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



02/26/2024 - 15:10

Author: Larry Hodges

Many players enter tournaments with the primary goal of beating stronger (i.e. higher-rated) players. And that’s an admirable goal. But thinking that way is also a way of making sure you don’t improve as quickly and beat more and more of these stronger players. Why?

Central to beating anyone is having a game that allows you to dominate. There are many ways to dominate – serve and receive, strong attacks (often set up with serve or receive), great defense or consistency, and so on. But to learn to dominate against stronger players you first need to learn how to totally dominate and mow down weaker (i.e. lower-rated) players with all the aspects of your game that you’ll need against stronger players. That means playing lots and lots of matches against such players where your goal isn’t just to win – it’s to win easily while using different aspects of your game. Be a lawnmower. If you can’t consistently easily beat these weaker players in multiple ways, then your game isn’t yet solid enough to consistently battle against stronger players.

Here's an example of how you can learn to dominate by playing weaker players first. When I play a weaker player, I can dominate with my serves. Then I play a stronger player and they handle the serve better – and since I’ve relied so much on the serve against weaker players (and likely players my level), I’m not as good as I should be when they get past that. So, instead of using your best serves when playing weaker players (in practice), instead perhaps serve simple short backspin or no-spin serves, they push back long, and you start each rally off by looping. Obviously, you vary this if the “weaker” player keeps attacking your short serve or even drops them short. But the key is you learn to dominate with all aspects of your game by first developing them against weaker players – and then, when you can do that, you learn to do it against your peers and stronger players. And note that when you play a “serious” match against these weaker players, that’s when you bring out your best serves (or the other parts of your game you might not have been fully using), and really dominate.

It's not just serves, of course. If you dominate against weaker players with your forehand, try dominating against them with your backhand. If you your attack overwhelms weaker players, try blocking them down. And so on. The key is to learn to dominate with many aspects of your game – and you first learn to do that by using them to mow down weaker players, then your peers, and then stronger players.

The side benefit of doing this? You rarely lose to weaker players because you've learned how to dominate against them in so many ways. So, are you ready to be a lawnmower, and mow down those weaker players . . . then your peers . . . and finally those stronger players?


02/19/2024 - 11:25

Author: Larry Hodges

When coaching or rooting for a player, why does is sometimes seem like every opponent has nasty serves that your player struggles to return, while your player just serves to keep the ball in play? It’s even worse if you are the player with simple serves, while the opponent is throwing all sorts of nastiness at you. It puts you at a huge disadvantage.

Yes, it’s easy to learn a simple serve that players your level can’t easily attack. But the lesson you should learn is that if opponents can develop really good serves, so can you. Yes, YOU! It’s just a matter of learning how to do them (the easy part) and practicing them a lot (the hard part).

Many good serves look seemingly simple, and yet are not. For example, some players specialize in backspin and no-spin serves, where they go back and forth. The serve itself seems simple, right? But what makes it effective is their ability to hide which of the two it is. They serve with heavy spin while seemingly not putting that much effort into it (they snap their wrists into it vigorously with a fine grazing motion), and to serve with a big, spinny motion that actually has little spin (by contacting the ball near the handle, where the racket isn’t moving very fast). When you watch world-class players using seemingly simple serves, it’s anything but that.

Next time you face someone whose serves give you trouble, why not ask them how they do their serves? Most players would be flattered by this. Learn how it’s done, then practice until you can do it yourself. One interesting side benefit that was pointed out to me by five-times US Men’s Champions Dan Seemiller – when you learn how to do a serve, you also learn how to return it. I’ve found this to be true, both because I understand what the serve is doing, and because I see how opponents return it effectively.

When I see someone with good serves, I don’t think, “He only wins because of his serve,” as some do. I think, “This guy’s been practicing his serve! I better get to work so I can catch up or stay ahead!”


02/12/2024 - 14:34

Author: Larry Hodges

Players often learn from close matches, knowing that with just a little more, a close loss becomes a win, and a close win becomes a somewhat easier win. And this is good. However, many players don't learn from blowout matches - but they should.

You can learn from either end of a blowout match. If you won in a blowout, assuming the opponent was at least somewhat near your level, then that means you did something really well. What was it? Because whatever it was is something you can build on to the point that you can use it against stronger players.

If you are on the wrong side of a blowout match, regardless of the opponent's level you should learn from it. What did he do that dominated?

  • Did he have a serve you couldn't return consistently or effectively? Then find someone to do that serve to you so you can practice against it. Perhaps learn to do it yourself, so you'll both have that serve as a weapon, but will also better understand the serve and so better know how to return it.
  • Did he return your serves in a way that took away your game? Then figure if you need to develop better serves or a better follow-up of those serves (or both), and develop that aspect of your game.
  • Did he win the rallies easily? Then figure out what you need to do so you can rally more effectively. (Note that often the one who wins the rallies isn't necessarily the better rallier but simply gets the initiative at the start, and so dominates from the start of the rally.)
  • Did he hit winners seemingly at will? Then figure out why you are giving him so many shots to put away and fix the problem, while also figuring out how you can add what he did to your own game.

So, next time you win or lose a blowout, think about what happened and learn from it. That's a big part of your tuition to becoming a stronger player.


02/05/2024 - 14:21

Author: Larry Hodges

Good contact with the ball is key to making a good shot. There’s even a stereotype that all Chinese coaches do in training sessions is walk around watching the player’s feet and listening to the sound of the contact. (There’s some truth to this – I’m not Chinese but sometimes this is what I do when coaching.) You should learn to listen to your own contact, and try to repeat both the sound and the feel. That, along with good positioning and stroking technique, is how you get consistency.

With any topspin contact, you stroke upward at least some. (More up against backspin, less against topspin.) The direction of the stroke, the angle of the contact, and how much you sink the ball into the sponge all affect the shot.  

I divide topspin contact into roughly five types, as follows. The first four would be considered loops. How many of these do you do?

  1. Barely grazing. This is for slow, spinny loops, especially against backspin, where you barely graze the ball, creating tremendous topspin. Contact is mostly with the rubber, and only slightly into the sponge. This is mostly done against heavy backspin, with a mostly upward stroke. The focus here is huge amounts of topspin but little speed, with the ball making a huge arc. The sheer amount of spin gives opponents trouble. However, the problem with a slow loop is that if they go deep on the table (as they usually do), then you have to arc them relatively high to get the depth, and so opponents can attack them. If you loop them short, then the opponent can even more easily attack them, if he reacts immediately. However, by varying the depth, it can create havoc with opponents – and many players struggle against them in general.
  2. Medium into sponge. This is for medium loops. They are usually the most consistent loops, with your power going equally into speed and spin. They are often used to keep an attack going. If well placed, they can be effective.
  3. Deep into sponge. This is for stronger loops, where you are putting great pressure on the opponent and often winning the point outright.
  4. Sponge and wood. Now you are sinking the ball deep into the sponge at an angle, but with enough power that it still goes into the wood. This is for kill loops. They aren’t supposed to come back. Because of the sheer speed on these shots, they should only be done against a weak ball, or (occasionally) against a more difficult ball where you are in perfect position and read the ball (especially its spin) perfectly.
  5. Glancing blow. This is for smashes, regular counter-hits, and most blocks. For this, you hit the ball at an angle, but sink mostly straight through the sponge into the wood, with a slightly upward stroke, giving moderate topspin. This is also how you hit most attack shots with a hardbat or pips-out. When blocking, you can meet the ball almost straight on for a “deader” ball, but this would have little or no topspin.

01/29/2024 - 05:17

Author: Larry Hodges

Many players hold back on their trickiest serve until it’s close. This is usually a mistake. If you have such a tricky serve, you should use it early – probably with your first serve. (This is especially true for deep, spinny serves.) Here’s why.

  1. You don’t really know if the serve will be effective against this player without trying it out – and by using it early, you’ll know whether you want to use it later in a close game.
  2. If the serve is effective, by using it early you can come back to it sooner without overusing it and letting the opponent get used to it.
  3. Perhaps most important, it forces the opponent to watch for that serve, thereby making all your other serves more effective. This is especially true of tricky deep spin serves. The receiver has to guard against them, making them a bit slower in reacting to other ones, especially shorter ones. You should generally develop your game around shorter serves that are harder to attack effectively and that set up your own attack, but if that’s all you do, the opponent will quickly get used to them.

However, there’s an exception to this. If you play someone regularly, then they may anticipate that you’ll start with that serve, and be more ready for it. But if you are playing a new player, why not throw your trickiest serve at them the first time you serve, and go from there?