As a ‘Defender’ playing style in table tennis, I realise that it’s not a very mainstream style. There’s not a lot of information online about how to win matches as a defensive player.
Offensive players focus on attacking and placing aggressive shots to score point. In contrast, we defensive players prioritize keeping the ball in play and frustrating opponents by returning shots with consistency and accuracy.
We win points by forcing our opponents into mistakes. It’s an incredible effective style if used correctly. Any skilled defender can neutralize their opponent’s attacks and earn themselves the upper hand in matches.
In this article, I will share some of the defensive strategies and techniques that I have learned over the years. They’ll help any standard of player have a better understanding of the defensive playstyle, and to win more matches.
As the ancient Chinese military taught, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated”.
Table of Contents
1. Identify their weaker side and relentlessly target it
As a defender, you must carefully observe your opponent’s playing style to identify their positional weaknesses. You can then exploit those weaknesses by directing shots to that side or area.
The first set of most matches should be used to discover the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses by trialling different shot speeds, spins and directions. This starts with our serves, which we should vary significantly to try and pinpoint weaknesses.
I see amateur players commonly playing safe with the same serve for an entire match. For a defender, that’s often backspin towards the opponent’s backhand. By doing this, you aren’t exposing any weaknesses.
You’ll see far more success by varying the spin and location from the very beginning. Experiment with heavy backspin, float (no spin) with speed, and sidespin serves. Try serving into their backhand and forehand, with variation between long and short serves.
The next step is to carefully observe how your opponent is responding to your shots. Some players feel more comfortable on their forehand or backhand. Spotting their weakness is your advantage.
Start to formulate an overall view of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and allow yourself to plan how to consistently maneuver points towards your opponent’s weaknesses.
For example, if the opponent has a strong forehand drive, then you should avoid passively pushing the ball directly to their forehand side. Or, if the opponent is struggling to return against your long pips, then you can prioritise using the long pips defensively instead of attacking with inverted rubbers.
2. Choppers should target the backhand
If you are a chopper and using long pips or short pips rubber, you should aim to direct most of your shots towards the opponent’s backhand side, forcing them to pivot and expend more energy to play forehand shots. It’s an uncomfortable shot for most attacking players.
This is the strategy that I use most frequently during my matches.
That is because most players find it difficult to lift up heavy backspin with their backhand stroke. You’ll find that most people are much better at striking powerful and aggressive shots with their forehand.
Therefore, they will try and pivot to attack which will make them super uncomfortable compared with sending the ball directly to their forehand area.
But there are also exceptions. Some talented players have very strong backhand topspin strokes (e.g Fan Zhendong). They are able to hit the ball consistently and aggressively with their backhand. I have encountered these kinds of players during the games and would avoid sending the ball to their backhand area, instead aiming to their forehand or middle of the table.
As I discussed in the first strategy, I’ll always test my opponent in the first set to identify whether he is a forehand-dominant or backhand-dominant player. 9 times out of 10, players are better on their forehand so that’s why I recommend you start by trying to chop the ball to their backhand area.
3. Use long or short pips and switch regularly
Both long pips and short pips rubbers are known for their ability to disrupt the opponent’s spin and create unexpected shot trajectories.
This often leads to my opponent making lots of mistakes in the first 1 or 2 sets. They’re struggling to read the spin on the incoming ball and failing to adjust their shot appropriately.
However, most offensive players will become accustomed to the style and rhythm. For example, they can serve a heavy backspin to my backhand area and I would push it back with my long pips. The result is predictable and they can confidently play that ball and win the point.
Therefore, defensive players must always change their rhythm and shot choices throughout the game. The aim is to be unpredictable.
Most attacking players will loop one shot and then play a short push on the second shot to move a defensive player around the court. It’s an effective tactic, especially as it’s very difficult to consistently loop heavy backspin chop returns.
When this happens, I highly recommend any defender to switch the backhand side into your inverted rubber and push the ball with backspin. This change in spin and trajectory ensure your opponent doesn’t get comfortable and prevents them from attacking confidently with power.
4. Push fast into the cross-over point
Most people believe a defensive playing style always means you’re playing passive shots. This is absolutely not true.
In fact, defensive play requires great feeling and marvellous control. As a defender, we create opportunities through defense to ultimately make a counter-attacking shot and win the point. You’ll win more matches by manipulating points so you get an easy attacking winner.
To help create these opportunities, I often push the ball fast into the opponent’s crossover point. That’s the zone right on the elbow of their racket arm. It’s the awkward space where a quick decision needs to be made on whether to play a forehand or backhand.
This creates a scenario where they move left or right and open up space on one side of the table. By then targeting this open space, you’re creating a significant chance of a weak return. These are the opportunities when defense turns to attack and we want to play a smash or flat drive winner.
There are lots of other ways to manipulate points in our favour. Pushing fast and low anywhere on the table with heavy backspin is a real test of your opponents ability to move quickly and prepare for a topspin stroke.
If we push back with long pips or short pips, there’s a good chance the opponent will return the ball relatively high due to the spin reversal. Under such circumstances, we can prepare to smash and win the point.
5. Attack with fast, flat strokes
As I’ve already mentioned, defensive play doesn’t mean passive play. No matter if you use long pips, short pips, anti-spin, or even an inverted rubber, you need to be ready to kill the point when the chance arises.
The hardest rubbers to play an offensive winner with are long pips or anti-spin. Most amateur players don’t know how to attack with these rubbers, as the technique takes a lot of getting used to. I recommend that you attack with long pips only when a return is high and near the net. Open the racket angle and hit the ball as flat as possible.
The easiest rubbers to attach with are short pips as these are designed for flat and quick strokes. You should work on playing strokes with a flat angle that float through and land towards the edge of the table. This can even be done if you’re playing a few steps away from the table. It’s a very effective strategy.
Most players train to play attacking strokes with an inverted rubber. For me, I always use inverted rubber to counter-attack. Fast, flat strokes played close to the table puts pressure on your opponent as they’re often not expecting it from a defender.
However, it’s important to note that using this strategy too frequently or inappropriately can also lead to errors and missed shots.
We are not offensive players. The most important word for defenders is patience. So stay patient, control the game and create opportunities to seize the initiative. We have to manage the game to be played with our own rhythm.
Attacking should only be done as part of the wider plan, or you’ll find yourself making too many unforced errors.
More advice about winning matches as a defender
A defensive playstyle requires great consistency and control over the ball. Achieving this requires a very significant amount of training time and dedication.
Fundamentally, fast and efficient footwork is essential. Defensive players need good footwork to move quickly around the table and get into position to return the ball. They must be able to move forward, backward, and side-to-side with ease and have the ability to change direction quickly.
Defensive players also need great patience, which we have emphasised a few times already in this article. A defensive player must wait for the right opportunity to attack, often found after their opponent makes a mistake or hits a weak shot. The key is to remain calm and composed during the game and not get frustrated or rush into making aggressive shots.
It’s a pity that there is very little information or tutorials covering the defensive playstyle on the internet. The top players we are all familiar with, like Ma Long or Timo Boll, are all offensive players. To help inspire the next generation of defenders, I’m sharing some defensive players that I know from China that you can refer to.
Perhaps the most well-known defensive player (albeit, not from China) is Joo Sae Hyuk, the Korean chopper. Apart from his legend, there are some great defensive players like Chen Weixin, Jian Fei Sun, and Ma Te. Most of them use long pips or short pips.
Here are some videos that show their playing styles and you can see the smart tactics they leverage to win more matches as a defender.
Xinyu started playing table tennis when he was 8 years old in China and he's also the owner of popular table tennis blog ppongsuper . He has trained with the Chinese provincial team and now plays competitively in the Spanish national league. He's constantly striving to improve his skills and tactical abilities, as well as deepen his understanding of table tennis. He joined the Racket Insight team to share his passion and promote table tennis to more people!
Blade: Nexy Joo Sae Hyuk | Forehand:Butterfly Sriver FX | Backhand: Dawei 338d-1
Playstyle: The Defender