Learnings The Basics

So... you want to learn the game of ping pong...or would it be more correct to call it table tennis? In all honesty, it really doesn’t matter, they mean one in the same. Whether they call it table tennis or ping pong, all players share something in common, a love for the game they play. If you are coming here and ping pong is relatively new to you, then you’re in the right place.

First off, good for you on taking this first step of searching for what to do. Attempting to do something new can be a little scary or even overwhelming at times, especially when you really don’t know anything in advance. Just about all of us have been there at some point in our lives. You want to install a new part in your computer or something, but you really have never done anything with computers before. So you’re sitting there reading an article with all these technical terms you don’t understand, and it’s talking about things that only a computer savvy person would know.

What I’m looking to do today is help you, step by step, become a good table tennis player in the easiest way possible. There are a lot of other articles for beginners out there that use terms that are hard to understand and use concepts you have never heard of. I imagine you are either here because you are either interested in the sport, or just looking to take you game to the next level. Regardless of why you are here, we all just want to be able to enjoy something and be successful at it; and I’m here to help you get kick-started. If you really want to enjoy the game to its fullest, I highly recommend that you follow the steps that I’ve provided below.

Like learning to ride a bike

I like to compare learning ping pong to riding a bike; once you learn the fundamentals of the game it can become much more enjoyable and not to mention you never really forget how to play. I’ve seen it time and time again where people will start out playing seriously after only having a little bit of experience just playing with their friends. Most of the time their technique is wrong, they don’t know the rules, and they can never be consistent in the way they play.

If you have already played ping pong before, you must be willing to relearn how to play the correct way. With the wrong technique you can only get so far, and you will only get frustrated in your lack of progress. Learning to play can be a tedious process sometimes. You can’t just jump on a bike the day after you learned how to ride, and expect to do remotely well in the Tour de France. In ping pong, I’m going to try my best to help you avoid being that person and to be able to enjoy something and be good at it, because those things usually go hand in hand.

Equipment

Like almost every sport, you must first acquire the equipment needed to enjoy the sport. In my opinion, ping pong is one of the cheapest sports out there and one of the most fun as well. There are only three basic things that you might have to purchase when it comes to playing ping pong.

  1. The Foundation Paddle

    Paddles, blades, rackets, and bats; there are several different names but they all mean the same thing. I like to emphasize this section the most because a player’s paddle is the foundation for their entire game. Here are some of the words you might hear or read when used to describe the paddle.

    table tennis racket breakdown

    The “blade” of your paddle is the wooden part including the handle. When I refer to “rubbers” I’m talking about the part that makes contact with the ball on top of the blade. Rubbers usually have a tacky surface, one side red and one side black, for spinning the ball over the net easily.

    Underneath the rubbers are usually “Sponges.” The sponges help give a cushion and propel the ball forward. These three components together make up a basic paddle. More than likely, if you’ve already played, you probably had to use either a friends paddle, or one of those thin wood ones that make a loud “Dink!” when you hit the ball. The paddles that get used by professional level players, such as Timo Boll and Ma Lin, are very unique to their exact playing style and preferences. Every little detail is drawn out before their paddles are even made.

    However, at the beginning level we don’t need to be focused on the details or preferences just yet, the very basic “strokes” (or how you are hitting the ball) are what needs the most focus.

    Now, there are a lot of paddles out there in the market right now and it can be really overwhelming when it comes to choosing a paddle. In my honest opinion, one of the best table tennis rackets out there for beginners is the Palio Expert 2. Many of the experience players that I have talked to about beginner paddles find this paddle to have the best value, quality, and overall ease of use. Not to mention that it comes with a case, which is crucial in protecting your paddle from the elements. This paddle, in my opinion, is the best way to build the foundation for your game. Once you learn the basic hits with a neutral paddle, you can then determine what you like and don’t like and make your paddle based off of that.

    palio expert 2 table tennis racket

    Just a fair warning, before you go off to a department store and buy some cheap brand, or a paddle that is less than ten dollars, you probably aren’t going to be able enjoy the game nearly as much with such a low quality racket. I started off playing table tennis without any prior advice or tips and I paid the price because of it. To this day, I really wish I would have started off with this Palio Expert or at least a decent racket.

    First, I decided to buy a cheap paddle from a department store that broke within 2 weeks. Not happy. Then, I decided to buy a Stiga premade paddle from my local sporting goods store for 40 bucks (really not worth my money). Lastly, I bought a paddle that was not suited for my playing style and was for more skilled players. That paddle made learning a much longer, tedious process.

    While Stiga paddles do work relatively well, you are not really getting your money’s worth. They don’t last as long as they should and they’re relatively overpriced. Taking care of your paddle is also important as well. Once your rubbers lose their grip after a lot of use there’s no going back. Stickier rubbers will attract a lot of dust from the air and sometimes from the ball if the floor is dirty. I recommend cleaning your paddle after you play with a little dab of water and a kitchen sponge to help keep it in the best condition. Or, you can use the Butterfly 8181 racket care kit, which has great reviews and is sure to get the job done.

  2. Ping Pong Balls

    The second most important thing to consider buying is ping pong balls. Even if you don’t have a table of your own, you can still practice hitting the ball and improving your hand-eye coordination skills.

    Standard regulation 40 mm size balls usually come in white or orange. Top of the line balls can cost anywhere from 3-10 dollars a ball, which is really pricey. What you want to buy is training balls. Training balls tend to have a slower bounce and don’t spin as much as the high end balls. They essentially are easier to use, especially for beginners. You can get a pack of 100 Here.

    stiga 3 star ping pong balls

    From experience, I have found that Stiga has good ping pong balls for a relatively good price, especially if you’re just starting out. Spin is a really important part of the game, and to help you better understand spin, Stiga has spin training balls.

    These are designed to help you easily see how the ball is spinning and in what direction. If you are looking for just regular balls to practice with then it would be smart to buy in bulk. I highly recommend a 50 count pack of Regail 3-star table tennis training balls; which are a great price for your money, not to mention they will also last you a long time.

    It’s a smart idea to get a lot of balls rather than just a few. Things happen. People step on them, they get hit too hard, some have defects or they simply get lost. It’s good to have more than six lying around. Although, if you happen to have a club in your area, they might have ping pong balls already available for you to use. But it's always smart to have some back-ups at home to practice with.

  3. Ping Pong Tables

    Tables are one of the more expensive items on the list but they are worth it in the long run. Having a good durable table is important in playing table tennis. You might not even have to buy a table; you might have one at a friends that you can use or your local club might have some. Regardless, if you have the budget and space, buying a table is one of the best ways to improve your game in a short amount of time. One of the best table tennis tables under $500 dollars is the JOOLA Inside Table Tennis Table.

  4. Shoes

    You’ll want a good pair of shoes. Gym shoes will work just fine for people starting out. Table tennis involves a lot of lateral movements when you get to the higher skill levels. I strongly recommend for anyone trying to get better to buy themselves a pair of shoes that work well with table tennis.

    table tennis shoes

    But don't worry, there are actually a lot of options when it comes to shoes. You can use Badminton shoes, indoor soccer shoes, regular tennis shoes, squash shoes, volleyball shoes, and of course shoes designed for table tennis. You also want to make sure you have non-marking soles as a lot of clubs and tournaments don’t like to have their expensive floors ruined.

    Here’s a good all around table tennis shoe from a top-of-the-line company that’s under 60 bucks. (Butterfly Table Tennis Lezoline Zero Shoe) If you’re looking for something cheaper try (Kelme Star 360 Mens Michelin Leather Mesh Inset Soccer Shoes). I have these particular shoes and they have worked really well for me. (You will want to order half a size down from your size though)

How to Get the Ball Rolling

Now that you have the basic equipment down, it’s time to put that stuff to good use and to have some fun.

Learn the Basic rules

The basic rules are important to know when starting out. I know there are a ton of rules out there for ping pong but you don’t need to know them all right now. If you don’t feel like reading them now, or you feel as if you will probably forget, you can always have someone at a club explain the rules to you better while you are playing.

How a game is played

  • When you and another person play a set of games it’s called a “match”. A match usually consists of a best three out of five games; so you could end up playing anywhere from three to five games total.
  • When two players play a single game, the first to 11 points wins or win by two points. (I will explain the two or more thing in a bit).
  • The player who serves first is usually determined differently depending on the club (some choose at random, flip a coin, hit the ball, etc). You will serve the ball two times then the other person will serve two times, this continues even if you are one point away from losing. (There is no “I get to serve because I’m about to lose rule)
  • In a game, if you and your opponent both reach 10 points it is called a “deuce.” A deuce is the only exception to the two serve rule. Say that you just hit your last of two serves and you lost or won the point which made the score 10-10. You would still give the ball to the opponent to serve as usual, but he will only serve one time.
  • If he wins that point, even though the score is 11-10, he does not win yet. This would be “his advantage.” You don’t really have to know the number any longer as long as you know who is ahead as the first to pull ahead by two wins.
  • If you win the next point to even it up, it would again be a “deuce”. This continues until someone has gained a two point lead and ultimately wins.
  • After each game is played, the players then switch sides of the table, but the serve always starts on the same side.

How to Serve the ball

Serving the ball has a lot of rules involved to try to make it as fair as possible, so try to bear with me here. When you serve the ball, one of the most important rules to remember is to throw the ball straight up into the air (So don’t throw it away from yourself or directly towards your body).

When you serve you have to have the ball above the table in plain site and then you can throw it in the air and hit it. If you hide the ball with your body or an arm it is not a legal serve.

I remember when I first started out and I just hit the ball right out of my hand. It took me awhile to get use to this new way of serving but it really improved my overall serving game.

Once you make contact with the ball it must first hit your side of the table then bounce over. Another thing you have to remember is that you have to make contact with the ball within the sides of the table. So when you hit the ball you can’t be past the white lines on the sides of the table, you must be directly behind the table.

You also can’t hit the ball past the table line. It must be hit behind the white line closest to you. You can, however, hit it as far back as you would like. It also doesn’t matter where the ball lands on the opponent's side.

When you’re playing a one-on-one match you can hit on either side of your side, and the opponents side. If you were to serve the ball and it hit the net and jthen subsequently went over onto the opponent's side, that would be called a “let”. When a let occurs neither opponent gets a point and the serve must be redone. But be careful if this happens to you. The first time it’s no big deal. If you do it again right after however, it would give the opponent a point.

So let’s recap a little:

DOs

  • Throw ball at least 6 inches vertically in the air before hitting it.
  • Switch every two serves.
  • After you hit the ball it must hit your side first.

DON’Ts

  • Don’t hide the ball with any part of your body before hitting it.
  • Don’t serve the ball over the table or off the sides.
  • Don’t hit the net on the serve twice in a row because you will lose a point.
  • Don’t hit the ball directly out of your hand.
  • Don’t throw the ball at an angle.

Some other rules to know

Here are some rules that you might see come up while playing. If someone hits the ball to you and it hits the very edge of the table on your side, (even if it barely hits it and goes straight to the floor) it would be the other person's point. While it’s almost impossible to return, it really doesn’t happen that often to where it’s a problem.

Also, if your opponents hits the ball and it hits the net (not on a serve) and it still goes over onto your side, it is their point, even if it doesn’t bounce more than an inch. These kinda shots are tricky to counter and can be kind of ridiculous sometimes but they are a part of the game.

Once your reaction time gets good enough, hitting these shots can sometimes be possible. You also must let the ball bounce before hitting it. This is how it differs from real tennis. If your opponent hits the ball before it bounces, and the ball was clearly going to hit the table, then they would lose the point.

Say if you were to hit the ball and you hit it too hard over the table, and the other player hit the ball anyway, whether intentionally or accidentally, you would still lose the point so long as the ball was clearly going out of the table.

Find a club

One of the best way to enjoy ping pong is to join a club. I recommend that you try using the internet to your advantage. Look for the closest club in your area, and if they have an updated number on file, try to call them and ask for hours of when they play.

Most of the time the clubs have a largely diverse playing field. If you’re afraid that you’re too old or too young to go, no worries, there are plenty of people aged anywhere from 10 to 60+ that play on a regular basis (and the older guys can be really good too!) Clubs usually have a large diversity of people and it’s a great way to make new acquaintances.

For most people, playing at clubs is one of the fastest ways to improve your skills in the smallest amount of time. There are usually always people willing to practice with you and give advice and tips based off the feedback that they get from playing with you. Some of the more experienced players can see exactly what you’re doing wrong and try to adjust it in a way that makes you better.That is why I always found it better to play with someone who knows what they are doing, even if they are 5 times better than me.

Sometimes clubs host tournaments or can tell you where the closest one is. Club tournaments are a really fun thing to experience and there really isn’t anything like it. People from all around the area, sometimes hours away, will drive to these tournaments to play. It’s really interesting to see all the different ways each person plays.

Some people will have crazy serves, wild hits, or just play in a way you’ve never seen before. If you think you’re good enough you can enter a tournament but don’t be discouraged if you lose, there is a lot of really tough competition out there. Once you find someone to practice with it’s important to get the basic skills mastered before moving on to harder things.

Hone in on the basic skills

Before you can learn how to play at a higher skill level, you need to hone in on the skills that you can use to further develop your game. Similar to playing ping pong, you have to learn to ride a bike before you can learn to ride with no hands or to do something crazy like a wheelie. That’s why learning the two basic strokes are very important. Some of the terms people use to describe different types of shots can seem very complicated. It can be difficult concept to grasp unless you really get to apply different types of shots. So for now let’s just start you off with two; forehand and backhand.

The forehand and backhand are the only two kind of hits you’ll use in a game. Every shot will build of either of these types, some more complicated than others. In case you don’t know what some of these terms mean, let me explain. For the sake of ease, let’s say that you’re right handed. A forehand hit would mean that you are hitting the ball on your right hand side. A backhand hit would be on your left side. It’s quite difficult to explain some of these positions through words however.

My best advice would be to look up instructional videos of some of these basic skills. The concept of a backhand and forehand shot are the bare basics that every player out there needs to be able to hit with consistency before moving on to more difficult shots. If you have a club, find someone who is willing to help or also needs some practice and do some drills just hitting back and forth with either backhand or forehand.

Time to get started

Now that you know how to get started, you can actually go out there and do it. Getting excited to play is only half the fun. Closely follow some of the advice I’ve given and you too can share that same love for the game of ping pong.