How to Play Ping Pong (Beginner’s Guide)

If you are looking into learning a lot more about the game of ping pong (also called table tennis), there are a few things you should keep in mind as you get started. If you are coming to this article with ping pong being a relatively new game to you, then you have certainly come to the right place.

Some Tools of the Trade: Looking at Some of the Equipment You Will Need

Like almost every sport, you will first need to get a few pieces of equipment so that you can enjoy the game and learn how to play it properly. It is a real advantage that ping pong is one of the cheapest sports there is, but it can also be really fun to play. There are three basic things to consider before you start your first game of ping pong.

Ping Pong Paddles

Also known as bats or rackets (sometimes, even racquets when played in Britain), these are the tools that you will use to strike the ball. A ping pong paddle is made up of four different components: 

  • The blade: the main body of the paddle, which is made of multiple layers of wood (and sometimes carbon). 
  • Sponge layer: on top of the blade is a thin layer of sponge. As a beginner, try to select a paddle with a thinner layer of sponge because this will give you more control over the ball. 
  • The rubber: on top of the sponge is a layer of rubber which is what actually makes contact with the ball. 
  • The handle: the part of the paddle that you hold.

Ping pong paddles are usually optimized for three different things: control, spin, and speed. As a beginner, you should look for a paddle with a high control rating and lower spin and speed ratings. As you improve and get better at controlling the ball, you can progress to paddles with lower levels of control and start working on generating more speed and spin with your shots.

Ping Pong Balls

Many Ping Pong Balls Closeup Background Box

As in a lot of other sports, you will need balls to play with. Ping pong balls are made of plastic, and they are small and round. The standard regulation size is 40 mm and they usually come in two different colors: orange and white. It helps to know that ping pong balls are also rated in terms of quality by a star system from 1 – 3 stars. One-star balls are used for recreational play, but balls that are used in official tournaments should be of three-star quality.

Most Important Piece of Equipment: the Ping Pong Table

Ping pong tables are one of the more expensive bits of equipment you’ll need, but they are important things to have because the whole game is built around the playing surface. You can spend anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand for the top-of-range competition standard tables.

But, you don’t necessarily need to own your own as bars and clubs with tables can be found almost everywhere! You can also get ping pong conversion tops that sit on top of other regular tables and allow you to get the quality of a real table without taking up as much space.

A Few Other Helpful Accessories 

While none of these are urgent pieces of equipment to have, you might want to look into a few other accessories and table tennis gear. For example, a good pair of shoes can be important. For beginners, most sports or gym shoes will work fine, but, as you progress and play more, you might want to invest in a pair of shoes designed specifically with ping pong players in mind.

You can also think about getting a paddle case to keep your paddles safe and clean when you are not using them. Another more advanced purchase would be a ping pong robot: if you start taking the game more seriously and want to practice even more, you can buy a robot that will throw balls at you and allow you to practice your shots.

player holding red pingpong or table tennis rack in hand

A ping pong player using a shakehand grip.

How to Hold the Paddle

Now it is time to start using all of the new equipment that you’ve gathered together. The first thing to do before you even start playing is to make sure you are holding the paddle correctly. There are two main ways to grip your paddle. These are known as the shakehand grip and the penhold grip. Each grip has its advantages and disadvantages but most experts recommend the shakehand grip as the best one for beginners to use, so we’ll just assume that you’re using that grip for the rest of this article.

Get Comfortable With Some of the Basic Rules of Ping Pong

While it might seem that there are lots of complicated rules in ping pong, you don’t need to know all of them at the beginning. If you don’t feel like reading a long list of rules now, you can catch up on some of the rules after you have been playing the game for a little while. Simply walk up to the playing surface, bounce the ball a few times to get a feel for how it reacts, and then try hitting the ball over the net onto the other side. Simply doing this type of thing a few times will already help you feel a certain level of comfort with the equipment and the actions you can take around the table.

Playing an Actual Game

  • Once you start playing a set of games with another person, it’s called a “match”. Most of the time, matches will consist of a best three out of five games; so you could end up playing any number of games overall. 
  • When two players play a single game, the first person to reach 11 points wins. The player who serves first can be determined in several ways (such as by flipping a coin). 
  • The first player serves the ball twice, and then the second player serves twice, and this continues throughout the game. If both players reach 10 points, it is called a “deuce.” 
  • If you hit your last of two serves and you lose or win the point to make the score 10-10, you will still give the ball to the other player to serve as usual, but he will only serve once rather than twice. 
  • If he wins that next point, even though the score is 11-10, he does not win the overall game yet. 
  • If you win the next point to even the score, it would again be a “deuce”. This continues until one player has gained a two-point lead and ultimately wins the game. 
  • After each game is played, the players often switch sides of the table, but the service always starts on the same side of the playing surface.

Some Popular Types of Serve

The official International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) rules that deal with serving are a little complicated, so we have summarised some of the basic rules that determine legal table tennis serves:

  • To prevent table tennis players from spinning the ball as they toss it into the air, the serve must begin with the ball in an open palm. 
  • To prevent table tennis players from serving quickly or hiding the ball to deceive their opponent, the ball must be thrown into the air at a height of at least 6 inches.
  • To prevent table tennis players from getting very close to the net before serving, they must strike the ball behind the end line of the table.
  • Once making contact, the ball must first bounce on the server’s side of the table, bounce over the net, and finally bounce on the opponent’s side.

A Few Other Helpful Rules of Ping Pong

Here are a few other rules that might come in handy. If someone hits the ball to you and it hits the very edge of the table on your side, (even if it barely hits it and goes straight to the floor) it would be the other person’s point. While it’s almost impossible to return, it really doesn’t happen that often to where it’s a problem. 

Also, if your opponent hits the ball and it hits the net (not on a serve) and it still goes over onto your side, it is their point, even if it does not bounce more than an inch. These kinds of shots are hard to stomach sometimes but they are certainly a big part of the game. Once your reaction time gets good enough, hitting these types of shots on purpose can sometimes be possible. Just be sure that the ball clears the server’s side of the table, otherwise, you’ll lose the point! 

If you hit the ball too hard over the end of the table, and the other player hits the ball anyway, whether intentionally or accidentally, you still lose the point as long as the ball was clearly going out of bounds anyway. Finally, you must let the ball bounce before hitting it. This is one of the many ways that the game of table tennis differs from real tennis. If your opponent hits the ball before it bounces, and the ball was clearly going to hit the table, then they lose the point.

Table tennis player is making a service

Joining a ping pong club is a great way to shorten your learning curve!

Look For a Club of Local Enthusiasts 

One of the best ways to enjoy ping pong is to meet up with people who also enjoy the game, so you could look into joining a local club. Go online to look for the closest club in your area, and see if you can join. If you are concerned about being too old or too young for the club, you might find that there are plenty of people of all ages that play on a regular basis.

Most ping pong clubs usually have a large diversity of people and it can also be a good way to make some new friends. For most people, playing at clubs is one of the best ways to improve. There are lots of members willing to practice with you and give you advice and tips to help you improve.

Some of the more experienced players can see exactly what you’re doing wrong and then you can try to adjust your style in a way that makes your game a whole lot better. Sometimes clubs host tournaments or there are members there who can tell you where the closest tournaments are.

Club tournaments are really fun experiences. You’ll meet people from all around the area, and sometimes from many hours away, who will drive to these tournaments to play. It is also really interesting to see all the individual ways each person plays the game. Some people will have strong serves or deceptive ones, but it is a good idea to develop your own serving style into a powerful weapon that you can use to use advantage.

If you think you’re good enough, you can try entering a few tournaments and see how your skills measure up against others. Once you find someone to practice with it’s important to get the basic skills mastered before moving on to harder things.

Get Hip To the Basic Skills 

Before you can learn how to play at a higher skill level, you need to learn the skills that you can use to further develop your game. Some of the terms that you might hear to describe different types of shots can seem very complicated. Some ideas can be difficult to grasp unless you really get to apply different types of shots. So, for now, it is a good idea to simply start you off with two basic shots – the forehand and the backhand. 

The forehand and backhand are the only two basic skills you’ll use in every game. Every other shot will build off either of these types of shots, and some are more complicated than others. For example, if you are right-handed, a forehand shot refers to when you are hitting the ball on your right-hand side. A backhand shot refers to when you hit it on your left side.

As a beginning player, you will need to be able to hit the most basic types of shots confidently before you attempt any of the more difficult shots like topspin, backspin, or sidespin. If there is a club in your area where you can play table tennis, it is also well worth finding someone who is willing to help you, especially if they also need to practice their own game.

A few informal hours of simply hitting the ping pong ball back and forth with either backhand or forehand shots will really help you improve your skills in a short amount of time. It is a great idea to spend some time on Youtube looking up some instructional videos of all of these basic strokes.

The videos will also teach you more about the official rules of the game. This is a good place to start learning about backhand strokes and forehand shots and how to control the ball. The Olympic Games and tournaments organized by the International Table Tennis Federation can be the most interesting to watch due to their wide range of skills and impressive ball control. These professional players can be incredible role models for you to base your own skills on as you start learning to improve your game.

Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.