Is it easier to play defensive Table Tennis?

Suh Hyo-Won

Firstly — What does it mean to play defensive?

The defender has a reactive approach and tries to make the opponent’s offensive actions as inefficient or risky as possible. The table tennis defender patiently uses backspin and/or spin reversal, and attacks as soon as a good enough opportunity has been gained.

Why do people play defensive?


Some people play defensive as a strategic choice because they believe playing defensive means a competitive advantage for them. They could equally well play offensive but has chosen defensive as it has proven to be beneficial for them.

Some players have played defensive table tennis from the very beginning and have stayed with it. Their coach made the strategic choice for them when they were kids.

Slowing down

Some people play defensive table tennis mainly because they want or need to slow down the game. The gameplay goes too fast for them otherwise, or they can’t play in a relaxed mode. Either their reaction time has become longer, or they want more time to think.


Believe it or not, some people play the defensive style mainly because they think it is more fun to play defensive.

Is the defensive style of play more effective?

The defensive style of table tennis is not as popular as the offensive style. However, it is not proven to be inferior to, or less competitive than, the offensive style. In fact, some players among the best 50 in the world (6% of the male players and 16% of the female players; data of January 2017) play defensive table tennis, and this proves that there is nothing wrong with the defensive style as such — it is competitive. Perhaps the only thing to make the defensive style more popular would be to get a world champion that plays defensive.

Is playing defensive easier?

Playing defensive, or playing mainly with backspin instead of topspin, requires at least the same level of technical perfection as for the offensive player. Especially in sensing, and varying, the amount, and composition, of the spin.

And, the defender still needs to be a very good attacker, because if she relies entirely on opponent mistakes she won’t win many games nowadays.

So, playing defensive is no easier way out, if you thought so. It is more challenging than playing offensive and requires more training.

Is there really an advantage to slow down the game?

As a defender, you can slow down the gameplay if you play some distance from the table and are returning backspin balls which are slower, and stops up after the bounce.

+ Pros — Advantages

Playing defensive to slow down the gameplay gives you more time to

  • react,
  • think, and
  • reposition yourself, and
  • play more relaxed.

- Cons — Disadvantages

  • You’ll get strong shots or smashes against you, especially if you don’t succeed to get enough underspin with every backspin stroke.
  • Your opponent also gets a lot more time for placing their shot exactly where you don’t want it.

What about reaction time?

Reaction times might not be distinguishable within year groups but between year groups there is a significant difference. You’ll notice it before you become middle-aged. It is clearly observable in games at net balls changing direction or stop balls, but it is, of course, prevalent for all balls, reducing the overall performance.

For complex speeded tasks that require central executive processes (in the body), like for table tennis, the difference between 45 years old and 55 years old is about 10%. The difference between 75 years old and a kid is about a 50% longer reaction time for the older person. This is on average. Individual differences could be greater.

As you get older, your body declines biologically. This is, of course, true for the whole body and not only for the nervous system. If we combine the performance deterioration with age, on both reaction time and the time to move the body, it is actually a vast difference.

That is why there are veteran tournaments. And that is also the primary reason why so many people above 50 play defensive, often with pimpled rubbers (pips-out rubbers, officially denoted “OUT” or “LONG”). This is the same everywhere in the world. Older people need to change strategy to stay competitive. A move from speed to spin, from time to mind.

However, both reaction time and mobility/movements can be trained — research tells us that active table tennis players are superior to non-active persons of the same (older) age.

Should you have more time to think?

This can be discussed. I have observed many people, both on video and at competitions lose their match because they are thinking too much during the rallies. Their brain has the time to repeatedly reboot and start processing how to return the ball, and this is disturbing their automatic response. They get micro-confused and can’t focus.

To play well, the gameplay should be fast enough to be fluid. When you are in a flow mode, you play your best. There should be no thinking, or not so much anyway, for each stroke. Thinking focused entirely on your next point tactics, should be done between the rallies, before your service or service return. During rallies, the strokes should be semi-automated and your brain must not be confused with any thoughts that are not relevant here and now. Only on identifying opportunities and selecting the best option, not on how to do things, or why, or what-happens-if.

Of course, if you are on a very basic level, if your game perception is weak and you haven’t practiced any game systems/schemes, you might have to do some thinking to understand how to at all cope with the return, or to figure out how to gain an advantage in the game.

Do pips-out rubbers always mean defensive play?

Well, not necessarily, some people play a smash game with soft (OUT with short pimples), with great success.

With mid or long pimples, players probably play more defensive. This is because the pimpled rubbers are less spin sensitive and cannot generate the same amount of spin. They are however good at enforcing or manipulating the incoming spin from the attacker. Long-pimpled rubbers are also bad for strong shots.

Should kids play defensive?

If they’re

  • really good at their offensive and all-around game
  • training very hard and often (so they can train both offensive and defensive)
  • very interested in spin and tactics
  • really interested to see if a defensive style would give them a competitive advantage
  • and they have the backup from their coach,

then yes, I’d say they should make a try to play the defensive style. Why not?

Otherwise, my answer is no, as the offensive style is predominant and something you’ll have to learn as a kid. So, perhaps better to focus on that as a kid.

Conclusion about the defensive style of playing table tennis

  • The defensive style is competitive, but not as popular as the offensive style
  • It is not any easier to play the defensive style
  • For teens and young people it is a matter of taste and strategy
  • For older people, it might be a factor for competitive survival
  • Kids could try
  • In fact, everyone should try, just to understand how to identify weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and it will then benefit their offensive and all-around play



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Writing as I learn. Learning as I write.