Why Do Ping Pong Players Wipe Their Hands on the Table?

What's up with that little hand-wiping action?

Businessman playing table tennis with colleague
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Sports are riddled with superstitions, rituals, strategies, and yes, rules—enough that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. When you're watching a game that's somewhat new to you, you'll probably pick up on one or two of these idiosyncrasies. Next thing you know, you're on the Internet, trying to hunt down what it all means. 

If you're watching table tennis, commonly known as ping pong, you might notice that a lot of the players will rub or touch the table during the competition, either near the back or near the net on the sides, often before each point. Is there a particular reason for this or is it just ritual? Is it a rule? Why do ping pong players wipe their hands on the table?

It's Part Physical

First, it's not a rule, although some sports have pretty odd ones. It's a physical reaction to the game. A player will wipe the sweat from his hand onto the table in a spot that is not likely to be used during play, such as near the net where the ball rarely lands. It wouldn't do to deposit sweat on the table only to have the ball pick it up. So in this respect, the wipe action is physical. It allows the player to "towel off" his hand without actually having to wait for the allowed 6 point towel-off interval which is in the rules. When you see him wiping his hand near the endline, the player is usually wiping off drops of sweat or, occasionally, small fragments of rubber from the bat that have fallen onto the table.

But you might notice that some players just touch their fingertips, so what's that about? Are their fingertips sweating? Not likely. This has another explanation, but it's also physical...and maybe a little bit mental. It helps them mentally set the position of the table in context with the placement of their bodies. 

It's Part Mental

Hand-wiping can also be something of a mind game. The time it takes for a player to wipe his hand gives him a chance to take a few extra seconds to compose himself if he needs it, or possibly to consider and plan for the next ball. Plus, there's always the chance that it will aggravate and distract his opponent who has to wait for him to get back to behind the endline before the next point can begin. This can be especially clever if that opposing player is on a run of points. Think of a baseball pitcher who pauses to examine his glove for real or imagined flaws before hurling, letting the batter stand there and stew. 

It's Part Ritual 

Some players just get into the habit of wiping their hands so they keep doing it whether they really need to or not, maybe even subconsciously. Some players will bounce the ball on the table or on their racket before serving, and others wipe. It's just part of the player's routine and he would feel strange—and possibly even jinxed—if he didn't do it.