Is ping-pong a good way to learn tennis? Can racquetball harm my tennis game? Can badminton help me play better table tennis? This question about the transference between racket sports is often asked. These questions can be answered by the author, who has unique credentials. To help answer these questions, we will look at some of the similarities and differences in racket sports.
Basic kinesiology is necessary to understand the mechanics of table tennis and tennis. The “Anatomic Position” is where your hands are at your sides and your palms face forward. This movement is known as “Wrist Abduction” and involves bending your fingertips towards your thighs at 45 degrees. This small movement can be reversed is called “Wrist ADDuction”. Kinesiology students can remember the difference by visualizing this body part being “ADDed”, or pointing toward the long axis. They like to capitalize the first three letters of each letter for clarity.
One important distinction between table tennis, tennis and squash is the wrist posture. Imagine a fencer holding a foil or sabre in one hand and thrusting towards their opponent. To extend the foil tip as far as possible, you must fully adduct your wrist. Table tennis uses a similar wrist position, but it is used for something else.
Table tennis uses the wrist to enable it to whip forward during contact. The movement is initiated by the legs, arms, shoulders, elbow, and torso. They transmit momentum through a “Kinetic Chain”. This chain of movement snaps your table tennis racket into a bullwhip at it. This kinetic chain of momentum, which starts at the ground and continues through the body to reach contact, is common in most contact/collision sports, including football and baseball. Unlike table tennis, tennis’ wrist is “ABDucted”.
Except for the occasional reaching out to a ball, or reaching up to serve, the wrist position in tennis is much like holding a hammer. For a tennis player, this posture has several benefits. It makes it easier to carry the additional weight and length of a racket tennis by being higher than the hand vertically.
An “ABDucted” wrist means a stronger and more manageable wrist position. This wrist is better able resist the impact forces of tennis balls and can also resist the twisting forces of off-center impacts. These types of impact forces are not present in table tennis, so it is important to practice this position and be disciplined. The author discovered that the same “ABDucted,” wrist discipline that was painstakingly developed to play better tennis can be difficult to put aside when trying to play ping pong using its “ADDucted”.
When teaching players who have played table tennis before, this is the main complaint of coaches. They must remind them to “drop” and “ADDuct” their wrists. My own pingpong coaches smiled and pointed now, according to the author. According to the author’s theoretical and practical opinions, tennis is the sport that requires the most discipline. Ping pong and tennis may require more discipline. It is also a good idea to learn basic kinesiology.
If you’re using the “Anatomic Position” above, bend your wrists so your palms face up. This is called FLEXING your wrists. You are EXTENDING the wrists if you move your hands back to the position where your fingers face the ground. You are PRONATING your wrists by rotating your forearms so your thumbs are right next to your thighs, and your palms are facing you. SUPINATION is the opposite movement. Both PRONATION AND SUPINATION can be defined by the rotation of the bones in the forearm around one another. These movements are distinct, but are often confused with flexing your wrist.
Because badminton, squash and racquetball have such a large target, it is important to accelerate the racket and maintain contact speed. Forearm pronation and flexion are used to achieve the best velocity. Tennis and table tennis have a smaller target than other sports, so maximum racket velocity may not be desired. Except for the smash and serve, the only exceptions to this rule are the tennis serve or smash. However, even these strokes generate racket speed by almost exclusively using PRONATION and not FLEXION. In throwing a fast ball, pronation is the dominant forearm movement.
What does this mean about the transfer of skills from one sport into another? Is it easier to learn one sport if you’re already proficient in another? These are complex and difficult questions for anyone who is a biomechanical specialist in racket sport. However, if you focus on the differences, there will be one way to find the answers.
It is easier to maintain wrist and forearm discipline than it is to attain it. It is therefore easier to learn squash, badminton and racquetball after learning table tennis or tennis. It is, however, more difficult to master the forearm discipline necessary for table tennis and tennis after learning other sports that emphasize the laxity of both the forearm movements.
This principle goes beyond its biomechanical logic. It is based on the author’s own experience in racket sport and more than 30 years of coaching. It was easy for him to relax tennis’s discipline and “snap at maximum velocity” with racquetballs. Many students have struggled over the years to master the additional discipline of tennis. The author suggests that students learn table tennis and/or tennis before moving on to other sports that require 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.
Jonathan recently rediscovered his love for table tennis, which he had played in his basement as a child. It was there that he discovered the foundations for eye/hand coordination, spin techniques and his love for the game. It’s a shame that the two sports aren’t more closely promoted, as they have so much in common.