Biljana "Biba" Golić is a Serbian table tennis champion, known as the “Anna Kornikova” of table tennis. Her competitive accolades include multiple titles, including US National Collegiate No. 2, and film/TV appearances include Balls of Fury and ESPN’s Sexyist Women in Sports. Killerspin is honored to count her as part of our team, and took the opportunity to chat with her about what it takes to be a great ping pong player. If you’re going to learn, it might as well be from the best!
Getting Started with Ping Pong
While chatting with Biba, one tip for becoming a great ping pong player kept coming up - the importance of playing the game every.single.day. Getting in a rhythm with practice and creating ping pong muscle memory is important - but just as important is learning the right technique to start. According to Biba, “If your technique is bad, your stroke is limited.” Learning proper technique is important for growth, and for improving your game. You can’t improve your game if you start on a shaky foundation.
On that note, if you’re just starting with a sport, it’s a good idea to get proper guidance when learning the basics. A good instructor will teach you to repeat one stroke as many times as possible. Even when practicing on your own, this is how you’ll create a natural and intuitive response to the ball approaches you. Repetition is very important when it comes to what it takes to be a great ping pong player.
To ensure that you’re getting in enough practice, you’ll need either a sparring partner or a robot. If you can’t find someone who shares your passion to learn the sport (or just doesn't have the time to dedicate to becoming great), a robot can be programmed with different types of programs and exercises that focus on particular shots. In many ways, a robot could replace a sparring partner - just try to find some human to human competition from time to time.
Ping Pong Skills to Master
The following skills represent the things you’ll need to learn to be a great ping pong player:
- Basic shots: Counter forehand, and counter backhand are some of the first skills to master. It’s not just about power - a lot of people think they’re going to smash it and win a point, but that’s not the point of the game.
- Serves: Service motions are very different from player to player, but the goal is to always put a controlled amount of spin to place the ball just right. Strategically your serves have to fit your style. Make sure your serves produces a return you like!
- Topspin: A more advanced shot that’s very helpful to learn.
- Ball control: the main part of the game. To control the ball means your technique is good, you’re comfortable performing different shots.
- Placement: To be precise, you need control and feeling, which comes from practice and mastering the basics.
The Ping Pong Mindset
When you’re learning how to be a great ping pong player, it’s important to stay in the right mindset. It’s not always going to be easy. You’re not always going to play an amazing game. Biba recommends being disciplined in addition to a lot of practice. You have to be persistent and push yourself to believe in your end goal. No matter what happens, even if you have setbacks, or if you compete (and lose), you have to be consistent.
Ping pong is really not all that different from other sports. Discipline and persistence can outgrow your basic talent.
Measuring Ping Pong Skill Growth
There are a few basic ways to measure the growth of your skills:
- Personal satisfaction: AKA, if you had fun, you won!
- Training: Your coach gives specific goals to accomplish. At the end of a training session, you perform the perfect shot, feel comfortable, and can replicate it. You’re confident in your improved skill level
- Competition: Going up against another person
The Equipment Necessary to be a Great Ping Pong Player
Professional equipment for table tennis includes:
- A good table tennis racket
- Comfortable clothing
- Comfortable shoes
The racket is the main tool, and it needs to align with the player’s style.
The racket needs to have the appropriate style of rubber sheets applied to a wooden blade. If a player has an aggressive style (he tends to attacking, perform topspins, etc.), the rubbers need to allow him to perform those shots, and should be grippy and durable. Professional ping pong players don’t change their blade too often, but they should change the rubber sheets depending on their frequency of play and other factors. These rubber sheets wear out quickly!
Every player has a different style. Here are some of the main types of ping pong player:
- Attackers: Aggressive (mentioned above).
- Blockers: Blocks topspins, executes a lot of placements. Attacks occasionally, in an aggressive manner.
- Defense: Also known as a “Chopper.” Their main strategy is to chop/underspin. They respond to a topspin by chopping back to the opponent until the opponent makes a mistake.
Some rackets have carbon layers, sandwiched between wooden sheets. These carbon layers, balanced with rubber sheets, shape the characteristic of the racket as a whole.
If you take a basic racket and try to hit the ball, you might just hit the net. Simulating the same stroke with a professional racket, you’ll get a lot more power and speed. To be able to control that power and take advantage of it, you need to have both a good technique and feeling of the ball.
How to Grow Ping Pong Skills
Growing your skills is not all that different from the aforementioned measurement metrics.
First, it’s important to pay attention to your technique. If you do something in the wrong way, it takes a long time to correct it. It’s better to pay a lot of attention from the beginning, and learn basics in the proper way. By doing this, you’ll grow skills much faster, and with more of a variety. If you don’t have the luxury of a coach/trainer, you might consider videotaping yourself to see where any weaknesses lie.
A few steps forward, it’s great to find a good sparring partner, get a coach, and learn from online courses.
From there, challenge yourself to consistently compete - even if it’s just on the local level. Having a specific competition goal will push you to keep practicing and improving skills.
While growing your ping pong skills, it’s important to set goals. If you want to become a great player, you have to train as much as possible. You have to compete. You have to be consistent in practicing your skills.
Muscle memory is what makes this sport easier. It’s a fast sport - you have to react almost instantly. You’re not just reacting to the approaching ball, but also working on the strategy for how you’re going to place that ball to win the game.
If you’ve mastered that, everything else will be easier.
A caveat to being a great ping pong player - it’s best to start playing at an early age. Biba recommends starting when you’re between 6-9 years old. If you start and you’re older than 11, is hard to be good. If you compete young, you compete against your peers - that’s how you climb the stairs to becoming a great player. During that journey, a lot of international competition is important (not just national or local).
What it Takes to be a Great Player
In a word, dedication. To be truly great, you have to become a professional player who gets involved with competition. It’s a particular lifestyle that’s not for everyone, but for those that get involved, it can be very rewarding - not to mention full of health benefits! It’s important to note that you don’t have to be a professional to have fun - everybody can play ping pong.