By Larry Hodges
Table tennis is often advertised as a sport that all can play, where size makes no difference. However, it's not necessarily true. While you don't have to be big to win (1971 World Champion Stellan Bengtsson: 5'2"), or small (1990 U.S. Champion: Jim Butler, 6'5"), being big or small does make a difference tactically and in choosing a playing style. It's how you use what you have that counts.
Big players have a big advantage in power. This is both because of a longer swing and larger muscles. However, small but muscular players like John Onifade (1990 U.S. Nationals Finalist) have great power.
Big players also have an advantage in reach. Players like Jim Butler know how to take advantage of their size in covering the corners and short balls, which give shorter players great difficulty. However, the extra reach brings out a weakness: the center weakness. The farther apart the forehand and backhand strokes are (with the elbow marking the midpoint), the larger the area is that a player has to decide whether to use a forehand or a backhand, and the more the player has to move to cover for it. (When an aggressive shot goes to the middle, a good rule of thumb is to use the backhand if close to the table, the forehand if away from the table.) Smaller players have a much smaller middle weakness. Seemiller-style players and most penholders have little center weakness.
The advantage of reach for a large player can backfire. Smaller players have no choice but to move, and so develop good footwork. Larger players aren't forced to move as often, and so they often do not develop good footwork.
Smaller players have an advantage in foot quickness. The smaller a player's mass, and the closer to the ground it is, the quicker the start. Larger players can compensate somewhat by bending their knees to lower their center of gravity. However, the larger muscles of a larger player do not fully compensate for their size (see next paragraph), although training can. But a smaller player who trains equally will usually be quicker.
The reason the larger muscles of a larger player don't quite compensate for their extra mass is that mass increases to the cube, while muscle strength goes up to the square. In other words, if you double in height without changing proportions, you become four times as strong, but your mass goes up eight times – so your relative strength is actually half what it was before. That's why insects and birds have such thin legs, while elephants and humans have relative tree-trunks for legs.
A smaller player also has an advantage in hand/arm quickness, both because the arm weighs less and because a shorter limb is easier to move quickly than a longer one, due to leverage.
Size is not the only factor in quickness. Constant practice of a specific motion increases quickness as the nervous system learns to react faster and faster. It's called neuromuscular adaptation, and is why an advanced player reacts to a shot faster than a beginner. The type of muscle also make a difference – "fast-twitch" muscles move quicker than "slow-twitch" muscles, which are primarily for stamina. Everybody is born with a certain percentage of each, but training can change the composition to an extent. Great sprinters have mostly fast-twitch muscles, while distance runners have slow-twitch.
A smaller player also has a slight advantage in reflexes. Nerve impulses travel from the brain to the muscles at about 300 feet per second (205 mph), and so a smaller player reacts slightly faster. If the distance from the brain to the wrist on two players differs by one foot, the smaller player will be able to change his racket angle about 1/300 sec. faster than the larger player. A 100 mph smash travels about six inches in that time--and table tennis is a game of inches.
An extremely tall player has a disadvantage in that the table is only 30 inches high. To compensate, a tall player must learn to bend the knees extensively, which can be hard on them. However, the tall player has an advantage in hitting lobs, which shorter players may have great difficulty with. A taller player also has an advantage when trying powerful backhand drives and loops, where the body gets in the way. A longer arm provides the needed extra backswing.
None of the above should be taken as gospel when choosing a playing style. In last year's U.S. Nationals, the finals pitted Jim Butler versus John Onifade in a five-game battle won by Butler. The 6'5" Butler favors a relatively close-to-the-table game that requires great reflexes, while the 5'6" Onifade plays a power-looping away-from-the-table game. Butler, despite his size, is very quick (neuromuscular adaptation), and his long arms enable him to both cover the table well and take a long backswing to produce his great backhand smash. Onifade may be short, but he's extremely muscular--and may have the quickest feet among U.S. players, giving him both the quickness of a smaller player and the power of a larger player. In short, one must take everything into account when choosing a playing style.