Beginners Guide to Table Tennis

The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Table Tennis

Have you recently picked up a table tennis paddle for the first time?

Have you been playing in your garage/basement with your mates?

Have you been wondering how you can get started playing table tennis?

Then you’re in the right place.

I’ve been playing table tennis for nearly 20 years, as well as coaching beginners for over 10 years. Over that time, I have grown to love table tennis and helped hundreds of others find their passion for ping pong.

This page covers everything you need to know to start taking your table tennis more seriously, as well as pointing you towards additional videos, websites and pages you’ll find useful. You’ll learn everything from how the sport started through to how you can level up your skills.

Welcome to the most comprehensive beginners guide to table tennis in the world.

What is Table Tennis?

Table tennis is a fast-paced, competitive racket sport played around the world, requiring quick reflexes and incredible hand-eye coordination.

Players position themselves on either side of a table, aiming to hit a small, hollow plastic ball so that their opponents can’t hit it back at them. Most commonly, the sport is played 1v1 (Singles) or 2v2 (Doubles).

My written description doesn’t do the sport any real justice. You should just watch this video instead:

The game we now recognise as table tennis has been around since the 1880’s, although back then they used cigar box lids as bats and rounded wine bottle corks for balls. It’s a little different now.

The ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) was formed in 1926 and became the sport’s governing body, defining a standard set of rules and creating the modern sport known as table tennis.

Is it “table tennis” or “ping pong”?

Officially, the sport is called table tennis, although many people still refer to the game of ping pong. It’s a catchy name and still used worldwide so everyone will know you’re talking about the same thing.

Nowadays, table tennis is a popular pastime for hundreds of millions of people. The sport is exceptionally popular in countries like China, Germany, Japan, Korea & Sweden.

Discover More: What is Table Tennis?

Why I Love Table Tennis!

I can’t think of anything else in my life that I’ve done continuously for 20 years, with table tennis providing awesome constant in between moving countries, changing jobs and making new friends.

Here are my 5 top reasons why I think you’ll also fall in love with table tennis:

  1. Open to Everyone: Table tennis is not a stuffy, clique-filled sport with tons of requirements before you can play (I’m looking at you, Golf!). Pick up a paddle and hit the ball. Go and play wherever there’s a spare table, we’re a welcoming bunch.
  2. Making Friends: Speaking of being a welcoming bunch, I’ll guarantee a warm welcome to every table tennis club in the world. It’s a perfect place to meet new people and make new friends for life. 
  3. Health Benefits: Whilst it may look like a chilled out sport, the reality is far different. Table tennis is all about fast, accurate, constant movements and applying your whole body into each shot. Playing can be a serious workout (if you want it to be).
  4. Personal Styles: Every player develops their own unique style for the game, supported by equipment that opens up new and unusual shot types. Learn the basics then decide what kind of player you want to be!
  5. Play at Your Pace: Not everybody wants to be world champion. Table tennis is just as fun played casually in a bar with a drink, as it is investing every ounce of effort at a tournament. You also don’t need to be a world-class athlete to be an awesome player either.

My good friend Alvaro has put together his top reasons to play table tennis as well if you want to learn more.

The 5 Table Tennis Rules You Must Know

Before you dive into playing more of this wonderful sport, I’ve got 5 important rules to share with you.

A vast majority of players around the world follow these rules, so it’s considered polite to understand these before you start playing. If you have any doubts, it’s always worth checking with your opponent before the match starts.

Playing a Match

  1. Winning A Point – You win a point when you play a shot that hits only your opponent’s side of the table, and they are unable to return the ball onto your side.
  2. Winning A Game – Modern table tennis games are played up to 11 points. Each player is responsible for serving twice consecutively, until 10 – 10 when each player serves once and the winner needs to get to 2 points ahead.
  3. Winning A Match – There is no official rule regarding how many games result in winning a match. Agree with your opponent before playing, just make your total games an Odd number (1, 3, 5, 7 etc.) so you don’t accidentally draw!

Serving

  1. Toss The Ball – When it is your turn to serve, you must throw the ball straight upwards at least 6 inches. It must always be above and behind the edge of the table. You can only hit the ball once it starts dropping.
  2. Serve Anywhere –  When playing a singles match (1v1), you can serve anywhere on the table. If you’re playing doubles (2v2) this is slightly limited as you must serve diagonally.

Discover More: Detailed Guide to Table Tennis Rules, Table Tennis Doubles Rules and Serving Rules

Resolving 3 Common Table Tennis Myths

There are perhaps hundreds of myths or misconceptions about table tennis. Likely due to rules being passed through families, or through online “experts”. These often end up causing arguments at the table, so let’s solve 3 of the most common myths right here:

I win the point if the ball touched my opponent before hitting the floor

This is a common rule in tennis, but it does not apply in table tennis.

You only win the point if your opponent contacts the ball whilst it’s still over the surface of the table. It would be a harsh rule, and a pretty great tactic, if you won a point for smashing a ball at your opponent who’s just a few feet away.

If the ball is outside the playing surface, you can grab it while it’s still in the air without any penalty. Table tennis rallies are only a few seconds long so this rule comes in very handy to avoid having to pick the ball up from the floor every time. 

You’re not allowed to touch the table!

People often think incorrectly on both ends of the spectrum here. There are definitely some scenarios where you can touch the table, as well as some scenarios where you can’t. Here’s a quick summary:

  • You CAN touch the table with your racket-holding hand or arm.
  • You CAN stand on the table, or brush against it with your leg. Not that I would recommend this!
  • You CAN’T touch the table with your free hand (for balance or otherwise)
  • You CAN’T cause the table to move in any way.

The ball hit your hand, that’s my point.

This myth can be easily busted, as long as it’s your racket-holding hand and it’s still holding the racket.

Yes, the ball can ricochet off your hand or thumb as long as the racket is there as well. Whilst you’ll never be able to do this consistently, it can create some crazy weird angles & spins when it accidentally happens.

Unintentional double hits are legal in table tennis. So if you hit the ball twice accidentally as part of the same movement, the point carries on as normal.

Now, if the ball hits your other hand or anywhere else on your body, that’s a point lost.

Let’s take a short break to enjoy some of the craziest table tennis points ever filmed, courtesy of Table Tennis Central.

The 3 Pieces of Table Tennis Equipment

Table tennis is a simple game at heart. You just need a table, a paddle (racket), a ball and a willing opponent.

That’s just 3 simple pieces of equipment before you can start playing. Let’s have a quick look at them.

Racket / Paddle

The most personalized piece of kit any table tennis player can own. Your racket is an extension of your arm and allows you to play a virtually unlimited number of shot types.

A modern table tennis racket is made up of 3 individual components – Blade, Forehand Rubber and Backhand Rubber

A graphic of the Make-up of a Table Tennis Racket

Most experienced players will buy each element separately and combine them together to create a racket with the perfect characteristics for their game.

As a beginner, choosing a table tennis rubber, or selecting the right table tennis blade can be a tricky process. I personally recommend the Killerspin JET400 to anyone I’m coaching, which comes premade and is perfect for anyone beginner – intermediate level.

Ping Pong Ball

The modern ping pong ball is a plastic sphere that’s 40mm wide in diameter and weighing about 2.7 grams.

Most commonly these are white, but can easily be found in orange as well. That’s particularly useful if playing in a space with a white wall!

History of the Table Tennis Ball

It’s important not to ignore the quality of the small, hollow ball you’re playing with. A lot of low-quality sellers of ping pong balls will sell thin, flexible balls that are awful for playing table tennis.

You should be looking for balls sold by a reputable table tennis brand. These can get quite expensive, so look for budget “training” balls if you need to save some money.

Table & Net

Maybe I’m cheating slightly by claiming these are the same piece of equipment. Quite often, your table and net are separate.

The officially standard table is made of wood (MDF), 274cm long and 152.5cm wide. However, it’s definitely possible (and fun) to play table tennis on any flat surface.

Most tables are either two separate halves that can be pushed together to make a whole table, or both halves are attached to the same undercarriage so they can’t be separated.

Size of a Standard Ping Pong Table

The net is designed to be 6 inches tall and slightly flexible so that the ball can graze the top without pinging off. Although it overhangs the table by 6 inches, you’ll often find players trying to play some awesome shots around the net.

If you’re trying to play at home, but the size of a normal table is just too big, check out our favorite mini/midi tables that take up much less space.

Where to Play Table Tennis

Finding a place to play table tennis can be challenging at times, with a limited amount of tables available. They can be quite expensive and difficult to store, so it’s unlikely you’ll randomly find one in a field or in your friend’s apartment!

I’m always up for playing a game of table tennis, so here are my top 5 recommended places you should try to find a place to play.

1) Local Clubs

This is the first thing you should check as a table tennis beginner. Can you join any clubs local to where you live?

Hop onto google and see if you can find any clubs within a radius you can travel to. Check their training times and often it’s worth reaching out to let them know you’re coming. A lot of clubs have specific beginners sessions, so allow them to recommend the best time for you to join.

Local clubs are where you’ll meet lifelong friends, practise against many different styles and get a solid workout. They’re my favorite place in the world.

2) Sports/Rec Centres

This is where I started my table tennis career. Whilst the equipment often isn’t the quality you’ll find at a local club, it’s a cheap and inexpensive way to play the sport with a friend.

Most recreational centres have a couple of tables available for hire, along with rackets & balls if you don’t have your own.

There are also lots of meetup / event groups that organize practise or social sessions at local sports centers. Your first step is to check if there are any local facebook groups you can join.

3) Bars

Table tennis is (in my opinion) one of the best bar sports in the world. The ping pong table forms a great focal point for great conversation and some serious competition.

More and more bars are cropping up with table tennis tables. That could be a simple table available for hire, or a more dedicated table tennis bar such as the famous Bounce in London which I’ve frequented many times.

A picture of a famous Table Tennis Bar on Bounce, London
Bounce, London. Photo: Secret London

4) At Home

Getting your own table is much less expensive than you might think. If you have a living room, garage or garden space that might be big enough for a table tennis table… it’s definitely worth investigating.

Having a table at home allows you to practise all the time, as well as challenge all your friends to a match (which you’ll win after practicing so much!). Check out our guide to the room size needed for table tennis.

5) Parks & Outdoor Spaces

Lots of cities and municipal areas have initiatives to provide table tennis tables in public parks. These are often concrete, outdoor tables with metal nets but as we mentioned earlier, you can play table tennis wherever you want!

You’ll often need your own bats & balls, but this is a great free way to play with your friends if you don’t have enough space for a table at home.

Dive Right In

Don’t wait for someone else to start playing, dive right in today. I promise you won’t regret it after just one night at a local club.

If you’re in the USA, we have a more detailed guide to some of the places you can start playing table tennis.

What to Wear When Playing Table Tennis

Before you start playing, you might be curious about the social ‘norms’ for what to wear when playing table tennis. Fortunately, you don’t have much to worry about.

Most players will wear a simple sports top / t-shirt along with either shorts or a skirt. The only important thing to be conscious of is to avoid wearing white. This is because the ball is white and white clothing can make it difficult for your opponent to see the ball.

Shoes are perhaps the most important part of your table tennis outfit. As the movements required are short, sharp side-to-side steps, it’s critical you wear shoes that are:

  • Grippy
  • Supportive
  • Non-Marking Soles

I highly recommend investing in a good pair of table tennis shoes, which will last you a long time for your table tennis journey. Here’s a list of my top recommended table tennis shoes.

A picture of Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito winning a game
Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito. Photo: Reuters

Some players will also choose to wear wristbands or a headband to manage any sweat or hair that might interfere with your shots. These are down to personal preference.

Want to get a more detailed guide? Check out our total guide on what to wear when playing table tennis.

Holding Your Racket

Most players when they first pick up a racket will grab it a bit like a baseball bat, holding the handle within their fist. Others have some weird and wacky ways of holding the racket.

These grips are totally fine when you’re playing casually but at some point you just won’t be able to improve any further. It becomes a huge limitation on the kind of shots you can hit.

There are 3 common, effective grips that people across the world use. With these, your improvement is literally unlimited. These grips are:

A picture of the 3 grips of Table Tennis.

The grip you choose might depend on where you’re from, and any coaches you have access to locally. The most common grip, globally, is the shakehand grip. It’s used by a majority of the world’s top players and is the easiest to learn.

Shakehand Grip Explainer

Discover More: The 3 Grips of Table Tennis

Basic Table Tennis Skills for Every Beginner

Now you’re holding your racket properly, we can talk about some of the core shots you’ll need to play table tennis. As coach, I always teach four shots as the core foundation to anyone’s game.

Mastering these four shots will create instant improvement and have you winning more matches in no time. Players who can play each shot consistently have few weaknesses and become very hard to beat.

Forehand Drive

How to Play a Forehand Drive

The Forehand Drive is the most basic and common shot in table tennis that all players must master. It’s a consistent stroke played on a player’s dominant (racket) side with a lot of flexibility on where you aim the ball.

As a beginner, having a consistent forehand drive alone will win you plenty of matches.

Learn More: Learn how to play the Forehand Drive

Backhand Drive

How to Play a Backhand Drive

The Backhand Drive is played when a ball is coming towards your body or non-dominant side. It’s usually less powerful than the Forehand Drive, so it’s normally used to force your opponent into playing a weaker shot.

This shot is a major weakness for most beginners, which gives your opponent an easy way to win points. Working on this shot will quickly stop you from losing points.

Learn More: Learn how to play the Backhand Drive

Forehand Push

The Forehand Push is a defensive shot that is less commonly played than the other 3 basic types of shot. A push shot is used to prevent your opponent from attacking and taking positional advantage in the point. They should stay low over the net and short on the table so your opponent can’t attack.

On the forehand side, most players should aim to play a forehand drive or attacking shot where possible. Use the forehand push only for shorter balls on your dominant side.

Learn More: Learn how to play a Forehand Push

Backhand Push

The Backhand Push is an extremely common defensive shot, which all beginners must master. Contacting underneath the ball and keeping the ball low over the net is critical to prevent your opponent from attacking your return.

Use this shot to maneuver your opponent around the table, making the point uncomfortable for them and exposing any weaknesses.

Learn More: Learn how to play a Backhand Push

Understanding the Dark Art of Spin

Spin is the craziest thing about table tennis. When you play against experienced players, it’s the feeling when you hit the ball and the ball goes flying off in a random direction.

It’s an incredible weapon that all table tennis players need to master. Created by brushing against the ball, you can cause any effect you want against your opponent.

Here’s a simple diagram explaining topspin and backspin.

Top Spin & Back Spin Explainer

Mastering Spin

When trying to see what spin is on the ball, try and spot where your opponent’s racket finished pointing towards. That’s where the ball is going to go! So, you need to counteract that by aiming your racket in the opposite direction.

Head to a table with a friend and try adding all kinds of spin on the ball. The more you practise spotting spin, the easier it will get. I promise!

5 Short Tips to Improve Your Game

There are very few shortcuts to becoming a good table tennis player. At some point, you’ll need to put in long and hard hours training, developing your technique so you can consistently play effective shots during matches.

However, as a beginner there are a few tips and tricks that will make an immediate difference to your win / loss ratio!

1) The most important shot is the serve.

I was taught this early on by my first ever coach, who helped me create a strong set of serves that regularly win me lots of points.

When you think about it, this is quite intuitive for two reasons:

  1. It’s the only shot you’re guaranteed to play during a match.
  2. It’s the only shot where you have full control of the ball.

Win more games by developing some fast, spinny serves and target your opponent’s weaknesses.

2) Not losing a point is worth the same as winning a point.

How many players have you seen go for big, flashy attacking shots that balloon off the end of the table or flop straight into the net? That’s such an easy way to lose a point.

One of the most effective tactics as a beginner is just learning to consistently place the ball back on the table and avoid playing risky shots. Choose your attacks wisely.

3) You don’t need the best, or most expensive, racket.

One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners make is wanting to buy the fastest, spinniest rubbers to go on their new racket. These rubbers are really difficult to control.

Without the right technique, students struggle to hit the ball back onto the table using these rackets and I’ve seen more than a few people fall out of love with the game.

Buy a racket, like the Killerspin JET400, that gives you good spin, speed and control without being too difficult to manage.

4) Table tennis is as much a mental game as a physical game

Playing this sport requires a relaxed control of your entire body, focussed on delivering great shots that target your opponent’s weaknesses.

That’s really hard to do when you’re angry, or thinking about how your opponent got an edge in the last point.

Staying cool, calm and collected will help you perform better and more consistently.

5) Don’t forget to have fun

Yes, this is definitely a bit of a cheat, but as a coach I think it’s super important. You can’t always be 100% focussed on competitive matches or training specific shots.

Find time to have fun with the sport. Try out some trick shots, stick multiple tables together, try to lob every ball, stick a barrier down to play on the floor or play with sandpaper/hard bats.

Messing around isn’t just fun, but it helps you become more creative and get more familiar with creating unusual spin/angles. It makes you a better player.

Professional Table Tennis

Watching and enjoying major table tennis events is a little more difficult than some of the more major sports. It’s rare to see a table tennis match on television, or hear about a tournament winner in the news.

In fact, most beginners can’t name the best players in the world, never mind naming the best players in their country. 

Major Stars

Most people will have heard about the Chinese domination of table tennis. At the professional level, this is absolutely true. For the last 20 years, it’s been a rare occasion when they don’t win the major, global championships. 

Let’s discover some of the top current players that you should definitely follow.

Ma Long

Ma Long Serving
Ma Long Serving. Photo: Xinhua

We ranked Ma Long as our greatest table tennis player of all time. He’s won a staggering 5 Olympic Gold Medals and 9 World Cup Gold Medals. His style is super entertaining and he’s been incredibly hard to beat since making his world debut in 2006. Still playing as part of the formidable Chinese team, you don’t want to miss his matches.

Fan Zhendong

A picture of Fan Zhendong
Fan Zhendong. Photo: Edges and Nets

Staying in China, I couldn’t put together this list without mentioning Fan Zhendong. He’s currently, comfortably, the best player in the world right now. Although he was beaten by Ma Long in the Tokyo Olympics, he’s been dominating most of the major tournaments including the WTTC Finals and WTT Cup Finals. Just like Ma Long, he has an explosive, attacking style that’s incredible to watch.

Hugo Calderano

A picture of Huge Calderano
Huge Calderano. Photo: ITTF

Hugo Calderano is a trailblazer. The first table tennis player from Latin America to reach the top 10 in world rankings, peaking at world number 3. Whilst not the technically perfect player, he more than makes up for it in steel, grit and determination. An incredible competitor who’s been dominating Pan American events over recent years.

Mima Ito

A picture of Mima Ito Serving
Mima Ito Serving

Like the men’s game, the women’s game is dominated by a revolving door of Chinese players. That’s why Mima Ito is so exciting. Hailing from Japan, she’s ultra competitive with the best players in the world with a direct, driving style playing close to the table. Aged just 21, she’s a player worth watching for future world titles.

Major Calendar Events

The table tennis calendar is dominated by a few major events, although regular world tour events are held throughout the year.

Olympics

As an Olympic sport, table tennis gains a lot of visibility every 4 years. It’s the peak of any table tennis player’s career with just one singles gold medal available. There are also Doubles and Team events played.

The Olympics has been dominated by the Chinese who have won 32 of the 37 gold medals available since the inaugural event in 1988. In an even more astounding statistic, just 2 non-Chinese players have ever reached the final of the Women’s singles. None have won.

Will that domination continue? Well, there continues to be new, world-beating Chinese players emerging every year so they could easily dominate for many years to come.

ITTF World Table Tennis Championships

The world championships have been held every year since 1926. Each year, they rotate between playing an individual event and a team event. For example, the 2021 WTTC was held in Houston, USA consisting of Mens/Womens Singles and Doubles events.

There’s an interesting history to winners of WTTC events, with Hungary winning most events for the first 20 years. In recent years, the event has been dominated by Chinese competitors, much like the Olympics.

WTT Events

In a slightly convoluted change to the table tennis calendar, the WTT series of events was launched in 2019. Designed to bring more entertainment and engagement to the sport, they host 4 “Grand Smashes”, 2 “Cup Finals”, 8 “Champions” and up to 20 “Contender” events each year.

These events provide a consistent chance to watch top-class table tennis.

Where to Follow Table Tennis

There are a few places you can watch table tennis broadcasts, with online streaming the main format as matches aren’t often available on TV channels.

The main recommended place to watch events, streams and match highlights is at https://worldtabletennis.com/.

We’d also love to welcome you to the online table tennis community at forums like r/tabletennis, Table Tennis Daily and OOAK.

Want to Read More? We highly recommend the Expert Table Tennis Beginners Guide.