“I have slow reflexes!” I’ve heard that so many times in my coaching career and in every case, the player was wrong. Why? Because they don’t understand what gives a person fast reflexes, and how to develop them.
Nerve impulses from the brain to the muscles travel at about the same speed for everyone. It’s more complicated than that, and there are differences, but these differences are minimal compared to the aspects of those reflexes that you can develop. And there are two major things you can do to develop fast reflexes in table tennis. The first is obvious, the second not so obvious.
First, the more you play, the more you develop these reflexes as just that–a reflex. When a beginner plays, he has to almost consciously react to each shot, and so he’s slow in reacting. Advanced players do so subconsciously, as they have developed fast reflexes to any given situation. This just comes from training. (It’s also somewhat sport-specific. There are studies that show that athletes with fast reflexes in their sport have only average reflexes when tested in other sports that they have not trained in extensively.)
Second, and here’s the one that’s less obvious and often less developed, you can improve your reflexes by learning to react sooner—and the key word is learning. How? By making a habit of studying opponents, both in practice and games, so that you are aware at what point in their stroke you can see where their shot is going. By doing so, it becomes a reflexive and subconscious habit. And so while many don’t even begin to react until they see the ball coming off the opponent’s racket, others are reacting well before contact since you don’t need to wait until the ball hits the racket to see where the ball is going. Every player is different, so you have to make adjustments—some advanced players, for example, can misdirect an opponent by faking one way and changing direction at the last second. But even with those players you can see when they are actually committed to a direction, and soon you’ll be reacting to their shot before they actually hit it. The reality is most players telegraph the direction of their shot by the time they start their forward swing, well before contact. (One key thing to watch is their shoulders, which often give direction away early.)
There are other things that also help you “speed up” your reflexes. If you put the ball deep on the table, you have more time to react. If, immediately after hitting your shot, you look up and watch your opponent, you can see what he’s doing and so react more quickly. If you stay balanced and in a good ready position, you can move more quickly.
The result of the above, and in particular the second method? Suddenly you are reacting much earlier to opponent’s shots, and suddenly those hard drives and even smashes are not so hard to react to. And that’s when you realize that those players with great reflexes only have them because they have trained reflexes. So can you.