While some may consider table tennis a “lesser sport”, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a sport of focus, skill, endurance and consistency.
On September 1st2018, the world saw another year of the Asian Games but in particular the Men’s Table Tennis Finals. Perfect timing for this digital artefact, right? The final’s was a showcase of China’s best male table tennis talent, Fan Zhendong vs. Jeoung Youngsik.
While the match is commentated in an Asian language, the athleticism on display transcends this barrier:
My initial attitude approaching this viewing was anti-climatic to say the least. Having spoken to friends who have watched and played table tennis their reactions were repetitive “it’s a fun game to play, but its like watching tennis… lengthy and boring until the end”.
Prior to watching I wanted to understand the skill behind the table tennis player, and I was able to narrow down the four core professional skills:
- Reaction speed: “table tennis has been scientifically proven to be the fastest reaction sport, with balls reaching over 100kph” – therefore the way you anticipate and execute your shot is decided in a very small amount of time.
- Spin: “table tennis produces more revolutions than any other sport” – controlling spin is extremely difficult, as the ball is very small, it is incredibly difficult to spot its fast paced movement and positioning.
- Play surface: “it’s the only sport which has the ball off the ground and then comes off the playing surface. A unique element which the ground is not used as the playing surface“
- Yourself/self-management: prior predictions are near impossible, due to the size and pace of the game the outcome solely relies on the efforts of the player and their performance on the day.
Understanding only some of the skill this sport requires, I still struggled to understand how it is set apart from other sports in the world. My readings prompted me to reflect on my past experiences training and playing tennis. Reaction, spin, speed, surface and self-management are also at the core of tennis as a whole.
Understanding the skill of the sport was an epiphany in my understanding of the game, and in turn leads me to develop my appreciation for Ping-Pong.
Here are the highlights of the final match:
My newfound understanding of the game’s skill, rules and regulations enhanced by viewing of this match and the game more broadly.
It was interesting to recognise the similarities between table tennis and tennis. As a former tennis player, I was able to reflect on the likeness of training patterns across both sports – and this further allowed me to understand and appreciate the technicality of table tennis through my own experience. It extends past western perceptions of Ping-Pong as a game of leisure, and associations with Australian drinking culture and the game of ‘beer-pong’.
This triggered yet another epiphany – much of western sport (particularly in Australia) is deeply entwined with our drinking culture. Most recently, with the end of the NRL season, many teams have been called out for their excessive drinking behaviours. To draw a comparative analysis, I researched instances where Chinese table tennis athletes have been a part of alcohol-related events – and I was unable to find any article that explicitly recounts an occasion. This is interesting to note, as I found it reflective and aligned with Asian culture.
China is known to be a heavily governed and reserved society, where discipline and order are key values. The history of table tennis reflects this as it was introduced during China’s peak of Communism, with the governance of Mao during the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the sport has continued to be apart of the countries identity.
I have found it incredibly interesting to analyse how politics has influenced and the shaped the sport. Not only has table tennis been used as a diplomacy tool, it is a sport that is reflective of a disciplined society. I found that watching the table tennis players’ strokes during a rally, you can clearly see how carefully selected and executed each shot is. The ball is on return within five seconds of the ball contacting their opponent’s paddle.
I have a strong understanding of the endurance and stamina it takes to hold a rally on a tennis court and the continuous back and forth these athletes engage in despite the limited boundaries of the table has left me in awe. I have never understood the accuracy table tennis possesses but it is very stark through the Asia Games men’s finals, where we see the Ping-Pong ball brushing the very edge of the table. However, with applied spin and strength of the opponent, this allows them to contact the ball at a certain height in order to keep the ball in play.
This clip is just one of the many examples I found when researching Ping-Pong training methods. It is so interesting to see how disciplined training rituals are, commonly completed in large groups with a mentor and trainer consistently calling out shadow drills.
I took a minute to reflect and try to imagine the intensity of these training sessions. Could I have done this when I was playing tennis? Yes and no, I think for many Australian sports and in particular tennis, we don’t only focus on the common strokes, rather we take an all round focus on fitness and diet. Much of my training was broken into days, some days on court, some day’s footwork training and others general fitness. By doing this I was able to train majority of my body and it gave me an element of diversity and ‘fun’.
As an observer of table tennis training, I feel as if I would particularly struggle when consistently training one type of stroke and also being indoors. However, this comes with the type of sport. It’s interesting to notice how training methods dramatically shift when it comes to sport, and what type of physical endurance and focus that they require.