How to Shadow Play

A Detailed Guide to Effective Shadow Play in Table Tennis

There are lots of things I would have liked to know when I was a beginner. One of those is knowing the importance of doing shadow drills periodically.

Shadow drills are one of the most underestimated training methods in table tennis. 

Shadow training is a cheat code for rapid improvement since you can fully focus on your technique while not having to hit the ball.

This makes shadow play one of the best ways to learn table tennis, especially because it’s incredibly convenient since you can shadow play anywhere and anytime you want. 

If you have struggled with bad habits, or you’re having trouble with a particular shot, shadow play is for you.

What is shadow play?

Shadow play is a training method that is practiced by acting the mechanics of your shots, without using a table tennis ball or table. You are repeatedly playing your shots in the air. It features as one of our most effective ways of practising table tennis alone.

This way of training was adapted from boxing. Shadow boxing is renowned for its results, and so is shadow play in table tennis.

This way of training has many unique advantages over traditional training methods.

Training without the ball is a great advantage since whenever we train normally, we are limited by the obligation to hit the ball.

If you take the ball out of the equation, you can focus all your attention on your form, weight transfer, the transitions between strokes, and your footwork.

A very good use of shadow play is to correct technical flaws in your game. If your coach spots a flaw in your technique and tells you, even if you want to correct it, you will repeat it when playing matches.

As table tennis is a sport in which we rely on muscle memory, you can’t just get rid of bad habits immediately.

Fortunately, shadow play is a very effective tool for correcting improper technique.

If there’s something technically incorrect in your game, it’s just a matter of playing that shot 20 times in shadow play before starting your training sessions.

It only takes 1 or 2 minutes, and if you do it mindfully, the correct way to play your shots will become imprinted onto muscle memory, getting rid of the mistake or bad habit a lot quicker.

This is why Chinese coaches place so much emphasis on shadow drills from an early age, making the Chinese team the most dominant in table tennis history.

How to get the most out of shadow play

Shadow play, like any other type of training, should be progressed over time. When shadow playing, a beginner will not have to work on the same things as a professional. 

Shadow play for beginners

If you want to start shadow playing as a beginner, we recommend finding a coach who can demonstrate the correct techniques for you. You can then practice these techniques when shadow playing. This way, you will progress a lot quicker and your shots will become second nature.

If you don’t have a coach, check out our articles through the beginners guide to table tennis. These guides will demonstrate the correct action, and provide the best YouTube videos for visual learners. 

Another great option is to upload a video of yourself playing on social media and ask for feedback about your technique. For example, you can go to r/tabletennis and post a video of yourself playing, asking for criticism on your technique. Other players will give you their feedback, and you will be able to know what technical elements you need to correct.

Once you know the proper technique for each of the shots, you can start doing shadow play.

You should aim to perform the weight transfer correctly and aim for explosiveness and efficiency in your shots.

We recommend that you first practice the technique of each of the strokes separately, and then you can start doing simple exercises that mix those shots.

A good exercise for beginners is one backhand and one forehand. If you can do this well in shadow play, you will be much more coordinated and efficient in your matches.

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Shadow play for intermediate players

Once you know the core technique for most commonly used shots and can execute them correctly, you can start doing other types of more advanced exercises.

Intermediate players can use shadow play for technical details, work on transitions between shots, make their strokes more efficient, and add power to their shots.

We recommend that intermediate level players get into the habit of doing slightly more complex drills, such as those that require you to get in and out of the table.

An example of a good drill an intermediate player can do is step in, perform a backhand flick, step out, perform a backhand loop, pivot, and hit a forehand from the backhand side.

These more complicated exercises work on the transitions between shots in which you have to coordinate moving vertically and laterally. Getting in and out of the table has to be as fast as possible and the transitions between shots should be seamless.

At this level, it can help to use a table as a reference point for your shadow play. It doesn’t need to be a table tennis table, any surface of a similar height will work.

Shadow play for advanced players

Advanced players will already have very minor technical details to correct, so shadow play will serve them mostly to add strength and speed to their game.

We recommend that advanced players shadow play as if they were playing against another person.

A good idea is to visualize a serve from your opponent that you have trouble with, receive that serve how you would want to receive it, and play the point as you would normally play it.

This technique is known as “ghosting” and works on common match situations, and it helps a lot if you are looking for greater proactivity when you serve and when you receive.

If you shadow play visualizing your opponent’s serves and thinking about how you can flick them, you will realize that your mentality when receiving is going to be more proactive since you have prepared yourself beforehand.

The same applies to when you’re serving. If you want to make third ball attacks, try to think about your opponent’s possible returns and try to cover all the possibilities.

If you have already practiced everything beforehand, no return from your opponent should surprise you.

When you play points while ghosting, try to think about what type of points you usually lose. If you tend to lose points when you are forced to your wide forehand, try to practice the transition between the wide forehand and the return to the neutral position in the middle of the table.

If you lose points on backhand exchanges when they target your elbow, try to perfect the transition between a backhand and a forehand when they play to your elbow.

Shadow play exercises

If you don’t know where to start, here are three great exercises to start your training.

Forehand drill 

A picture of Seth Pech making a Forehand Drill
Photo: The Sports Updater

The best drill to practice your forehands in shadow play is three-point forehands.

This exercise begins with a wide forehand, then a forehand from the middle, and a forehand from the backhand side. After that, it goes back to the wide forehand.

The nice thing about this drill is that you can practice transitions between forehands covering all of the table, and it’s pretty fast-paced. If you do it fast enough, you will get a nice workout. 

You should aim to hit hard on your forehand side, and because of this, you will need to get back to your ready position as fast as possible to move to the next spot.

If you do this exercise well, your footwork, transitions, and weight transfer will improve quickly.

Backhand drill

A picture of Jorgic Darko making a Backhand Drill

A very good drill to practice backhand shots is playing a backhand from the corner and one near the middle of the table.

In this drill you are going to alternate between hitting a backhand from your wide backhand and one as if your opponent played to your elbow, almost reaching the middle.

This exercise will teach you not to reach with your arm. Instead, you have to move with your legs to cover with your backhand.

Many players don’t move to play a backhand, they just move their arm. This drill is great for learning backhand footwork patterns if you have to hit from your wide backhand or elbow.

Footwork drill

I could recommend a lot of footwork exercises, but if I had to choose one, it would be the Falkenberg drill.

In this drill, you will play one backhand, step around with your forehand to play it on the backhand side, and then hit a wide forehand.

This drill is ideal as it covers virtually all game situations, a backhand, a forehand from the backhand corner, and a forehand from your forehand corner.

It is a very good exercise to lose the fear of stepping around to play a more aggressive shot and it is great for those who want to play a more active game, moving their legs to find the best shot possible.

Helpful tips for shadow play

  • Practicing shadow play in front of a mirror is a great idea to analyze your technique as you perform the exercises.
  • Another good idea is to record yourself doing shadow play at home and asking for advice from more experienced players. You can show the footage to your coach and have them take a look at it or upload it to social networks like r/tabletennis to have your technique corrected.
  • Try to shadow play 5 minutes before your training sessions to go into your workout having practiced the correct technique before starting to hit the ball.
  • Try to accelerate in the moment of impact. For this, you should be loose, conduct you weight transfer correctly, rotate with your hips, and snap the forearm.
  • Take into account the  4 stages of the shot, the ready position, the backswing, the impact, and the follow-through. Try to make an efficient backswing, explode at the moment of impact, make sure your follow through is not too long, and get back to the ready position as quickly as possible.

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The Controller

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 09c | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller

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