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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 table tennis better? Such questions always come up regarding the transfer of skills in racquet sports. The author has some unique credentials to answer these questions. To answer some of these questions we will examine some mechanical similarities and differences between racquet sports.
A little basic kinesiology is necessary to best compare the mechanics of tennis, table tennis, or other racquet sports. If you are standing comfortably with your arms at your sides, palms facing forward, you are in the “anatomical position.” If you move your fingertips away from your thighs, at a maximum of about 45 degrees, that movement is called “wrist abduction.” Reversing that small movement is called ‘wrist adduction’. Kinesiology students remember the difference by visualizing this body part as being “attached” to the midline or long axis of the body, and like to capitalize the first three letters for clarity.
Wrist posture is an important difference in table tennis, tennis, racquetball, squash, badminton and even fencing. Picture a fencer with a saber or foil in hand swinging towards an opponent. In order for the tip of the foil to go as far as possible, the wrist must be fully extended. The wrist position for table tennis is almost the same but used for another purpose, not just to increase reach.
In table tennis, the wrist is flexed so that it can express the whip during the forward motion at contact. The legs, torso, shoulders, and arms initiate movement and transmit motion through what is called the “kinetic chain.” That chain of motion swings the table tennis racket over the ball like a bullwhip. This kinetic chain of motion from the ground, up through the body, then ending at contact is common to most contact/collision sports such as football and baseball. In contrast to table tennis, the wrist in tennis is usually “abducted”.
The wrist position in tennis is more “abducted” than the hammer grip, with the minor exceptions of reaching defensively to get at the ball or reaching upward to serve or smash. This posture does many things for a tennis player. First, it makes it easier to bear the extra weight and length of the tennis racket by standing on top of the arm.
Second, an “abducted” wrist is a stronger, more controllable wrist posture. It is better able to resist the high impact forces of tennis balls and better able to resist the high twisting forces of off-center impacts. Obviously, such impact forces do not exist in table tennis and learning this posture takes a lot of practice and discipline. Unfortunately, as the author found, the same “abducted” wrist discipline that has painstakingly learned to play great tennis is difficult to set aside when one tries to play ping pong with his “adducted” wrist.
A major complaint of table tennis coaches is that when teaching tennis newcomers, they must constantly remind them to “drop” or “adduct” the wrist. The author’s own ping pong coach just smiles and directs now! According to 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 generally require more discipline in its strokes. Again, some additional basic kinesiology is helpful.
From the “anatomic position” described above, if you bend your wrist so that your palms are facing up, you are flexing your wrist. When you return your arms to a position in which your fingers point toward the floor, you are extending your wrists. When you rotate your forearms so that your thumbs are near your thighs and your palms are behind you, you are doing your Prapalmoksha. The opposite movement is called SUPINATION. Both PRONATION and SUPINATION are defined as two bones in the forearm rotating around each other, movements that are distinct but often confused with wrist flexion.
Because the targets in badminton, squash, and racquetball are so large, racket speed and contact speed are often top priorities. To do that, both front turn and pitch are used to achieve top speed. Targets in tennis and table tennis are smaller than in other sports, and maximum racket speeds are expected less often. Notable exceptions are the tennis serve and smash, but even those strokes produce racket speed almost exclusively using PRONATION, not wrist FLEXION. Pronation is the dominant arm motion in throwing a fastball.
What does this tell us about the transfer of skills from one sport to another? Does it make learning a racket game easier if you are already familiar with another? These are obviously difficult and complex questions even for a biomechanical expert in racquet sports, but if we isolate the differences discussed here, a way to the answers can be found.
When it comes to the wrist and hand discipline described above, we can assume that it is more difficult to achieve discipline than to suspend it. For that reason, it is easy to learn racquetball, badminton and squash after learning tennis or table tennis. In contrast, the forearm discipline required in tennis and table tennis is more difficult to acquire after learning other sports that emphasize the relaxation of both arm movements described here.
Beyond biomechanical logic, this principle is born from the author’s personal experience in racquet sports and over 30 years of training. His competitive experience in racquetball followed that of tennis, and it was always easy to relax the discipline of tennis in order to “snap” at maximum speed in racquetball. During these years many students struggled to learn the additional discipline of tennis after other sports. In short, the author recommends learning tennis and/or table tennis before participating in other sports in which the arm swing is dominant.
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