Tip of the Week

A Tip of the Week will go up every Monday by noon.

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

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(Want more tips? Here are 171 more, done for the USATT website from 1999-2003, by Larry Hodges as "Dr. Ping Pong." Want even more? Here's the complete USATT archive, with the 171 by Larry as well as ones by Carl Danner from 2003-2007.)




June 29, 2020 - Training Down the Line

Monday, June 29, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

One of the lessons I learned from legends like Dan Seemiller and Dave Sakai was the value of down-the-line training. When you hit crosscourt, you have about ten feet and 3.5 inches. Down the line, it's only nine feet, so 15.5 inches shorter. If you can maintain an aggressive down-the-line attack in a drill, then going crosscourt is easy!

Often the simplest drill is the best. Just have one player hit or loop forehands down the line to the other player's backhand. (If you have a righty and a lefty, then it's forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand.) Drive the ball aggressively deep and as close to the side-line as you can. Often the forehand player is the aggressor, the backhand player blocking, but the backhand player should also learn to be aggressive with these down-the-line shots.

When hitting or looping backhands down the line, face the direction you are going. You can make last-second adjustments in a game sometimes to throw an opponent off, but by the time you start the forward swing, you need to be lined up for the shot, especially the shoulders. The exception to this is when just blocking against an opponent's aggressive shots, where you can just angle the racket side to side to change directions.

When hitting or looping forehands, you also want to line the shot up. This usually means more shoulder rotation and taking the ball a little later than usual.

There are countless drills where you can incorporate down-the-line shots, but start with the simplest, simple down the line. Then you can progress to other drills. Perhaps have one player hit side to side while the other alternates forehands and backhands, with one of them crosscourt, the other down-the-line.

After doing lots of down-the-line training, two things will happen. You will be able to do it in a match, and you will find crosscourt surprisingly easy, with that extra 15.5 inches!






June 22, 2020 - Do You Really Have Control of Your Shots?

Monday, June 22, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Most players below the higher levels do not really control their shots, both in terms of direction and depth. One reason for this is they don't really get much feedback on it, and so don't realize just how little they are really controlling the ball. Another is that they aren't really aiming the ball at specific spots, instead just aiming at a general area. And another is they don't really practice this type of control.

Like most techniques, it's best to practice the simplest aspects and work your way to game-type shots. So the best way to start is to put a target on the far side of the table - perhaps a bottle - and get a box of balls and commence target practice. Start by either bouncing the ball on the table or tossing the ball in the air and either hit or loop the ball at the target. If you can't hit the target this way, how can you do it in a game, where you have unpredictable incoming balls at varying placements, speeds, heights, depths, and spins? When you are somewhat proficient at hitting the target, you are developing directional control.

Next comes depth control. Fold up a towel so it's no more than 12 inches wide (smaller if possible), and put it near the far end of the table, near a corner. (A towel makes it easy to tell if you've hit it, but you can also use a piece of paper.) Now try hitting that. When you are somewhat proficient at hitting the target, you are developing depth control.

Now it's time to do it in a real rally. Place a sheet of paper near the far side of the table, near a corner, and rally with someone. See how often you can hit the paper. When you are somewhat proficient at hitting the target, you are developing directional and depth control in a rally. Not only that, but at this point you are more aware than before of actually aiming for targets and hitting them!

How does this help you in a match? Directionally, you want to hit nearly every shot either very wide or at the opponent's middle (roughly their playing elbow, midway between their forehand and backhand). Now you can do that! You also want to mostly keep the ball deep on the table. Now you can do that! Most players do not realize how many points are won and lost not because the opponent makes a good shot, but because you give him the opportunity of making a good shot by not placing your shot, both directionally and depth-wise. Why make things easy for him?






June 15, 2020 - Practice Partner Collaboration - the PPC of TT

Monday, June 15, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

All sports involve collaboration, and table tennis is no exception. In fact, due to its one-on-one nature, table tennis in particular fits into this mode. One obvious collaboration is between coach and student, but there's an equally important one - between playing partners.

If you want to improve, players need to work together, both at the table and off. At the table, players can both play matches to improve their games, as well as drilling together in ways that both improve, often with players taking turns doing drills that the other needs, though both should be improving from the drill. But often the key difference between those who improve some and those who improve greatly is how far that collaborative process goes - does it end at the table ("some") or does it continue away from the table ("greatly")?

Away from the table, successful playing partners discuss and critique their games. If you played a practice match and found that your partner's receive was somewhat predictable, or that he had trouble covering, say, the middle or wide forehand, or that his backhand attack was erratic, or anything else - tell him! If you think his opening loops were too soft or landed short, or that his serves too often went long (or too predictably short), or that he telegraphed certain shots - tell him! This is not criticism, it's critiquing: "to evaluate in a detailed and analytical way."

And since this works both ways, you will profit from your playing partner's critique of your game. If he points out a problem with your game, listen to him - as your playing partner, he gets to play you regularly, while you don't get to play yourself. He has a unique perspective.

Critiquing is not all negative. One of you might see in the other something that has great potential, and so suggest developing it. For example, your partner might say, "You have such a strong attack - you should play more aggressively when you are serving." Or you might tell your partner, "You have such a strong backhand, you shouldn't try to force the forehand so much." And so on.

Of course, you could take the short-term selfish route and not make such helpful suggestions to your playing partner, in the hopes that you can continue to beat him - which means you will have a weaker playing partner, as opposed to an improving one, where you can improve together. Plus, if you aren't helping him in this way, why should he help you?

Take the long-term route, and make a habit of discussing each other's games with your playing partners. Turn it into a long-term partnership where both benefit and both improve. The icing on the cake is that by regularly analyzing each other's games, you become better at doing that, which improves your tactical skills in other matches, thereby raising your level of play even more.






June 8, 2020 - How to Never Miss an Easy Smash

Monday, June 8, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Few things are more frustrating than missing an easy smash that costs you a game or match. Especially under pressure, it's easy to miss them. But if you follow three rules, you will never miss another one. Really! The three rules for never missing a smash are simple.

Until the point is absolutely and completely over:

  1. Expect every ball to come back. So often a player thinks the point is over only to have an opponent get one more ball back. It's an easy smash, but because you thought the point was over, you aren't ready, and so you miss it. Perhaps even more often, when faced with an easy smash, a player realizes the point is about to be over, and subconsciously lets up - and so misses.
  2. Stay down. When faced with an easy smash, where you think the point is about to be over, many players subconsciously stand up a little straighter. (This is closely related to #1 above.) Even if it's only an inch, this completely throws off your stroke. It also raises your racket, which changes the trajectory of the racket towards the ball, which throws off your timing. Since you can often still make most smashes despite this slight straightening, players often don't get the feedback from missing from this enough, and so they continue to do this, and continue to wonder why they miss - especially under pressure - more than they should.
  3. Strive for perfect execution. If the focus is on winning the point, then it's easy to get nervous about missing. Instead, focus on perfect execution. Perfect execution leads to winning the point, so you don't need to worry or even think about the latter. And since you have more margin for error on most smashes (since it's normally against a higher ball), all you really have to do is get near-perfect execution, so there's no pressure on getting it perfect. Note that "Strive for perfect execution" implies that you must also practice smashing easy balls with perfect execution, since how else can you do so? (Some players loop-kill instead of smashing, even against relatively high balls - if so, then it's the same thing, you must practice it.)

Did you notice that "Stay focused" is not one of the three? That's because if you follow these three, staying focused is the natural result. If you expect the ball to come back, stay in a natural ready position (which cues the mind that the point isn't over), and strive for perfect execution (which implies focus), how can you not be focused?

Did you notice that none of the rules are about things NOT to do, but about things TO DO? It's much easier to execute something you need to do than to execute something you aren't supposed to do.

And finally, did you notice that part in #3 about practicing the smash? This is true of every aspect of the game, including seemingly easy shots like smashing a high ball. (And if smashing a high ball isn't easy, then you definitely know what to practice.)






June 1, 2020 - Do You Have a Quadruple Threat Receive?

Monday, June 1, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Many players get used to receiving any given serve the same way, because it's safer that way. This is especially true against short serves, where many players predictably push everything back long. Others reach in and predictably flip over and over. But this makes things easier for the server, since he knows what you are going to do. Some receivers may vary the receive in simple ways, such as the placement of their long push, but this still leaves them rather predictable.

The exception is against deep serves, which you should attack in some way, unless you are facing a server who can't effectively attack a passive return. But even then you might want to mostly attack, since presumably your goal is to learn to beat stronger players. Learn to attack deep serves with both forehand and backhand, and to vary the speed, spin, depth (though mostly deep), and placement of your attacks.

It is against shorter serves that you should focus on variation. If it's short topspin (which most players can't do), then you should mostly attack it. But against most short serves, you should vary pushing long, pushing short, and flipping. By having this complete arsenal, you can both use what is most effective against that server, and vary your returns, so he doesn't know in advance what to prepare for.  Even if you are very good at one type of receive, that receive will be even better if you vary it so your opponent can't anticipate that receive.

Perhaps find a good ratio of how often to do each receive. For example, some top players use the 2-2-1 rule - out of five receives against a short serve, they flip two, push two short, and push one long. Others use the 3-2-1 rule - three flips, two short pushes, one long push. (Not that this ratio "rule" really should vary, depending on the server and his strengths and weaknesses, so you favor the receives that give him the most trouble while still varying them.) At lower levels, perhaps do more long pushes, but don't completely rely on them.

So what is that quadruple threat receive? Attack the deep serve while using all three receives against shorter serves - push long, push short, and flip.

How to develop these receives? Get a practice partner or coach and take turns practicing serves and receives. Ideally, get a box of balls and don't even play out the point - the server serves and grabs the next ball as the receiver receives. After doing this for a time, then perhaps play out one shot, where the server serves and attacks, and then grabs the next ball as the receiver just receives and returns the first attack. After doing that for a time, then you can move to full game-play and play out the points.