This is an excerpt from Table Tennis: Steps to Success by Richard McAfee.
Using the Five-Ball Training System
In previous steps, you learned the basic strokes of the game, including serves and serve returns, as well as how to move. In this step, all you have learned will be combined as you learn how to play and win actual points.
Although it is important to practice each stroke individually to learn the technique and establish ball control, all points are played in a set sequence of strokes. For example, you start every point by either serving or returning the serve. You may have a strong forehand topspin, but you must combine it with a good serve or serve return to be effective.
Research has shown that 80 percent of all points in table tennis end by the fifth stroke. Even if the point continues past the fifth stroke, one player usually is in a winning position at the fifth stroke. The goal of this step is to move you from executing one stroke at a time to planning out whole points. Until now, drills have been relatively simple, focusing on one stroke at a time. As you gain control of your strokes, you should practice them in the sequence in which they will occur during a point. These sequences, or patterns, can be developed by using the five-ball training system. This is the most common form of practice used by intermediate and advanced players.
To understand how this five-stroke pattern works, let's take a closer look at how the first five balls of every point can form patterns of play.
First Five Strokes of Every Point
First ball: Serve
Second ball: Serve return
Third ball: First attack for server
Fourth ball: First defensive stroke or counterattack for receiver
Fifth ball: Second attack for server
As you can see, the server controls the first, third, and fifth balls. The receiver controls the second and fourth balls. Both the server and the receiver try to use each touch of the ball to set up their next stroke. Both have the goal to get their strongest strokes into the game to win the point as soon as possible. To practice and learn these patterns of play, my students use a method I call the five-ball training system.
Understanding the Five-Ball Training System
For this type of practice, two players work together. One player, the attacker, does each drill. The other player, the feeder, feeds balls to the attacker in a set pattern. Each drill focuses on one of the first five strokes listed earlier. All strokes leading up to the one being focused on are predetermined so that the ball goes to the same location every time. After executing the featured stroke, the attacker tries to win the point and can play that stroke anywhere on the table. If the feeder can return the ball, the two play out the point. The same pattern is repeated, usually for five to seven minutes of practice. At this time, the two players switch roles and the feeder becomes the attacker.
The goal of this type of practice is to link strokes so that they happen automatically during a point. This allows players to create their own favorite patterns of play based on their strongest shots. The patterns you learn eventually will become the basis for the development of your own style of play.
Many possible patterns can be created within the first five strokes of each point, far too many to list. However, a few patterns that occur often for most players should be part of everyone's practice. As you gain experience with this type of practice, you will develop your own personal favorites.
The attacker is able to complete less than 75 percent of the strokes in the drill.
The feeder needs to provide easier returns with less speed or spin.
The attacker wins less than 50 percent of the points.
The attacker should focus on the placement of the main stroke. The target areas are the deep corners, cutting the side line of the table when possible, and deep into the opponent's playing elbow.