’ve played a good match is to write down the things you thought about, and then compare them to a list of your thoughts during a not-so-good match. The list from the good match will be much shorter, probably because you had less unimportant thoughts and let your instincts take over more. That’s the power of focus.

#4 What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Flappy Bird is governed by quite high forces of gravity; your taps only keep him above the ground for so long before you must tap again. Your performance in table tennis is the same. Emotions, match results, motivation to train and more are all in a constant state of flux. The best players understand this and, as a result, can handle the swings much better.

What lessons have you learned from other areas that you apply to table tennis? Comment below because right now the only one who comments on anything is James!

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The Importance of Service Variation

Hey guys, I was playing against this boy on Saturday, and he was really good. He tricked me a lot, and one of the things he did was change his serves. He would serve consistent backspin serves, and then he did the same motion  and turned it into a topspin serve one time. I had gotten used to pushing the ball and the ball went out.

Service variation comes in 4 forms. Spin, Speed, Length and Placement. All of these combine to give you an arsenal of serves for every occasion. The basic principle is that if you use the same serve over and over again your opponent will get used to it, or they might already find it a piece of cake and deal to it straight away. At the end of the day, service is the first foot in the door of a rally, it is where you structure your point from and where every tactic begins.

So why are these 4 elements so important and how can they help you win easy points?

Spin: Everyone knows that reading spin can be difficult at times and one of the best tricks you can learn with your service is how to mask the spin on the ball. By mask I don’t mean serving illegally by hiding the ball of course! Using different spin to adapt to your opponents receiving habits is vital.

Here is an example, you serve backspin 80% of the time (short) and your opponent gets into a rhythm of short touching the ball, this presents a prime opportunity for your to mix in some well disguised short topspin and no spin serves. An opponent who seemingly always push returns a serve leaves themself at risk of those serves to which their receiving is ineffective and allows an opening for you to attack. I find switching backspin and no spin to be easier as the topspin ball can be more difficult to mask.

Another trick is to learn different styles of service, you may have two backspin serves with different actions. Table Tennis is a game of deception, especially on serve and so the more tricks you have up your sleeve the better. In saying that it is generally good to keep your service actions to a minimum and focus more on the variations.

Speed: Using a fast serve can really throw your opponent off guard, especially if it is used at the right time. Jean Phillipe Gatien always had a dirty habit of going out to the table and doing a long fast serve down the line in the first point of a match on some occasions. Long fast serves often increase the probability of the ball returning to it’s origin as the reaction time is much less and it is harder to change the direction of the ball unless you know it’s coming.

A long fast serve is good for hitting wide angles and body with pace, it is specifically designed to either catch your opponent out or induce an opening (preferably a weak one) whereby you can take early control in a rally or make a quick ball direction change. Often a fast long serve into a weak area can open up space or cause your opponent to lose balance or composure.

Placement: I find with placement it is important to remember a few main pointers. If you want a short serve to be most effective then it is easier to keep it more central, a wide short serve is often difficult to double bounce and can be easier for the opponent to open up on, unless it is very spinny. Placement is important for achieving a desired return. Often where you place your serve can give you a general idea of where it may come back, for example a crosscourt serve with the right angle will likely be returned crosscourt. If you can create a high enough margin of error for the undesirable return, using spin and placement then you are one step closer to forming a strong tactic with the service to begin. Placement is also important for long serves as mentioned above.

Length: The length of your service can be the difference between controlling a rally of getting decimated. Medium length serves are usually the great unwinding of players. Mastering a short and long serve and not allowing much room for a middle ground is vital. Any serve that drifts too long is at risk of being attacked instantly. It all comes down to playing tight. A short serve must bounce twice on the other side, that is by definition, however you must also remember that a serve can be too short sometimes. In this instance the ball bounces too close to the net and presents an easily flickable ball to your opposition. The best way to control length is of course to make the first bounce of a short serve close to the net and first bounce of a long serve closer to you.

So those are the 4 main elements of service which combine to create one of the master weapons in the sport. If you have a superior service then you are already one step ahead of your opponents. The best way to develop these skills is of course service practice. Focusing on service practice can be difficult but it is highly recommended in order to develop reliable serves. The last thing you want in a match is to go up for a crucial point planning to serve short backspin and the ball drifts long, these are all scenarios you have to consider when you look for motivation to practice your serves!

Hope these 4 things stick in your mind next time you are practicing your serves or are in training.

The Pyramid

Hey guys, I was playing table tennis the other day, and I found myself not being able to reach many of the shots that my opponent was throwing at me. I thought about why that was, and I found out it was because of the pyramid rule.

The pyramid rule is something I have always found useful for explaining to young and intermediate players why it is important to develop a ‘close to the table’ game. The concept revolves around the increasing distance between two wide angle balls the further back you go from the table.

The best way to demonstrate this is to ask a person to throw two balls at you; one at each corner, one after the other. Close to the table, it’s easy, no problem, you can get the balls quickly. Go back about a metre and ask them to do it again. You will find that it is a lot harder to get the ball back. Then go back another metre and you’ll find it will be very difficult to play the next shot.

 

The diagram above shows the point illustrated. So why is playing close to the table important?

  • Allows you to play earlier in the bounce as opposed to later, reduces opponent reaction time and the effectiveness of hard placements.
  • Keeps your weight forward and the pressure on the opponent, balanced centre of gravity instead of chasing the ball down.
  • Allows you to push your opponent back and make it difficult for them and to play with more depth and speed variation, smashing, looping for placement, drop shots etc.

To build this, close to the table game you need to be fearless, when the opponent attacks you need to hold your ground and be confident. Timing is very important and placement. When you get the chance to attack, being close to the table can make your shots far more devastating in terms of opponent reaction time than if you are far back playing a slower opening game and loop to loop counter style. At the table you can use an early bounce counter style which can be very effective.

So remember the pyramid rule when you find yourself drifting back from the table and remember you are much better off staying up at the table!

Reactions…

Everybody knows that table tennis is a reflex sport, so reaction speed is of high importance in becoming a successful player. So how can you improve your reaction speed?

Well it all starts off with what you are watching when you play. The idea is that you should always be watching your opponent and their actions, forget the ball. Once you have hit the ball, it should go to where you have planned it to go, if it doesn’t that is your error. You need to see how your opponent reacts to the ball. How their body position changes, bat angle, where their shoulders direct. Just paying attention to these small changes in motion will allow your reaction speed to subconsciously improve. You will find you react faster to the ball and move faster.

Recovery time also helps your reaction speed. If you are slow to recover from your last shot then you are not ready for the next one. Moving back to the recovery position as fast as you can is vital and should be something you automatically build into your game. It also minimises your weaknesses as you maintain your cover of the table and your balance.

Possibly one of the best exercises for reaction speed is used by the Chinese National Team, where a coach crouches with a bucket of balls and randomly throws the balls left and right. The player doing the exercise is poised in the ready position and has to move to kick the balls from about a meter away.

Train hard,

Missing the ball at a topspin shot

Hey guys, do any of you miss the ball a lot when trying to hit a topspin shot? I know I do, and it’s because of three reasons…

1. This is the first time you’re learning this stroke

Ooooh, there’s no need for explaination then. Table tennis technique is practically about hand-eye coordination. So don’t give up practicing! I’m sure every table tennis players experience this phase. If I may suggest, I’d suggest you to learn the “feeling” of the topspin first. I did this by throwing the ball on the wall, let it bounce once on the floor, then trying to topspin in, trying to make the ball travel as slow as possible and as spinny as possible. This won’t help you on learning the technique itself, but I’m sure learning the feeling first will help you learning the technique on the table. If I still miss a lot, you ask? Then let’s proceed to the next.

2. You’re too far from the ball

Maybe “not close enough” is a better term for this situation. Because I think there’s just a small distance between the ball and your bat. In the following pictures, you will see the start position of the bat and the finish position of the bat. Try to understand the diagrams.

In the picture I show you, you’ll see that the bat doesn’t contact the ball because your start and finish position still not close enough to the ball.

In the next picture, notice that if you move your start and finish position slightly forward, you will make a contact successfully. How do you achieve this? By making a small step forward. This is why footwork is important in table tennis.

3. Your start position is not low enough

The easiest way to hit the ball is while the ball in the top of the bounce, although hitting before or after that still have their own advantages and disadvantages. Like attacking right after the bounce will cut your opponent’s recovery time and hitting the ball later will give better control. If you decide to wait after the top of the bounce, then you should be ready for a low ball below the table. This is the point where proper backswing is important. The principle of the topspin is lower start position. If the ball is lower, the start position should be even lower.

In the picture above, you’ll see that the ball is descending. And with higher start position, it’s more likely to miss.

Now in the picture above, if you put your start position lower, you can hit the ball successfully. To achieve this you can bend your legs even lower so that you can make a bigger swing.

Train hard…

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Bend your legs even lower if necessary, as shown in the picture

Footwork mistake…

Hey guys, sorry I’ve taken a long holiday, I’ve been a bit busy with my studies, but hopefully now I can devote a bit more time to the blog. I’ll be churning out at least one post a week, but in the coming weeks it’s more like two or three per week.

So, footwork. One of the most important skills if not the most important skill in the game.

I first noticed it with myself when I was practicing third ball attack recently. I was focusing on my second topspin after making a third ball attack. I found I was often off balance for all but the simplest shots, often making flat hits instead of top-spins, which increased my error rate significantly.

It took me a while to realise the problem: I was on the balls of my feet after serving to make it out to a good table distance for the third ball, but in making my swing, I put my feet flat to give myself more traction to put more power into my swing. Although my shot was successful, I left myself flatfooted and at a disadvantage to get any next ball that didn’t come to my current position.

So What Can We Do About This?

We need more strength and flexibility in our ankles to keep us on the balls of our feet longer and even during our strongest swings. It’s easy to make powerful swings with our feet flat on the floor, but table tennis requires us to move quickly between such swings, so we need to be able to stay on the balls of our feet during the swings themselves. The following exercise can help us improve this:

During our on-table training, we can begin to improve this by simply trying to spend longer and longer times on the balls of our feet. During your drills where footwork is not required (i.e. forehand looping to block) try simply to lift your heels off the floor slightly for as long as you can manage. During this time, try also to gradually increase the speed of your swing, without overbalancing yourself, to approach the same that you can achieve with your feet flat on the floor.

Just by doing this, we can train ourselves to get into the habit of staying on the balls of our feet, and in doing so increase the chances of getting the next ball easily. Make sure you don’t forget what you’ve trained in a match situation, refer to my last post as to how to practice a skill. (It’s actually a very good post and I recommend that you go back and check it if you haven’t done so, it teaches you a lot.)

Train Hard,

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Look at how he is standing on the balls of his feet. That is how he was able to make the shot.

Sorry about the delay… How to learn a skill

Hope everyone had a great Christmas!

This post is all about the steps you need to take in order to learn a new skill, or practise an old one.

#1 Perform the skill

The first thing we must do is learn to perform the skill. For example, hitting a forehand topspin on the table in a repeatable way. Why repeatable? So when we make mistakes, we know exactly where we went wrong because we are trying to do more or less the same thing each time, learning to minimise our mistakes and repeat our successes. It also needs to be repeatable so that we can progress to…

#2 Performing the skill well

In table tennis, “well” means with consistency, not speed. U.S. coach Larry Hodges says that you don’t truly have a forehand until you can hit 100 without a mistake. Aiming for consistency at first is like strength training in a way. You develop the muscles you need to play the shot precisely by playing it over and over. Only then can you play the shot faster, once the muscles are well developed. Trying to make a precise movement at speed that you can’t already do consistently leads to a lot of mistakes, and possibly even injuries.

#3 Perform the skill well and at speed

Ok, so now we can perform the skill consistently, we can progress to increasing our speed. Speed in table tennis does not always mean hitting the ball faster. Adding some sort of footwork in between the skill we are practicing is probably the best way to increase the execution speed of the stroke, as we need to move to the incoming ball first, giving us less time to actually play our stroke. If footwork is the skill we are practicing, simply lessen the time between incoming balls so our feet must move faster, meaning we must find our balance faster before playing the shot also. To increase the difficulty level even more, make the footwork drill a random one. This will mean we have to judge a randomly placed ball before moving, even further reducing the time to actually play the stroke.

#4 Perform the skill well, at speed and under fatigue

Fatigue happens in table tennis matches, making us marginally slower as the match goes on. Luckily, we’re also subject to fatigue during our training sessions. The important thing is that we make sure we train until we are fatigued, and then train a little more, especially with intensive drills like footwork. An important thing to remember is at the top level, one set to 11 takes an average of 7 minutes. Therefore, a hard-fought match that goes to the 5th set would take around 35 minutes. Make sure you can train intensively for at least that long, giving 100% for the entire time. The last few minutes, when you feel too tired to continue, are the most important in this case.

#5 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure

In close match situations, things change significantly. That skill you’ve been perfecting over the last 4 steps can totally break down when you need to execute it at 10-10 in the deciding set. That’s why, in this step, you need to incorporate some kind of stakes into your practice of the skill. Some competition with a training partner who is practicing the same skill can help. For example, each have 10 attempts at the skill, and whoever executes it the most number of times out of that 10 is the winner. The punishment for losing should be something you both care enough about that it really makes you try during the drill, to simulate the effort you’ll put in during one of those close match situations. I recommend some kind of physical training, so that the punishment is something that will still improve your overall game. Burpees, for example, are definitely an exercise everyone should hate if they are doing them properly, and are good for table tennis specific muscles.

Additionally, simply recognising the fact that you have not practiced the skill a lot in pressure situations, and saying because of that you’ll forgive yourself if you attempt it in a close match situation and miss can both give you more opportunities to practice the skill under pressure, and even make it more likely for you to be successful in those opportunities, because you’ve already told yourself that a mistake is not the end of the world.

#6 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently

As Goldsmith says under this point in his article: “Being able to perform the skill under competition conditions oncecould be luck, but being able to do it consistently in competition conditions is the sign of a real champion.”

Cultivate a sense of pride in your performance under pressure. Take a long term view on your results in close match situations, remembering the results in at least the last 10 such occasions. Winning anything above 50% of these situations means that you are, in fact, “good under pressure”. As mentioned in #5, this should become easier as you give yourself “permission” to make mistakes in pressure situations while you are still learning a skill and integrating it into your game.

#7 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently in competition conditions

There’s probably not that much difference between this step and the previous one. If your pressure training in steps 5 and 6 has done its job, you should be performing your chosen skill pretty successfully in most real match situations.

However, in closing, it’s worth mentioning that performing under pressure is never something that you can do every time. The mental battle is one that is never truly won, it must simply be fought every time you step onto the court. Even those who have won the battle thousands of times before must still maintain a constant vigilance in their mental state.

Took me a while to do that! Enjoy and sorry for the delay!

Olympics Day 12 - Table Tennis