18 Jan 2017

Winner of the Men’s Singles event at the 2015 United States Open; Jinxin Wang is one of the deep thinkers about table tennis.

The sport, sometimes compared to a boxing match is, in singles events, a fight between two people without a glove being laid on an opponent.

by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor

Now Jinxin Wang provides another analogy; he compares table tennis with war

Applying Sun Tzu’s Art of War to table tennis

by Jinxin Wang


The Art of War is the world’s earliest military work and it has the reputation of being “the world’s first and top military book.”

Translated into many languages, it has had a significant influence on the development and evolution of military thinking worldwide. The Art of War, written in the ancient spring and autumn period of Chinese history, is a classic military work that explores the ideas and laws of military realm.

Today, the influence of Sun Tzu’s Art of War has extended beyond the military to outside fields, such as economics, politics, competitive sports, diplomacy, social and daily life. As an important competitive sport, table tennis and military war strategy have numerous things in common.

Table tennis tactical strategy refers to preparations before the match and during the match. On the court, athletes and coaches plan and adjust their targeted strategies accordingly to the opponent, athletes’ performance and match situation.

The tactics of table tennis and The Art of War are similar in a way that both types of tactical strategies share similar characteristics: objectivity, competitiveness, flexibility, complexity and concealment. The strategic tactics covered in The Art of War play a very important role for the tactics in the competitive sport of table tennis.

Therefore, we should learn from it and use it for reference. We will examine The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and its military strategy thinking will be the object of analysis. In addition, this paper mainly covers the concept and characteristics of tactical strategy in the application on the competitive sport of table tennis and how to analyze using tactical thinking in table tennis.

Key Words: The Art of War by Sun Tzu; Strategy; Table Tennis; “Both direct and indirect methods to secure victory”; “Conventional” and “Unconventional” methods

1.  “Direct and Indirect” Methodology
“In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed to secure victory.” “Indirect tactics, applied efficiently are as inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams”, the Art of War’s Military Potential Articles. These are the core ideas of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu personally believes that “in battle, there are not more than two methods of attack—the direct and the indirect.”

The so-called “indirect” refers to the use of special methods in military war, the special combat methods to battle the enemy according to the specific changes in circumstances. These “indirect methods” are considered unordinary. The “direct” refers to the regular military war in accordance with the general situation, exchanging battle using conventional methods of warfare. In other words, directly attacking and defending is said to be “direct,” or “conventional.”

Likewise, infiltrating or secretly attacking from the flanks is called “indirect.” It is worth mentioning that people often tend to understand the meaning of “Conventional and Unconventional ways to secure victory” with a one-sided interpretation.

They want to blindly achieve a “surprise,” yet ignore the importance of the “direct approach” of military forces. Not only does this misunderstand the core principle of the “direct and indirect methods to secure victory” strategy in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but also it portrays the opposite meaning. This principle of “Direct and Indirect methods to

secure victory” exemplifies the profound connotation of “direct” and “indirect” complementing each other. The “use of direct methods to attack and use of indirect methods to secure victory” thinking is commonly authenticated, from which we can discover that everything will depart from reality and must always fully understand the relationship between “direct” and “indirect”; “Indirect” methods cannot go without “direct” methods and “direct methods” contain “indirect” methods.” The two are interdependent, and neither can exist without the other.

2.     Case Study: Application of “Direct and Indirect” Thinking on Table Tennis
2.1  Case Study 1
“Using the direct method to defeat the opponent”; in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, South Korea’s Ryu Seungmin against China’s Wang Hao in the finals the Men’s Singles event. Prior Athens Olympics, Wang Hao had held a straight record against Ryu Seungmin. Wang lost only in the Olympic finals. This match deserves analysis and contemplation. During the match, Ryu Suengmin’s high-quality forehand attacks were effective because his style curbed Wang Hao’s pen-hold reverse style.

Suppressed by his opponent from the beginning of the match, Wang Hao developed a big psychological pressure. This burden affected him in a way that he evidently could not relax and play freely. On the match as a whole, Wang Hao seemed to be in a passive state throughout the game.  This illustrates “both the direct and indirect methods for securing victory” strategic thinking that complement each other in table tennis.

Ryu Seungmin focused on using forehand was effective in scoring points. From the game tactics in past encounters between Ryu Seungmin and Wang Hao, Ryu Seungmin is very inclined to return short balls. However, in this match, Ryu Seungmin changed his strategies, no longer frequently receiving short instead changing to fast, deep pushes.

Catching Wang Hao by surprise, the fast, long push by Ryu forced Wang to open up his first loop with low quality. Receiving a weak loop from Wang, Ryu employed his powerful forehand counter loop to his advantage, strongly winning points. Ryu Seungmin changed his own tactical used by changing his primary strategy of returning short to his secondary strategy; likewise, his secondary strategy of quick, deep pushes became his primary strategy.

This clearly illustrates the strategic thinking of both direct and indirect methods for securing victory as depicted in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

2.2  Case Study 2
On Tuesday 9th April1963, China’s Xu Yinsheng faced Japan’s Miki in the Men’s Team finals of the 27th World Table Tennis Championships. Miki’s style was very aggressive.

Moreover, he was very familiar with Xu Yingsheng’s style, and the two knew each other too well. Before this match, their record had been 4:2 with Xu Yingsheng defeated more than he had won, and Xu called Miki the hardest Japanese to play against. During the match, Xu’s strength, his forehand serve, did not cause Miki any trouble.

As a result, Xu Yingsheng boldly used his secondary backhand serve, which was not his strength. When Xu served short to Miki’s backhand, he repeatedly received it poorly. Xu Yinsheng immediately seized this advantageous opportunity, scoring again and again, and he took the first game easily 21:12. Beginning the second game, Xu Yinsheng continued to use his backhand serve, leading in score all the way. By the middle of the second game, Xu Yinsheng suddenly wanted to try serving with his forehand again, but the result was counterproductive. As the score got closer and closer, Xu Yinsheng could only return to his backhand serve once more. Finally, he won the second game 23:21.

Why does Xu Yingsheng’s expertise forehand serve not work against Miki, but instead his common backhand serve repeatedly wins points off Miki? It is because although Xu Yingsheng’s forehand serve is his expertise, Miki already was used to it, and his forehand serve no longer poses any threat.

However, although his backhand serve is not his expertise, Miki could not get accustomed to receiving it. Therefore, Xu’s  backhand serve changed from “short” to “long,” or “weak” to “strong” in terms of tactical advantage. The use and changes of “unordinary” and “ordinary” strategies are endless. And so, mastering both the use of the “unordinary” and “ordinary” can help us grasp the aggressiveness, initiative, and control of the match.

2.3  Case Study 3
Surprise! Attack the unprepared location. Gain victory by indirect, unexpected methods.

In the 1995 World Table Tennis Championships, the Swedish Men’s team researched and designed the two-wing forehand and backhand topspin looping style specifically in order to combat the Chinese Men’s team’s technical and strategic strong attributes.

However, based on the opponents’ situation, the Chinese Men’s Table Tennis head coach Cai Zhenhua immediately made an impromptu decision: to let their long hidden defensive player Ding Song to replace their main offensive player Wang Tao to face the Swedes’ topspin loops.

In the end, Ding Song scored a big victory in two close games over Swedish star player Karlsson. Throughout the entire game, Swedish star player Karlsson had trouble finding a solution against Ding Song’s returns. Because of Ding Song’s miraculous performance, the Chinese Men’s table tennis team “gained victory by indirect, unexpected methods,” securing a 3:2 victory over Sweden at last.

Therefore, because of this victory, Ding Song became known as a world-renowned defensive player.

3.  Conclusion and Recommendation
Summarizing the above as whole, whether it is the use of military forces or the competitive sport of table tennis, these aspects are all full of flexibility, changes, and creativity. If one wants to win over an opponent, then in the match, that individual must refer to and apply the thinking “use of direct methods to attack and use of indirect methods to secure victory.” In addition, one must develop and set some effective tactics and strategies, specifically targeted towards the opponent’s situation in a timely manner.

The “use of direct methods to attack and use of indirect methods to secure victory” in The Art of War helps us develop a deeper understanding of the application and connotation of tactical strategies in table tennis for coaches who assign athletes formation right before the matches in the team event and who direct tactical strategies to their players.

Furthermore, this helps improves the tactical level of athletes, and overall, this is a very important enlightenment. We should comprehensively study and research in-depth the thinking “direct and indirect methods to secure victory” in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Not only should we intertwine the combination of table tennis and “direct and indirect” thinking, but also we should systematically apply the “direct and indirect” thinking from Sun Tzu’s Art of War into the teaching and practice of table tennis.

Therefore, we can continuously innovate and explore the tactical strategies and thinking of table tennis.


Sports Science Jinxin Wang