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PATT Notes - January 16th, 2010

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Donn Olsen View Drop Down

Joined: 10/22/2009
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    Posted: 01/16/2010 at 9:11pm

*PATT Notes is a periodically issued table tennis discussion from The PATT Institute ( ))

Table Tennis Research: Split Steps

There is an old German saying: The devil is in the details, indicating the inconvenient results of investigating an idea, the detailed particulars of which demonstrate great difficulties.  The finest among us very frequent resist commonly expressed bromides, often declaring the truth to be the opposite of the generally accepted. 


The great French novelist, Gustave Flaubert,* did exactly that, by responding to this common saying with the retort: God is in the details.  He lived his professional writing life in devotion to this perspective, as he was noted for his precision of expression and exquisite style.


Many in many domains have embraced Flauberts view, in recognition that in many circumstances, decomposing the subject domain into its constituent parts and analyzing the interoperability among these parts is the key to increased understanding.   It is recommended to the serious students of the sport of table tennis to also follow Flauberts lead. 


One frequently overlooked detail in our excessively-stroke-oriented view is the split step.  The split step is defined as a low hop from a standard stance, quickly moving both feet outwardly a small distance from their original location (thereby splitting the feet).  It is performed just prior to the time the opponent contacts the ball on her service.  In so doing, the player becomes movement activated, the better to respond to the demands of the serve.


This is a common footwork technique in tennis.  It is used by all proficient players.  We have been negligent in assigning the proper value to it in table tennis.  Perhaps part of the reason is a lack of research into its usage and applicability.**  Much has been remedied here due to the fine research contribution of Ak Emre, of the Middle East Technical University, Department of Physical Education and Sports, Turkey.  Mr. Emre analyzed the usage of the split step among various players in high level playing domains, using commonly-accepted player categories to organize the evaluation results.


His results are very interesting.  Among the highlights are the following, including my observations in the analysis:


      With rare exceptions, offensive players use the split step.  Defensive players have lower usage rates.   Analysis: It is typical for offensive players to be forehand oriented.   Such a style of play necessitates greater footwork demands than alternatives.  As they are typically characterized, defensive players are not forehand oriented, thus the need for high footwork activation in serve return is reduced.

      The higher the standard of play, the more frequent use of the split step.  Analysis: This suggests a general correlation between the use of the split step and the standard of play.  For those seeking excellence in play, no source for emulation is finer than that provided by the finest.

      Males have a higher split step frequency of use than females.  Analysis: Likely, this finding is correlated with other research than indicates the higher frequency of forehand-oriented play with men than with women.  Also correlated is research that indicates a higher frequency of defensive players among the women.

      Players from historically strong table tennis countries have higher split step usage than players from countries with lower table tennis achievements.  Analysis: There is a relationship between the degree of sophistication of a table tennis system and the results achieved.  It is probable that this is evidence of that.


All formally-derived evidence advocates for the use of split steps.  Coaches are advised to include this feature into player development efforts.

*For those who enjoy great literature, I highly recommend his first novel, Madame Bovary.


**One common aspect in many players and coaches perspectives is a great under appreciation of the importance, impact, and influence of research in the field of table tennis.  Much technique is based upon formal research.  As is common in complex societies, many of the greatest contributors lack visibility.  Though there is no place for them on the stage, this, in no manner, diminishes the valuable contribution that all benefit from.

Donn Olsen - The PATT Institute
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