Tip of the Week

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

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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.)

May 29, 2018 - The Balance Between Tactical and Strategic Thinking

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

You should both tactically and strategically develop your game. What does this mean?

First, let's define these terms. Tactical thinking is what you do when you are looking to win now. Strategic thinking is what you do when you are looking to develop in the long run. You need both.

Let's assume you have a big weakness in your game - say, a weak blocking game. You could tactically find ways to hide this weakness, which is something you should do when needed in an important match. But the great majority of matches are practice matches where you should be developing your game. So instead, you should tactically realize you have a big weakness in your game, your blocking, and strategically play and practice to develop this weakness into a strength. But it starts with tactically understanding what parts of your game need strategic developing - both weakness and strengths, where the goal of the latter is to make them overpowering strengths by making them stronger and by developing more ways to get it into play.

But if you always are playing strategically, you never develop the tactical skills to win a given match. The result is you might have a better game than an opponent, but you lose because the other player is better tactically. What this means is that if you only think strategically, your tactical skills will suffer.

So you must find a balance. Decide in advance which matches you will focus on the strategic, and which ones on the tactical. Or sometimes play strategically until it's close, and then try to win tactically. Or the reverse, which many players neglect to do - when it's close in a practice match, if you always play tactically, you won't developed the deep-rooted confidence in the shots you are trying to develop, so sometimes try to win with those shots, even if it means occasionally - or often, at first - losing a match that you might have won.

May 21, 2018 - Develop Power Timing by Slapping

Monday, May 21, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Power in table tennis comes primarily from timing. Not just timing with the ball, but timing the proper use of each muscle used, in the proper order and duration, while timing all this while also hitting the ball. For example, when forehand hitting or looping, you start with the back leg, then the hips, then the shoulders, then the arm, and then the wrist.

Most players don't do this properly as they "short circuit" the proper muscle timing as they attempt to time the shot to a moving ball. Trying to learn these two together is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle and juggle at the same time. You would do better to learn each separately, and then put them together. Similarly, trying to time all these muscle movements just right and still hit the ball is not easy, unless you were trained properly early on as a kid. In that case, it's probably so second nature you don't even notice it, or realize how difficult this dance of the body is when you have to time it to an incoming ball that you have to then graze with a big swing!

But there's a simply way of developing this proper muscle timing. Like most cases where you have to break a bad habit, you need to break it down to its simple parts. In this case, you could shadow practice, though you might need a coach to help you get it right. But there's another way to get it right - slapping!!! No, you shouldn't slap your practice partner, but what you should do is imagine doing so, and go through the motion of slapping very hard (i.e. use your entire body as in a forehand stroke) an imaginary stationary person in the face with a forehand swing. Why would you do this? The key here is 1) that it's a stationary target, and 2) your body will naturally time the muscles for maximum power, since it's not being short-circuited by the attempt to also hit a moving ball.

Practice doing this for both regular forehands and forehand loops (where your slap comes from below) until you feel you have the muscle timing down for maximum power. And THEN go to the table and practice doing this with a moving ball. I've used the forehand as the example here, but the same principle applies to backhands - give your imaginary partner a big backhanded slap!

May 14, 2018 - Tactical Thinking Between Points

Monday, May 14, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Everyone has their own tactical thinking ritual . . . or doesn't have one. If you don't, you should.

What is a tactical thinking ritual? It's when you habitually think tactically about the next point. Different players have different rituals, but most are similar. Here are mine. Note that tactical thinking during a match should be kept simple. There are zillions of possible tactics, but your job is to find a few that work in the given match.

  • When I have two serves coming up. This is probably where you should do the most tactical thinking, since you have complete control over what serves you will use. Before I come to the table I'm thinking about both serves. My main thinking is whether I want to serve both short, both long, one of each, or whether I want to throw in a "trick" serve, such as fast no-spin to the middle, or a fast down-the-line. I have to decide if I want to serve to increase the probability I'll get a specific receive - such as a long push to loop, a topspin receive I can loop aggressively against, or a ball I can smash or loop kill. I also have to decide the placement of the serves, and the order. For example, if I decide the receiver is ready for my deep serves and I choose to serve both short, I might go for a very heavy backspin serve to the middle (to take away the extreme angles on the return), where I might be anticipating a push return I can loop, followed by a no-spin serve, where I'm hoping the receiver will push it like the previous backspin serve, and so pop it up or return it with less backspin. I might serve the second one to the same spot as I want the serve to look as much as possible like the previous one so the receiver will push it the same, thereby popping it up.
  • When I have one serve coming up. Here is where I evaluate my previous plan based on what happened on the first serve. For example, using the example above, suppose the receiver backhand banana flipped my heavy backspin serve. I now have to make a judgment - should I serve short no-spin, hoping he misreads it, and risking another backhand attack? Or perhaps I should instead serve it short to the forehand? Or, since he's reaching over the table to attack with his backhand, perhaps a big, breaking sidespin serve deep to his backhand? Suppose the receiver pushed my heavy backspin serve into the net. Then maybe following up with a no-spin serve might not work, since he's already aiming a bit down? Or suppose he quick-pushed my backspin serve really wide, deep, and aggressively, so I had a difficult ball to attack, and think he might be able to do that as well to my no-spin serve? Then I might consider serving sidespin-topspin to get into a different type of rally.
  • When I'm receiving. Here you can't have a firm plan since you don't know what serve you will get. However, you should always have at least two possible receives off any serve (preferably more), and before each receive, should decide which ones you should favor off the serves you expect to see. (But don't over-think this or you might freeze up.) For example, against a short backspin serve to the middle, I can push long or short, or flip, and I can do these to all parts of the table. Before the receive, I will decide if I'm going to be aggressive or not, and which side I should receive to. But these have to be flexible decisions. I may decide to push long to the backhand, but if the server looks like he's setting up for that shot, leaving his wide forehand open, I might change at the last second and quick-push there. Or the serve might pop up or be easy to read, in which case I might switch to an attack. If my opponent is consistently serving long to my backhand, I might decide in advance whether I'm going to receive backhand or do a step-around and forehand loop. (Note that you should also take into consideration what happened in the previous points when deciding what receive to use. For example, if you keep pushing long and the server keeps looping successfully, it's time to rethink your receive.)
  • When I'm serving at in a deuce game. Now's the time to think over what worked and didn't work up to this point, especially recently. There should be 2-3 serving options that are the obvious ones to choose from - if you don't immediately know which ones you should be choosing from, you need to make it a habit to think about these things more as by this time you should have a very good idea what worked and what didn't. My first thought is always whether I should go for a "trick" serve to catch the receiver off guard, or a pure third-ball serve. It all depends on the opponent and his history that match, as well as my own confidence level in my own shots. If I'm playing really well, why risk, say, a tricky deep serve that might get looped, taking my own shots out of play? In most cases, think what serve will set you up to do what you do best, usually some sort of attack. But if there's a serve that's been giving the receiver fits, use it, even if the receiver has a good idea it's coming. You don't want to lose a match and have the opponent say, "Thank God you didn't use that serve I was having fits with!"

May 7, 2018 - Serve and Attack . . . Almost Always

Monday, May 7, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

When serving, don't look for a ball to attack. Unless the receiver does something to stop you from attacking, serve and attack over and over. If you aren't confident in your attack, then this will make your attack much stronger and turn you into a better player.

There are tactical exceptions to this, but they are relatively few. Defensive players such as choppers and blockers might serve and only attack if they see a relatively easy attack, but even they should look to serve and attack every chance so as to develop their attacks. Against a receiver with a weak attack you might tactically wait for a better shot rather than force the attack off your serve against a relatively good return - but even there it's good practice to serve and attack so you keep getting better at it. Sometimes it's good tactics to catch your opponent off guard by not attacking, such as a sudden drop shot or quick push against a player expecting you to attack and not ready to attack themselves. But generally, and perhaps even relentlessly, you'll find more success if you serve and attack whenever the receiver doesn't do something to stop you from attacking.  

None of this means you have to serve and rip a winner every time. You only do that if you do get a relatively weak return. Attacks should be varied - forehand or backhand; hard, medium, or soft; usually deep, but when attacking more softly vary the depth; to the opponent's middle (elbow) or wide corners, or even outside the corners; and with varying amounts of topspin and sometimes sidespin. Never serve and blindly attack; attack, but attack with purpose!

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April 30, 2018 - Weaknesses Can Be Strengths

Monday, April 30, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

If you have a weakness, you try to avoid using it, correct? That's the normal thinking. However, sometimes a "weakness" can be a strength, plus (perhaps more importantly), if you use a weakness over and over, it might become a strength, or at least stop being a weakness.

Here are two examples of a "weakness" being a strength. David Zhuang was six-times U.S. Men's Singles Champion. He was a pips-out penholder with a blocking backhand and hitting forehand. What was his "weakness"? Surprisingly, it was his forehand. He had a 2800 blocking game, especially on the backhand, and this raised his level so high that his forehand actually became his weakness. And so, relative to his game - which was 2700+ for years, because of his 2800 blocking - his forehand was relatively "weak." And yet few players came out on top by letting David hit forehands!

I'll use myself as an example. For my level, my forehand loop was below average. Did that make it a weakness? No, because during my peak years I relied on serve, receive, and footwork to constantly get it into play at the start of rallies. It might not have been an overpowering loop like some players, who'd dominate every point if they got a chance to loop, but because I was better at getting it into play, it wore down opponents, not to mention taking their own loops out of play.

Some "weaknesses" aren't really weaknesses, even if they could be improved. I use to coach Tong Tong Gong in tournaments, and he made the USA National Cadet Team twice with me coaching him in the Team Trials. The rap on him was always how weak and simple his serves were. And they were correct in that Tong Tong's serves were too simple, and needed more variation. He mostly served short backspin and short no-spin, almost always to the middle, with an occasional sudden deep serve. But what many missed was that this "weakness" was also a strength - by keeping his serves simple, Tong Tong likely had more control over his serves than just about anybody, and so could keep his serves so low that they practically skimmed the net, and then bounced low on the table. He followed all the rules on serving low. Players struggled to do anything with them, since their extreme lowness made them hard to flip, and so most players just pushed - and so Tong Tong would get the first attack, often with his nice backhand loop.

But there's another reason to get your weaknesses into play, whether they are a "strength" or not - the more you use them, the better they get. I started out with a rather poor forehand loop, but by constant use in game after game (especially at the start of rallies) it became better and better until it was no longer really a weakness. If you have a weak backhand, a weak forehand, a weak block, or weak anything, the best cure (along with drill practice) is to make it central to your game, and then you'll use it over and over, it'll get better and better, and soon it will become a strength.