Don’t Skip the Warm Up (Unless You’re Trying to Lose)

Table Tennis Warm Up

How important is it to warm up before playing table tennis? When I was training as a kid, as a member of group training sessions at Crusaders TTC, we would usually always do a warm up before getting onto the tables. We’d take it in turns to lead the warm up.

This continued at Grantham Academy. Alex Perry (the coach) would always pick one of the players to lead the off-the-table warm up before we started training. We’d never skip the warm up. But when I left Grantham, and started organising my own practice (often on a one-to-one basis with friends) I got out of the habit of warming up. This was a big mistake.

It was mainly due to laziness. Warming up isn’t much fun and can feel like quite a chore when you aren’t in the mood. If you don’t have a coach running the session, telling you to warm up, it can be very tempting to just jump straight onto the table without doing any sort of physical, pulse-raising warm up.

I think at the time (around 2009/10) I told myself that warming up, at least in the traditional sense, was largely a waste of time. I was studying Sport Science at university and had read articles (like this one in New Scientist) that proved that static stretching before you exercise, in an attempt to prevent injuries, was pointless. It was then easy to move from, “all the static stretching is pointless” to “let’s not bother bother warming up at all”.

I was also learning a lot about the importance of specificity in training. The traditional ‘pulse raiser’, of jogging around the hall doing high knees and heel flicks, seemed pretty pointless to me. It would make much more sense to replicate the kind of movements we actually make when playing table tennis. These are largely lateral, with lots of changes of direction.

This is all good in theory. Static stretching is a waste of time (and may even decrease explosive performance) and the pulse raiser should be more specific. The problem was; I didn’t practice what I preached. Sure, I would tell you your traditional warm up was useless (and why), and I could tell you what you should be doing instead, but I didn’t do any of it.

I just stopped warming up.

I’ve played table tennis on and off for the next five years and hardly ever got round to doing a proper warm up. Whether I was in practice or competition I would knock up but not warm up.

I’m a bad coach

When I was coaching full-time I would often let the kids get away with not doing a warm up. It seemed silly for me to enforce it when I didn’t fully believe in it myself. This was clearly a mistake on my part.

I remember planning training sessions as part of my coaching qualifications and thinking that warm ups and cool downs where just a box ticking activity. Something you have to do as part of your session. They make it appear like you know what you’re doing. Or if you’re a really bad coach, they are a good way of killing some time. The more time the kids spend warming up and cooling down the less actual coaching you have to do. I’ve definitely seen this before in some coaches sessions.

This meant that none of my players took warming up very seriously. I also transferred this bad habit to Sam, by never insisting that he did a proper warm up before we started playing. This may well have lead to some of the injuries he sustained during the year and it certainly meant that he ended up going onto the table cold, in match situations, way too often.

Then it all changed

In January I started going along to a local junior training session on Wednesday evenings as a sparring partner. This was the first time I’ve been in a proper club training session in a number of years. As with most training sessions it started with a warm up. Some of the other adults chose not to join in but for whatever reason I decided if I was going to be a part of the session, and set a good example for the kids, I should join in as well.

After the warm up I felt great.

We went onto the table to start knocking up and I could really hit the ground running. I’ve got used to feeling slow, cold and rubbish when I first start playing (due to never warming up) but in this session I felt good straight away. That 5-10 minute warm up had made such a big difference to how I was hitting the ball.

I quite like to have a warm hand before I start playing. Maybe I’m mental but I feel like I play a lot better if my right hand is warm. It helps me grip the bat, which in turn helps me play better shots. In the past I had resorted to breathing on it lots before I starting playing. That would kind of warm it up without me having to actually do a warm up or get the rest of my body moving. It sounds ridiculous now that I type it out, but I’ve been doing that for years! I should have just done a proper warm up.

Warming up before a match

Despite this epiphany I was still forgetting to warm up before my competitive matches. In January I started playing again in the Central London league and was having a match most weeks. I wouldn’t warm up when I arrived at the venue, or before my matches, and my performance was suffering because of it. Although I didn’t realise it.

I wrote a post last week about how I often start a game playing scared, not really going for any of my shots, and then as my opponent gets stronger and stronger it becomes increasingly difficult for me to win the match.

I’ve been playing this way for the last six or seven weeks and it’s infuriating. I now think I understand the cause of the problem a little better; I never warm up before these matches. That means I go onto the table cold. I know in my heart that I’m not warmed up and I therefore don’t feel particularly confident in going for my attacking shots.

It wasn’t until this week that I finally worked it out. I went into a match, against a good player (Noor Owadally) who is ranked slightly above me in the England rankings (he’s #171 and I’m #212). It was match that I really wanted to win and I decided that I was going to follow my own advice and go for my best shots from the start, even if I missed a few. I was happy to lose a battle if it meant winning the war.

It was a disaster.

At the start of the first game I went for a couple of backhand loops in succession. Both missed, wildly. Like they almost hit the back wall of the room before bouncing on the floor. They felt horrible, completely wrong. And I kind of knew it was going to happen. There is something in your head that knows if you are ready to play a big shot and get it on or not. Fighting against that clearly wasn’t going to help.

This kind of thing has happened to me in the past. I’ve put it down to nerves or not being sharp because I haven’t played much recently. I now believe that my lack of warm up is the main cause of this kind of behaviour.

I go into a match cold. That means I really don’t get much out of the two minute knock up and as the game begins I still feel like I can’t hit a ball. So I can either choose to play scared (what I usually do) or I can just ‘go for it’, knowing that it probably isn’t going to go very well. After the two minute knock up with Noor I hadn’t hit a single loop I felt happy with. That’s not the best way to start a match!

Why do we skip the warm up?

You’d be a fool to skip the warm up. I know that and so do you probably, yet we still do it over-and-over. Why?

I think a lot of it comes down to not wanting to look silly. About a month ago I was playing a local league match and when it was time for me to play one of my matches my opponent jumped up and started skipping and sidestepping around the small room. I gave him a few funny looks. This isn’t what people do at local league matches. We don’t take it that seriously. “It’s not the National Championships for a few weeks yet, buddy”, I sarcastically thought to myself as I stood at the table (cold) waiting for him to get on with it.

What a fool!

I won that match, but he went into it warm and ready to play while it probably took me the whole of the first set just to get myself warmed up.

I’m not going to make that mistake again. I play better when I warm up before my matches. Fact. I normally play pretty well in the training matches towards the end of the session on a Wednesday evening. No wonder! I’ve been warming up for 90 minutes before I start those matches. Playing a match after sitting around for an hour is a completely different ball game.

From now on I will be doing a proper warm up before every single table tennis match I play, and I suggest you do the same. Don’t be a fool. Don’t skip the warm up (unless you’re trying to lose).