The Secrets Of Playing In Professional Table Tennis Leagues

Many people have reached out to me, asking about my personal table tennis journey and professional career. I have played table tennis both in China and Europe, which I think allows me to present a unique perspective. 

My friends often ask me questions such as:

  • Which league is more interesting?
  • Which one has a higher level of play?” 
  • “What are the differences in their tournament formats?” 
  • “How much would I have to train?” 

I’m always happy to share my own experience with anyone who asks, so I thought I would write a history of my professional career and my journey of learning table tennis since childhood.

I’ll share the differences in leagues between different countries, and some of the interesting experiences I had with table tennis in various places. I hope you enjoy it.

Starting to Learn Table Tennis

Growing up in China, I started learning to play table tennis when I was in the third grade of elementary school after enjoying playing against classmates in physical education classes.

Luckily, my school offered an after-school program for table tennis. I joined and later became part of the school team. I remember that in the early 2000s the training fees were quite cheap at around $50 per month which was a good deal considering the cost of living at that time.

During that era, we grew up watching players like Ma Lin, Wang Liqin, and Zhang Yining. Even the now popular Ma Long and Zhang Jike were relatively unknown at that time so, as kids, our dream was to work hard and make it to the Chinese national team, representing China in competitions. It was a dream shared by many of us.

However, on the first day of training, our coach told us something that was hard to accept. He said…

You are already 9 years old this year, and you have missed the golden age for learning table tennis. In other words, you’re starting too late. At least in China, you can’t expect to achieve anything significant in this sport. You need to accept this reality.

Aiming to become a ‘professional’

Despite finding it difficult to accept the coach’s words, we were stubborn as young individuals and didn’t pay much attention to what he said, even though it was indeed true. Later, when I participated in the Chinese league matches, I came across many talented kids who were just 5 or 6 years old and already strong players.

Becoming a professional table tennis player is tough.

I was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, in northern China. My initial coach, who was a retired player from the Chinese national team, had even been teammates with the world champion Deng Yaping. Although we were part of a primary school table tennis team, we had three divisions: Team 1, Team 2, and Team 3. I started with Team 3 and trained alongside about 20 players. At the end of each month, there would be a major competition, and the top four players from each team would move up while the bottom four would be demoted. I had an intense passion for table tennis, and I trained harder than others, aiming to quickly advance to Team 1 and practice with higher-level teammates.

Every end-of-month competition was crucial to me. I still remember the moment when I played against the second-ranked player and moved up from Team 3 to Team 2. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, an experience only table tennis players can truly understand.

Switching to a defensive style

In my third year of learning table tennis, my coach suggested that I try playing with a defensive style. I was only 12 years old at that time, but my coach believed I had good agility and footwork, making me suitable for defensive play. He recommended using long-pimpled rubber, and he personally helped me attach the first piece of long pimples rubber, which was the 755 type. 

In addition to practicing regular forehand and backhand shots, I had to strengthen my defensive skills. At first, I struggled to control the ball and often chopped it too high. My understanding of using long pips rubber was limited to basic pushes and blocks, and progress was slow.

However, my competition results improved rapidly because my teammates were not accustomed to playing against long-pimpled rubber. I quickly moved up to Team 1 and even had a few matches where I finished in third place, defeating many skilled opponents.

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Training with Provincial Team

In China, the system for developing professional table tennis players differs from that of other countries. In most of Europe, players are developed through clubs, but in China, it is divided into national teams, provincial teams, and city teams, with most players affiliated with local sports schools. 

The provincial or national teams are further divided into first, second, and third teams, and regular internal competitions are held with promotion and relegation systems. 

After graduating from elementary school, during every summer vacation, I would join the table tennis training camp of our local Shanxi provincial team. Each training camp lasted for about two months and was fully enclosed. The sports school had dedicated dormitories and a cafeteria, and we were not allowed to go out casually. 

Intense training routines are common

The training at the sports school was quite demanding, and our weekly schedule was roughly as follows:

1. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays started with morning training from 6 am to 7 am. The morning training usually consisted of a 1600-meter run, and the coach set a time limit of completing it within 8 minutes. If the time limit was exceeded, there would be a penalty of running 1-2 extra laps (400 meters per lap). After returning to the table tennis room, we did skipping rope exercises (double jumps) and sit-ups, aiming for 60 in one minute. Then we had physical training like frog jumps and various other exercises before starting internal team matches.

2. From Monday to Saturday, each day consisted of three hours of training. Wednesdays were from 8 am to 11 am, while the rest were from 2 pm to 5 pm. Generally, the three hours on Saturdays were dedicated to internal round-robin matches.

3. We also had academic classes. Since it was a semi-professional school, academic courses were not as neglected as some might imagine. Wednesday afternoons were dedicated to academic classes, while the other five days had classes in the morning. There were four periods of academic classes each day, covering subjects like Chinese language and mathematics.

4. Usually, there was a morning training session on weekends as well, depending on the coach’s availability.

5. During summer vacation, there were no academic classes, and many students came for training. As a result, the daily training time increased from the usual three hours to four or five hours.

Later, I went to Zengding, Hebei Province for a training camp, which had a larger scale. Table tennis players from all over the country and even from other countries would go there to train. After that, I went to university and trained with the Tianjin team for a while. Overall, each training session brought different rewards and allowed me to make friends from all over the country.

Playing Chinese League

As most readers can probably guess, playing in a league in China is extremely difficult; especially if you want to be a professional player and rely on competitions to earn money. You must have an extremely high level of skill.

When I was in high school, I faced one of the most important choices in my life: whether to pursue an academic path or a professional sports career. In China, choosing to be a professional player means giving up the opportunity to enter university and going from the provincial team to the national team. 

At that time, my skill level was strong enough to compete at the provincial level, but both my family and I knew that I was just an ordinary player in table tennis, lacking exceptional talent. I also started learning the sport relatively late. Therefore, I decided to focus on studying, take the college entrance examination, go to university, and treat table tennis as a hobby and a special skill. However, I never gave up on my dream of becoming a professional or semi-professional athlete.

After finishing the college entrance examination, I was still in Zhengding, Hebei, and during training, I accidentally found out that I had the opportunity to participate in China’s professional league. An extremely exciting proposition.

Entering the Chinese league system

Let me explain the system of table tennis leagues in China. The Chinese Table Tennis League was established in 1994 and is divided into six levels: Super League, Division A, Division B, Division C, Division 1A, and Division 1B. Each level has a specified number of clubs participating, with equal numbers for men and women. Based on the competition rankings, there is a promotion and relegation system.

I only briefly participated in some Division 1B matches. This is the lowest level in the professional league, but the athletes’ competitive level is still very high. Being honest, I had poor results and lost most of the games. The standard was simply too high for anyone who wasn’t training professionally.

The most memorable encounter for me was with an 8 or 9-year-old boy who had been playing table tennis since he was 4 years old. Despite his young age, he played flawlessly, hardly making any mistakes, and had sharp attacks. It was hard to imagine that a player of his age had such little physical strength, yet he had excellent coordination and played with great speed and quality. The chopping shots I tried to return had no effect on him. Naturally, I lost that game 0-3. After the match, I felt frustrated. I had been practicing for so many years, yet I couldn’t even defeat a child under 10. 

However, I remembered what our first coach said to us. In China, there are too many table tennis talents, and making it into the national team is incredibly challenging.

Later, when I entered university, I didn’t participate in league matched much because I had classes to attend. However, I still joined the university team and represented the school in some competitions. I won some medals, but since it wasn’t against professional players, I won’t share those details here.

Playing in Spain

After graduating from university, I joined a company and started working in an office. This job had nothing to do with table tennis. During this period, I didn’t receive any formal training and my days were busy with work, leaving no time for playing table tennis. I could only play with friends maybe once or twice a month, as the rest of the time was spent working overtime. Naturally, my table tennis skills declined significantly. There was even a period when I almost forgot how to do a forehand topspin.

Until one day, I had enough of my current life and wanted to explore the world outside. So, I decided to go abroad, and my first destination choice was Madrid, Spain. In the autumn of 2021, I embarked on a journey to a foreign land and arrived in Spain. The day after I landed, I used Google Maps to search for table tennis clubs in Madrid and went for a trial session to get more information.

After comparing different options, I ultimately chose a club that was close to my place and had a high overall skill level among its players. However, when I joined the club, I realized that due to a long absence from the competitive scene, my playing level had significantly declined from what it used to be during my high school years, around ten years ago.

It’s a familiar story to many others I’ve heard from table tennis players around the world.

Starting league matches in Spain

In October 2021, I officially began my journey in the table tennis league in Spain. The tournament format in Spain is quite interesting. Even in team matches, it is played three against three, but it’s different from the format in China. 

In China, it follows the traditional format of best-of-five matches with three wins required for the team, including one doubles match. So, in China, the main singles players would play two matches, while other players usually play one singles and one doubles match. 

However, in Spain, all league matches are also played three against three, but each player participates in two matches. This means there are a total of six matches in each round. If the outcome is already determined, such as a score of 6-0, 5-1, or 4-2, the match ends. If the score is tied at 3-3 after six matches, then a doubles match is played to determine the winner.

As I mentioned earlier, due to my declining skills, my win rate in the first year of the league was abysmal, barely reaching 40%. 

Training intensely to improve

Many times, my opponents would aggressively attack with strong shots, leaving me unable to defend properly, especially on my backhand. So, the coach arranged a plan for me to practice a lot of backhand chops every day and also practice twiddling the paddle. 

After chopping with the long rubber on the backhand side from a distance, I would move forward and use the inverted rubber on the forehand side to push the ball back on the table.

Regarding the forehand, I had to practice the basic forehand topspin every day. I needed to improve my ability to attack with forehand shots, as I had been missing opportunities in matches. At the same time, I also practiced forehand chops. In matches, if the opponent attacked to my forehand, I would block or counter-loop if the speed was fast. If the speed was relatively slow, I could chop the ball back. 

I trained like this about three to four times a week. I believe that training with good partners is important, especially for a chopper like me. Personally, I think my skills improved significantly because my training partners were of high level, had excellent attacking abilities, and practicing with them greatly raised my competitive level.

After regular training, the most important part was applying the techniques I learned and practiced in actual matches, accumulating experience, identifying weaknesses, and continuously learning and improving. That’s how the first season quickly came to an end. Our team narrowly avoided relegation by securing 1.5 points in the final round of the league.

In the months of July and August during the summer, I noticed an interesting difference between China and Europe. In China, most children would participate in intensive training during this time, resulting in a significant improvement in their skills by September. However, in Europe, most people have a vacation habit during the summer. Especially in Spain, almost everyone takes holidays throughout August, and there are very few people working. As a result, most table tennis clubs are closed during the summer, with fewer opportunities for people to play and limited training programs available.

However, I continued to train during the summer, maintaining the habit I developed in China.

Regaining my old skills

By September, there was a significant improvement in my competitive level. At the beginning of the new season, there were two open tournaments in Madrid, and I won the men’s singles championship in both of them, which made me known throughout Madrid. This was something I couldn’t even dream of in the previous season.

Following that, the second season of the league officially began, and my performance was noticeably better than the previous season. On one hand, I had already adapted to various aspects of the league, and on the other hand, the stability of my chopping technique had greatly improved. As a result, I quickly led the team to a strong start. Throughout the second season, my overall win rate exceeded 70%.

However, I also identified some areas for improvement, mainly in the following aspects:

  • While my backhand chops from a distance were acceptable, I still needed to practice my close-table pushes on the backhand side.
  • My ability to counter topspin with my forehand was still lacking, and I often lost points from the forehand position.
  • I still needed to strengthen my serves, especially when using inverted rubber for serving.

Table Tennis in China vs Spain

Based on my personal experience, I would like to discuss some differences and comparisons in the development of table tennis between China and Europe.

In China, the competition in table tennis is exceptionally intense, and this is widely known. However, Europe also has many young athletes with exceptional talents, and the development of table tennis in Europe is also at the forefront. It is important for both sides to have more mutual exchange and learning.

The level of participation in table tennis leagues in Europe is relatively high among the general population. Even if the level is not high enough to compete in the top leagues, almost every player can find a league that matches their skill level, allowing them to test their training results in competitions. In China, playing in the leagues is considered a luxury, with very strict conditions, and only a small number of professional athletes can participate.

European players generally have a more aggressive playing style, with fast attacking shots and powerful strokes that have a strong impact. Chinese players have a different style, with a focus on spin and ball placement to secure victories. As a result, some Chinese table tennis rubbers, such as the DHS Hurricane, are not favored by European players.

In China, it may be easier to make money in professions related to table tennis because there is a larger market and many people are learning and playing the sport. Whether it’s being a professional athlete, a coach, owning a table tennis club, or running a table tennis equipment business, the income can be substantial. However, in Spain, the salary level for professional table tennis players is generally not high, and some players have to compete in both Spanish and French leagues, which can be quite demanding and challenging.

However, regardless of everything, playing table tennis has enriched my life with diverse experiences. I have had the opportunity to meet friends from different parts of the world who share a common interest and passion for the sport. We have been able to share the joy of this activity, which goes beyond the allure of table tennis as a competitive sport itself.

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The Controller

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

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