Having good table tennis footwork is a necessity if you want to be a formidable player. And not enough players have the footwork to match the skills of their strokes.
The thing is, you can have the best shots in the world – but if you are never in the right position to execute them, what’s the point?
The ultimate objective of footwork in table tennis is to enable you to play more of the shots you have worked so hard to refine. It also helps break bad habits such as excessive leaning and reaching which reduces the quality of your shots.
Footwork is a fundamental skill of table tennis and should undoubtedly form at least a limited aspect of your training.
Types of Footwork in Table Tennis
Before we move on to the different kinds of footwork in table tennis it’s important that you understand the basics of positioning and stance.
All of table tennis footwork branches off from the ready position.
The ready position is the neutral stance you return to after you play each shot.
Here is a breakdown of the ready position:
- Bend at the knees to lower your center of gravity
- Feet 1.5-2 shoulder-widths apart for optimal balance
- Leaning forward with weight on the balls and heels of your feet for quick movement
- Playing arm bent at a 90-degree angle by your side
- Bat in a neutral position to play forehand or backhand
Now that you understand the default ready position, it’s time to move on to the basics of footwork.
Side to Side Footwork
Side to side movement is the most common in table tennis. We begin rallies close to the table and only begin to drift away from the table when it is advantageous to us.
This means we use a lot of sideways movement to cover the entire width of the table rather than in and out movement. As such, side to side movement is the most important type of footwork to learn. It can be very challenging as you have little time to move when you are close to the table and your opponent is constantly switching between your forehand and backhand sides.
In the modern table tennis era, this type of footwork is even more important. The game has never been so offensive, and the vast majority of us favour our forehand strokes. This means we are often competing with other fast players as we battle to use our forehand on both our forehand and backhand sides of the table.
How to Move Side to Side
Whether you are moving left to right or right to left the process of side to side movement is always the same. The trailing outside foot always moves first followed by your lead foot.
The same is true when you return to the ready position. This time you will be returning to the center of the table so your legs are reversed. Assuming you are moving to play a forehand stroke on the forehand side, the movement follows the foot sequence left, right, right, left.
However, this is a dumbed down version. You will often need multiple smaller steps, sometimes called shuffling. You may also use more of a jumping/hopping motion than a stepping motion as both feet will be in the air at the same time. Keeping the dominant foot on the ground a split-second before you hop (trailing foot is already in the air) helps you maintain balance.
In and Out Footwork
In and out footwork is less common in table tennis compared to side to side, but it is still very important. You use this most commonly for the return of serve. When we are in the ready position to return a serve, we are always a short distance from the table in case our opponent plays a fast long ball. If we were close, we wouldn’t have the room or time to play an effective shot.
However, as most players serve short, this means we have to step in to play a return, whether it be a push or a flick. Often we have more time to conduct in and out movement but this is not always the case.
Other instances where you might find yourself using in and out movement are for drop shots. If you find yourself playing far away from the table, chances are most opponents will want to catch you out with a sneaky drop shot or two. You won’t have much time to react to this, so good in and out movement here is essential.
Lobbers and choppers in particular will need to master in and out movement as well as side to side movement. This is because they will face more forwards and backwards movement than anyone else.
How to Move in and Out
If you are returning a serve as a right-hander, your left foot does a small movement before your dominant right foot moves in to play the shot as we are square to the table.
Then, when we are in open play, the sequence for in and out movement is largely the same as side to side movement. To move forward, we first move our back leg followed by our front leg. To travel backwards, we reverse the movement. The front leg moves back initially followed by the back leg.
You may also find you use the hopping motion as outlined in the side to side movement section to more effectively move backwards and forwards.
For players that drift particularly far away from the table (yes, I am looking at you, lobbers), you may need to break into a brief sprint at times to reach short balls. This will involve exploding off of your back leg to generate adequate momentum.
The final table tennis footwork pattern is crossover footwork. You use this when you do not have enough time to play a shot using the basic side to side movement.
It is most commonly used when you play a fast forehand stroke from the backhand side and then your opponent plays the returning shot deep to your forehand side. This gives you the greatest possible lateral distance to cover.
How to do the Crossover
The way you use the crossover movement is by turning your body to your forehand side as opposed to facing the direction of the table. This allows you to burst forwards as opposed to sideways which allows you to move quicker.
You also want to pre-emptively wind your bat back while you burst forward otherwise you will likely not have enough time to play your shot. You then strike the ball just as your left leg is about to hit the ground.
How to Improve Your Footwork
There are many ways to train footwork in table tennis. I’m a proponent of using a range of drills to both ensure you cover all aspects of footwork, and to keep things interesting. We don’t want to fall out of love with the game! Do remember to do some table tennis warm-up exercises before you begin, you don’t want to succumb to an injury.
Ping Pong Footwork Drills
These involve systematic sequences to cover the movements you want to train. You can keep them short and simple or make them longer and more complex. It’s purely down to personal preference.
Here are some of the basic drills I like to do:
- Backhand loop, forehand loop, repeat
- Short push, forehand loop opener (backhand side), backhand, free play
- Backhand loop, forehand loop (middle), forehand loop (wide), forehand loop (middle), repeat
- Long chop serve, forehand counter loop (backhand side), backhand drive, consecutive backhand driving
Multiball is a great way to practise your footwork. The feeder can easily vary the placement, spin, and speed of their feeds to really put your footwork to the test.
Begin slowly to get your form down and gradually increase the pace until you are only making a few mistakes. If you are missing the majority of your strokes and your feet can’t keep up, you are going too fast.
Shadow drills involve practising your footwork and strokes without using a table tennis ball. You don’t even need any equipment. You can practise by yourself – and there are more such ways to practise table tennis alone!
Personally, I like to either have a table or a mirror when I shadow drill, though. It helps me ensure my positioning relative to the table is accurate and helps highlight any flaws that I wouldn’t usually notice.
Practising your footwork outside of actual rallies removes the stress of the point. Ordinarily, our mind is consumed by strategy and every aspect of our game.
Shadow drills allow you to focus solely on your movement in a stress-free environment at your own pace.
Many drills are conducted in a systematic fashion — a series of pre-selected strokes that you will undertake in a sequence. However, there is no randomness to it and whilst it can improve your footwork, it may not completely translate to matches.
This is why you should also incorporate random drills into your training.
This better emulates match scenarios whilst still placing emphasis on footwork. As you don’t know where the ball is going to land, you won’t be able to play as fast when undertaking random drills. This means you may need to take a bit of pace off of your strokes if you are playing with a partner, or have your feeder feed a touch slower if you are doing multiball.
One of the most popular ways to train footwork is by using the Falkenburg drill. It is a hard, exhausting drill, but it is highly effective. It involves a lot of movement which means you will be working anaerobically. As such, you will only be able to do it for a limited time before needing a break.
Below is the Falkenburg drill sequence:
Backhand loop, forehand loop (backhand side), forehand loop (wide), repeat
The reason it is so exhausting is you are covering a lot of distance. It’s the forehand loop on your backhand side followed by the forehand loop wide on your forehand side which is the killer! It does, however, perfectly represent the footwork you will need in a match as an attacker and it is a great workout!
Table Tennis Footwork: Get Practising Now!
By now you should understand that you need effective table tennis footwork to reach your full potential — and that there are a ton of different ways you can improve your footwork.
From random multiball to the Falkenburg drill, you are spoilt for choice. Why not try and come up with your own unique drills to address particular areas your footwork may be lacking? You know yourself better than anyone else. Whatever the case may be, integrate footwork training into your practice, even if it’s just 15 minutes. It is definitely worth it.