Table tennis is all about reflexes and timing. Many players focus on getting their technique just right but don’t pay enough attention to when they’re contacting the ball.
Hitting the ball at the right time is what separates a good player from a great one. If you play your shots at the right time you will minimize unforced mistakes and maximize your shot quality.
In table tennis, time is the most precious resource. Hitting the ball at exactly the right moment is almost like cheating because it’ll save you lots of time and take time away from your opponent.
However, achieving perfect timing is very difficult since there isn’t just one solution for each stroke. Every shot should be played differently depending on the context.
This article will teach you the optimal timings for each stroke and in what contexts it would be preferable to favor one contact point over the others.
Why Shot Timing Is Critical In Table Tennis
Table Tennis is one of the fastest sports in the world, often having less than a second to process and react to play your next shot. This means that timing your movements to contact the ball at the right time is crucial.
Hitting the ball at the right time gives you an incredible advantage over your opponent, either by improving the quality of your shot or reducing the amount of time your opponent has to react themselves.
Timing can also determine the direction of the ball, creating room for shots that look very similar but travel cross-court or down the line.
Each shot has slightly different guidelines around timing the shot. Some have an optimal timing (like a drive) whilst others have a lot of leeway depending on the type of shot you want to play (like a chop).
Understanding these timing differences will give you a huge advantage over your future opponents.
Let’s get started and discover the best timing for each table tennis shot.
We will start with the quintessential table tennis shot: the drive.
The drive is a shot that must be played when the ball is rising or at the peak of the bounce.
This is because it has little spin, so if we hit the ball when it is falling after the peak, it will be very difficult to hit over the net because the trajectory will be too flat.
Drive while the ball is rising
In my opinion, drives are extremely underrated. They are deadly shots if played when the ball is rising.
Even though drives don’t have as much speed or spin as loops, if you contact the ball while it’s rising and place the ball correctly you’ll give your opponent very little time to react.
In addition to this, the drive is a very safe shot. It’s a lot harder to make unforced mistakes while driving in comparison to looping.
If this shot is used when the ball is going up, the drive’s inherent lack of power is counteracted with the little time that we will give our opponent to react. It can be a great shot to pull off in the right context, even in advanced levels of play.
A well-placed drive just after the bounce is a lot more dangerous than a mighty power loop hit straight toward your opponent’s racket while being a much safer and more efficient shot.
Drives at the peak of the bounce
The drive at the top of the bounce is a very useful shot as it gives us a lot of placement possibilities.
Since we contact the ball relatively high up, we can hit the ball with an open bat and have enough safety to place the ball wherever we want.
In the next clip, we’ll look at the technique for the drive while the ball is rising, the drive at the top of the bounce, and a drive played in a point after a loop.
The loop is a shot that can be played at three different optimal timings: while the ball is rising, at the top of the bounce, and a fraction after the top of the bounce.
Loop while the ball is rising
This shot is probably the most difficult one to return because it gives you and your opponent very little reaction time or room for error.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward shot, and requires sublime timing from the player trying to play it.
You have to be quite skillful to be able to execute this technique in a match situation.
To perform this technique, you should close the racket angle, perform the weight transfer efficiently and brush on top of the ball, all while the ball is rising.
This will give the shot enough spin to get it down on the table.
It is a very risky shot as we are very close to the table and thus it is easy to overshoot the table if we contact the ball without grazing on top of it.
Loops with this timing are mostly played on the backhand side, as it’s easier to close the racket angle and brush on top of the ball.
Loop at the top of the bounce
This is the preferred timing formost European-style players. This type of loop allows you to hit with a lot of spin and speed since we contact the ball at the maximum point.
You can perform brushed, spinny loops and also flat, blistering fast ones from this position as the ball is high enough to be hit downwards.
I recommend you play most loops at the highest point as it gives a lot of safety and you can also hit the ball quite hard at this position.
Loop a fraction after the top of the bounce
This is the preferred timing of many spinners and Chinese-style players.
This timing is quite particular as it allows us to hit the ball more upwards rather than forwards, which gives us even more safety and more possibilities to brush and spin the ball.
If we catch the ball at the top of the bounce and hit it upwards, we’ll overshoot the table.
However, if we let it drop just a fraction more, the ball loses lots of speed and spin and we can hit the ball upwards.
Players who like to hit using this timing will load their shots with spin and the ball will have a pronounced “kick” effect once it lands on the other side.
In the next clip, we will see the loop while the ball is rising, the loop at the top of the bounce, and the loop a fraction after the top of the bounce.
This is a more advanced shot that demands fine timing to execute consistently.
Your contact point has to be very precise and it is the riskiest offensive shot since any slight mistake will cause you to hit the ball off the center of the racket or even clip it with the edge.
Countertopspins can be performed at the top of the bounce or a fraction after the top of the bounce.
You do have to adjust the racket angle and determine how thinly you want to contact the ball depending on the height, spin, and speed of the incoming ball (that’s the hard part).
If you want to get better at counterlooping, perform the following exercise:
Player A serves short.
Player B pushes half-long.
Player A opens up.
Player B counterloops.
The serving player will never open up the same way, so don’t take your eyes off the ball and move your legs before playing your shots.
If you try to correct your mistakes when you mistime or misjudge the ball, you’ll find out pretty quickly that counterloops aren’t actually that hard to execute.
They’re harder to perform than loops because you have to judge every particular ball and get both the correct timing and the correct contact, or else the ball will go out.
However, you’ll find out soon enough that through repetition this process of judging the ball and choosing the correct angle becomes ingrained in your technique. It’s just a matter of training.
Next, we will see counterloops in the 3 different positions.
The ideal height to block, especially to block spinny shots, is while the ball is rising.
You don’t necessarily have to contact the ball directly after the bounce, just hitting it on the upward trajectory is enough.
A mistake that many beginners and intermediate-level players make is to block at the highest point, where you can only play a slow, weak block due to the speed of the ball. In that scenario, a drive, loop or counterloop are far more effective shots.
Blocks should compromise the opponent, not leave them high balls for them to hit comfortably.
The best technique to block is to open or close the racket angle depending on the speed and spin of the shot and contact the ball just after the bounce or while it’s still rising.
In the following clip, I first block at the highest point and then over the bounce. See the difference?
If you want to push with high quality, there are two timings you need to learn: the first one is over the bounce and the second is at the top of the bounce.
Push immediately after the bounce
This is a technique you must have. A good push immediately after the bounce can give you the initiative on point and compromise the opponent.
Whenever you try to touch short, always contact the ball as early as possible. The sooner you can hit it, the better.
This is because you are going to push a backspin ball. If you want to touch short, you will want to hit the ball from underneath. It’s a lot easier to touch short if you catch the ball just after it bounces.
Push at the top of the bounce
This push technique is good if you want to push long and with lots of speed and spin.
If you want to push long, you can let the ball rise a bit more and use that height to push a bit more directly.
Below you will see both techniques in action.
For this technique, the optimal timing is when the ball is between knee and waist height, normally as the ball is falling.
If you contact the ball higher than your waist, your chops won’t be as safe nor will they be low to the net because the ball is contacted too high to begin with.
Any shot played below knee height is complicated and impractical to hit. At such a low height, technique begins to be compromised.
Flicks, both forehand, and backhand should preferably be executed at the highest point.
This is because the flick is a compact shot that cannot generate as much power as a loop or a smash.
If you want to clear the net, then you will have to strike the ball at the highest possible point.
To play this very aesthetic and useful shot, you want to contact the ball as early as possible.
If you want to play a drop shot against a lob, the ball is going to rise exponentially after the bounce, so you must contact it as soon as it hits the table.
It is a similar principle to blocking, you have to catch the ball early so that your shot doesn’t pop up.
You also want to take the energy out of the ball and contact it very thinly so that your drop shot doesn’t go long.
You can also use sidespin if you feel it helps you keep the ball short.
In this clip, you can see the correct drop shot technique. Notice the thin contact on the ball and the timing of the shot:
Smashes should be played just a bit higher than head height.
This gives smashes enough safety because you’re not hitting the ball too far up that you lose control nor too far down that you lose power.
This is why smashes naturally favor taller players (being tall can be an advantage in table tennis!).
Taller players will be able to hit the ball closer to its peak, while shorter players will have to wait a bit for the ball to drop and smash it.
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!