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Posture Focus and Ping Pong is a Win-Win Combination

March, 2014

An explosive sport with everyday applications



German table tennis players Timo Boll and
Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

Many people in the US think of ping-pong as a somewhat lackadaisical sport, but it's actually a very active game that requires a great deal of fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and athleticism. It takes explosive power, in addition to strength and flexibility, to get to the ball in time. In fact, one of the benefits of playing table tennis is that it allows you to develop explosive power - and explosive power is helpful for building bones and strengthening muscles.

Professional table-tennis player Timo Boll, below left, illustrates these truths. His form is superb. Not only are his legs externally rotated, but he's doing a perfect hip-hinge, his shoulders are back and low, and his left wrist is in good alignment. The pivot of his head on his neck, which enables him to look up without scrunching cervical vertebrae, also serves him well. 

If, after studying this photo, you still have any doubts about ping pong being an exciting and athletic sport, take a look at at this video compiling some impressive table tennis points ever.

 

Clearly, table tennis isn't just about standing close to the table and hitting one kind of shot. The game is all about swiftness, power, balance, coordination, precision, and stamina--and healthy posture is a driver for all of these things.


Woman_Pauses_At_Laptop_Kirill Kedrinski_Flickr_PhotoPSharing
Posture and sustained use of healthy limbs

While our focus here is table-tennis readiness and using posture to improve play, ping-pong posture pointers can be extrapolated to everyday uses of the shoulders and arms—for example, when driving, typing, or washing dishes. 

While the precision and explosive power required to play table tennis are less relevant to most routine activities, underlying posture fundamentals apply, especially those pertaining to the healthy positioning of the shoulders and arms. This is because when the shoulders aren't drawn into a hunch, when the nerves that arise in the thoracic spine are not impinged, when there's no tightening of the pectoral muscles, and when natural movement in the opened-up chest is free to provide a natural massage, breathing and circulation are improved.

Ping pong and posture is not just a sports story. It's a story about the sustained use and continued health of the limbs--enabling the limbs to  do their everyday thing long-term.

Table tennis is my game



Ping pong paddle with
badminton shuttlecock in
Mumbai (formerly Bombay),
where I learned to play table tennis 

Childhood play

When I was about eight, my Indian father taught me to play table tennis at one of the two tables at the Breach Candy swimming pool in Bombay. Ping pong was popular in India when I was growing up, and I played quite a lot, mostly at school. Over time, I developed what was thought to be a mean backhand, but I did this without developing any sort of forehand. While the standards for play weren't as high as they were in East Asia or Sweden, I participated in tournaments of middling quality, and had some success. 

 Later, as a high-school-senior exchange-student in New Jersey, I won a local table tennis tournament in what, again, may have been a tournament of questionable competitive caliber. 

Still, by local standards of that time, I had a pretty wicked backhand, together with a winning record. All this without having yet developed a good forehand.

A ping-pong courtship

I was a freshman at Harvard when I met my husband Brian over a ping pong table in Princeton's "Debasement," now called the D-Bar. I was visiting my then-boyfriend, a very discerning person, who shared my view that Brian was a very likable fellow.

What first struck Brian about me was that I was an authentic person. And what struck me about Brian was that he was beatable at table tennis! Actually, what struck me even more was that my handily beating him at ping pong didn't bother him. Whereas some guys' enthusiasm for playing would be dampened by regularly losing to a woman, Brian remained engaged, alert, and dedicated to improving his game. Accepting of pulling up from behind, he worked his way to the point where he handily beats me now, as he has for some time.



My husband and I met playing table tennis



Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill abound...



Ping-pong courtships are dynamic  

 

Table tennis hiatus, then a family of players

After Brian and I married and had kids, there was quite a long stretch where table tennis was no longer a part of our lives. Then, about 10 years ago, we purchased a table and ping pong became a family game.

The kids are mostly out of the house now, but Brian and I play frequently, sometimes as often as several times a day. This is in part because the table is usually parked right in the center of our living room. While this is somewhat unusual decor, it aligns with our priorities. And when the living room is required for other activities we either move the folded table to the side, or outside on the patio (it's an outdoor table).

Plucking up paddles and playing a quick game of ping pong is one of the ways Brian and I take pick-me-up breaks. Because we talk when we play, it's also an opportunity for us to visit together. 

 


Voila!--a forehand!

When Brian and I first met and began to play in 1977 I was not yet focused on posture. But when, after about 20 years, we resumed play, I was very surprised to discover that in the complete absence of playing I had developed an effective forehand! I attribute this "gift" to my (at that time) 5-year commitment to healthy posture. My body may have been older, but its essential architecture was much healthier, which meant that more than ever I was poised to play a more complete game.

The posture-sport connection

Improving at ping pong in the absence of playing really interests me, in part because it prompts the impulse to connect the dots between posture improvement and improvement in sports--not just table tennis, but any number of athletic activities, whether this be fly fishing, cycling, tennis, or golf.

Poised to play

Because healthy posture provides mechanical, physiological, and even psychological advantage, focusing on posture while engaged in sport makes good sense. After all, the body is an intricate system involving not only the bones, the joints, and the muscles of the mechanical system--the "pulleys and levers"--but the complex physiology of circulation and innervation, together with sports psychology and sports performance anxiety. In table tennis--as with every sport--anatomy, physiology, psychology--and posture--are intricately entwined.

Anchoring strokes to posture points

When I play table tennis I put my "body-as-human-machine" at mechanical advantage by focusing on key elements of my posture. Doing so helps all aspects of my physical game, including my oft-used backhand, my ever-improving forehand, and my ability to rally. (Posture-focus also serves me psychologically and emotionally, but more about these aspects of play in just a bit.)

A ready position and a posture-focused state of mind

Before any game and between rallies (but not between strokes), I focus my attention on:

  • Lengthening my neck
  • Depressing and pulling back my shoulders
  • Anchoring my ribs
  • Hinging at my hip joints
  • Keeping my behind behind me
  • Externally rotating my legs and "kidney-bean"-shaping my feet

While visualizing and executing these posture points once required a conscious effort, focusing on them now has become a natural part of my game.

 

Neck and shoulders. The ping-pong posture habits most helpful to me may be super-correcting when pulling back and lowering my shoulders, and lengthening my neck with extra muscular force. I exaggerate simply because doing so makes my swings more effective. Optimally positioning my shoulders helps with my range of motion, my power, and precision. It also helps prevent injury of my shoulder joints, joints that have craggy, complex interfaces, and are vulnerable to inflammation and wear and tear.

Ribs and hips. When playing table tennis, I’m also aware of rib-anchoring and hip-hinging. Keep in mind that most of the posture-tracking I do happens between games, or between rallies. It's too much to consciously focus on posture points during active play.

Buttocks, legs, and feet. Pouncing in ping pong is essential and fun. In order to do this well, I remind myself to keep my behind behind me. Neglect this posture point, and my ability to speedily reach the ball on less than a moment's notice will be compromised. And, although the leg and buttock muscles do the bulk of the work in table tennis, having the feet turned out and shaped like kidney-beans also helps with speed and power.

Backhand, forehand, and rally

Backhand

It is in the nature of the game to get more backhand than forehand practice, and this is especially true when I stay in one spot. When preparing for backhand strokes, I think about my shoulders staying down and and my neck going tall in a slightly exaggerated way.

 

Forehand

Despite marked and continuing improvement, I still feel a bit disconnected from my forehand and am sometimes surprised when a shot that comes off my paddle actually lands on the table! But, because of the posture work I've done and because my shoulders are now "closer to home," I now have a bigger range of motion and a more precise stroke. I suspect that shoulder positioning was at least part of the missing piece that prevented me from predictably hitting smooth forehand shots in days gone by.

 

Posture focus as an antidote to performance anxiety

If there's any kind of emotional flutter when I play table tennis, focusing on posture takes the worries out of my head and places them into the act of play. A posture-point review offers sufficient material to displace anxiety; there is no longer any room for it.

Similarly, because table tennis is so quick and labile, so sensitive to little fluctuations in the psyche, it's counterproductive to think, “Oh I'm really going to smash that ball!” To do so is to pretty much ensure that the ball goes flying off the table.

Bottom line? Focusing on posture is an instrument for greater mindfulness. By making myself fully available to the physical reality of a ball coming at me, sports-performance anxiety--all anxiety--is displaced. Anchoring posture habits to particular aspects of play helps both the physical and emotional components of my game.

Forrest Gump rallies

In the following video clip, Forrest Gump faces the (un)reality of an approaching ping pong ball...the "movie magic" that underlies actor Tom Hanks' game is enlightening, but not so much his style of play. While it's obvious Tom is a limber and athletic fellow, his ping-pong posture could be improved. Because he raises and pulls forward his shoulders with almost every stroke, his "pecs," "traps," and shoulder joints take a heavy toll.

 

Of course Forrest Gump is a character who would never complain of pain. But he does point to his shoulder and observe that play was exhausting. Here's a suggestion, Forrest: One shoulder at a time - a little forward, a little up, and a lot back!

Brian and I rally

Finally, without the benefit of "movie magic," my husband and I briefly rally to close out this post.

 

Of course our game is a work in progress--as are we! This is part of what makes applying posture points to a sport like table tennis so much fun.

Image Credits:

Timo Boll and Christian Suss, Creative Commons; Woman with Laptop, Kirill Kedrinkski, Flickr PhotoSharing; Brazilian Woman Washing Dishes, Christian De Vries, Flickr PhotoSharing; Mumbai Street Ping Pong, Roshan Pajwani, Flickr PhotoSharing; A Game At Which Both Win, 痞客邦 PIXNET 留言(0) 引用(0) 人氣; Bill and Hillary Clinton Play Ping Pong, Blazing Paddles, Larry Hodges; Ping Pong Courtships Are Dynamic, JCC Youth Conference, 1947, Flickr PhotoSharing

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Comments

I used to teach tai chi (Cheng Man-Ch'ing style) and my ass't instructor was always raving to the classes about how good his GOLF game got as his tai chi skills got better! Truly, any sport gets better when we use the 'human machine' as it is designed to work! (And so does life: Thanks Esther!)

Esther, having picked up my paddle again about 6 months ago, I have been trying to focus on my posture, as you suggest, between points.

Because of my height, I am trying to get low to the table when awaiting the ball by bending my knees and hip hinging. Herein lies my problem.

When I bend my knees and hip hinge my weight tends to be on my heels (as in a squat) which makes rapid foot movements difficult. I find it difficult to be on the balls of my feet which is where I believe I should be. Thanks for the great article on table tennis!

Jon