Biomechanics: Can Table Tennis Skills Be Transferred to Other Racket Sports?

Can ping pong help me learn tennis? Will racquetball hurt my tennis game? Can badminton help me play better table tennis? These kinds of questions about the transference of skills between racket sports come up all the time. The author has some unique credentials to help answer these questions. We will examine some of the mechanical similarities and differences between racket sports to help answer some of these questions.

To best compare the mechanics of tennis, table tennis, or other racket sports requires a bit of basic kinesiology. If you are standing relaxed with your hands at your sides, palms facing forward, you are in what is called the “Anatomic Position”. If you angle your fingertips away from your thighs, the max being about 45 degrees, that movement is called “Wrist Abduction”. Reversing that small movement is called “Wrist ADDuction”. Kinesiology students remember the difference by visualizing that this body part is being “ADDed” toward the midline, or long axis of the body and like to capitalize the first three letters for clarity.

Wrist posture is one very important difference between table tennis, tennis, racquetball, squash, badminton, and even fencing. Picture a fencer with a sabre or foil in their hand thrusting toward the opponent. In order to make the foil tip reach as far as possible, the wrist must be fully adducted. The wrist posture for table tennis is nearly the same but used for another purpose, not just for extending the reach.

In table tennis, the wrist is adducted to allow it to express whip during forward motion at contact. The legs, torso, shoulder, and arm start the movement and transmit momentum in what is called a “Kinetic Chain”. That chain of movement snaps the table tennis racket like a bullwhip at the ball. This kinetic chain of momentum from the ground, up through the body, then culminating at contact is actually common to most, if not all, contact/collision sports such as football and baseball. In contrast to table tennis, the wrist in tennis is usually “ABDucted”.

With the brief exceptions of reaching defensively to get to a ball or reaching upward for a serve or smash, the wrist posture in tennis is more like holding a hammer, much more “ABDucted”. This posture does several things for a tennis player. First, it makes bearing the extra weight and length of a tennis racket easier by it being above the hand vertically.

Second, an “ABDucted” wrist is a stronger, more controllable wrist posture. It is more able to resist the high impact forces of a tennis ball and also more able to resist the high twisting forces of off center impacts. Obviously, these kinds of impact forces do not exist in table tennis and learning this posture requires a great deal of practice and discipline. Unfortunately, as the author has found, that same “ABDucted” wrist discipline painstakingly learned to play better tennis is difficult to set aside when one tries to play ping pong with its “ADDucted” wrist.

This is THE main complaint of table tennis coaches, when teaching those who have come from tennis, that they must constantly remind them to “drop” or “ADDuct” the wrist. The author’s own ping pong coaches just smile and point now! In the authors theoretical and practical opinion, It appears that among racket sports, tennis requires the most discipline in terms of wrist “ABDuction”. Tennis, and perhaps ping pong, may also require more discipline in its strokes in general. Again, some additional basic kinesiology is useful.

From the “Anatomic Position” described above, if you bend your wrists so that your palms face upward, you are FLEXING your wrists. When you return your hands to the position in which your fingers point toward the floor, you are EXTENDING your wrists. When you rotate your forearms so that your thumbs are next to your thighs and your palms face behind you, you are PRONATING your forearms. The opposite movement is called SUPINATION. Both PRONATION and SUPINATION are defined by the two bones in the forearm rotating around each other, movements which are distinct but often confused with flexing the wrist.

Because the target for badminton, squash, and racquetball is so large, acceleration of the racket and contact speed is usually top priority. To do that, both flexion and pronation is used in the forearm to obtain the highest velocity. The target in tennis and table tennis is smaller than the other sports and maximum racket velocity is less often desired. The notable exceptions are the tennis serve and smash, but even those strokes generate racket velocity by almost exclusively using PRONATION, not FLEXION of the wrist. Pronation is also the dominant forearm movement in throwing a fast baseball.

What does this tell us about transferring skills from one sport to another? Does this make one racket sport easier to learn if you are already familiar with another? These are obviously difficult and complex questions even for a biomechanical specialist in racket sports, but if we isolate just the differences discussed here, one path to the answers can be found.

When it comes to the wrist and forearm discipline described above, we can assume that it is more difficult to acquire discipline than to suspend it. For that reason it follows that it is easier to learn racquetball, badminton, and squash AFTER learning tennis or table tennis. Conversely, it is more difficult to acquire the forearm discipline required in tennis and table tennis, AFTER learning the other sports which emphasize laxity of both forearm motions described here.

Beyond its biomechanical logic, this principle is born out in the author’s personal experience in racket sports and over 30 years of coaching. His tournament experience in racquetball followed that of tennis and it always seemed easy to relax the discipline of tennis to “snap” at maximum velocity at a racquetball. Over these years many students struggled to learn the additional discipline of tennis after the other sports. In short, the author recommends learning tennis and/or table tennis BEFORE branching out into the other sports that are dominated by whipping arm swings.

Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D. received his doctorate in Biomechanics/Exercise Physiology while performing research on impact to the forearm supported by the USTA, while coaching 9 years of Division 1 NCAA tennis at the University of Southern California.

Recently, Jonathan rediscovered his passion for the table tennis he played as a child in the basement of his mid west home. He realized it was here that the foundation for eye/hand coordination, spin techniques, and love of the game began. It is a shame the two sports are not more closely promoted as they share so much.

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