Table tennis is one of the fastest sports out there. A 2013 study by Bhabhor et al. found that table tennis players have a significantly faster reaction time than regular healthy individuals.
Even if table tennis players have considerably faster reflexes than the average person, it can often be difficult for them to react in time.
This is because a regular table tennis shot travels at around 30-40 km/h. Since the official size of a table tennis table is 274cm, players only have around 0.3 seconds to react.
Since we have very little time to perform several complex actions (recognize the opponent’s shot placement, spin, depth, and set up our own shot), it is crucial that we optimize the little time we have while our opponent is playing their stroke.
In this article, we are going to teach you everything you need to know about this very important subject: how to predict our opponent’s shots and use this information to our advantage. Let’s begin!
Table of Contents
- Is it even possible to predict your opponent’s shots?
- How to predict your opponent’s shots
- How to improve at reading and predicting your opponent’s shots
- Table tennis is a thinkers game
Is it even possible to predict your opponent’s shots?
To a large extent, yes, it is possible to predict your opponent’s shots in table tennis. You can even force your opponents into playing the shots you want them to play.
Predicting your opponent’s shots is not the supernatural ability of a genius or mind reader.
It’s more of a matter of knowing your opponent’s tendencies, having lots of experience, and being good at recognizing timing and body posture.
As you get better as a table tennis player, you will react faster and faster to your opponent’s shots.
How to predict your opponent’s shots
Your playing style
Your style of play and the shots you play are key to predicting your opponent’s returns, starting with your serve, going through your serve receives, and all the shots of the rally.
Upon serving, you will already have an idea of your opponent’s return.
Pushing long cross-court is simply returning the serve as it came, and if we apply this logic to most shots, we will see that most players will play the most “natural” return almost every time.
Following the same logic, I also know that if I land a topspin shot on my opponent’s backhand, the greater chance is that my opponent will block it cross-court.
Our opponent will simply want to put the ball on the table and will not have enough time to change the placement if our shot was strong enough. There are exceptions, but most of the time it happens this way.
This is why most forehand-dominant players will play a topspin attack to their opponent’s backhand and then step around: they know that the most likely return is cross-court.
For virtually every shot, there is a natural response, which is basically the safest and most comfortable option.
For example, the most common response to a fast topspin shot is a passive block. Any other option is more complicated and will require much more skill to perform.
Until the intermediate levels of play, we can expect the vast majority of shots to be the ones that the situation calls for.
We would not expect a counterloop or a chop block in response to a very strong attack, for example. It may happen, but as it’s a very slim chance, we should prepare for the most likely scenario, which happens 9 times out of 10.
In this way, most game situations can be analyzed and we can create plays and game plans around the most common game situations for our style.
Good table tennis players almost always play “by the book”, and they know how to improvise only when they need to.
If we look at most backhand-dominant players and most forehand-dominant players, we will find a lot of things in common between them.
This is because they take more or less the same shots, so they receive more or less the same responses from their opponents.
In short, table tennis is like chess. For each of our moves, our opponent will try to find the best answer, and we will have to be prepared in advance to deal with it.
How to take advantage of your playing style
The best way to predict your opponent’s shots is simple: You force them to play the shots you want!
For example, if you are playing a backhand-to-backhand exchange and you hit the ball straight to your opponent’s racket, you won’t be able to predict their next shot.
If you leave an easy ball for your opponent, they’re going to be able to do whatever they want with the ball.
Instead, if in the backhand-to-backhand exchange, you target your opponent’s wide backhand with a topspin shot, you can be nearly sure that their response will be a cross-court block.
This is because you’re forcing your opponent to move or to reach with their arms, so they won’t have enough time to worry about placement and to set up a topspin of their own.
It will also be very difficult for them to play down the line, as they would just be focusing on putting the ball on the table.
In this case, you can play a wide topspin cross-court and then step around knowing that chances are that your opponent will play cross-court.
You should think like this for the majority of your plays. You should always try to force your opponent into playing one specific shot and then pounce at the opportunity if you know what return you’ll get before they even play their shot.
This is exactly why high-level players can move before their opponents even hit the ball. They played a given shot that will force their opponents to play a specific return.
It’s not like they know the future beforehand, it’s more like they’re crafting the future in the present by giving their opponents no other option.
Feel for the game
Secondly, our feel for the game improves along with our skill level and practice hours.
Subconsciously we will start to understand the game differently as we improve. Our shot selection will improve and we will be able to understand our opponent’s intentions better.
Through exposure to so many playing styles, there will come a point where little or nothing will surprise us since we’ve seen just about everything we can see in another player.
This is also why as we improve, the amount of technical resources we have, the number of different receives, etc. is increasingly important. Our ability to surprise the opponent becomes more and more valuable.
This is because intermediate to advanced players will be able to respond to most standard shots quite easily, as they’ve seen the same shots played in the same circumstances time and time again.
Having a good feel for the game is, essentially, getting good at subconsciously knowing what the most natural return for your opponent is at every time, and using that information to prepare for your next stroke.
You can get better at this through the process of repetition, that is, by playing lots of matches, doing training drills, etc. It’s an automatic process that happens through good playing/training habits (i.e. focusing, trying hard, etc.)
This increased feel for the game is one of the factors that allows us to predict the opponent’s shots.
Let’s say our opponent is going to perform a forehand topspin shot over the bounce. Chances are that he’s going to go cross-court instead of down the line.
This is because the down-the-line angle when trying to hit over the bounce is a very hard one to execute.
Most of the time an opponent of yours has tried to make a forehand topspin over the bounce it will have been cross-court, so as soon as you see that your opponent is trying to make this shot, you will already be preparing your block or counterloop.
This saves us a lot of time since we practically have the shot prepared before our opponent hits the ball.
It is also a matter of putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes to decipher what shot they are most likely to play.
If you have played table tennis and trained for a long time, you will be able to recognize the possibilities and the most probable shot that your opponent is going to play given the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Knowing your opponent
Knowing your opponent is vital when it comes to predicting the shots they are going to play.
If your opponent is a beginner or an early intermediate player, the vast majority of times, they will play the most predictable shot, since it is the safest shot to play.
It is difficult for an early-developing player to play a completely unexpected shot.
If your opponent is not of an advanced level, we can assume that most shots are going to be cross-court, and if you serve with heavy sidespin, the ball will generally return to where the sidespin leads it.
It is not common for a developing player to play down the line often in matches, so you can play with confidence that the vast majority of the time they will play cross-court.
If your opponent is an advanced player, then you should pay special attention to their tendencies.
If they’re someone who steps around a lot, you should expect them to step around whenever you push long to their backhand side.
You can counter this by flicking down the line, for example.
This is an example of what we were talking about previously. When the level of play goes up, it is more and more valuable to surprise the opponent and have many variations in your arsenal.
Lastly, your opponent’s body language can be a tell-tale sign of what shot they’re going to play and where they are going to play it.
Let’s take a look at one point I played in a recent tournament to understand this concept better.
All of this was possible because I looked straight at my opponent as soon as I played my push.
This concept can be applied to every stroke in table tennis, and this is why you’ll see lots of high-level table tennis players playing at a very high pace – it is because they make the best use of their time.
Table tennis is an incredibly fast sport. This gives us very little time to do many things at once. Because of the speed of the sport, we have to make the best use of the little time we do have.
When you’re playing, focus 100% of your attention on the ball when it’s coming towards you and play your shot.
Once you’ve played your shot, you should still focus most of your attention on the ball, but also use some of your peripheral vision to look at your opponent and their body position, wrist, etc.
All of this is very valuable information as to what return you should expect.
If you’re able to read your opponent’s body language correctly, you will be one step ahead of them, granting you a crucial advantage.
How to improve at reading and predicting your opponent’s shots
There are many ways to improve your skills when it comes to reading and predicting your opponent’s shots.
Next, we will explain the 4 best ways to improve in this respect.
The first way to improve your shot reading and predicting abilities is through performing irregular drills.
Irregular drills are drills in which you don’t know where your opponent will return the ball to you.
They are ideal for reacting in time and learning how to read where your opponent will play their next shot.
With these exercises, you will learn to read the opponent’s body position, from their shoulders to their wrist to gain feel for the game and mental speed.
The important thing is that you will gain speed in all senses: footwork, mental agility, and recovery time.
Train with players of different levels
As the speed of the game goes up, our eyes and brain have to adapt. This is why it is a good idea to train both with players of a higher and lower level than you.
When you train with a player of a higher level than you, try to react as quickly as possible to their shots.
If you do this regularly, you will see that your reaction speed and your ability to predict shots will drastically improve.
The lower level player will benefit from the same effect when they train with you, and this way, everyone gets to learn and improve.
Play lots of matches
The most intuitive way to learn to read and predict your opponent’s shots is to simply play many games against players of different styles.
Try to adapt faster each time to the tendencies of your opponent. The sooner you can identify their style of play and the shots they play most frequently, the faster you will understand their thinking and the shots they are going to play.
If you play many games, you will find things that are repeated between different players and you will be able to put together in your head a scheme of how to play against any given opponent and how to adapt to different situations.
Try out different strategies and look for repeated patterns
This is one of the keys to the development of every table tennis player.
Trying out new strategies and plays to see how they work is key. If you watch the best table tennis players play, you will see that the serves and plays they execute are similar across all of their matches.
However, this is because they have already done extensive analysis of their strengths and they’ve studied the best plays to take advantage of them.
They have determined that these are the most effective plays since their opponent will tend to return the ball in a way that’s advantageous for them.
This way, they can play a determined serve or receive and then predict their opponent’s next shot because they know what they are most likely to get even before their opponent plays their shot.
For example, the vast majority of backhand dominant players perform backhand serves or reverse pendulum serves.
If we pay attention to these services, we will see that the returns tend to go to the forehand side of the backhand dominant player.
They can open up that ball with their forehands to their opponent’s backhand.
The most common scenario is for the opponent to block that ball to the backhand of the backhand dominant player.
If their opponent blocks it to the forehand side of the backhand dominant player, they are leaving a very easy ball, and if they block it to the backhand side, they’re going to go into a backhand to backhand rally against a very strong player in those kinds of exchanges.
The idea of tactics is to force the opponent to play certain shots that you have devised beforehand and take advantage of this information.
To accomplish this, try out new serves, receives, and shots within the rally to identify which plays have synergy with your strengths so you can practice and add them to your game.
Table tennis is a thinkers game
To sum up, reading and predicting the opponent’s shots is one of the most important parts of table tennis.
Unlike other sports, table tennis gives players very little reaction time, so it is extremely important to prepare for your return as soon as possible.
There are many ways to read your opponent’s shots, but you should try to think one step ahead and play in such a way that you force your opponent to play a specific shot.
Since there is very little time in rallies, it is important that you think about tactics and strategies in between points to figure out how to reach a game state that is favorable to you, all taking into account the playing style of the opponent.
Ultimately, all shots are influenced by the return you receive from your opponent. The only shot we have full control of is the serve.
Hence, we have a certain degree of control over what shots our opponent will play and we should take advantage of this accordingly.
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!
Blade: Butterfly Fan Zhendong ALC | Forehand: Butterfly Dignics 05 | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller