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European Journal of Sport Science


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A notational analysis of shot characteristics in toplevel table tennis players


a

Ivan Malagoli Lanzoni , Rocco Di Michele & Franco Merni

School of Pharmacy, Biotechnology, and Sport Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna,


Italy
b

Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy


Published online: 22 Jul 2013.

To cite this article: Ivan Malagoli Lanzoni, Rocco Di Michele & Franco Merni (2014) A notational analysis of
shot characteristics in top-level table tennis players, European Journal of Sport Science, 14:4, 309-317, DOI:
10.1080/17461391.2013.819382
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2013.819382

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European Journal of Sport Science, 2014


Vol. 14, No. 4, 309317, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2013.819382

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

A notational analysis of shot characteristics in top-level table tennis


players

IVAN MALAGOLI LANZONI1, ROCCO DI MICHELE2, & FRANCO MERNI2


School of Pharmacy, Biotechnology, and Sport Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy, 2Department of Biomedical
and Neuromotor Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy

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Abstract
This study aimed to analyse selected shot characteristics in top-level table tennis matches, with a special focus on comparing
the playing style of Asian and European players. Ten mens matches played by 20 top-ranked players (14 Asians and 6
Europeans) were analysed. The indicators examined were the area of ball bouncing for serves (n 918), and the stroke type,
footwork type and shot outcome for other shots (n 3692). The interrelationships between variables were analysed using
chi-squared tests, log-linear modelling and multiple correspondence analysis. A strong association was found between
strokes and footwork types, with most stroke types executed each after specific footwork types. Furthermore, a clear
tendency to have a positive, negative or neutral outcome was observed for each stroke type. When compared to Europeans,
Asians used more frequently the most aggressive strokes and footwork types, confirming anecdotal claims on their
particularly offensive playing style. Asians showed also a better serving effectiveness, often sending the ball in those areas of
the table from which a counterattack is difficult to make. In summary, this study gives a systematic description of highly
relevant technical and tactical characteristics in top-level table tennis, thus providing valuable information for coaches and
performance analysts.

Keywords: Footwork type, playing style, serve, stroke type

Introduction
Table tennis is a popular racket sport, practiced
worldwide and included in the Olympic programme
since 1988. In a singles table tennis match, two
players stand at the opposite sides of a rectangular
table and are engaged in hitting a lightweight ball
with the goal of sending it over a net to the
opponents side of the table, in a way that makes it
difficult for the opponent to return it. Playing a table
tennis match involves a significant physical effort
(Zagatto, Morel, & Gobatto, 2010), and having good
fitness seems essential for a high-level player. However, the most crucial determinants of performance
in table tennis are undoubtedly technical and tactical
skills, and understanding how such skills are mastered by top-level players would be of great interest
to both coaches and performance analysts.

A method well recognised as effective for technical


and tactical evaluation in many sports is notational
analysis, in which relevant aspects of the actions
performed by the players during play are collected
and summarised using sport-specific performance
indicators (Hughes, 1998; Hughes & Bartlett, 2002).
In racket sports, the most frequently used indicators
are descriptors of shot characteristics typical of all
net and wall games, such as stroke type, number of
shots per rally or unit of time, shot outcome and
serve data (Hughes & Bartlett, 2002).
Notational analysis has been widely applied to
racket sports such as tennis, badminton and squash
(Hughes, 1998; Lees, 2003), whereas the number of
studies using that research approach in table tennis is
more limited. Some authors have examined stroke
types in studies comparing groups or individual
players (Djokic, 2002; Drianovski & Otcheva,

Correspondence: R. Di Michele, Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences, University of Bologna, via del Pilastro 8, 40127
Bologna, Italy. E-mail: rocco.dimichele@unibo.it
# 2013 European College of Sport Science

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310

I. Malagoli Lanzoni et al.

2002; Otcheva & Drianovski, 2002), and subsequent


investigations emphasised the importance of including the footwork type among performance indicators
in table tennis (Malagoli Lanzoni, Lobietti, & Merni,
2007, 2010). Taken together, the above studies show
that a notational analysis of shot descriptors would
allow to detect possible differences between players
of different levels concerning their playing characteristics. Therefore, such a method seems a reasonable
approach to evaluate the play of top performers.
A broad group of worlds best-ranked players in
table tennis is nowadays constituted by players
coming from Asian countries. Recently, it was
observed that Chinese table tennis players showed
better coping skills than French players (Laborde,
You, Dosseville, & Salinas, 2012). Moreover, several
coaches and experts agree on the fact that Asian
players show a playing style overall more offensive
than level-matched European players, probably developed in their early years of training. Given the
increasing trend to dominate international competitions shown by players belonging to the Asian school
of training, investigating the specific playing style of
such players would enrich the technical/tactical
evaluation of the best table tennis players in general.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to analyse
the shot characteristics in top-level table tennis
matches by examining the distribution of relevant
shot indicators and the relationships among those
indicators, with a special focus on comparing the
playing style of players coming from the Asian and
European schools of training.

Methods
Match sample
Ten top-level mens table tennis matches were
randomly selected among matches played in the
20082010 period in International events by the
top 30 players in the world. The considered ranking
was that published monthly by the International
Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), available at the
website www.ittf.com. The 10 selected matches were
played in the Olympic games (n 2), team world
championship (n 4), mens world cup (n 3) and
Pro Tour grand final (n 1). Six of the matches were
between an European and an Asian player, while the
other four were between two Asian players. European players won two matches out of six. All the 6
European players used a shake-hand grip, while 4
out of the 14 Asian players used a pen-hold grip.
Two major variations exist of the pen-hold grip,
namely the traditional style (Japanese or Korean) in
which forehand shots are definitely predominant,
and a modern style (Chinese) in which, similar to
what happens in the shake-hand grip, both forehand

and backhand shots are used (McAfee, 2009). In the


present sample, the traditional and modern styles
were adopted, respectively, by one and three penholding players. The mean age, height and weight of
the 20 players were, respectively, 26.8 years, s 4.7,
178.2 cm, s 6.9, and 72.4 kg, s 5.8 (data taken
from the ITTF website). The matches were played at
the best of five sets, finishing 32 (n 2), 31 (n1)
and 30 (n 1), or at the best of seven sets, finishing
43 (n 1), 42 (n 1) and 41 (n 4).
Data recording
The matches were recorded from broadcasts of a free
online television, which gave approval to use the
video recordings for the purposes of the present
study. The analysis was performed in slow motion, at
a replay speed of 10 frames per second, using the
software Kinovea (www.kinovea.org). An experienced table tennis coach, whilst watching the videos,
collected on a spreadsheet the performance indicators of interest. Two separate data-sets were compiled, one for serves and one for other shots.
Serve data
The examined variable was the area of the table in
which the ball bounced immediately after a players
serve. Six equal rectangular areas were individuated
and numbered as in Wu Xiao and Escobar Vargas
(2007) (Figure 1). The mean number of serves per
match was 93, s 19. Nine hundred and eighteen
out of 930 serves were considered, because wrong
serves (n 12, 1.3%) were excluded. Furthermore,
the hand (left/right) used by servers opponent to
hold the racket was recorded and included in the
analysis as a covariate.
Shot data
A total of 3860 shots (excluding serves) were played
in the 10 games. The shots (including serves) per

Figure 1. Six-area subdivision of each table side used to individuate the area of ball bouncing in serve analysis. The thick line
represents the net.

Shot characteristics in table tennis

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rally were 5.11, s 0.57. For each shot, the type of


stroke used to hit the ball, the type of footwork
performed before hitting and the shot outcome were
recorded.
The following stroke type categories were considered (Molodzoff, 2008):
. push, an interlocutory stroke imparting a backspin effect to the ball;
. flick, an attacking stroke performed when the
ball bounces close to the net;
. topspin (abbreviated as top), an attacking stroke
actually imparting a topspin effect to the ball;
. block, a defensive stroke performed in response
to a top in a passive fashion;
. top-counter-top, a counterattacking stroke consisting in a top performed against an opponents
top;
. lob, a defensive stroke performed when the
player is far from the table, consisting of lifting
the ball to a considerable height;
. smash, an attacking stroke characterised by a
linear trajectory and no spin of the ball;
. drive, an interlocutory stroke imparting no
effect on the ball.
Drives (n 5, 0.1%), lobs (n 107, 2.8%) and
smashes (n 56, 1.4%) were, however, excluded
from subsequent analyses due to their too limited
frequency of occurrence. Therefore, 3692 shots were
finally considered. Together with the stroke type, it
was recorded if the shot was performed forehand or
backhand. For each stroke type, the backhand and
forehand executions were classified as different
categories.
The footwork classification included the following
categories (Malagoli Lanzoni et al., 2007):
. one step, a front step performed by taking a
short step forward with one foot while keeping
the other still;
. chasse`, a side step consisting of sliding laterally
first the foot opposite to the direction of
displacement, and then the other foot;
. slide, a side step consisting of first sliding
laterally the foot corresponding to the direction
of displacement, and then the other foot;
. pivot, a turn step consisting of a slide or chasse`
in which the side movement of the last moving
foot is associated to a back movement of it in
order to rotate the trunk around a vertical axis;
. crossover, a wide side step performed by sliding
laterally first the foot opposite to the direction of
displacement, and then the other foot. Due
to the amplitude of its displacement, the first
moved foot runs up the other one before
completing the movement;

311

. no step, when a player hits the ball without


making any footwork.
Shot outcomes were divided into three categories:
. winner, a rally-ending shot after which the ball
bounces into the opponents side of the table
and is not hit or touched by the opponent;
. return, a non-rally-ending shot after which the
ball bounces into the opponents side of the
table and is hit or touched by the opponent;
. error, a rally-ending shot after which the ball
goes into the net or outside the table.

Reliability
For one of the matches, data relative to serves
(n 89), to outcomes of rally-ending shots (n 89)
and to stroke and footwork types (n 85, taken from
one set of that match) were recorded by three
national table tennis coaches. Furthermore, those
data were recorded three times throughout a fourmonth period by the same coach who collected the
entire data-set of this study. Krippendorffs alpha
(Krippendorff, 2004) was calculated to assess interand intra-operator reliability. Alpha can range between 1 and 1, where 1 indicates perfect agreement. For serve bouncing area, stroke type, footwork
type and shot outcome, alpha, respectively, equalled
0.94, 0.89, 0.96 and 0.98 concerning the interoperator reliability, and 0.99, 0.99, 0.99 and 1.00
concerning the intra-operator reliability.

Statistical analyses
Bivariate associations were assessed for pairs of
variables with Pearsons chi-squared tests. Statistical
significance was set at P B0.05. To determine which
particular combinations of the variables categories
were the most responsible for the association when
the null hypothesis of independence was rejected,
two-way contingency tables were graphically displayed using mosaic plots. In that kind of plot,
each cell of the table is represented with a rectangle
whose area is proportional to cell frequency, thus
allowing to visually assess the structure of the
association between variables (Hartigan & Kleiner,
1981).
A further analysis was performed using log-linear
modelling (Agresti, 2002). This approach allows to
simultaneously evaluate the relationships between all
the examined variables by selecting a log-linear
model that best represents the effects of variables
and their interactions. The best model was individuated through a forward stepwise procedure, with

312

I. Malagoli Lanzoni et al.

the Akaike information criterion (AIC) used as


selection criterion.
Finally, a multiple correspondence analysis, a
procedure allowing to represent graphically the
information contained in a multiway contingency
table (Greenacre & Blasius, 2006), was carried out on
shot data.
The analyses were performed with the R statistical
software (R Development Core Team, 2011), using
the packages MASS (Venables & Ripley, 2002) and
ca (Greenacre & Nenadic, 2010).
Results

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Analysis of serve data


The majority of balls bounced in area 3 (n 481,
52.4%), namely that central and close to the net.
Side/close-to-the-net areas (2 and 4) were each
reached in 135 (14.7%) cases, while in only about
20% of serves the ball was sent in the quarter of the
table closest to the receiving player, constituted by
areas 1 (n 60, 6.5%), 5 (n 71, 7.7%) and 6
(n 36, 3.9%).
A strong association was observed between bouncing area and school of training (P B0.001). Post
hoc analysis of the contingency table revealed that
Asians, when compared to Europeans, sent a higher
proportion of balls in area 3 and a lower proportion
in areas 1, 4 and 5 (Figure 2A).
Table I (upper part) shows the characteristics of
log-linear models analysed in the stepwise procedure
for model selection, with opponents handedness
included among variables. The lowest AIC was
observed for the model with all (three) two-way
association terms. The theoretical distribution determined by the selected log-linear model was not
significantly different from the actual data distribution (P 0.73).
Analysis of shot data
The shots executed by Asian and European players
were, respectively, 2607 and 1085, representing
70.6% and 29.4% of total shots. Shots executed by
pen-holders (all Asians) were 775, that is, 21.0% of
total examined shots and 29.7% of shots executed by
Asian players. The only Asian player using a traditional pen-hold grip had 199 shots (5.4% of total
and 7.6% of shots of Asian players). The majority of
shots (2806, 76.0%) were non-rally-ending (returns),
while there were 117 winners (3.2%), and 769 errors
(20.8%). The frequency distribution of stroke types
was top forehand, n 720 (19.5%); top-counter-top
forehand, n 617 (16.7%); block backhand, n 551
(14.9%); top backhand, n 497 (13.5%); push
forehand, n 494 (13.4%); push backhand,

n 264 (7.2%); flick backhand, n 163 (4.4%);


flick forehand, n 152 (4.1%); top-counter-top
backhand, n 121 (3.3%); block forehand, n 113
(3.1%). The frequency distribution of footwork types
was one step, n 1217 (33.0%); chasse, n 866
(23.5%); no step, n 685 (18.6%); pivot, n 481
(13.0%); crossover, n 325 (8.8%); slide, n 118
(3.2%).
Bivariate analyses showed a significant association
(P B0.05) for all pairs of variables. The structure of
the relationships revealed by mosaic plots (Figure 2)
is described in the following list:
. School/stroke (Figure 2B): Asians used much
more frequently the top forehand and topcounter-top forehand, while the percentage of
top backhand and especially of top-counter-top
backhand was higher in Europeans. The push
was used almost in the same proportion by
players of the two schools, although Asians
preferred forehand executions more than Europeans. The flick (forehand/backhand) and the
block forehand were used slightly more often by
Europeans, whereas the percentage of block
backhand was similar in the two schools.
. School/footwork (Figure 2C): The relevant differences between schools concerned the pivot and
crossover, used more frequently by Asians, and
the chasse`, used more frequently by Europeans.
. School/outcome (Figure 2D): The percentage
of winners was similar in the two schools, while
Europeans showed a higher proportion of errors
and a slightly lower proportion of returns.
. Footwork/stroke (Figure 2E): The pivot and
crossover were almost exclusively performed
either before a top forehand or a top-countertop forehand, while in most cases the one step
was followed by a push or a flick. The chasse,
slide and no step showed frequencies higher
than under independence when combined with
the block backhand, block forehand, top backhand and top-counter-top backhand.
. Outcome/stroke (Figure 2F): The push was the
most neutral stroke, frequently involving continuation of the rally. Conversely, the block and
top-counter-top showed a lower percentage of
returns than under independence. The top
forehand and top-counter-top forehand were
definitely the strokes more associated to winners. However, the top-counter-top forehand
showed also a higher proportion of errors than
under independence, similar to the top-countertop backhand and the block (backhand/
forehand).
. Footwork/outcome (Figure 2G): More than
other footwork types, the one step was performed in non-rally-ending shots, showing the

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Shot characteristics in table tennis

Figure 2. Mosaic plots of the school of training/area of ball bouncing contingency table (A), and of two-way contingency tables of shot data
(BG). For each cell, the range of values including the standardised Pearson residual of that cell is indicated using different cell shadings
and edges. Positive and negative residuals, respectively, indicate that the observed cell frequency is lower or higher than the frequency
expected under independence. These residuals are asymptotically distributed as a standard normal; thus, a residual lower than 2 and
higher than 2 indicate lack of fit of the null hypothesis of independence in the respective cell; topctop top-counter-top.

314

I. Malagoli Lanzoni et al.

Table I. Goodness-of-fit measures of log-linear models evaluated in the forward stepwise selection process for serve (upper part) and shot
(lower part) data
Step
Serve data

Shot data

1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
6

Log-linear model (association terms)



AT
AT, AH
AT, AH, HT
AT, AH, HT, AHT

FS
FS, ST
FS, ST, OS
FS, ST, OS, FT
FS, ST, OS, FT, OT

G2

df

P-value

AIC

113.66
49.35
9.24
2.77
0
1110.71
319.41
241.66
180.28
151.29
150.88

16
11
6
5
0
342
297
288
270
265
263

B0.001
B0.001
0.16
0.73
1
B0.001
0.177
0.978
0.999
0.999
1

129.66
75.35
45.25
40.77
48.00
1146.71
445.41
385.66
360.28
341.29
344.88

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Note: The selected models are indicated in bold. AT, AH, HT, FS, FT, OS, OT and ST indicate two-way associations between the
respective variables; AHT indicates the three-way association. G2: likelihood ratio test statistic; df: degrees of freedom; A: area of ball
bouncing; F: footwork type; H: handedness of opponent; O: shot outcome; S: stroke type; T: school of training.

highest proportion of returns and the lowest of


winners/errors. A relatively high cell frequency
was noticed for the pivot/winner combination,
while the chasse` and no step showed a lower
proportion of returns and a higher proportion
of errors than under independence.
The selection procedure of the log-linear model of
best fit is reported in Table I (lower part). The model
selected according to the minimum AIC criterion
included four 2-way association terms: footwork

type/stroke type, stroke type/school, stroke type/


shot outcome and footwork/school.
Figure 3 displays the two-dimensional map resulting by the multiple correspondence analysis applied
to the four-way contingency table of shot data. The
first two dimensions, namely those represented in
the map, accounted for 68.4% of total variance. The
first (horizontal) dimension, explaining 44.7% of
total variance, may be considered to reflect the trend
of shots to be rally-ending. In fact, the flick and the
push, often used to counter the serve or as the very

Figure 3. Map obtained by the multiple correspondence analysis performed on the four-way contingency table formed by shot type,
footwork type, school of training and shot outcome. The map displays the coordinates of categories of all variables in the two dimensions
that capture the highest fraction of total variance; topctop top-counter-top.

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Shot characteristics in table tennis


first shots of the rally, were on the right side of the
plot, whereas the top forehand and backhand,
frequently performed in the first attacking phases,
lied in the centre/left of the plot, and the strokes with
the highest trend to end the rally (top-counter-top
and block) were in the left. The second dimension
(vertical, 23.7% of explained variance) may instead
reflect the positive/negative outcome of the rally. In
fact, strokes that more than others involve a winner
(top forehand and top-counter-top forehand) lied in
the top of the plot, neutral strokes (push and flick)
were in the centre along the vertical direction, and
strokes tending to have a negative outcome (block
and top-counter-top backhand) appeared in the
bottom. In the map, each footwork type was very
close to the stroke type/s with which it showed the
highest association. Finally, the point indicating
Asian players was close to the origin of the map,
while, with respect to that point, the point indicating
European players was slightly shifted towards the
right and clearly shifted towards the bottom.
Discussion
The present study aimed to analyse the most relevant
shot characteristics in top-level table tennis matches.
Overall, the results revealed a strong association
between many shot descriptors, and the presence
of peculiar characteristics in the play behaviour of
Asian players, that is clearly distinguishable from
that of level-matched European players.
Among the various shots, the serve assumes an
important role from a tactical point of view, because
an effective serve may allow the serving player to
avoid an immediate attack of the opponent and thus
to eventually attack on his turn. A method to assess
serving effectiveness consists of observing the area of
the table in which the ball is sent by the serving
player. In fact, it is much more difficult for the
opponent to make a threatening attack if the ball
bounces in the central/close-to-the-net zone of the
table, and sending the ball in that zone would
represent, in general, the better way of serving. In
the present study, we observed that more than half of
served balls were actually sent to the central and
close-to-the-net area (3). Furthermore, about 30%
of balls reached the side/close-to-the-net zone (areas
2 and 4), which can be considered to be the second
most suitable area (after area 3) towards which
sending the ball when serving. With respect to the
area of ball bouncing, there was, however, a clear
difference between Asian and European players. In
fact, whereas Asians sent about 60% of balls in area
3 and about 85% in areas 234, Europeans showed
a less accurate pattern of serving, with only 35% of
serves in area 3, and 75% in areas 234 (Figure
2A). The higher accuracy of Asian players suggests

315

that they take particular care in training the serve.


A log-linear modelling analysis was carried out
to handle the possible confounding effect of the
opponents handedness. In fact, it is presumable that
players avoid to send the ball towards the opponents
forehand corner, namely the zone from which a
dangerous attack is easier to make. That zone,
actually, differs according to the hand used to hold
the racket (respectively areas 1 and 5 for right- and
left-hand opponents). The model selected as the best
to represent the data included the area/handedness
association term (Table I, upper part), demonstrating an actual effect of the opponents handedness on
the area. However, inclusion of the three-way interaction effect did not improve the model, indicating
that opponents handedness did not meaningfully
influence the difference between Asian and European players described before.
Despite the decision on the stroke to use may be
forced or very limited in some situations, there are
some points during a rally in which a player has to
make a choice among aggressive/risky or cautious/
safe strokes. Therefore, the distribution of stroke
types reflects the more or less offensive style of the
group of players to which that distribution is
referred. Among the various analysed stroke types,
the push and flick can be considered as interlocutory
strokes. Those strokes, frequently used at the beginning of the rally, showed indeed a rather high
proportion of returns (Figure 2F), and lied in the
right along the axis that indicates the tendency of
shots to be rally-ending in the multiple correspondence analysis map (Figure 3). The top forehand
and top-counter-top forehand were associated to
winners more than other strokes, and can be seen
as the most aggressive strokes, although the topcounter-top forehand is an extremely risky stroke
that leads also to make an error in many cases
(Figure 2F). Strokes lying in the left-bottom of the
correspondence analysis map (Figure 3) are all
related, to some extent, to a negative outcome. The
top backhand is an attacking stroke, but it can be
viewed as a makeshift choice for top-level players.
The block backhand is generally a passive stroke,
whereas the block forehand and top-counter-top
backhand are definitely negative strokes, used in
conditions of extreme difficulty.
In the matches analysed, the most used strokes were
the top forehand and top-counter-top forehand. This
corroborates the opinion that the top will have greater
and greater importance from a technical point of view
in top-level table tennis (Zhang & Hohmann, 2004),
and the general observations that modern top-level
table tennis is more and more fast and dynamic
(Drianovski & Otcheva, 2002) and shows distinct
characteristics of offensive play (Hohmann, Zhang, &
Koth, 2004; Malagoli Lanzoni et al., 2010). However,

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I. Malagoli Lanzoni et al.

a remarkable difference was noticed between Asian


and European players concerning the stroke type
distribution. In fact, Asians showed a more frequent
use of the top forehand and top-counter-top forehand
(Figure 2B). Such feature of Asians confirms anecdotal claims that their playing style is particularly aggressive, and suggests that Asians are actually the most
natural exponents of modern top-level table tennis as
characterised in the above-referenced studies.
Another important characteristic of a shooting
action is the footwork performed before the hit. As
postulated by Malagoli Lanzoni et al. (2007), using a
proper footwork is very important in table tennis,
allowing the player to be in the most favourable
position for effectively hitting the ball. The present
data showed a strong association between stroke and
footwork types, meaning that almost each type of
stroke is preceded by some given footwork types
(Figure 2E). The no step category was strongly
associated to the most negative strokes, indicating
that players do not make any footwork when being in
conditions of extreme difficulty. The one step, used
to answer the serve with a push or to attack a closeto-the-net ball with a flick, represents a key footwork
for the first phases of the rally. The chasse` is used to
perform a rather various set of offensive and defensive strokes by making easy side movements. The
slide is mainly performed before defensive shots or
backhand offensive shots, generally used in conditions of difficulty. The crossover, allowing the player
to move for relatively long distances in the shortest
time possible, and the pivot, mainly used to perform
forehand shots from the backhand corner, are
particularly linked to the execution of the top forehand and top-counter-top forehand. Those two
footwork types are the most representative of the
modern dynamic style of play, with fast displacements and aggressive shots executed from all the
zones of the table. Actually, the main differences
between Asians and Europeans with respect to the
footwork types concerned the pivot and crossover,
used more often by Asians, besides the little risky
chasse`, used more often by Europeans.
The log-linear model selected as the best did
include the terms of association for footwork/stroke,
school/stroke, stroke/outcome and school/footwork,
indicating that those associations remain as such
when considering together the effect of the whole set
of variables. Conversely, the associations between
school and outcome (Figure 2D), and between
footwork and outcome (Figure 2G) are likely to be
expressions of the effect of a third variable on both
the variables. In other words, European players
made more errors because they used more often
strokes leading to errors, while, for each given stroke
type, the distribution of rally outcome should have
been similar between Europeans and Asians. Simi-

larly, some footwork types are linked with a specific


outcome not per se, but as they are associated with
strokes tending to lead to that outcome.
A further noteworthy issue concerns the grip used
by players, a characteristic of the playing style that
may have direct links with stroke type distribution
and, probably, also with footwork type distribution.
In fact, in a player adopting a traditional pen-holding
style, the majority of shots are constituted by forehand executions, while backhand shots are rather
rare and used mostly for blocking (McAfee, 2009).
In this study, the grip was not included among
examined performance indicators for two main
reasons, namely the need to avoid overcomplicating
multivariate analyses because of an additional variable, and the limited number of players available for
each grip type. Indeed, according to the aim of this
study, the sample was selected among matches
played by worlds top players and the grip was not
considered among selection criteria. Anyway, though
many Asian players are known to be pen-holders, it
turned out that in this sample of top-ranked players
only 1 Asian (out of 14) used a traditional pen-hold
grip, while 3 Asians used the modern pen-hold grip.
Modern pen-holding, however, involves also backhand shots and should not produce stroke and
footwork type distributions substantially different
from those produced by the shake-hand style. It is
therefore rather unlikely that the differences observed between schools are a consequence of the grip
used by players. Those differences, with high probability, are instead linked to other characteristics of
the playing style, primarily including a more offensive approach of Asian players towards the play.
In conclusion, this study provides a systematic
description of the most relevant shot indicators in
top-level table tennis matches, contributing to enlarge the knowledge of technical and tactical characteristics of modern table tennis. Furthermore, the
present findings have meaningful practical implications for coaches and athletes. The distributions of
stroke and footwork types in top-level matches define
a reference framework that can be compared with a
players own data (or with those of next opponents),
allowing to individuate specific characteristics of
ones play from a technical/tactical point of view.
Together with the distributions of single indicators,
the relationships described between pairs of indicators also provide valuable information for analysing
ones play. For example, knowing the average frequency with which given stroke types lead to win or
lose the point may reveal possible strengths and/or
weaknesses in the shooting behaviour of a player,
and thus guide subsequent training interventions.
Finally, taking into consideration the strong link
between some stroke and footwork types may help to
design focused drills intended to train players to

Shot characteristics in table tennis


handle the specific footwork/stroke sequences occurring during actual match play.

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