Table Tennis Playing Levels - What Level are You?

Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced - What's the Difference?

Photo of Mark Hazinski
The USA's Mark Hazinski is definitely an advanced player!. Photo © 2007 Gerry Chua

In many table tennis communities, it's common to separate ping-pong players into three broad groups - beginners, intermediate players, and advanced players. But what exactly do we mean when we say that Fred is an intermediate player, while Jim is only a beginner? And at what point does an intermediate player become worthy of advanced status?

In this article, I'm going to touch briefly on the ten main attributes that separate these three main groups.

For each of these attributes, think of a sliding scale, with the beginner level at one end and the advanced level at the other, with intermediate status in the middle.

You can then assign a fairly accurate standard to a particular player by deciding where the majority of his attributes lie on the scale.

  • Beginners will have a majority of beginning level attributes, with maybe a couple of intermediate level.
  • Intermediate level players will have mainly intermediate level attributes, with maybe a couple of beginner level attributes (for lower level intermediate players), or a couple of advanced level attributes (for higher level intermediate players).
  • Advanced level players will have mainly advanced level attributes, with maybe an intermediate level attribute or two.

Ten Beginner Level Attributes for Table Tennis

  1. Mistakes - beginners make the most mistakes, especially unforced errors. Their level of consistency is low.
  1. Points - most points are won from an opponent's unforced mistakes, instead of being won by pressuring a mistake from the opponent. Beginners who play safe and try to avoid errors will tend to defeat beginners who attempt to play attacking strokes, due to the amount of mistakes their opponents make.
  1. Strokes - beginners often make poor stroke choices, attempting strokes with a low percentage of success, when better options are available.
  2. Strengths/Weaknesses - beginner players tend to have more weaknesses in their ping-pong game than strengths.
  3. Footwork - new players often move too much or too little. They reach for balls instead of taking a small step, and move too far and get too close to balls that are far away.
  4. Spin - in the beginning level game spin is a magical and frustrating element. Beginners have problems using spin and adapting to an opponent's spin.
  5. Tactics - are limited at best. Most of the player's focus is on himself and successfully playing strokes, rather than on what his opponent is doing. Beginners also have difficulty executing tactics successfully due to lack of consistency in their strokes.
  6. Fitness - the level of play is less dynamic than advanced levels, so fitness plays much less of a role.
  7. Rallies vs Serve/Serve Return - beginners tend to view the rallying strokes as the most important, and prefer to train these strokes over serve and serve return, which are viewed simply as ways of starting the point.
  8. Equipment - interestingly, equipment is one area where beginners are often closer to advanced players than intermediate players. To a beginner, just about all of the blades and rubbers are much faster and spinnier than they are used to, so a beginner player is usually happy to use what other players recommend, instead of obsessing about their equipment.

    Ten Intermediate Level Attributes for Table Tennis

    1. Mistakes - the number of unforced errors is less, but still significant. Intermediate players will also make more mistakes under pressure than advanced players.
    2. Points - the ratio between winning points by forcing mistakes and from an opponent's unforced errors becomes more even. An intermediate player who plays a safe game, taking few risks and making few mistakes, and only attacking easy balls, will rise quickly from beginner status towards the top of the intermediate level players. More aggressive players who take more risks and attack more often will rise less quickly in general, improving in level as their attacking consistency gets better.
    3. Strokes - intermediate players will make better stroke choices, choosing the correct stroke most of the time. Their ball placement is still not so good though.
    1. Strengths/Weaknesses - this is much more even at intermediate level. Most intermediate players will have a couple of strengths and a couple of weak points in their game.
    2. Footwork - improves as the intermediate player learns the importance of balance and recovery in allowing multiple attacks. Footwork is faster and used more often, but the player is not always as good at knowing where he should be moving to in order to best prepare for his next stroke.
    3. Spin - intermediate players have got past the frustrating period, and can now apply and adapt to most spin variations. They will still struggle with unusual serves or players that can use good deception when applying spin.
    4. Tactics - are getting better, as the player needs to concentrate less on his own strokes, and can now spend more time focussing on his opponent. There can be a tendency to try to copy tactics from high level players that the intermediate player does not have the ability to consistently execute. As the player continues to improve, the ability to plan tactics, then adapt his tactics as required during matches also improves.
    5. Fitness - will become more important over the course of a day, if several matches are played, as fatigue builds up. Often the player will be much worse in standard at the end of the day, as his body tires and mental focus slips.
    6. Rallies vs Serve/Serve Return - intermediate players recognize the importance of serve and serve return. They just aren't generally willing to due the necessary training to improve it! Those that do work on their serves clearly stand out from the rest at this level. Most of the intermediate player's time is spent training the flashy rally strokes, such as power loops and smashes. The short game is often neglected.
    7. Equipment - there is a tendency to obsess about equipment at intermediate level. Since training time is often limited due to other commitments, players often look for improvement by trying to find the perfect blade and rubber combination.

    Ten Advanced Level Attributes for Table Tennis

    1. Mistakes - unforced mistakes are much rarer now, due to the level of training performed. The level of consistency on all strokes is high.
    2. Points - most points are now won through forcing mistakes from the opponent. Safe players who rely on their opponent's mistakes will find it difficult to rise through the advanced ranks, and generally learn to force mistakes by spin variation (for backspin defenders), or placement (for blockers). Attacking players who take calculated risks dominate at this level due to the advantages of controlled topspin aggression coupled with modern technology and speed glue.
    1. Strokes - good stroke choices are made the majority of the time, and sometimes the player may have more than one choice at his disposal.
    2. Strengths / Weaknesses - the advanced player will have several strengths. His weaknesses are generally weak only when compared to the rest of his game, and he has usually developed ways to make it difficult for his opponent to exploit his weaknesses.
    3. Footwork - is used to allow the player to play his best strokes as often as possible, while remaining balanced and able to recover for the next stroke. The player also anticipates well and moves to the correct location for the next stroke most of the time.
    4. Spin - is there for the advanced player to manipulate at will, in order to achieve whatever effect he desires at the time.
    5. Tactics - the player will have developed a good tactical game, and can adapt his tactics depending on his opponent and the situation.
    1. Fitness - high levels of fitness are needed to play at optimum levels in each game, and during long tournaments. Not to mention the need to survive the high training workload!
    2. Rallies vs Serve/Serve Return - the advanced player knows all too well the critical importance of serve and serve return, and gives serve and serve return training the time and effort it deserves. Advanced players know that a good short game can shut down an opponent's power game, and work on their short game accordingly.
    1. Equipment - advanced players tend to worry less about their equipment than intermediate players. Good technique and plenty of training far outweigh the small differences between different rubber and blade combinations. While advanced players may try a few different rubbers and blades in the off season, they already have a good idea of what types they like, and stay mainly within that range. Once a decision is made they stick with it during the tournament season.