Table Tennis Techniques - Spin

Spin: The hidden side of table tennis
Discover how to impart spin and return spin shots

 By Martin Hughes
 Owner and Editor

Table tennis technique - spin by courtesy of the ITTF

In the early days of table tennis (1920s to 1950s) most players used a traditional "hardbat" which consisted of pimpled rubber, without sponge, on a wooden blade.

This meant that the game was predominantly about ball placement and control, rather than spin.

But after the introduction of sponge in the 1950s it became possible to impart much more spin onto the ball - and that started a major change to the way that table tennis is played today.

The use of spin is now THE most dominant factor in the sport of table tennis - yet it remains largely hidden from view for casual spectators of the game.

But for any player who wants to improve their game, being able to impart spin and play against spin is one of the most important table tennis techniques you'll need to master.

So let's take a look at how spin is imparted onto the ball, what effect it has on the ball and how to counteract spin strokes.


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Learn the Basics First

Being able to play and return spin shots is an advanced technique, so before you learn these techniques it's important that you master the basics of table tennis first, such as the table tennis grip, the four basic table tennis strokes and the basic table tennis serve.

When you've mastered the basics, you'll then be ready to move on to this more advanced level of table tennis.


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Practice, Practice, Practice

The modern game is dominated by players who use an aggressive attacking, offensive style of play and they can impart a lot of spin onto the ball, so dealing with your opponent's strokes can be very difficult.

The speed at which the ball approaches you may not allow you sufficient time to know how much spin is on the ball, but with practice you'll become better at determining the type and quantity of spin by watching your opponent's racket movement, the flight of the ball and the logo on the ball.

However, the only way to improve is to practice, practice, practice.

There is no shortcut.


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Spin - the hidden side of table tennis

Spin is imparted onto the ball by using a tangential brushing action with your racket.

And the faster your racket brushes against the ball, the more spin you'll impart onto it.

So, improving your brushing action is crucial if you want to impart more spin onto the ball.

 

No spin imparted

Whenever you hit the ball near its equator with your racket at a 90° angle, the ball will travel forwards more and have less, or no, spin.

 

Spin imparted

But when you brush your racket against the ball at an angle of less than, or more than, 90° using an upward, downward or sideways movement, the ball will spin more and not travel as far forward.

 

Using reverse rubbers will also help you to impart spin onto the ball, whereas using pimpled or anti-spin rubbers will hinder you.

 

Generally, for most strokes played, the ball is struck with either topspin or backspin - although sidespin may also be added.

So let's take a look at each of these table tennis techniques in turn and see how to impart spin onto the ball...

 

1. Topspin

sidespin table tennis

Topspin is produced by starting your stroke below the ball and brushing your racket tangentially against the ball (at or above its equator) in an upward and forward motion.

You can impart more topspin onto the ball if you use - a fast stroke action; a tangentially brushing action of your rubber on the ball above the equator; a reverse rubber with good friction properties (i.e. offensive rubber).

 

2. Backspin

sidespin table tennis

Backspin is produced by starting your stroke above the ball and brushing your racket tangentially against the ball (at or below its equator) in a downward and forward motion.

You can impart more backspin onto the ball if you use a fast stroke action and a tangentially brushing action of your rubber on the ball below the equator.

 

3. Sidespin

left sidespin
right sidespin

Sidespin is produced by brushing your racket tangentially against the ball in a sideways motion.

Depending on whether your racket moves to the left or to the right, you'll impart different sidespin.

When you move your racket to the left, you'll impart left sidespin and cause the ball to turn to the right.

When you move your racket to the right, you'll impart right sidespin and cause the ball to turn to the left.

You can impart more sidespin onto the ball if you use a fast stroke action and a tangentially brushing action of your rubber on the ball.

However, sidespin is often imparted in addition to topspin OR backspin. That means, many strokes played with sidespin will either be topspin & sidespin combined, OR backspin & sidespin combined.

 


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Effects of Spin

1. Topspin

When you impart topspin onto the ball, the forward spin increases the downward pressure on the ball, so that after it bounces on the table it will stay low and accelerate forwards.

Effect of topspin on a table tennis ball

When a topspin stroke makes contact with your opponent's racket, the topspin will cause it to rebound in an upward direction.

 

2. Backspin

When you impart backspin onto the ball, the backspin decreases the downward pressure on the ball, so that after it bounces on the table it will rise up more and not go as far forwards.

Effect of backspin on a table tennis ball

When a backspin stroke makes contact with your opponent's racket, the backspin will cause it to rebound in an downward direction.

 

3. Sidespin

a. When you impart left sidespin onto the ball, by brushing on the left hand side of the ball, it will cause it to go to the right.

effect of left sidespin on a table tennis ball viewed from above

When a left sidespin stroke makes contact with your opponent's racket, the left sidespin will cause it to rebound to their right.

 

b. When you impart right sidespin onto the ball, by brushing on the right hand side of the ball, it will cause it to go to the left.

effect of right sidespin on a table tennis ball viewed from above

When a right sidespin stroke makes contact with your opponent's racket, the right sidespin will cause it to rebound to their left.


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Reading Spin

So how do you read the spin on your opponent's strokes?

Well, experience certainly helps. You'll find that the more you play, the better you'll become at reading spin, but there are a few general principles that you can use too.

The first thing to do is to watch your opponent's racket angle before and during the time it strikes the ball.

Watching the contact point of the racket on the ball is the best way to observe what spin is on the ball. The angle of the racket will indicate whether it is likely to be backspin, topspin, side-spin or no spin. And with side-spin, the direction of the racket movement before it strikes the ball will indicate whether it has left or right side-spin.

However, all of these visual clues will only give you a general guide because the better players will be able to disguise and vary the spin using similar stroke actions.

Top players therefore also read the spin by watching the flight of the ball and how it bounces off the table. Topspin strokes will keep low, backspin strokes will bounce slightly higher, whilst sidespin strokes will often move to the left or to the right.

Additionally, on return of service or for shots played short over the net, they watch the logo on the ball as it bounces on the table. If the logo is visible, the ball probably has no spin or minimal spin, whereas if you cannot see it clearly, it probably has excessive spin.


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Playing against Spin

Returning topspin

Topspin strokes are created when your opponent's racket brushes against the ball using an upward stroke action. This causes the ball to accelerate and dip due to a combination of ball rotation and air resistance.

After the ball makes contact with your racket, the topspin will cause it to rebound in an upward direction.

Closed racket angle Closed racket angle

So, to return a topspin stroke, you'll need to counteract this upward motion by using a closed racket angle and playing a Drive or a Loop, or a Block.

Open racket angle to play a backspin chop Open racket angle to play a backspin chop

Alternatively, if you're a defensive style player, you can move away from the table and, using an open racket angle, play a defensive, chopping stroke.


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Returning backspin

Backspin strokes are created when your opponent's racket brushes against the ball using a downward stroke. This creates drag on the ball and slows the ball down as it travels through the air.

After the ball makes contact with your racket, the backspin will cause it to rebound in an downward direction.

Open racket angle to play a Push Open racket angle to play a Push

So, to return a backspin stroke, you'll need to counteract this downward motion by using an open racket angle and hitting underneath the ball, causing it to rise upwards (eg. a Push), or play a fast upward brushing action against the ball using a neutral or slightly closed racket angle to create topspin (eg. a Loop).


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Returning sidespin

Side-spin strokes are created when your opponent's racket brushes against the ball using a sideways stroke action, moving either left-to-right or right-to-left.

This sideways stroke action creates either left side-spin or right side-spin which means that after the ball makes contact with your racket, the side-spin will cause the ball to go either to the left or to the right.

There are many different side-spin stroke variations and I cannot possibly cover them all, but there are a few general principles that you can use to help you return side-spin strokes.

The main principle to remember is that to counteract side-spin strokes you need to watch the starting point of your opponent's racket and angle your racket and your return in the direction of that starting point.

 

1. Left sidespin

When your opponent's racket is moving from right to left (for a right-hander that means moving from the forehand side to the backhand side, i.e. in towards their body), the spin imparted onto the ball will make your return go towards your opponent's left hand (backhand) side after hitting your racket.

So, to counteract this left side-spin, you need to angle your racket towards their right hand side (the forehand side of your opponent) - as shown in my diagram.

How to return left sidespin (viewed from above) How to return left sidespin (viewed from above)

 

2. Right sidespin

Conversely, when your opponent's racket is moving from left to right (for a right-hander that means moving from the backhand side to the forehand side, i.e. away from their body) the spin imparted onto the ball will make your return go towards your opponent's right hand (forehand) side after hitting your racket.

So, to counteract this right side-spin, you need to angle your racket towards their left hand side (the backhand side of your opponent) - as shown in my diagram.

How to return right sidespin (viewed from above) How to return right sidespin (viewed from above)

Of course, in reality there are many different subtle variations of side-spin, but these general principles will always need to be applied.

My top tip:

If you're not sure how much side-spin is on the ball, or if you're not sure whether it's left side-spin or right side-spin, always aim your return stroke towards the middle of the table. By doing that you are more likely to make a successful return.


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Spin Practice

Being able to play good spin shots relies on good ball control.

The following exercises will improve your ability to impart spin onto the ball and to counteract spin:

  1. Using the forehand side of your racket and a loose wrist action, bounce the ball vertically to a height of approximately 30cm (12 inches) without imparting any spin

  2. When you can do that consistently, change your racket angle and impart sidespin as you continue to hit the ball vertically to a height of approximately 30cm (12 inches)

  3. As the ball is descending you will need to change your racket angle to counteract the sidespin you imparted

My top tips:

When practising these exercises, try to ensure that the ball bounces as near to vertical as possible.

Also, ensure that your wrist action produces most of the movement necessary to produce the spin - and that you use a light touch.

As you improve, it's important to develop a variety of strokes because basic spin will be easy for your opponents to read.


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