August 10, 2015 - You Can Be Light on Your Feet

There's a myth that to be light on your feet, you have to be in great shape. It's true that being in great shape will allow you to move faster than one who is not. But this is not the same thing as being light on your feet, which is about how quickly you start to move, not how fast you move once you get going. 

How quickly you start to move - i.e. how light you are on your feet - is mostly a technique thing. If you watch the top players or anyone who seems to move quickly, watch how they take a slight hop as the opponent is making his shot. It is this slight bounce that prepares a player to move almost instantly. Those who simply stand there, waiting to see if and where they have to move, lose the bounce that comes from this, and so they are very slow to start to move. 

There are players a hundred pounds overweight or in their seventies who are light on their feet, and players in tiptop physical condition who are not. This doesn't mean they move fast; it means they get started quickly, and so while they may not cover a lot of ground, they often seem to always be in position - because they are never flat-footed and stuck in place. It means they react to shots very quickly because they are always ready to move. 

Are you light on your feet? There's a simple test. When you are caught off guard, such as against a net or edge ball, do you step to the ball, or do you just reach for it? If the latter, you are flat-footed. 

To see this little bounce that players do between shots, you can watch just about any video of top players, and focus on one player. You'll see this slight bounce as the opponent is hitting the ball. Few people see this because 1) it happens too fast, and 2) when watching a match, most viewers are watching whoever is hitting the ball rather than the one who is not. Ideally, see it in slow motion. Here's video of Zhang Jike doing multiball. Watch seconds 45-50, and you can see (in the slow motion) the very obvious bounce he does between shots.

Or just watch video of just about any other high-level match, such as the video highlights (4:50) of the Men's Singles Final at the 2015 World Championships. Focus on either player (Ma Long in Black, Fang Bo in orange), and watch their knees. For example, in the very first point, see how Ma Long returns the serve, and then makes two great forehand loops. But it is the slight hop he takes before moving to each of these shots that allows him to get the quick start that positions him for these shots. 

Another thing that's important is the foot positioning. To be light on your feet, use a relatively wide stance in a slight crouch, knees pointed slightly outward, with weight on the inside balls of the feet. 

The thing to emphasize is that you can be overweight, old, and have bad knees, and you can still take this slight bounce - it's just a matter of making it a habit. How do you make it a habit? Like anything else - practice. But the nice thing is that this is one of those few things you can practice doing just as well in a match as in a drill, so there's no excuse for not practicing it. Just do it. 


Larry, I am seeing something a little different than you are describing when I watch the videos. About half the time the hop just before the opponent hits winds up being the only movement they make. It seems they are using great anticipation to make a small early movement then if necessary adjusting with a 2nd movement. It seems to me that this hop would not work if you anticipate in the wrong direction or just hop in place. So without the ability to read my opponents general direction before he hits can I really apply this technique? I have very poor anticipation so this is an important point for me. One thing I did notice was a small hop as part of their recovery which got them back up on their toes. Sometimes this was done almost in place and sometimes when they were wide it also included a little move to the middle. Mark

In reply to by mjamja

Hi Mark,

The small hop you note in your second paragraph is what I'm referring to - it puts their legs and knees in the flexed position needed to move to the next ball. It allows them to essentially bounce right into the next move, which is the "bounce" that moves them into position. If the player starts from a stationary position then they'd be much slower in moving to the next shot. Often players go directly from this first bounce to moving to the next shot, but that depends on how fast the rally is. So sometimes you'll see one bounce, other times you'll see a bounce that gets them into a flexed position so they can "bounce" directly to the next shot. (I've hesitated to write about this bouncing as it's probably the hardest thing to describe in words, which is why video is needed.)

In reply to by ilia

Good point about the balls of the feet. In fact, it's so important I just added a new paragraph to the article:

Another thing that's important is the foot positioning. To be light on your feet, use a relatively wide stance in a slight crouch, knees pointed slightly outward, with weight on the inside balls of the feet.

In reply to by Larry Hodges


I'm glad that I helped to improve the article :) But what do you think about the video that mentioned? Honestly, before I found it quite confusing and I couldn't get the point the coach was trying to explain. But after reading your post I think that I got it, I just want to know whether I got it right.

In reply to by ilia

I believe he was talking about taking short steps, which is a related but different topic. I was referring to the little bounce between shots that most top players use to allow almost instant movement on the next shot. In the video where they demonstrate the footwork (starting about 2:25) they demonstrate both - you can clearly see the little hop they take between shots, and before the short steps taken to get to the ball. I should have commented on that earlier. (I should have commented on that earlier - I didn't watch it all the way through at the time after an eight-hour coaching session....)