Table tennis and boxing are nothing like each other, right? Well, I wouldn’t be so sure.
You see, table tennis and boxing share much more in common than you might think. The similarity between these two sports is very apparent once we evaluate them on a technical, tactical, and mental level.
Both sports are very similar in their essence. As a result, exercises and techniques from one sport can be adapted to the other, creating new development opportunities.
For example, shadow boxing was initially invented to improve boxing techniques. It was then adapted to table tennis and shadow play is now one of the most popular solo table tennis training methods.
From our years of experience playing and coaching table tennis, and having researched advanced boxing techniques, we’ll explore what both disciplines can learn from one another.
1. General feel of the game
When looking at the sports from an overall perspective, two primary similarities stand out: Speed and Hand-Eye Co-ordination.
Both sports are about reacting to stimuli as quickly as possible, which is why they feel so similar.
They are rhythmic and orderly, usually with one athlete defending and another attacking, due to the inherent speed of the sports.
In table tennis, the player defending has to react to the attacks of their opponent. Just like a player fending off attacking, aggresive jabs in a boxing match.
Unless you time the ball right, it’s very hard to counter loop an attack. Countertopspins are very difficult to execute if your opponent’s attack comes with a lot of spin and speed.
The same thing happens in boxing, if your opponent is attacking you with power and speed, you will be forced to defend until you find your chance to fight back.
Both sports are also very reliant on reflexes and muscle memory. Because both are super fast-paced, we must ingrain in our muscle memory the correct response to each situation.
This is why boxers work on exercises that alternate between dodging and punching, while table tennis players practice regular and irregular drills. Regular drills are meant to perfect your technique while irregular drills work on reflexes and coordination.
Both disciplines are about interpreting information as quickly as possible to act according to the situation.
Have you ever noticed that the highest level table tennis players always seem to know where the ball is going to go?
This is because they process information even before their opponent hits the ball. This way, they’re able to come up with accurate guesses almost every time.
Timing and body posture are things professional players look for when trying to predict the placement of their opponent’s shots. All of this happens in a matter of milliseconds.
This is the same reason why boxers can dodge and counterpunch. They can read what punch is coming at them from the moment their opponent lets their hands go. Once they read their opponent’s punch, their muscle memory takes over to counter.
Feints are an essential part of boxing. If boxers punched every time they started their motion, then their opponents would counter their punches easily.
As we said before, boxers and table tennis players are very good at guessing the type of punch or shot their opponent is going to attempt.
Knowing that their opponent is focused on dodging, boxers use feints to analyze their reaction.
If their opponent doesn’t dodge, they can try to hit them the next time. If their opponent dodges, they can be cornered by moving forward while feinting.
This common boxing technique is also present in table tennis!
In table tennis, feints are sublime plays in which players can display their intelligence, timing, and touch. Feinting adds more techniques, tactics, and ultimately more depth (and fun!) to the discipline.
Let’s appreciate a superb play by one of the best players in the world, Hugo Calderano.
Now we can understand why feinting adds that much more to the sport. By faking what your opponent thinks you will do and doing exactly the opposite, you can add lots of variation to your style and become an unpredictable player such as Jan Ove Waldner.
Let’s go over Hugo’s play. In a matter of milliseconds, Hugo feints that he is going to execute a forehand flick. Dang Qiu quickly interprets Hugo’s body posture as an attack.
To return the supposed forehand flick, Dang drops back. Hugo then shows that the flick he was going to execute for a split of a second was a feint, and he pushes short.
Dang was very far back, so he comes onto the table to try to push the ball, but it was already too late and he gives Hugo an easy chance to win the point on the next shot.
In conclusion, the athletes of both sports must have second to none hand-eye coordination. This will allow them to hit their moving targets optimally.
In table tennis, the best way to train these skills is by doing irregular drills.
Since you don’t know where the ball is going to go, you have to react in time and play your shot accordingly. Depending on the context, you have to react as fast as possible and come up with the best shot you can.
2. Everyone has their own style.
In both table tennis and boxing, we all have our own style, and styles across both disciplines are very similar to their counterparts.
In table tennis, there are defensive players, like Ruwen Filus or Joo Se Hyuk who try to withstand their opponent’s attacks until they have a chance to attack themselves. In boxing, Floyd Mayweather used to defend first and then countered with punches of his own.
In boxing, Mike Tyson tried to finish bouts as quickly as possible with punches of immense power. Does this ring a bell?
In both sports, we can see how the psychology of each athlete leads them to interpret the discipline in the way that they think is optimal to win the fight or the match.
Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson are two all-time greats of boxing and they achieved their world championship successes in radically different ways.
In table tennis, the point is won by the player who manages to return the ball legally 1 more time than their opponent. Those are the rules. The rest is left to the free interpretation of each player.
All this is closely linked to the concept of tempo that we explained in the article “8 Strategies to Win More Table Tennis Matches”.
Athletes of both disciplines must craft a cohesive style of play taking their strengths and weaknesses into account.
They will then go out and play with this style, adapting it as the game progresses depending on who they’re facing, and fine-tuning it when training.
Will you try to turn defense into attack like Mayweather or Filus? Or will you try to overpower your opponent with brute force, like Tyson or Ma Long? The choice is yours!
3. Mental game
In both disciplines, the mind dominates what our bodies will do.
In both boxing and table tennis, you must have courage and a huge desire to win whilst staying calm and avoiding poor decisions.
In both sports, you have to ride the fine line between wanting to win and giving your all while staying 100% focused, and not letting your emotions overwhelm you.
This can make table tennis feel like a boxing match adapted as a racket sport, facing your opponent one versus one. Many times we see players saying things along the lines of: “Fight for every point”.
Table tennis is a real fight between two players, the only difference is that instead of hitting each other directly like in boxing, they hit the ball. The mental effect is similar.
Many times I have seen mood swings that determine the outcome of a game because a player hit a spectacular loop, celebrated it and the opponent receives a major mental blow.
The same thing happens with nets, edges, and missed serves. One player gets a free point and the other loses focus.
Losing a key point against an attack from your opponent has a similar mental effect as getting punched in the face. It’s pretty discouraging for the one who receives it and encouraging for the one who struck it. The intensity of these emotions may vary but the principles are the same.
Another thing to consider is that in mental terms, a 2-2 game 9-9 point scenario in table tennis is very similar to the championship rounds in boxing.
It is in the important moments where you feel nervous and have to give 110% of your effort. Only one of the two can win. It seems almost unfair that a whole match is decided in a matter of 2 points or 1 punch, but that’s how both sports are.
We can simply learn that it is crucial to stay calm and focused, thinking logically and proactively.
It is impossible to not feel pressure, even the best players and boxers in the world feel it. However, you should:
- Understand why you’re under pressure. We get nervous because we want to win. If we can put all this in logical terms, we can create an action plan. “I’m feeling nervous because I want to win, but I’ll win if I close the match out doing what has been working for me throughout the match”
- Use it to focus even more on the moment. In the final moments of the match, you’ll already know what plays have been working for you and how your opponent is most likely to serve. You can use pressure to focus even more at the moment and not take your eyes off the ball.
In both table tennis and boxing, there is no doubt that to get the best results you have to enter the famous flow state. W’ll explain briefly how the flow state works and how to make the most out of it.
To understand how the flow state works, we must first explain how the brain works. The human brain can process around 110 bits of information per second.
It may seem like a lot of information, but the brain is constantly analyzing its surroundings, listening, and processing what it hears.
Simply decoding speech takes 40-60 bits of information per second. This is why when we talk, we can’t focus as much on other things.
The state of flow occurs when one is completely devoted to the task at hand, without making the conscious decision to do so. You cannot decide to enter or leave the state of flow.
Among other things, Jeanne Nakamura & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explain the conditions for entering the state of flow in their book “Handbook of Positive Psychology”
“Entering flow depends on establishing a balance between perceived action capacities and perceived action opportunities. The balance is intrinsically fragile. If challenges begin to exceed skills, one first becomes vigilant and then anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one first relaxes and then becomes bored.”Jeanne Nakamura & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Therefore, one enters a state of flow when the challenge at hand is difficult but possible, i.e. the championship rounds or the last points of a match.
If you pushed the match into the last points, it means you’re good enough to beat your opponent, but it has probably not been an easy match thus far.
In addition, players will only focus all of their attention if the game matters to them, so most times, players will enter the state of flow in high-pressure scenarios.
When you enter the state of flow, it is very difficult to lose since you feel that all the shots are played perfectly without needing to think about it. This happened to me 2 times in my entire career and they were the two best matches of my life.
I only came to realize that I was in a state of flow after these matches had already finished since I perceived both matches occurred very quickly, I was focused like never before and I played a lot better than I thought I was capable of.
According to the same book, when in flow:
You feel concentration like never before, lose awareness of yourself as a social actor, feel distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal), and perform superbly in whatever you’re is engaged in.
It works similarly to when you start studying and after an hour or two you devote all your attention to what you’re studying, and then, you lose the sense of time and get “in the zone”.
The human brain is amazing, and understanding it is crucial to success at critical moments in both boxing and table tennis.
4. Power generation
Both sports are also similar in the way they generate force in their strokes/punches.
In both table tennis and boxing, there is very little time to react, so power generation must be as efficient as possible.
The greatest possible force must be generated in the shortest time, so using the whole body and making use of the weight transfer is very important.
In both sports, the athlete must accelerate at the moment just before hitting, trying to generate the greatest possible power. This force must be generated from the legs and rotating the waist, directing the energy toward the point of impact.
Afterward, the arm must generate a flicking motion, accompanying the weight transfer. It is in this way that maximum power is generated.
Bruce Lee was not a boxer but he was a contact athlete. This generation of power in a short time and space can be seen in the punches of Bruce Lee and most boxers.
And we can see this in table tennis, for example, when we see Patrick Franziska executing one of his trademark backhand loops.
Patrick Franziska’s strokes and those of boxers at the highest level share that they are excellent at using their bodies in such a way that they can release energy like a spring.
This is what we must learn if we want to improve in both disciplines, trying to stay relaxed and using the strength of all our bodies in the instant before impact.
5. Shadow Play
In both sports, shadow play is extremely important. Table tennis copied this technique from boxing and adapted it to the sport.
Shadow play helps table tennis players to improve technically, aerobically, and anaerobically. In my opinion, shadow play feels almost like cheating. If you’ve not applied shadow training before, check out our shadow play guide for all levels of players.
In both sports, the goal is 100% focused on hitting a target, be it the ball or the opponent. For this, we have to react so quickly that we don’t have time to think if we are hitting the target in the right way.
If we remove the target, we can concentrate all our mental power on our technique and our way of hitting, without having to worry about having to hit the ball or the opponent.
In this way, we can fine-tune the elements of our game, be it weight transfer, technique, footwork, etc.
To sum up, there are lots of techniques and methods that both disciplines can learn from each other, and it is through analysis that one can extrapolate useful concepts in a sport and carry its benefits over to another.
Have we missed any other similarities between table tennis and boxing? Let us know in the comments below!
Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 100 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!