By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach
Most rallies at the intermediate level start out with backspin, often with the server looking to serve and loop. If he doesn’t loop, then the receiver looks for a chance to loop. Whoever can open with a strong loop against backspin has a huge advantage. But many players practice looping against the block over and over, or occasionally do serve and loop drills where they get only one loop in the rally. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to practice looping against backspin systematically, over and over? (Well, that’s easy – play a chopper. But there aren’t that many choppers around these days. So what can you do if you don’t have a chopper handy?)
And wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to push yourself with stroking and footwork drills at a pace faster then you or your practice partner can rally consistently? Or to simulate game situations that you need work on?
The answer is multiball training. In multiball training, a coach or practice partner stands to the side of the table with a box of balls (on the left side if he’s a righty), and feeds the ball to you. He does this by tossing the ball back, usually (though not always) letting it bounce on the table, and then hitting it to you with his paddle. In this way he can feed different spins and speeds to all parts of the table, either in systematic patterns or randomly. Essentially all of the best players in the world regularly use multiball training; the top Chinese players use multiball for about one-third of their practice sessions. (To see examples of this, go to Youtube.com and search for “table tennis multiball training.”)
By having your partner feed you backspin over and over, you can practice looping against backspin, and get far more practice shots per minute (up to one per second or so) than if you just do serve and loop practice. Or the feeder can vary it, giving you a backspin and then a topspin, as it would be in a real rally (if opponent blocked your first loop back), and do so in rapid succession. Or he can feed topspin side to side or in other patterns so you can practice stroking and footwork. Or he can feed the ball randomly to all parts of the table (or to designated segments), simulating a real game.
All multiball drills are either rote drills, where you know where the ball is going, or random drills, where you do not, or some combination of the two. An example of a combination would be one ball to the middle that you attack with your forehand, followed by a random ball to either corner that you attack with forehand or backhand.
To do multiball training, you’ll need a box of balls. You can do it with a few dozen balls, but most coaches start with a gross (144) or so of training balls. (Training balls are cheaper than tournament balls, i.e. 3-stars, and you can buy them a gross at a time rather inexpensively.) If you and a practice partner are doing this, start off by actually practicing your multiball. (When I first began coaching many years ago one of the first things I did was go off to a table and practice multiball feeding for about an hour.)
While most multiball training is fed from the side of the table, there are variations where the feeder feeds from the far side of the table, either by the end-line or from farther back, to simulate shots from those positions. And while most coaches bounce the ball on the table before feeding it, some speed things up by hitting the balls right out of the air without bouncing them.
There are an infinite number of multiball drills you can do; use your imagination. You can either isolate a specific shot that needs work (such as forehand or backhand loop or smash against backspin), the types of footwork drills you use in a match (such as side to side), or other match simulations. For example, when I played tournaments I liked to dominate the table with my forehand, so players would often serve short backspin to my forehand, then quick-push to my backhand to take my forehand out of play and force me to play my weaker backhand. So I did multiball drills where the feeder gave me a short backspin ball to my forehand, then a deep backspin to my backhand. I’d push the short ball, then step around and loop the second with my forehand. (For most players, I’d recommend looping the second ball with your backhand, unless you have very fast feet, so develop your backhand attack.)
Here are a few drills you can try, including ones mentioned above (so you don’t have to keep consulting the text). Use your imagination; many top players and coaches make up drills on the spot to address a particular issue.
- Looping against backspin from both wings from all parts of the table, either to one spot or to multiple or random spots. Examples include backspin alternating to wide forehand and middle, and you loop both with forehand; or backspin alternating from wide forehand to wide backhand, and you alternate looping forehand and backhand.
- Backspin/topspin combinations. For example, backspin to the middle, followed by topspin to the wide forehand; you loop both with your forehand. Or a longer pattern such as four feeds alternating between backhand and forehand, where perhaps the first is backspin, the next three are topspin, all in quick succession as in a match, and you have to attack all four shots.
- 2-1 drill, also called the backhand-forehand-forehand or Falkenberg drill (for the Falkenberg club in Sweden, where it was popularized by 1971 World Men’s Singles Champion Stellan Bengtsson), where you play three shots: a backhand from the backhand side, a forehand from the backhand side, and then a forehand from the forehand side. This is a favorite among top players since you practice the three most common moves: covering the wide forehand, covering the wide backhand, step around forehand.
- Random topspin, either to two spots, the wide forehand and wide backhand, or to all parts of the table. You can also combine random drills with rote drills, such as having a ball to the middle you attack with your forehand, followed by a random ball to either corner that you attack with forehand or backhand.
- Short ball (often with backspin) followed by a deep ball. You push or flip the short ball, and loop the deep ball.