USA Table Tennis

Oct 29 More Thoughts on the New Polyethylene Ball

By Michael Babuin, PhD, P.G. | Oct. 29, 2013, 9 a.m. (ET)
Mike Babuin

As reported by USATT Board Member Kagin Lee, the new polyethylene ball is being required by ITTF for certain international competitions effective summer of 2014. How USATT reacts to this is still up for discussion and thought – however, the concept of a ball being manufactured out of a slightly different material raises some intriguing questions and thought provoking discussion.

Because the celluloid ball has been with us for a very long time (~100 years) there is a feeling of security and complacency that accompanies it. It is like an old friend that has its own distinct personality, imperfections, and charisma but is part of our daily life as table tennis enthusiasts. To some, the thought of discarding this old friend for a new one, invokes anxiety and many questions. Despite this we should consider challenging ourselves to look at the polyethylene ball under a different set of filters. For instance…the only standard that we have had for 100 years is in fact, the celluloid ball…but does that make the celluloid ball unto itself a superior product? As we all know – celluloid balls crack and break at some point, they cost a certain amount of money to purchase, some are heavy, some are light, some are mostly round , others are less round (spin one on a table and you can tell quickly).

What if a product was created which had equivalent weights, perfect and uniform roundness, uniform diameter of the inner wall thickness, good bounce characteristics, lasted longer, and cost less?  Would that constitute an equivalent product or would it constitute a superior product? To this observer it would be superior.   Well…with the seamless poly ball we have many of those items already. The ball is manufactured with uniform cell wall thicknesses; it has near perfect, uniform roundness; and a consistent weight. Does it have a good bounce? Well…how do you define ‘good’? Does it last longer before it breaks? – well…we don’t know – because the balls are not available for purchase yet! As for the cost, that too is unknown at this time.

So while we have many of those characteristics identified, there are always some things that we will learn about as they develop with time. Lesson to learn here is…don’t judge a ball based upon the only other ‘show in town’ as the standard (i.e., the celluloid ball). It is better to use objective criteria (some of what was just shared) as the criteria for comparison.

Of course, the manufacturers themselves perform rigorous testing of balls before they submit the prototypes to ITTF or to the retail marketplace. As an example, for competitive play, bounce is a key factor – manufacturers use high speed cameras to help develop their products as well as ball fall-point testing. They also introduce the balls to athletes for standard use/testing. One of the downfalls of the celluloid ball and potentially, any ball – is irregularities of the wall thickness. Such irregularities lead to an irregular bounce, which is turn may affect the flight path/trajectory of the ball. Players often times make mistakes when these problems exists and do not adjust their technique properly to compensate. Thus, it is highly desirable to have a ball made out of uniform cell wall thickness which will result in a consistent bounce that prevents these types of problems from developing to start with.

So – while a new ball may very well be superior in many aspects, the possibility of anxiety on our part in dealing with such a change is always a distinct possibility.

The analogy is…if we have always driven a subcompact car all our life and someone introduces a luxury car, we may not be comfortable with the luxury car at first because it takes us out of our comfort zone. We might struggle with a larger car that requires a different parking technique, or we might struggle at first to learn the complexity of the controls in the luxury car compared to the simplicity of the sub-compact, but inevitably, after a short while, the features of the luxury car become apparent and it quickly grows on us, and even perhaps, becomes the car of choice. Maybe a better example would have been to discuss the differences between a flip cell phone versus 4G phones…but I think you get the message. Change is not something that we automatically embrace but it is a part of life, and sometimes, it becomes a good thing.

So with regard to the poly ball – let’s see where this takes us before we developed pre-conceived notions on the ball before it is even introduced to the international and US table tennis community. We may very well like what we find.

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