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Should Beginners Choose To Learn A Defensive Playstyle In 2024?

I’ve been playing with a primarily defensive style for over 10 years, and it’s a style that has allowed me to play in professional leagues

Whether as a player or a coach, I often encounter parents or players asking me, “Do you think my child can also play defensively?” or “Coach, I want to learn chopping play style, do you think I’m suitable?”

Every time I face such questions, it is challenging for me to give a definitive answer. 

Each player’s talent, physical condition, and table tennis foundation are unique. It’s difficult to predict whether a player will become the next Joo Sae Huyk.

To help you make a decision, let me share the advantages and disadvantages of a defensive playing style, and who might be suitable for it.

Understanding the Defensive Playstyle 

Before delving into the pros and cons, let’s understand what a defensive playstyle entails.

Recommended Playstyle -The-Defender

A defensive playstyle in table tennis is a strategic approach that prioritizes cautious and defensive maneuvers over aggressive attacks. 

Players adopting this style focus on minimizing risks, blocking and countering their opponent’s shots, and waiting for opportunities to capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. 

Defensive players aim to prolong the rallies, tire out their opponents, and create openings for counter-attacks. Primarily, you’d expect to see chops, slices, and defensive lobs intended to slow down the game and frustrate the opponent.

This style of play involves using long pimple rubbers on one side of the racket, with defensive blades designed for long pimples. A combination that imparts unique spin and unpredictability to shots. 

Pros & Cons of Defensive Play

Pros

I believe that using long pimple or short pimple rubbers has the greatest advantage of shortening learning time and progressing rapidly. This was actually the primary reason why I chose to learn defensive play when I was young. 

In China, starting to learn table tennis at the age of nine is considered quite late, and many players would not even qualify for competitions. Most of my peers had started learning table tennis since they were in the first grade at the age of six, creating a three-year gap that would be challenging to overcome within a short period, especially if I followed the regular training system and played with two-sided inverted rubbers with a looping style.

Due to this situation, upon the advice of my coach, I switched to using long pimple rubbers and began improving my defensive chopping. As it turned out, it was indeed a shortcut. After just two or three months, I managed to secure a top-three position in the team’s internal competition and earned the qualification to compete in our provincial-level tournaments.

Therefore, for those aspiring table tennis enthusiasts who want to improve rapidly, using long pimple or short pimple rubbers can be an excellent choice. It provides an effective shortcut to enhance skills and achieve notable progress in a shorter time frame.

Cons

The biggest issue with a defensive playstyle is its limited offensive opportunities.

On closer observation, you will notice that many defensive players, after serving, retreat to a mid-to-backcourt position to prepare for the opponent’s attack. This essentially gives up the initiative to take the offensive and hands the first attacking opportunity to the opponent, making their approach somewhat passive.

It is also evident that since the inception of table tennis until now, hardly any world championship titles have been won by defensive players. Even players like Joo Sae Hyuk, the top defensive player in the world, have not achieved significant success in singles competitions, let alone winning singles titles in the Olympics or World Championships.

Of course, not all amateur enthusiasts aim to become professionals or achieve results higher than Joo. The goal of becoming a world champion is unrealistic for the vast majority of players. 

Objectively speaking, in local amateur leagues, defensive play can be quite effective since many opponents may not be accustomed to it. However, in top-level competitions, skilled attackers possess excellent fundamentals and control, requiring defensive players to make almost no mistakes; otherwise, the match can quickly slip away from them.

Who Should Play A Defensive Play Style?

If you’re in one of these categories and looking to become a defensive player, you might find our defensive match strategies useful.

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Type 1: Players With a Weak Offensive Ability

Mostly made up of adults, people who fall into the group likely not receive systematic training from a young age and might have taken up table tennis very casually, gradually developing an interest in the sport. 

I have come across many adults who, after playing for some time, have improper forehand looping techniques and lack strong offensive abilities. In such cases, considering using long pimple or short pimple rubbers and trying out defensive playstyle training could be a quick path to winning more matches.

Type 2: Players With Strong Defensive Footwork

This situation generally applies to teenagers, and some players who received professional training from a young age who exhibit exceptional talent in chopping or defensive play. 

These players often possess remarkably agile footwork, quick reactions, and may have excellent flexibility, all of which are essential physical attributes when competing at an advanced level. My coach considered me suitable for this style of play when I was young because of my fast footwork.

Take, for example, the former South Korean defensive player, Kim Kyung-ah. Her elegant and agile playing style can be attributed to her background in dance, which has contributed to her excellent physical condition and flexibility. As a result, when she chops the ball, we can observe how she skillfully wraps the ball using her body and executes precise defensive shots.

Type 3: Older Players

Throughout my years of playing, the most common phrase I’ve heard is: “You’re not elderly, so why do you use long pimple rubbers?”. Although this statement may be displeasing to hear, it indirectly indicates that long pimple rubbers are more suitable for older players. 

As people age, their footwork becomes less agile, and their physical stamina declines rapidly. Using offensive playstyles can be physically demanding. Therefore, for older players, switching to long pimple rubbers allows them to stay closer to the table and engage in defensive play without the need for extensive footwork. 

They can focus on blocking and defending near the table. It is common to see many older players in the sports hall who, after switching to long pimple rubbers, minimize their movements. By controlling the ball’s placement effectively, they can still achieve victories against their peers.

Who Is Not Suitable For A Defensive Style?

Type 1: Young Beginners

For beginners, especially young children who have just started learning table tennis, I generally do not recommend a defensive playstyle. There are several reasons for this. 

Firstly, for young children, the first two to three years of systematic table tennis training should focus on building a solid foundation, practicing basic forehand and backhand techniques. This period is crucial for their future progress in table tennis. Developing a strong foundation and good control of their strokes will enable them to transition to using long pimple rubbers or experiencing defensive play more efficiently later on. 

On the contrary, if they directly learn defensive play, they would have to acquire numerous new skills and techniques, compressing the time they would have spent mastering the fundamental strokes. Consequently, they may not excel in basic forehand and backhand techniques, nor properly grasp the use of long pimple rubbers or defensive techniques.

Furthermore, using long pimple or short pimple rubbers indeed provides a shortcut for quickly improving table tennis performance, as mentioned earlier. However, it also comes with certain drawbacks.

For instance, when receiving serves, long pimple rubbers do not generate much spin, so players do not need to read spin as much. They can get away with making approximate judgments. 

This may result in players lacking a deep understanding of spin and some fundamental theories of table tennis. When facing skilled opponents or other defensive players, they might find themselves less adept at dealing with various playing styles.

Type 2: Players with Exceptional Strength

We can observe that some athletes possess innate physical talents, such as Wang Hao, Fan Zhendong, or Dimitrij Ovtcharov. These players are exceptional athletes, and their playing styles are particularly aggressive and dominant. 

For athletes like them, a more offensive playstyle like The Aggressor or The Controller should undoubtedly be their preferred choice. Imagine if Ovtcharov were to adopt a defensive playstyle similar to Joo’’s, wouldn’t it feel like his natural talents are being wasted?

Therefore, for players with impressive strength and exceptional physical talents, there is no need to use long pimple rubbers or play defensively. Their daily training should focus on topspin and loop techniques. 

By combining their physical gifts and honing these skills to perfection, even the most formidable defensive players would find it challenging to withstand their powerful attacks. It would be akin to the battles between Ma Long and Joo Sae Hyuk when they were both in their prime.

Type 3: Excellent Offensive Ability

If a player possesses a good offensive ability on both the forehand and backhand, there is no need for them to play defensively. In fact, objectively speaking, most defensive players resort to a different playstyle because their offensive capabilities are not up to par.

During training, if an offensive player reaches a plateau after an extended period of practice and cannot surpass others in terms of offensive skills, only then should they consider changing rubbers and playing style. 

For example, if their backhand topspin is weak, they might switch to long pimple rubbers for close-to-the-table defensive play. Alternatively, they could use short pips for flat hitting instead of loops. 

Similarly, some female athletes may not excel in forehand loops, so they might choose to replace their forehand inverted rubber with short pips, allowing them to attack with less hesitation and rely more on direct power shots.

However, if a player has perfected both their forehand and backhand strokes and possesses strong offensive abilities, there is absolutely no need to change their playstyle. Their well-rounded skills make such adjustments unnecessary.

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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

2 thoughts on “Should Beginners Choose To Learn A Defensive Playstyle In 2024?”

  1. I feel defeated. It sounds like I am not good enough to improve my game based on what I just read. I am mid 40s. I fell in love with tt just a couple years ago. I play now regularly but was told to try pips at the place I play by the lead guys. All the players far more experienced
    And now it makes sense that all I am in a target for cannon fire. Even though I am improving I am not increasing my fundamentals of backhand and forehands. Which has left me to just play solely defensively. They must have wanted me to just be a practice dummy I feel now after reading this.

    1. Hey Edward,

      Never give up! It seems to me that you have 2 options:

      1) Switch to a more attacking playstyle but accept you’ll need to go back through a learning curve and pick up those fundamentals.
      2) Lean into the defensive style and become really good at it. You’ll find that you become really hard to beat!

      I can’t tell you which way to go, but I will say there are some exceptional defensive players at the top of local leagues all around the world. Being a defender doesn’t mean being a target for “cannon fire”, it means being a tricky opponent who doesn’t give up. Some of my most enjoyable matches have come against defenders.

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