In Defense of Language

Submitted by stephen on Thu, 01/19/2012 - 09:56

A player asked recently why I used the PATT term “racket placement” to describe the process of preparing the table tennis racket for a shot instead of “backswing”. Why use an unfamiliar two-word expression in place of the existing commonly understood term? Isn’t this just a part of an over-intellectualization of ping pong that creates over-thinking in a relatively straight forward sport?

What a great question! What is the benefit to expressing something in a complicated and hard to understand way when a simple and easy to understand word already exists? A Principles Approach to Table Tennis is filled with examples of these unusual custom-built phrasings and expressions. Are they really necessary? Let’s take a closer look at “racket placement” as an example:

When someone says “backswing” I know what that means. I’m a tennis player! From a static ready position in front of my body I swing the racket arm back to a point where it is ready to move forward to contact the ball. It seems pretty straight forward, right? Is this just what the PATT expression “racket placement” means?

All shot types require racket preparation so an accurate term should cover them all. But many table tennis shots occur over the table. In these cases the player is reaching forward for the ball; there is no back-swinging at all, but there is still racket preparation. So we already have a large number of shots to which the term “backswing” does not apply.

Next, the racket ready position for table tennis is racket up, elbow down.  This places the racket quite close to the body between strokes.  For many shot types, the racket is simply lowered and placed into the path of the ball. Again, no backswing. Now, back to racket ready position and prepare for a backhand shot waist high.  No real backswing, once again you lower your racket into position and stroke forward. 

Then there are those long forehand rally shots which engender the visual image of a massive backswing. In these cases the shoulders form an imaginary line that defines the front of the body.  The idea of backswing suggests drawing the arm behind this line.  But on your forehand, with left foot forward, right foot back (the normal orientation for a righthander), there is a large space on the forehand side in front of the body for racket placement that does not require a backswing that would move behind this line.

On the contrary, swinging the racket back, even on long shots is a time consuming process which results in a racket placement (excuse the expression) which could be anywhere in the large arc a human arm can describe by swinging around the body. Intercepting a fast-traveling ball at a tangent in that arc is a very difficult proposition. Racket placement in the path of the ball offers a much larger margin for error.

So we’ve discussed a number of ways to prepare the racket for contact with the ball, and so far none of them involve “backswinging”. And in many cases, the word “backswing” implies actions antithetical to the need for speed and precision in our sport. “Racket placement”, like every other specialized vocabulary term created for PATT, describes a reality unique to table tennis, appropriate for accurate communication of the myriad subtle responses demanded by the speed, spin and circumstance of our amazing complex sport.