When you think of table tennis, also known as ping-pong, what comes to mind? Middle school gym class? Forrest Gump? Your grandparents' basement?
The sport, though widely known, is not very well understood. It's not just a recreational pastime or a humorous Hollywood reference—it's actually a competitive Olympic sport. It's also not easy, not by any stretch. Table tennis, in truth, requires serious skill and athleticism to master, and in turn offers real physical and mental benefits.
In advance of the next big name competition for U.S. table tennis players—the Pan American Cup on February 1 to 3, 2019, in Puerto Rico, which serves as a qualifier for the Table Tennis World Cup—we chatted with Matt Hetherington, media and communications director for USA Table Tennis, a ITTF Level 2 accredited table tennis coach and former National Table Tennis Team Player for New Zealand, to learn the realities of the sport.
Despite being an Olympic event since 1988, table tennis is still growing its competitive following in the United States.
Ping-pong is not yet popular enough to be a full-blown professional sport in the U.S., says Hetherington, though there is a U.S. National Team, comprised of about 40 athletes, who compete regularly around the world. A small handful of Americans also play professionally in Europe, where the sport is more prevalent. That said, Hetherington has seen the sport grow socially in the U.S. as table tennis-specific bars—like national chain Spin and other local joints—and celebrity charity events—like Ping Pong 4 Purpose hosted by the Los Angeles Dodgers—pop up across the country. “From that standpoint, it’s been growing a lot,” he says.
The three biggest competitive table tennis tournaments in America are the U.S. Nationals, which is hosted every July and draws about 800 players; the U.S. Open, an international tournament hosted every December that features about 800 players; and the North American Teams Championships, which hosts thousands of players who compete on teams of three to five players.
Hetherington says the large scale tournaments are really something. “You walk in and it sounds like it’s raining [because of the sheer volume of balls being played at once].” He estimates that in the U.S., between 10,000 and 12,000 people currently hold table tennis memberships and/or attend competitive tournaments, with potentially more playing in club leagues.
Tennis table competitions may feature dozens of different events. The U.S. Nationals, for example, has 96 different events based on player level, gender, age group, singles versus doubles, and type of paddles used (a sandpaper paddle versus one with hard rubber, for example). In all games, athletes will play two serves each and play to 11 points, with a two-point margin needed to win. Most tournaments are the best of five games and bigger pro tournaments will play the best of seven games.
Table tennis is a relatively accessible sport, open to all ages and types of athletes.
Compared to other sports that have certain qualifications or barriers to playing, table tennis is “quite an open sport,” says Hetherington. Age isn’t a prohibitive factor—tournaments draw players younger than 10 and older than 90—and many athletes with mental and/or physical disabilities that might prevent them from participating in other activities can partake in the no-contact, low-impact sport. Certain table tennis clubs host clinics for those with Alzheimer’s, for instance, and others have specific programs for players with autism or Parkinson’s. Another good example: A table tennis player in Egypt, Ibrahim Hamato, who lost both arms in an accident as a child, plays competitive table tennis by gripping the paddle in his mouth.
In fact, unlike other sports, you don’t need any certain qualifications or baseline skills to be a competitive table tennis player—even in big-name tournaments like U.S. Nationals. You simply have to sign up for a tournament pass.
Training for table tennis competitions involves a surprising amount of footwork.
“When people watch [recreational] table tennis, it’s played on such a small table that a lot of people assume you don’t need to move your feet [in the sport],” says Hetherington. But the truth is that competitive games demand a series of fast, calculated steps to keep the ball in play. “You do have to be able to move really fast so it’s a lot more physical than people realize, especially when you get into it and take it more seriously,” he says.
To improve their footwork, competitive players will play different shots on different parts of the table and connect the footwork between them, as well as do drills where they don’t know where the ball is going, says Hetherington. It’s about agility, fast footwork, and “staying light on your feet,” he adds.
Elite-level competitors will also cross-train in the gym to build explosive leg power, doing movements like weighted squats and weighted lunges, says Hetherington. It’s about “putting more body weight on your hamstrings and quads.”
But table tennis isn't all legs, of course. It also involves a lot of core work. When playing with a forehand stroke, for example, the power you use to hit the ball is generated from a calculated core rotation, says Hetherington. In fact, competitive table tennis players don’t focus much on upper-body strength at all, he says. “It’s more about muscle memory than muscle mass,” he explains. “The ball is so small and so light, if you [hit it too forcefully], it can go anywhere.”
To excel in the sport, players need a combination of coordination and a very fast reaction time.
The coordination that table tennis demands isn’t just hand-eye coordination, explains Hetherington, “but general physical coordination as well.” Having the ability to quickly react and make fast decisions is equally important. “When you have a table tennis ball flying toward you, you don’t have much time to figure out what’s going on,” he explains. Reacting (and moving) quickly is key.
Overall, “there are a lot of really tiny details [to master] when you are learning to play,” says Hetherington. “It takes a lot of commitment and time.” When he went to China several years ago for a training trip, for example, he practiced six hours a day, six days a week. Though this is an extreme example (China is known for having the most elite competitors and rigorous table tennis training programs in the world), pro players elsewhere will practice for hours every day most days of the week, he says.
If you play table tennis on the reg, you’ll likely see several health benefits.
Playing table tennis competitively provides great agility work, coordination, and cardio. Mentally, it’s good for your focus and resilience. “If you’re training a lot of hours, it gets quite repetitive,” says Hetherington, which makes it “quite a mentally challenging sport.”
It’s also a great way to meet new people and find a social network, says Hetherington. A common saying in the sport is that "a friend in table tennis is a friend for life," he adds.
Despite these benefits, “it’s a sport that doesn’t get much exposure,” he points out, “so people need to give it a chance or at least try it out.” And from casual table tennis-centered bars to competitive tournaments open to players of all levels, there are a lot of different ways to give it a go.