Coaches and athletes in many sports use video taping to learn and correct technique. In table tennis, a growing number of players use videotape of their own play to improve strokes and strategy. Another use of video technology, discussed in this article, involves the study of top players to learn new or better technique.

Most table tennis players have experienced some benefits of this learning technique, even without using video technology. Players who watch highly skilled players in person, often find themselves hitting shots that they didn't know they knew how to hit shortly thereafter.

I first started filming table tennis players, with a film movie camera in the 70's. When home video came out around 1980, it became much easier to record and view table tennis regularly. With more frequent use, the advantages of watching top quality play became clearer. Though no substitute for practice time, video viewing was often an catalyst for sudden and significant improvements in my game.

The principal in action here involves the most basic form of learning - the human mind's amazing ability to vicariously experience the actions of another person and, through mostly unconscious processes, to learn and imitate those actions.

This type of learning, sometimes called 'modeling', is well recognized in the scientific community. But like many other sports related principles, it isn't always adequately recognized or applied by many recreational athletes, or even by all 'serious' scholastic or professional athletes.

Let's consider two simple examples of this principle before suggesting how your table tennis game can be improved in the best way using video - even if you don't own any video equipment.

A basic example of modeling is seen in  how children learn skills like walking. Certainly there is a lot of trial and error and encouragement (coaching) as a child first learns to walk. Walking is seemingly simple, but in reality is a very complex skill involving timing, balance, the coordination of sight, balance and other senses. Walking also involves a large number of muscles and the human 'electrical/computer' systems that control them.

But before the trial and error occurs there is a groundwork of months of watching everyone else walk, absorbing an image of how it's done. Would a child who never saw others walk even try it, let alone figure out how to attempt those first steps ?

A more thought provoking and recent  example, familiar to many in the sports sciences, is an experiment involving basketball skills and mental practice. This study compared success in shooting baskets from the foul line using three groups of subjects. The group that engaged in imaginary, mental practice in shooting foul shots had nearly the same improvement in their foul shooting percentage at the end of the study as those who spent comparable time actually practicing foul shots. The control group showed little change.

You can use video in a variety of ways to apply these principles and improve your technique. You could of course, videotape your own play, both to identify bad habits and to reinforce the things you do well, especially if you have a coach to help identify the less obvious errors. This is a great way to fine tune your game, and is worthy of it's own article. But using that method requires more equipment, time, and effort than the other method I'm now suggesting -viewing video of skilled players to learn new and better strokes.

While any exposure to higher level table tennis has potential benefit for you, the greatest improvement comes when you carefully select the players and matches most likely to help you, and watch them regularly in a systematic way.

Find a technique, whether a specific shot or a sequence of shots, and study the best examples of top players making that shot or sequence. Choose a favorite player to serve as your primary role model and study his play against a variety of opponents. Pick a player with a style like you would like to play - don't limit yourself to the style you currently play.

It's better if your role models have a build something like yours, since more than in other sports, successful table tennis players do come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Factors like height, Do influence each player's ideal playing style, footwork and stroke mechanics so the fastest learning is from someone most like you.

Having chosen a few appropriate role models, (Grubba, Appelgren, Lindh and Waldner are personal favorites), look for videotaped play among these players to watch. Vary your focus of attention among various elements, such as footwork, turning of the upper body and racket angles, rather than only watching the ball in flight. Timing and the relative arc and contact points for various shots are good reasons to sometimes focus on the ball, but don't neglect seeing the other elements of what's happening. Don't always be narrow and analytical though, there's real value if you relax, and drink in the 'big picture' provided you've picked the right players and points to watch.

I mentioned more than one favorite player, because while each one is close to an overall style I'd like to pattern my game after, each one also has particular individual strengths that fit aspects of my game I'd like to improve at any given time. Though you might play a different style, see how I pick the aspects of these shakehand-style top-spin attackers individual games - then apply my learning method to your own style and role models.

Grubba has a legendary backhand and, (at times) beautiful footwork. Appelgren has excellent variation of pace, timing and sidespin with his topspin game and twists his shoulders into his shots more consistently and dramatically than others. Lindh, though sometimes erratic, dramatically makes heavy topspin winners out of low balls taken right over the table with both his backhand and forehand. Waldner has a wonderful variety of touch shots and textbook forehand topspin form.

So pick the player and the points YOU fancy, and use your VCR's remote control to watch the best points repeatedly. Then go play with a favorite partner and let these shots 'escape' from your unconscious mind where you've stored them !

Like the imaginary practicers in the basketball shooting experiment, practice closing your eyes and replaying the strokes you've seen on videotape until you have an image that you can recall during breaks in play without the help of the videotape.

If you don't own a VCR yet (75% of US homes do have one!) you can always rent a VCR at a video store or appliance rental store, but it's best to buy a good VCR so you can watch tapes regularly for maximum results. Having a VCR where you play is even better, refreshing your memory right before you play or between matches.

Watch points mostly at regular speed, to get a more realistic image including the sounds and timing of the game, but use slow motion at times to study fast and subtle techniques (especially serves) at a reduced speed.

Though any tape of high quality tournament play is a potential training tape if used as I have suggested, certain tapes are easier to study because they concentrate particular stokes and styles together. Instructional tapes can be great if they feature the right players and include good demonstrations of first class strokes. Some instructional tapes I'd recommend include, 'Play Table Tennis with the Swedish Team' and 'Modern Table Tennis' with Wang Wei.

The Reflex Sport video, 'Wonderful and Wacky World of Table Tennis' is an inexpensive, entertaining highlight film with edited segments featuring various styles and players, and has a lot of good material to study for your own improvement.

Whatever tapes you use, don't spend too many hours studying tapes each week. This is, after all, a recreational and participation-oriented sport for most of us ! Add a few minutes of selective viewing before playing and watch it really improve your game! After all - imitation isn't just 'the sincerest form of flattery', but it's also the most natural and enjoyable way to learn a complex sport like table tennis.

Author Dave Strang has been a table tennis promoter, coach and player for over 15 years, and has studied coaching principles and sports psychology in graduate studies. His analysis of table tennis has appeared within various publications, videotapes and televised tournaments.

article reprinted from Robbins Sport Table Tennis Catalog c. MCMXCII