Table Tennis Motor Learning & Control

On the spectrum of closed versus open skills, table tennis falls distinctly into the middle. This middle ground intimately intertwines anticipation and reaction time. An athlete is both aware of what type of action is needed ahead of time while also having to match their actions with those of their opponent. An ability to select a response rapidly from countless alternatives is only one of the many skills that a table tennis athlete must possess. An advanced level in nearly all of the perceptual motor abilities distinguishes an elite table tennis player from a novice (Raab, M., Masters, R. S. W., & Maxwell, J. P., 2005). The ability to respond to changing conditions such as speed, spin, or trajectory of the ball, is indicative of expertise in table tennis (Suzuki, H., & Yamamoto, Y., 2015). The longer the player is able to match their opponent’s serves, the greater their expertise is presumed to be. Important motor skills in table tennis are movement planning, high attentional demands, and a focused excitement of the motor cortex upon reaction (Broelz, E. K., Wolf, S., & Strehl, U., 2012). As a player continues to gain experience in table tennis, their skill will increase and the strength of working within varying temporal parameters and constraints will grow (Raab, M., et. al, 2005).

The forehand return is a basic table tennis skill. The arm’s initial position is extended while the weight is shifted to the racket arm. This is simultaneous with a weight shift to the opposing leg to prepare a torque of the waist. As the player drives for the ball, the wrist is tilted to receive the the ball and increase the upswing (Rogowski, I., Rouffet, D., Lambalot, F., Brosseau, O., & Hautier, C., 2011). The nervous system underlies all of the movement preparations, execution, and control of returning a forehand serve. The motor control of producing a return stroke is an interceptive skill based on differing variables decided by the opponent’s serve (Coker, C. A., 2004). The difference in returning the serve is dependent on the trajectory of the ball, as well as the ball’s spin and speed. Returning a serve requires changes in the angle of the playing racquet, changes in timing, velocity, and distance parameters (Bankosz, Z., & Winiarski, S. 2016). Vision is central to accurate motor responses when playing table tennis. The speed of the ball must be determined by the rate of retinal image enlargement, known as the tau effect (Coker, C. A., 2004). Visual cues of ball trajectory ready the tactical skill of recognizing what action must be taken. In the case of a high speed serve, return accuracy will be diminished and the ability to respond to the serve will be the main focus of even the most skilled table tennis player (Rodrigues, S. T., Vickers, J. N., & Williams, a M., 2002). In low-velocity serves, the main observations show a greater tracking of the ball as well as intention of ball placement upon contact with the racquet (Rodrigues, S. T., Vickers, J. N., & Williams, a M., 2002). The greater the visual acuity of the ball location, such as when the speed of the ball is low, the more a table tennis player will run a standard motor program and rely on proprioceptive senses in their return. As the ball gains velocity, the ability to react thoughtfully is diminished and the responding table tennis player must rely on pre-set motor programs (Rodrigues, S. T., Vickers, J. N., & Williams, a M., 2002). A competitor who returns a fastball must reach peak hand velocity in the forward swing phase. The player must also be at a greater acceleration rate than one returning a slower serve (Bankosz, Z., & Winiarski, S. 2016). This relative timing increase is important to success in table tennis. A decreased time in racquet acceleration is observed in advanced players over intermediate players (Wolf, S., Brölz, E., Keune, P. M., Wesa, B., Hautzinger, M., Birbaumer, N., & Strehl, U., 2015). The most important moment in the return phase is when the ball and racquet meet (Bankosz, Z., & Winiarski, S., 2016). Adjustments appear to occur during the moment the ball and racquet meet until the moment of follow through (Kojima, T., & Iino, Y., 2011). As the ball comes into contact with the racquet, the table tennis player must adjust their striking velocity to have greater control over their own serve (Bankosz, Z., & Winiarski, S. 2016). This is form of relative force overrides the speed coupling process. In scenarios where tracking the ping pong ball is difficult, such as when the ball has a high speed, the table tennis player will adapt their return according to their frontal eye plane and the program’s parameters will conform to the environmental conditions (Bootsma, R. J., & van Wieringen, P. C. W., 1988). Even when conflicting visual information becomes available, once the table tennis player reacts to the serve then a model-based predictive control system overrides the continual visual guidance (Van Soest, a J. K., Casius, L. J. R., de Kok, W., Krijger, M., Meeder, M., & Beek, P. J., 2010). This demonstrates that as the serve increases in speed, the returner switches from a closed-loop control system to an open-loop control system, and adjustments become gradually more difficult to make during execution. In the instance where speed of reaction cannot be sacrificed, the player adjusts the racquet face angle rather than changing the angle of the arm (Iino, Y., & Kojima, T., 2009). The ability to respond quickly to the unstable conditions of table tennis can be partially attributed to the shorter response times found in table tennis players opposed to non-athletes (Padulo, J., Pizzolato, F., Tosi Rodrigues, S., Migliaccio, G. M., Attene, G., Curcio, R., & Zagatto, A. M., 2016). Athletes develop greater sensory-cognitive skills that are involved in their specific sport than those who are not familiar with the stimulus and reaction type necessary to succeed at table tennis (Nuri, L., Shadmehr, A., Ghotbi, N., & Attarbashi Moghadam, B., 2013). Playing table tennis improves hand-eye reaction time, concentration, and alertness above those who are not involved in the sport (Bhabhor, M. K., Vidja, K., Bhanderi, P., Dodhia, S., Kathrotia, R., & Joshi, V., 2013). This advance in perceptual systems handles the constraints of table tennis to a higher degree than novice players (Jafarzadehpur, E., & Yarigholi, M. R., 2004). When comparing intermediate to advanced level table tennis players, reaction and response time are indistinguishable from one another (Padulo, J., et. al, 2016). However, the ability to respond to an increase in ball speed is greater in the advanced level players, signifying a capability to return the serve and continue to extend the match (Padulo, J., et. al, 2016). On the other hand, as ball speed increases, a novice and intermediate table tennis player loses their accuracy and motor dexterity (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). Reducing the processing time required to appropriately respond to a high speed serve allows the overall reaction speed to increase as an enhanced perception-action coupling can reduce the time to response (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). These motor and sensorial functions in expert table tennis players are developed further than in novice or intermediate players (Jafarzadehpur, E., & Yarigholi, M. R., 2004). The greater the variety of practice the table tennis player has in responding to different serves, the more automatic the ability to react quickly (Suzuki, H., & Yamamoto, Y., 2015). Less de-synchronization in brain activity in the left hemisphere of the brain and more coherent brain activity in the right hemisphere of the brain can be attributed to less interference from irrelevant information and faster reactions (Wolf, et. al, 2015). This state of flow and brain activity is theorized as a reliable predictor of world rank amongst table tennis players. Increased activation of the fronto-parietal attention network decreases performance in table tennis player (Broelz, et. al, 2012). The increased attentional demand signifies a lack of fluidity in motor skills and execution, or that the player is concentrating because their attentional demand is high when responding to the serve. According to Fitts and Posner’s three stage model, this greater arousal would be linked to more thinking, rather than a state of flow ( Coker, C. A., 2004). It’s clear that attentional focus makes a significant difference in skill level but attention alone is not the difference in the ability to return the serve. Under high temporal constraints, the novice table tennis competitor loses motor dexterity more than the elite table tennis player (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). This further implies that the motor capabilities of the novice player hasn’t been ingrained enough to remain effortless. Differences in skill levels between amateur and expert table tennis players have been linked to a reliance on visuo-spatial processes before motor execution in expert table tennis players, while amateurs rely on verbal-analytical processes (Broelz, et. al, 2012). As a player transitions from novice to expert, it appears that less reliance on thinking occurs, and more external focus is achieved.

Limitations to the visual reaction time are inherently present in all players (McLeod, P. (1987). As the ball speed increases, it is nearly impossible to wait to react to the serve of an opponent. Therefore, a player must anticipate the serve to come. An advanced motor readiness accompanies elite table tennis players who are responding to visual cues for when to anticipate the oncoming serve (Hung, T.-M., Spalding, T. W., Santa Maria, D. L., & Hatfield, B. D., 2004). In anticipation of a serve, advanced table tennis players increase reactivity time by preparing their motor response for a serve of high probability, while devoting their visual attention to serve types of lower probability (Hung, et. al, 2004). Forward models allow precise actions when movements are too fast to rely on sensory feedback such as proprioception or vision from the stimulus of a serve (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). This predictive process allows for the outcome of the movement to be assessed before the movement is accomplished. Mirror neurons allow for the prediction of an opponent’s actions before execution (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). This predictive relationship between one’s own movement and the opponent’s behavior allows motor execution without the use of large sensory feedback, and is characteristic of recognition schemas (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). These recognition schemas are most developed in seasoned players, and it emphasizes that increased practice and experience allows for better situational recognition and prediction (Coker, C. A., 2004). As is the case with many sports where a ball travels at a high velocity, the perception-action coupling may lead to a coincidental correct guess in ball location after the serve (Ak, E., & Koçak, S., 2010). This readiness to commit to a prediction increases the reaction time to a serve. An effective organization of the motor systems involved becomes an integral part of successfully returning the serve from an elite table tennis player (McLeod, P. (1987). It must be concluded that not only does the visual reaction time have to be enhanced to its maximal capability, but also the corresponding motor system must be organized to be reflexive as well (McLeod, P., 1987). Perception-action coupling must be ingrained to the degree that immediate response is capable and practice must prepare the player for the appropriate responses. Anticipation is a powerful tool for any sport where an object travels quickly, and it emphasizes the need for predicting the correct serves before reacting. Utilizing recall schemas helps make more accurate predictions about an opponent’s serve (Coker, C. A., 2004). Preparation for matches should include both tactical and technical training that involves unpredictable conditions (Suzuki, H., & Yamamoto, Y., 2015). Serves that are periodic movements and have a constant ball trajectory are poor indicators of skill level, and are unrealistic to the type of challenges faced during a match (Raab, M., et. al, 2005). Anticipation is a demanding skill that requires practice to develop accuracy, and table tennis players may benefit the most from anticipation due to the close proximity to the opponent, and the high speed of the serve. Of all of the racquet sports, table tennis players are the most accurate at coincidental anticipation which leads to accurate predictions (Ak, E., & Koçak, S., 2010).

During a ping pong match, the server is at an enormous advantage. The array of serves available to the server allows them to reduce anticipation and delay the response time of their opponent. The arousal level of the table tennis player is dependent on many variables. These include; the perceived confidence of their opponent, the number of serves or returns the player has at their disposal, their perception of luck, and the trend of winning or losing points (Seve, C., Ria, L., Poizat, G., Saury, J., & Durand, M., 2007). Generally, an increase in concentration, motivation, adaptive behavior, and confidence accompanies a positive trend during a ping pong match. A negative trend in the match can be characterized by playing poorly or losing points. These characteristics can result in a decrease in the player’s concentration, motivation, confidence, and contribute to the onset of maladaptive behaviors (Martinent, G., & Ferrand, C., 2009). Competitors report lower confidence in their ability to defeat their opponent under certain conditions (Greenlees, I., Bradley, A., Holder, T., & Thelwell, R., 2005). These conditions include an opponent wearing table tennis specific clothing and an opponent who is displaying positive and confident body language. Barriers to a healthy focus on the competition include focusing on the competition outcome, pre-occupation with body mechanics and movements, and dwelling on earlier mistakes (Faber, I. R., Nijhuis-Van Der Sanden, M. W. G., Elferink-Gemser, M. T., & Oosterveld, F. G. J., 2014). The majority of distractions during competition revolve around an inability to understand the coach’s instructions or perform the task. Increased anxiety decreases peripheral vision and increases the susceptibility to irrelevant distractions (Janelle, C.M., Singer, R.N., & Williams, A.M., 1999). During the forehand drive in table tennis, reduced vision causes a detraction in response time (Bootsma, et. al, 1988). In turn, attention, arousal, reaction time, and anxiety all affect the mental state of a table tennis player and it can be concluded that the psychological state of the table tennis player has a large affect on the performance of the athlete. Table tennis players who feel uncertain about their opponent’s serve display a longer movement preparation phase (Ripoll, H., 1989). In the case of elite table tennis plays, there isn’t time for delayed reactions. Therefore, the less amount of constraints in the form of directions or rules that must be considered, the less anxiety, the more optimal the arousal, and the faster the response time (Koedijker, J. M., Oudejans, R. R. D., & Beek, P. J., 2007).

In summary, several motor skills have been distinguished as important in identifying talent in table tennis players. Two factors are especially important; ball control and gross motor function (Faber, I. R., 2014). When evaluating talent, perceptuo-motor skills, specifically hand-eye coordination, have also been included as a predictive measurement of skill level (Faber, I. R., 2014). However, perceptuo-motor decisions haven’t shown a significant benefit over cognitive decisions (Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Warren, P. A., & Rushton, S. K., 2014). It appears that cognitive decision making is valid as long as perceptuo-motor skills are advanced, and as long as the return player has time to think. In the case of novices, a trend towards a lack of hand-eye coordination, and an inability to return faster serves is present, indicating a lack of perceptuo-motor skills and an over-reliance on cognitive, and analytical decision making (Broelz, et. al, 2012). The sequence of actions is an invariant feature that will accompany any serve or return by a table tennis player, although modifications are made depending on the ability to adjust (Coker, C. A., 2004). The relative timing involved in the task is dependent on the intention of the returner, and the velocity at which the serve approaches the returner (Kojima, T., & Iino, Y., 2011). As the rate of ball velocity increases, a returner will change the relative force of the racquet to control the return of the ball (Bankosz, Z., & Winiarski, S. 2016). The speed at which the player must react to a serve is based on the ball’s velocity, and the rate of movement of the returner’s hand increases as the ball’s rate of velocity increases. Reaction speed reliant on vision plays an integral role in the ability to return a serve, and is enhanced in advanced players (Jafarzadehpur, E., & Yarigholi, M. R., 2004). Some evidence stands for the use of auditory senses in predicting the location of the ball during a serve (Gygi, B., Giordano, B. L., Shafiro, V., Kharkhurin, A., & Zhang, P. X., 2015). Experienced table tennis players have the ability to recognize external cues and ready their motor skills with anticipation in order to improve reaction speed (Hung, et. al, 2004). Increased activity in the parietal and frontal cortex are linked to mirror neuron networks. These areas are most engaged during the anticipation of a serve (Wright, M. J., & Jackson, R. C., 2007). Mirror neurons allow the returner to predict their opponent’s serve, and a well-organized motor system allows synchronicity between perception and action (Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W., 2009). When the player reacts to an opponent, different motor systems will engage depending on the characteristics of the serve (Rodrigues, S. T., et. al, 2002). If the serve requires a reduced response time, then the movement relies more on an open-loop system (Coker, C. A., 2004). This inability of the returner to make substantial adjustments gives the advantage to the server. The most important time during a return occurs when the racquet and the ping pong ball meet (Kojima, T., & Iino, Y., 2011). This is when the majority of the adjustments in racquet velocity and angle occur. Shoulder internal rotation torque is larger in advanced players than in intermediate players and the asymmetry of table tennis players leads to greater trunk torque (Kojima, T., & Iino, Y. (2011). Arousal levels are related to performance, and the optimal level of arousal is contextual (Coker, C. A., 2004). Anxiety, which diminishes concentration and can fluctuate arousal negatively impacts performance (Ripoll, H., 1989). Reducing the anxiety of table tennis players and achieving the optimal arousal for a match is one of the main goals of both players and coaches (Koedijker, J. M., et. al, 2007).

 

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