General Information – Britt’s Thoughts…
Equipment discussions rage on numerous Table Tennis Forums and Sites. Spending too much time on these sites can cause all sorts of brain-damage – not to mention damage to your checking account. I STRONGLY recommend that you hold off on worrying about your equipment until you’ve at least mastered (or nearly mastered) the basic strokes. To some this may seem like heresy, but I’ve “been there and done that” and have learned that buying the latest and greatest equipment is a huge waste of time and money for AT LEAST beginners through lower-intermediate players. Too-fast or too-reactive(spinny) equipment can actually (NO KIDDING HERE!) hold you back. I strongly advise folks I sell equipment to and my students to buy an AVERAGE combo, then stay with it for at least 6 months. A few have even followed my advice!
If you can’t CONSISTENTLY do all of the following, spend your time and money on coaching and practicing – and you are fine doing it with “pretty average” equipment.
- Serve low and short or low, fast, and long with at least a couple spin variations. I recommned learning a heavy backspin and dead-ish short serve first and a topspin and an dead-ish long serve. Be able to move them around too!
- Push low and with heavy or “not heavy” spin. Learn to move pushes around. Really practice pushing – it can be used too much, but missing “normal” pushes is almost criminal. Respect every push!
- Block loops (not world class, but something like USATT 1400 – 1600 level) with your forehand and backhand – ideally to spots and with some variation.
- Counterdrive consistently with your forehand. Be able to go down the line, to the middle, and cross court – ideally with some speed and spin variations.
- Ditto for your backhand.
- Loop backspin, dead, or topspin balls with your forehand. No need for super power, but good spin and consistency is required. (Disclaimer: Looping isn’t absolutely necessary, but, these days it is pretty much required and is “close enough” to a basic for me.) I like to start by teaching fairly high, spinny loops, then adding power after consistency.
- Return serves from players anywhere near your level. If you can’t read spin and deal with it, faster equipment is not your friend! Returning serve is probably the trickiest thing to do, and it gets more and more so as you move up the levels. Misreading spins is something that happens, but guessing or reading it right, then not being able to return it (at least) safely is bad.
There are several other things, but the above list is what I’d consider the basics – as they interact with your equipment. Footwork, balance, anticipation, and tactics can’t really be helped or hurt much by equipment choice.
An (almost) Absolute Truth!
There is an Absolute Truth that equipment companies and Equipment Junkies (EJ’s) don’t want you to know. Lots of folks seem to either not know better, or simply choose to ignore it. Note: Names changed to protect the EJ!
Player “A” buys a $40 to $120 (Britt certified!) all-around-ish combo. He gets a 5 ply all wood blade with a handle he likes. Then he has two sheets of 1.8mm thick relatively-inexpensive-but-versatile inverted installed. He then spends 6 months practicing, taking lessons regularly, playing with a variety of opponents, and practicing some more. He spends his practice time drilling with other focused players and focuses intently himself. He makes a point of working on things his coach suggests – not simply doing whatever he likes best. A high percentage of the drills involve footwork, and ample time is spent on serve and serve return.
His twin, Player “B”, spends over $200 for a Super-Killer carbon blade and Nano-Nuclear-Bonzo (max thickness of course) rubber combo. Maybe he even speed glues it to make sure he’s not missing out! He surprisingly (to him) seems to have a lot of trouble with consistency – a large percentage of balls go flying long. So he spends another couple hundred $$ trying some “lower throw” rubbers. This, weirdly, doesn’t entirely solve his problem, so he proceeds to spend a few hundred $$ trying to find a better matched “Super” blade. This too seems a failure, so he starts juggling rubbers and blades trying to find the “perfect combo”. He uses up lots of time, lots of glue, lots of rubber, lots of blades, and lots of money. When all this still fails to help, Player “B” takes a lesson or two. The “stupid” coach keeps trying to fix his grip, stance, and stroke. Worse yet, he wants him to practice “boring” stuff like pushes, counters, serves and returns, and blocks rather than simply teaching him to hit “Olympic Class” forehand loops. Player “B” does show up at the club regularly, and even “practices” some. But his “practice” is 95% forehand loops crosscourt off predictable blocks. Also, he rarely shows up with the same blade or rubber twice in a row.
After 6 months, it is almost certain that Player “A” will absolutely abuse Player “B”. He will be far more consistent to be sure, but his better stroke mechanics, footwork, and timing will also mean that his loops will likely be spinnier, his drives faster, and his blocks more consistent – even with his All+ speed equipment. Also, his serve, serve return, and solid pushing and blocking game will tie Player “B” in knots. Don’t be Player “B”!
Blade Discussion and Details:
Blades come in a variety of speed ratings and materials. Speed ratings run from Off+ (Offensive Plus – I call them Scary Fast) to Def- (Defensive Minus), but, if you are still learning the basics, I strongly recommend that you get a blade in the All, All+, or Off- (All around through Offensive Minus). Blade materials range from all wood to wood with various “reinforcement plies”. All-wood blades usually come in three, five, or seven plies, but naturally there are others. Reinforcements are usually in the form of woven carbon fiber, fiberglass, or aramid fibers. I don’t see any real reason for using anything but an all-wood blade while learning the basics. In general, I’ll even limit it to 5-ply wood blades. There are some 7-ply blades that are probably fine, and probably other ply counts too, but a decent 5-ply all wood blade will serve you well. You can spend anywhere from $15-ish to over $150 for blades that fall into this category. I think spending more than about $60 is probably unnecessary, but price isn’t my main concern.
Blades come with two general handle types, each of which has a couple variations. The two big types are shakehand grip or penhold grip. The shakehand grip is more popular, but there are still a good number of penholders out there.
Shakehand grips can be broken down into flared, straight, and anatomic shapes. There are others, but I’m trying to be brief. Straight handles are fairly self-explanatory, but they can be fairly round, fairly rectangular, or anywhere in between. Different folks have different preferences, so trying them out would be nice. Flared handles are probably the most popular and tend to “flare” out at the bottom. They also have differences in sizes and shapes. Anatomic handles have “bumps” that are intended to fit the shape of your closed hand. Some will fit and feel good, while other will feel horrible. These are fine if they fit you, but I wouldn’t buy unless I tried it first.
Penhold handles come in Chinese and Japanese/Korean types. The Chinese style is usually like a cross between a miniature flare and a miniature straight grip. The Japanese/Korean style usuall has a cork or wood block on the forehand side that you hook your finger around. The Chinese style seems to more easily lend itself to using the back side rubber for an RPB (Reverse Penhold Backhand). The Japanese/Korean style gives a very strong forehand, but tends to be limited to using one side only. I don’t see many folks using this style blade who also use RPB. I’m sure there are exceptions.
Rubber Discussion and Details:
Table tennis blade coverings come in a wide variety. There are inverted (smooth) and pips-out varieties. Inverted rubbers are mostly spinny, but there are some designed to be slow and slick (called anti) too. Pips can be long, medium, or short – depending on their aspect ratio (height divided by width). Short pips tend to be faster and spinnier. Long pips tend to be non-spinny and slow. Medium pips are in-between. Pips our rubber can often be had with or without (OX) sponge. Hardbat is generally a sheet of short pips with no sponge.
I recommend that most folks use relatively controllable inverted rubber while learning the basics. I recommend sponges around 1.8mm thick, though anything between 1.5mm and 2.0mm can be in play depending on the rubber. Paddle Palace, Zero Pong, Butterfly, and pretty much everyone else has ratings for rubber speed, spin, and control. Please don’t spend a lot of time or brain cells sorting it all out. For learning, I recommend rubber with middle-of-the-road speed, and spin. Something with fairly high control, is a bonus, but many company’s “control” ratings seem highly suspect. I don’t believe that more $$ buys more control – especially when it is claimed for a very fast rubber. Sponge hardness is a personal choice, but start in the middle unless you have a strong preference for soft (or hard) rubber.
Additional Thoughts on Inverted Rubber
There are two broad classes of inverted rubber – spinny and anti-spin.
Anti-spin rubbers are smooth, but are slick and slow. They are used similarly to long-pips, which I’ll discuss some other time.
Spinny inverted rubber can be broken down into tacky and non-tacky varieties.
Non-tacky inverted rubbers are the most common ones used in the US and europe. Heck – they are likely the most common in most places except China. These rubbers use the friction and pliability of the topsheet – plus the sponge – to generate spin. They can generate lots of spin, and tend to be relatively linear, i.e. a slightly slower stroke gets a slightly slower, less spinny ball. Some are much more linear than others of course. These rubbers – especially the faster, spinnier flavors – can be “bouncy” and tricky to control in the short game. They tend to be pretty consistent and predictable for normal strokes. These rubbers tend to have all (or most) of the gears – they can power loop, slow loop, spin loop, hit, counter drive, or whatever strokes you know. I think that these rubbers are probably the best choice for most (inverted) players. They tend to be more forgiving/less demanding and can work for a very wide variety of playing styles.
Tacky (Chinese style) rubbers have a sticky coating or finish on the top sheet. If you can pick up a ball by pressing your blade down on it, then lifting, you have a tacky rubber. These rubbers have their own distinct strong and weak points. They tend to be exceptionally spinny for serves, service return, pushing, and for the short game in general. The trade-off is that they rarely work well without a confident stroke. Passive strokes tend to fail or work very poorly. This is true for short game, over the table, and most everywhere else. Using these rubbers effectively off the table requires REAL strokes and solid footwork. There are many half-stokes, pokes, and weakish strokes that will work pretty well with normal inverted that fail most of the time with tacky rubber. Service return can be tougher too – incoming spin is reacts a lot with these rubbers, so you HAVE to read the spin and adjust. Or you can be extra-aggressive and just overwhelm the spin with your own, but this is far from easy. These rubbers tend to work best with power – they tend to be happiest when loop-driving, power looping, hitting, etc. while there are some fine players who can control loop and spin loop consistently with these, it takes a lot of touch and practice. If you want to hit forehands like Ma Lin, Wang Liqin, Ma Long, Zhang Jike, or Xu Xin, sticky rubber may be for you. Keep in mind that these gent’s devastating forehand strokes were developed during thousands and thousands of hours of training (since childhood), with constant coaching along the way…
Absolute Truth that equipment companyies and Equipment Junkies (EJ’s) don’t want you to know. Note: Names changed to protect the EJ! Player “A” buys a $40 to $120 (Britt certified!) combo, then spends 6 months practicing, taking lessons regularly, playing with a variety of opponents, and practicing some more. His twin, Player “B”, spends over $200 for a super-killer carbon blade and nano-nuclear-bonzo-rubber combo, then spends the same time and another several hundred $$ trying to find the “perfect combo”. Player “B” also takes a lesson or two, shows up at the club regularly, and even practices some. But he rarely show up with the same two sheets of rubber more than twice in a row. After 6 months, it is almost certain that Player “A” will absolutely abuse Player “B”. He will be far more consistent, but his better stroke mechanics, footwork, and timing will also mean that his loops will likely be spinnier, his drives faster, and his blocks more consistent – even with his All+ speed equipment.
I wish I had been Player “A”!