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 24, 2019 - Learning to Win

Monday, June 24, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most common problems players face in their table tennis is the inability to recognize the difference between learning the shots, and learning to win. There's a big difference.

Many players have a good idea of what to do out at the table - but just don't have the strokes. This article is not directed toward these players, who generally know who they are. These players need to see a coach to fix up their strokes, and will improve as fast as their strokes develop.

An equal number of players have good strokes, but don't know how to put them together to win matches. Players like this can spend years perfecting shots, but never improve as fast as they should - and often quit the game in disgust as others pass them in rating or ranking. This article is directed toward these players.

To get the maximum out of whatever shots you have, you have to combine the shots in various combinations. For example, a player with a great loop against backspin won't get the most out of his game if he constantly serves topspin. Similarly, a player who counter-drives well may not get the most out of his game if he mostly serves backspin. This is tactical thinking.

And yet a player who is weak at one area of his game should often play to use that weakness in practice matches to make it stronger - and develop a more powerful game. This is strategic thinking.

It goes beyond just serve and receive, of course. A player with a good loop kill may regularly go for a winner on the first shot in the rally, and although he may get away with it sometimes, he'd do far better if he set himself up better with other shots. He may end up winning by ripping every shot - but he'd be even a better player if he learned to pick his shots.

How does one learn to win? There are two main variables in this:

I. DEVELOPING THE RIGHT SHOTS

Many players develop their games with no real thought behind it. As mentioned previously, it doesn't make sense for a player who loops backspin well to constantly serve topspin. (Unless, of course, this player is trying to strategically improve that part of his game.) Instead, a player such as this should develop the shots that set up his loop against backspin - a short backspin or no-spin serve, perhaps a short push to force a pushed return. Similarly, you should develop your game to favor the shots you do well.

Take the time to think out what type of game you best play:

1. Strengthen Your Strengths

  • What type of rallies are you best at?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to get yourself into that type of rally?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to become even stronger in that type of rally?

2. Strengthen Your Weaknesses

  • What types of rallies are you weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will strengthen yourself in the rallies that you are weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will keep you out of the rallies that you are weak at?

II. KNOWING HOW TO USE THOSE SHOTS

Table tennis is very similar to chess. A top chess player can spot a weaker player a few pieces, perhaps even the queen, and still win because he knows how to use the pieces better. Similarly, a table tennis player will often win against a player with better shots if he knows how to use the shots he does have more effectively.

How many times have you heard someone say, "I could have won except for..." Shouldn't that player learn to handle or avoid that one "except for" shot?

BACK TO LEARNING TO WIN

How does one take what has been given above and apply it to match situations?

If you only play against stronger players, you will most often be forced to react to your opponent's shot, rather than forcing your shots and combinations on your opponent. On the other hand, if you play players who are weaker, you will force your game on your opponent - and instead of reacting to your opponent's shots, you will be practicing your own combinations.

Players who rarely have the opportunity to play stronger players are handicapped in their development. But so too are players who only play players who are stronger. To reach your maximum potential, you need both. A player with a rating, say, 100 points lower than yours is perfect for developing your own combinations.

So, develop the shots you need to win and learn how to use those shots. Develop your shots by playing stronger players when you can. But stop avoiding those weaker players. Turn them into practice fodder, rather than be fodder yourself.






June 17, 2019 - Six-Step Training Progression

Monday, June 17, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Developing your table tennis game is a steady progression from the simple to the more complex. Many players, however, get stuck at the beginning or intermediate stage, and never move on toward developing the more advanced parts of their game. It's a common syndrome--players spending year after year trying to completely perfect their most basic shots, and refusing to learn anything more advanced until the basic shots are (in their mind) perfected--and so they never improve as fast as they should. It's sort of like a sprinter spending all his time trying to perfect his walk while his rivals are practicing sprinting. Decide for yourself where you fit in the following six steps, and work your way toward the final step. It's not an exact thing--even when you are doing drills from Step Six, you should still be doing some of the drills from all five earlier steps.

Although most of the drills given below are simple rallying-type drills, as you get more advanced, you should begin many drills with serve & receive techniques to simulate game situations. For example, rather than have your partner serve a simple topspin serve to start a drill, have him serve deep backspin, you loop, partner blocks, and the drill continues. Or partner serves short, you flip the short ball, and continue the drill. Or partner serves backspin, you push, partner attacks, you counter-attack, and the drill continues.

In all drills below, whenever your forehand or backhand is mentioned, that means either a drive or a loop – you decide. If you're a beginner, mostly drive. As your loop becomes more advanced, use the loop more often. However, make sure you can do each drill competently with a drive before doing it with a loop. I'd recommend using your forehand loop in as many of the drills as possible as soon as possible. Depending on your style and level of play, you may also use the backhand loop in many of the drills. (Drills are written as if there were two righties; lefties should adjust.)

Step One: Stroke & Stroke Before you can run, you have to learn to walk. In table tennis, that means you have to learn the strokes before you can use them in more advanced drills. In practice, this means:

  • Forehand to Forehand Cross-Court
  • Backhand to Backhand Cross-Court
  • Forehand to Backhand Down-the-Line

A common mistake is to over-practice the strokes by doing simple forehand to forehand, backhand to backhand, etc., over and over, session after session, sometimes for years. You have to start out this way, but don't spend too much time each session on this. Once you can hit 20 in a row with good form, you can start doing drills from Step 2. However, you do need to make the strokes automatic--which means you should start most sessions with the basic forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand for 5-10 minutes until you can consistently get 20-100 in row. As the shots become more instinctive, spend less and less time doing forehand to forehand, etc. Think of this as a simple warm-up, and do no more than 2-5 minutes each session as you warm up each shot. Use the more advanced drills to fully warm up your shots.

Step Two: Move & Stroke Now it's time to add footwork to your strokes. You have to learn to move to the ball.

  • One-One Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide forehand, one ball to your middle forehand. You move back and forth, hitting all forehands and returning each ball to the same spot for your opponent, either his backhand or forehand.
  • One-One Forehand Footwork from Backhand Corner. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one ball to the middle of the table. You return each with your forehand, moving side to side
  • One-One Backhand Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide backhand, one to your middle backhand. You move side to side, returning each ball with your backhand.

Step Three: Different Strokes Now it's time to combine your forehand and backhand strokes. Here are some drills you can do:

  • Forehand-Backhand Alternating. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one to your forehand. You alternate hitting backhand and forehand, returning each ball to the same spot (either partner's forehand or backhand).
  • Two-One Drill (Falkenberg Drill). Partner hits two balls to your backhand, one ball to your forehand, then repeats sequence. You return the first ball with your backhand, step around your backhand corner and return the second ball with your forehand, then move to your wide forehand and return the third ball with your forehand.
  • Cross-Court/Down-the-Line. Partner hits every ball down-the-line, while you hit every ball cross-court. Ball will travel in a figure eight. Next, you hit down the line, partner hits cross-court.

Step Four: Choose & Stroke Now it's time to add some randomness to your drills. This is the step that many players never get to as they spend eternity trying to develop the perfect forehand or backhand. The key thing in this step is to keep it a simple choice between only two possibilities. Here is the key drill:

  • Random side-to-side. Partner hits ball either to middle forehand or middle backhand. You return with either forehand or backhand, depending on where ball is going. Keep the footwork and stroking practice here to a minimum--the key thing to work on here is making the choice between forehand and backhand, and smoothly executing the stoke. Try not to anticipate; just react. You shouldn't be moving in one direction, and then have to change directions. Make sure your first move is in the correct move.

Step Five: Choose & Move Now it's time to combine decision-making, stroking and footwork. Don't just use the drills given below--make up your own! There are an infinite number of potential drills.

  • Random Forehands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your forehand side. You move to each ball and return with a forehand.
  • Random Backhands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your backhand side. You move to each ball and return with a backhand.
  • Backhand-Random Forehand. Partner hits one ball to wide backhand, one ball to either middle of table or wide forehand. You alternate hitting backhand from backhand corner, and forehand either from middle or wide forehand, depending on where your partner hits the ball.
  • Random Deep Serves. Partner serves either deep to your forehand or deep to your backhand. Depending on your playing style and foot speed, you can attack either with forehand or backhand, and continue with any drill sequence, or attack all serves with forehand, and continue with any drill sequence.
  • Alternate Two-One. Same as the Two-One (Falkenburg) given in Step 3, except after hitting the second ball to backhand, partner has option of either hitting to wide forehand (as in normal two-one) or hitting third ball to your backhand, and then going to your wide forehand. If partner hits third ball to your backhand, you return with your backhand--smoothly, without starting to move to your wide forehand.

Step Six: Whole Table Now it's time to pull out all the stops and most of the rules and play almost like you were in a match.

  • Whole Table Random. Partner hits balls to all parts of table, randomly. You return with forehand or backhand.
  • Serve & Attack. You serve backspin, partner pushes anywhere on table. You attack (mostly by looping), either with all forehand, or with forehand or backhand, depending on your playing style and footspeed.

And now you can do Step Seven, the ultimate random: Matches!






June 10, 2019 - Should You Play Differently at Deuce?

Monday, June 10, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

The simple answer is Yes and No. Yes, as in there's no point any longer on holding back on anything tactically. If you have a tactic, serve, or other shot that the opponent has trouble with, which you've been using sparingly so he wouldn't get used to it, now's the time to use it. Some figure the opponent is expecting it, and so hold back on their best tactic - this rarely ends well, and usually leaves the opponent and viewers wondering, "Why didn't he do that thing that gave his opponent so much trouble?"

No, as in the score doesn't affect the tactics, except that you no longer are holding back. Some believe that at deuce, you should "play safe." That's only true if you are a nervous wreck and can't do your more aggressive shots - in which case you need a trip to a sports psychologist. Of course, if your opponent is a nervous wreck, that might change tactically what you want to do. It works both ways. Under pressure it's usually easier to make an opening shot, where you choose the shot you are doing, than it is to react to an opponent's shot, where there's more uncertainty. So if the high-percentage shot is to attack, then you should attack, even if you are nervous - and the more you do this, the better you become at doing it under pressure.

The simplest way of looking at all this is that the highest percentage tactic at any time is whatever the highest percentage tactic is, regardless of the score.






June 3, 2019 - What to Think About Between Points . . . and What NOT to Think About

Monday, June 3, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

This is a simple one. Between points, your only thoughts should be tactical. Don't think or worry about the score, about how important the match or the next point is, about nets and edges, or anything else except tactics. The very act of thinking about your next tactic should clear your mind of other thoughts, so it's a double-whammy. Keep the tactics simple, and once you decide on a tactic, clear your mind and let your training take over.

But tactics can have a broad definition and can overlap with sports psychology. If you are losing confidence, the tactical thing to do might be to tell yourself, "You can do it!" or the equivalent. If you are losing focus, the tactical thing to do might be to stare at something in the distance for a moment to clear your mind and regain focus. Everybody is different in this way. During my playing years I mostly attacked with my forehand, and so had to move a lot - so between points I was always telling myself, "Push yourself!", which was my way of saying "Move!" - which was my way maximizing my movement so I could, tactically, get my forehand into play.






May 27, 2019 - Why You Should Develop a Backhand Loop

Monday, May 27, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Many players never develop a backhand loop. Some rely on the forehand loop, and so mostly push on the backhand, with the idea of pushing back wide to the backhand to take away the opponent's forehand loop. Or the player may instead develop a backhand drive (i.e. more of a hit, less topspin) to attack backspin with their backhand.

But doing this puts you at a tactical disadvantage. A good backhand loop gives you the option of pushing or attacking. If you attack, a backhand loop gives more consistency than a hit (because of the extra topspin pulling it down), and the topspin itself makes it even more effective as the opponent struggles to react to it. If you can only attack effectively with the forehand, then tactically, an opponent can just push wide to your backhand, taking away your attack unless you have very fast footwork - and if you do step around and forehand loop it, he has you out of position if he blocks quickly to the forehand. A backhand loop is especially useful at the start of a rally when your opponent pushes to your wide backhand, such as when he either pushes your serve back or serve and pushes.

So develop a consistent backhand loop. Suddenly, you have the tactical advantage. It's not just that you can attack first, but you also get to choose where to attack. You could go crosscourt to the opponent's waiting backhand block, but even more effectively, take it deep to the middle (the midpoint between the opponent's forehand and backhand, around the elbow), or down the line to the forehand. (Same idea when playing against a lefty, or vice versa.) With a good backhand loop, you are in control; suddenly, the opponent is forced to either attack balls he isn't comfortable attacking, or giving you the attack, where you dictate where you attack, while all he can do is try to react. It also gives you a variation from your forehand loop - your opponent has to adjust to both loops, which come out differently.

So get a coach or top player to help you with the shot, watch videos top players, and do some multiball practice. A two-winged attack gives you twice the weapons in your tactical toolbox and turns you into a far more feared player.