How Can I Escape the Ping Pong Zone?

Table Tennis Discussion

Last updated 6 years ago

Bud Wilson

Bud Wilson Asked 11 years ago

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which I call "The Ping Pong Zone."
Yes, I did indeed borrow that from Rod Serling's introduction to the old TV program "The Twilight Zone" but it so appropriately fits my dilemma.  My dilemma?  Well, yes but I'm certainly not alone for I have witnessed many ambitious young players and seasoned old-timers who run into this proverbial "brick wall."  After some delay and incredible frustration I find myself compelled to find the answer.  I must find the answer to elevate my game to the high level I seek to attain.  I also address this issue in hopes that others (and I know there are many of them) will somewhat be relieved to know they are not alone as they experience similar frustrations.  I admit my question will be somewhat rhetorical, but I am sincere in my pursuit of the secrete key.
The problem without exaggeration is . . . my game stinks.  I can't escape from "The Ping Pong Zone." 
I started playing table tennis after a long break.  A long, long break, of 34 years.  I got a robot, table, and racket for Christmas and gave my garage a massive makeover.  I was as giddy as any child on Christmas morning.  I've exercised and got into good condition and practiced nearly all strokes (no loop yet) for hours nearly every day for months.  I've read books, studied videos, and joined a local club and the USATT.  I have great passion for the game, enjoy the camaraderie, believe it enhances my life, and possibly will contribute to greater health and longevity.
While subjective as they may be, I'll use the rating system so you can best envision my development.  If you walked into our club and saw me practicing, you very well may think I'm a mediocre tournament level player.  Meaning, you'd imagine by observing my strokes that I appear to be approximately a 1500 to 1700 player.  My strokes are fairly smooth, with decent form, impressive power, good accuracy, and have been developing fairly quickly to my satisfaction.  Based upon true life experience I can honestly say I am still athletic, quick, and skilled but obviously I have age related physical limitations and unwelcomed spontaneous injuries to slow progress.  I figured once I established a consistent game style, I'd integrate a loop, hoping to advance to a higher level.
I went to the club to participate in their once a week casual round robin matches.  I went to my assigned table which was nearer the lower ranked club players than it was to the middle.  I observed the first match while waiting my turn.  Rather than warm up, they immediately started a game.  What I witnessed was players with styles so unconventional they exceeded my imagination.  I must have looked like a deer in the headlights as I sat there in awe.  Other than a frequent push, they had no forehand or backhand strokes to resemble anything I'd ever seen in person, on video, or in script.  It was more like jabbing, poking, lunging, and flailing.  They stood straight up, no bending of the knees, and their starting position was random and never repeated.  They'd hit the ball from the normal backhand or forehand side of the racket but with a motion coming from the opposite/wrong side and posture that would make any proficient  contortionist very proud.  Okay, enough.  You've got the idea.
Excited, confident, but admittedly a bit nervous, here's my chance.  I'm ready to warm up with some forehand and backhand strokes only to find an opponent with a style equally as bizarre as the players I had just watched.  He strikes the ball and it ends up two tables over, then punches one into the net, and another hits his foot.  He says, "Okay ya ready"?  Well, I thought I was.  So we begin play.  It's ugly right from the beginning and it got worse.  Instead of showing the world my newfound skills, I was about to experience the most shocking and humiliating awakening of my life.  I not only lost, but could not even compete.  I was so thrown off that I could not execute any strokes as I had learned.  I quickly became frustrated, was failing at all shots I would usually complete with ease, I was always off balance, and most definitely was not having fun.  The beautiful game I have such passion for (table tennis) did not exist at this table.  Next opponent, same results.  Next week, same results.  If there was anything positive gained, it was that my one or two wins out of five matches each week,  were against the player who won the table that night.  In other words, I lost to the unconventional players and beat the best players.
Finally, my questions:  How can this be?  Why can I not beat players who cannot even stroke the ball?  Ultimately, how can I learn to easily dominate the junk ping pong game and escape from what I shall call "The Ping Pong Zone?  There must be something simple that I am overlooking.  I want to play "real table tennis" but I do realize I must first earn that privilege.  I just don't know how.  I will certainly be grateful if you can save me before I crumble permanently from disgrace.
Thank you,
Bud Wilson

Jeff Plumb

Jeff Plumb Answered 11 years ago

Hi Bud,

This is such a great question that we had to film a special PingPod to discuss it.

I've heard similar stories so many times and faced the problem myself. It can be really frustrating to see players and think that you should be beating them. Part of the key is to realise that these players have developed their skills over a long period of time and are very good at what they do. You also need to realise that without the "correct" technique their game is limited. If you can develop your strokes to a certain level, you'll start to overpower this type of player.

Unfortunately there are no short cuts. The best approach is to view this as part of your long term training which will help you to become a better player. There is a lot to be learnt from playing against and eventually overcoming this style of play.

Good luck with your journey to escape the ping pong zone.


PS. We'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on the ping pong zone. Have you encountered it? Have you escaped from it?

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Thoughts on this question

Arnon Thaicharoen

Arnon Thaicharoen Posted 11 years ago

I bet everyone has that problem!

Most of the time, those type of players just learned to play some of the strokes BUT due to limitation in number of available strokes, they are adept at the few strokes they learned. If those strokes happen to target your weakness zone, you're done for. It doesn't matter whether you're the "better" player, if you play your weakness against their strength, you're bound to be surprised of the outcome.

On the other hand, such encounters are good for your development because those players gratuitously point out what you need to develop if you analyse your match against them.

Lukasz Drazdzewski

Lukasz Drazdzewski Posted 11 years ago

Promted by Jeff, here is my feedback. Even though I perform forehand drills usually better than backhand drills during warm-up (especially loops), I enter the Zone as soon as the game is played and become... backhand dominant (my BH is not that bad, so I do win the occasional game). The reason, I think, is because I view the backhand as being less commital: I feel more confident in the stroke (pushing and slow BH loop) and feel like I have a greater room for manoeuvre, whereas the FH tends to be a "do or die" type stroke for me.

Douglas Hill

Douglas Hill Posted 11 years ago

What a fun question! Thanks for the good writing, Bud.

These players can be humbling. Be sure not to bet money on the games.

I've passed a number of them over the years, but I still enjoy playing them to get a refresher on the particular lessons each has to teach. Some of those wiggle-waggle razzle-dazzle serves developed on some lonely, remote military post are fantastic. You might like to cook one up in your garage to frustrate earnest young players with perfect strokes.


Oliver Posted 11 years ago

Yeah I had the same problem. The point is, these players can often return what we think of as the "best" shots but somehow cannot do anything themselves. The thing is to think of a stroke which possibly be returned by a good player, but not a bad one. These include hitting it wide, using spin etc. Personally, I found a block good as these people lack consistency and use strange serves since they cannot read spin.

Collin Hill

Collin Hill Posted 11 years ago

I play with a guy like that quite often who has wierd spins, but i think that has Really helped me read spins better and faster just by his odd movements :)

Aasim Showkat

Aasim Showkat Posted 11 years ago

I have the same problem...

When playing against these types of players in front of my friends who know that I am the one of best players in the school, I directly feel my heart beating and when you loose against them everybody just irritates that you are nothing..bla bla

these things just prick you

Vijay Madge

Vijay Madge Posted 11 years ago

Yes Bud a nice question. What oft was thought but never so well expressed! I, too, have started playing like you after a gap of some 30 years and come across such frustrating experience quite frequently. For instance we have a player who used to return my FH topspins with his awkward looking blocks away from the table on both the flanks and take away my joy of having hit a winner. I decided to alternate my shots to his FH/BH and add sidespin for the forehand corner. That fixed the problem. As Alois and Jeff said one has to take one's game a bit higher, and come out of the tunnel which you so beautifully call 'the ping pong zone'. As in Peter Principle, such players can rise only to their level of incompetence. Good luck to you. 


Oliver Posted 10 years ago

Do good players also do this though? Do they also do the weird sidespin stuff you mentioned (though with better technique) early on in the rally to stop opponents from attacking or do they just do the mainstream backspin pushes?

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 10 years ago

Better players usually do straight backspin with pushes.

Ahmed Madhoun

Ahmed Madhoun Posted 10 years ago

This also happens to me
i have 2 friends that "knows" how to play tennis, they tell me that they started playing a year ago (i started playing tennis when i was 12 years old) obviously am more experienced player than them
i play with them and i lose points i start getting mad , everyone start laughing because the good player is loosing :( :@ and i actually lose every single time, 
i read articles about mental preparation, i went today and i played one of them, i lost again
i can't believe how my smashes simply just don't hit a point with those people ! i hit the net a lot i send the ball out million times and they just play simple backhand !!! just return my shots !!!!!  

Robert Fischer

Robert Fischer Posted 10 years ago

Oh dear, I'm right in the same boat. In my last game I played against someone that only knew two strokes: a push and what I would call an "anti-smash" (smashing with a rubber that is so worn out, it's got less grip than any anti). I agree, that you need to attain a certain threshold in your (tactical) game to beat these kind of opponents...

Vijay Madge

Vijay Madge Posted 10 years ago

Well a good discussion of Bud's question on 'ping pong zone' a phrase which also catches my fancy. I have already commented on this issue but after watching your video discussion I feel like adding a few more words. We too have a player among our midst playing with whom is always irritating what with his unconventional pushes and cuts and his ceaseless commentary on each of the rallies. No matter how hard you hit the BH counterhit/topspin drive he with his ugly looking sidespin 'cut' more often than not succeeds in returning the ball in your exposed vacant FH flank! It is frustrating to see this and you feel like tearing your hair. Can it be Alois and Jeff that lokking at their unconventional style we become complacent and 'casual' in playing with such players? And that is our undoing, I think. After many hours and sleepless niights I decided not to take it easy with him. I increased the speed of my strokes and kept on changing their placement. That fixed the problem and I coould beat him easily in the annual tournament.(11-3, 11-2, and 11-5). But yes I agree such players can be very irritating to play with and if we do not take care we are sure to enter into that abominable 'ping pong zone'!

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 10 years ago

Hi Vijay,

I think complacency can be one factor, especially early in the match.


D K Posted 8 years ago

Is there any "universal strategy" against this type of players who only know push and "antismash"?

Sam Flachau

Sam Flachau Posted 8 years ago

I know many players that basically can do a BH push and nothing else lol. I started losing to just about every single one of them until I realised that they can't deal with much spin... Try putting heavy backspin on most of your shots as they don't knowhowto to react to it.

Ilia Minkin

Ilia Minkin Posted 8 years ago

This topic is so interesting!

I think that one aspect of this situation is that when people think of what constitutes the skill of playing Table Tennis, they mostly think of stroke mechanics. However, there are many other skills that matter: footwork, reading spin, service & return, anticipation, placement, tactics, deception, and even more. Unorthodox players may have ugly (and even inconsistent!) strokes, but their other skills can be solid. For example, from zillions of practice hours they developed excellent anticipation and very deceptive unorthodox service with weird spin. And the serve is probably illegal, but people around don't care :)

There is another side of this stroke mechanics obsession. Sometimes people come to me and give an advice on my game. And in 99% of situations they say that there is some imperfection in my forehand stroke. Like I should finish less forward and few inches higher/lower or something like that. And they never ever notice that I have really huge problems reading spin on some services and have very, very poor anticipation. Or instead of exploiting the glowing weakness of my opponent to win a lot of points, I just change my tactics for the sake of changing. And that is why I constantly lose to "ping pong zone" players, not because there is a slight imperfection (or a feature?) in my forehand.

So morale is: strokes are important, but there are so many "soft" skills behind them. Unfortunately, these skills take lots of time to develop and are very hard to notice with a naked eye.

Jeff Plumb

Jeff Plumb from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Well said Ilia.

Ilia Minkin

Ilia Minkin Posted 8 years ago

There is an amazing Podcast at experttabletennis with a former Norwegian national player Istvan Moldovan. The whole podcast is amazing, but at 19:30 he talks about "technique freaks": people that pay so much attention to stroke techniques. While his opinion is that technique is actually what he calls "perception": ability to anticipate the ball and read the spin and adapt strokes to that.

Matthew Fossay

Matthew Fossay Posted 8 years ago

This same thing happens to me alot. When i play better players that put topspin and back spin and side spin normally i can handle it. But when i play my dad who is very unconventional and not at all trained and doesnt do normal strokes i seem to struggle i usually beat him but as he is my dad i want to really beat him bad. I play my normal strocks and he just swings in all ways and manages to make these great shots i just cant handle. He cant take lots of topspin or backspin at high speeds but it is hard for me to get these fast shot opportunities when he is makeing these funky shots. I can recognise the spin but cant handle it like other players spins on the ball. What should i do? I practice lots but only against a wall because i am an only child and my dad doesnt want to practice strocks and such he only wants to play. And when i go to school i dont play people people like him so im kinda screwed. Please help me and thanks for all your help. P.S. Jeff and Alois you guys are awesome i love the site and all the advice u give me. 

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Hi Matthew,

Play your Dad in matches as much as he will play.  The difficult part of playing these players is adjusting to the different spins as you are finding.  Take every opportunity to play against this type of ball you can.

Douglas Hill

Douglas Hill Posted 8 years ago

Hey Matthew -

Your Dad knows that someday he'll win his last game against you. He just wants to have fun with you while he can. Play hard, but remember to have fun with him! Maybe make up some funky shots of your own, with impressive names like Passive Sidehand Flick Of Power.

- Another Dad

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Love it Douglas.

- Another Dad

Johan B

Johan B Posted 8 years ago

 Oh I was so happy I ran all around the house in celebration the first time I beat my dad!

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

It took me a long time to beat my Mum.

Jeff Plumb

Jeff Plumb from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Yeah, it's difficult when your Mum is the National Indian Champion :)

miguel gomes

miguel gomes Posted 8 years ago

whaaaaaat... Alois' mum is the National Indian Champion???!!!!

mind blown


Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Yes she was... Dad was also Indian National Weightlifting Champion... Good genes...

Johan B

Johan B Posted 8 years ago

Sounds like a fact you should tell Brock about if you haven't yet!

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 8 years ago

Ah yes, he may be impressed.

John Vancott

John Vancott Posted 7 years ago

What a fantastic question by Bud and response by Jeff and Alois. I have been trying to overcome the same problem. It's definitely a process... Having read this discussion, I feel better about my chances of working through this and am more determined to do so, thanks.

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 7 years ago

Yes I think it is something that do many players get frustrated about... Nice to know you are not alone.

Marcin Lonak

Marcin Lonak Posted 7 years ago

All frustration about ping pong zone is hard but true

Ilia is giving in my opinion a great explanation what is at the heart of this feeling. I would like also a discussion about the plague of people giving "good" advices… This is a disease almost as bad as the ping pong zone itself. Very often those advices (mostly they are sincerely honest) just mess up the mind and fail to advice the real problem. On average, out of 100 tips people are giving, mostly unasked, may be 5 are good tips targeting straight the problem. Of course the good tips rate is getting higher the more experienced the player is who is giving the advice.

May be what i can add- I think, practicing a lot, working with regular exercises, multiball, return boards and robots is very popular. I like to do it myself too. Its a great feeling to see the progress with perfecting the technique and footwork through gaining consistency. But to develope all those things disconected from the purpose of the game, which is winning, can lead to a table tennis depression. its a game fight and not rhythmic gymnastics.



John Vancott

John Vancott Posted 7 years ago

I like your points Marcin.  I sometimes get advice at the club that I'm not sure about. I usually try it out to see how it feels. If it feels right, I might keep trying it out. But I have had better luck by asking coaches for tips, learning from pros online like those at ping skills, and watching professional matches online, etc...  

About the purpose of the game being about winning: It's true, I've read or heard many coaches online that indicate that the big portion of one's training should be playing matches. If the majority of your training is working with a robot, etc., you will only very slowly progress in matches, especially in tournament matches.  Nothing beats putting yourself in tough matches consistently and often--and in those matches, making a point to try the new things you are working on. It also helps to ask the better players to watch you play (and to play them) and then ask them what kinds of weaknesses they notice in your game, i.e., stuff you can work on.  They may not always know the cure but they are often very good at pointing out what is not effective in your game.  I've noticed that the players that improve the fastest are the ones that are getting professional coaching.


Vijay Madge

Vijay Madge Posted 7 years ago

This topic is of such universal interest and concern that I feel like talking about it even after having done so twice before! Yes, such experiences are irritatingly frustrating. I feel learning to play table tennis is like setting off on a long train journey full of long and dark tunnels. Bud's "ping pong zone" is one such recurrent and seemingly endless tunnel. My daily playing partner for instance is not formally trained, all his serves are done without an open palm and without tossing the ball! and naturally his serves are winners! Some rush into my body others are so acutely angled to my forehand that reaching them might cause sprain or even tearing of a muscle! and yet I manage to win with him occasionally! That, too, because I follow Alois' advice of sticking to the correctness of your strokes. I lose to him because of 1) lapse in concentration, 2) Not watching and tracking the ball well because of that, and 3) not getting into good position. Moreover, I feel our performance depends on our diurnal bio-rhythm. That's why we say of a player that on his day he would beat anyone! That's why also my loss of all 3 sets of three games to my partner on some days and on others my winning all the sets or our sharing of the honours. But I'm sure that by following Alois and Jeff's tips I'll definitely come out of the tunnel one day, never to enter into it again! Meanwhile, enjoy the game and your struggle which is what I'm doing!

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