As we watched the amazing Chinese National Team players demonstrating drills at our club, we noted a very clear distinction between the movement of these visiting athletes and our club players. Despite adequate strength and fitness, our own tottering mortals lurched and lunged for shots that those lighter-than-air ethereal players seemed consistently poised to consummate.
Even when 52 year old former world champion, Jiang Jialing demonstrated exactly how to do specific footwork, our club players of comparable age, simply could not keep their balance while executing the drills. Why did we appear to be rooted into the ground, while these players seemed to hover just above? What is it really that comprises quickness and balance?
I recalled my experience decades ago as a precocious 13 year old tennis player training with a top college opponent. Bravely scampering about the court chasing down his wonderfully placed shots, I thought I was putting on a pretty good show. After the match he approached the net and looked at me skeptically. “You think you’re pretty quick, don’t you?”
Yes, I thought I was very quick! Feigning humility I shrugged, “I guess so.”
“You’re not quick!” he exclaimed. “You lunge for the ball. Quick is when you’re there before the ball arrives.” He suggested pushing thumbtacks into the heels of my shoes to inspire keeping me on my toes.
Months of diligent training followed to change the habits of movement which had encumbered my growth as a tennis player.
Remembering this, I could now see how these National Team players did it. It wasn’t like movement in tennis which is slow and lumbering compared to the demands of table tennis. Their movement was clearly related to the extremely short time-frames of our sport, and it occurred in three distinct phases: They waited in racket ready position on the balls of their feet, heels barely touching. As they read the direction of the oncoming ball, there was an instant first movement, quick and light, to create a balanced foundation for the best body-to-ball relationship. The second phase was a still moment – as if floating as the racket contacted the ball through dwell time. While weight shifted, there was no sense of being anchored to the spot before or after the shot. Instantly, after contact, light feet sprang back to a poised, neutral ready position preparing for the next oncoming shot.
It took some diligent practice to integrate this new idea of “quickness”. It was different from tennis, and quite distinct from the ways most of us tend to move naturally. It is not about huge effort, or tension in the legs, on the contrary, it is very relaxed. There are no static poses; it’s all fluid. Even at that moment of ball contact the feet are not planted like a tree, but more flowing like an ice skater.
There was an unexpected extra benefit to this practice: When the feet are poised and light, all the torque involved in side-to-side twisting which causes so much stress and injury to the lower back in table tennis was relieved. Instead of planted feet gripping the ground while the upper body twists the back, hips, knees, and ankles, down to the stuck soles of the feet – with this floating stance, the soles of the feet just swivel on the floor as the body opens to forehand or backhand.