As one of the biggest sports in the world (thanks to the popularity of table tennis in China,) table tennis has entered the public consciousness like never before, often seeing record viewings during the Olympics!
However, even casual viewers of table tennis will notice the odd phenomenon of players staring at the ball before their service. So why do table tennis players stare at the ball before a service?
While there is no single, objective reason why some table tennis players choose to stare at the ball before their service (there are no rules saying your service needs to begin with the player looking at the ball for any length of time), some leading theories suggest it’s to help certain players focus.
Although staring at the ball is an effective method some players use to focus and use as a method of a “pre-service ritual,” there are rules related to service in table tennis that have led to this specific ritual being popular among many players. These will be discussed in greater detail below:
How Does Staring At A Ping Pong Ball Help Players Focus?
While there’s no scientific evidence to prove that simply staring at a ping pong ball will make you a better table tennis player, there is a lot of psychological research and evidence to suggest that pre-match rituals or movements before playing sport can help players focus.
Regardless of which sport you play or watch, there are almost certainly some players that choose to engage in pre-match rituals to help them stay focused, energized, and confident.
Although some rituals take the form of external forces like wearing a particular piece of clothing, listening to a specific type of music, or eating a particular type of food; many rituals involve smaller, consistent movements while playing a sport, like bouncing a ball a set number of times before a serve in tennis.
Regardless of the type of ritual being performed and the fact that there is no scientific evidence to prove these rituals actually affect the outcome of a game (rituals don’t magically change the rules of gravity after all!), many researchers believe neutral rituals are important as they substitute negative actions or thoughts that may exist in place of the rituals.
For example, while having your trainer tap you three times on the shoulders before a boxing match may not improve your speed, agility, or resilience, it may replace a boxer’s tendency to anxiously pace a ring before the bell signals the start of the bout.
Consequently, because sport is often a high-stakes affair that gets the blood pumping and the heart racing (especially during individual sports and in a crowded arena!), it is vital for players to ground themselves in reality, center themselves, and focus on the task at hand.
Taking a moment to yourself after a heated table tennis volleyball also allows players a moment to take a break. Not only does a break help players catch their breath, but it allows them to take a moment of reflection, ignore the positives/negatives of the previous game, and instead look to visualize the desired result for the next game, action, or set piece.
In conclusion, because table tennis can be a stressful affair that requires maximum focus and concentration to remain competitive at the highest level (whereby becoming angry or frustrated cannot lead to a net positive, such as executing a powerful tackle in football), players need to capitalize on any advantage they can to remain mentally calm.
Why Is Staring At The Ball The Most Common Ping Pong Ritual?
Now that we know the power of sports rituals, despite their superstitious nature, we need to understand why so many table tennis players choose to stare at the ping pong ball rather than engage in other sports rituals.
The first, and most obvious reason, is that staring at the ping pong ball helps players to turn their focus on the primary object in table tennis rather than thinking about external factors that are inconsequential to the game (such as a raucous crowd or aching muscles.)
Staring at the ball then helps players keep track of the ball from the moment of service until the end of the next rally. Even professional table tennis players do this, especially those that choose to throw their balls high in the air for their service.
Secondly, the rules of table tennis state that a player must begin their service from behind the white line and throw the ball above the height of the table with an open palm.
These rules mean that players like to begin their service from a low position, often including a wide, crouched stance. In doing so, it is inevitable that most players will stand at eye level with their open palms and the ping pong ball, thus making it a comfortable stance and an ideal moment to help center oneself.
Finally, the rules and etiquette of table tennis mean that players are often limited in the actions they can perform before and during a game of table tennis.
Therefore, while boxers may use entrance music to help them focus or football players may have a chant/mantra before each reset, table tennis players are required to act in a manner that does not inhibit their opposition or act in defiance of the respectful culture of table tennis.
Consequently, staring at the ping pong ball is a non-intrusive and sanctioned method of grounding oneself and focusing before service, hence its usage among many players across all divisions.
In conclusion, staring at a ping pong ball before committing to a service is an acceptable method for players to focus their attention on the game while not performing any invasive/disruptive sports rituals that are against the rules or culture of the sport.