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.)

February 4, 2019 - Straighten the Belt and the Rest Falls into Place

Monday, February 4, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Imagine when playing that your body is a belt. If your feet are in the wrong position, or if your grip is off, then it affects everything in between. If your foot positioning and grip are both correct, then like a belt that's been straightened, everything in between falls into place. Isn't that a great analogy?

As a coach, I've noticed that most technique problems come from improper foot positioning or grip problems, although many players (and some coaches) often treat the symptoms instead of the root cause. When you fix the root cause - often the two ends, i.e. the foot position and grip - the rest often falls into place. Not always - longtime problems with foot positioning and grip can create bad habits, and they can be hard to break. But getting the two ends right is a great step in that direction, and one of the top priorities with new players so they develop good technique from the start.

January 28, 2019 - Progressive Drills to Improve Rallying Skills

Monday, January 28, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Many players rally very well in drills, but not so much in matches. Once they get into a match, they not only lose consistency, but they also rally like a drill, hitting the ball right back at the opponent rather than trying to win the point with placement. Here is a progression of drills you can do to solve this problem - but do them in this specific order. (If working with a partner instead of a coach, take turns.) The key is to first build up accuracy from both the forehand and backhand sides, then do so off random balls, while always attacking (and reacting to) the three spots you should always go after in a match – wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle. (People often forget to practice shots to the middle and reacting to such shots, and so can't do either effectively in a match.) A few notes:

  • Do each drill until you are proficient at it. After that, perhaps two minutes each as you work your way through the progression. Once proficient at each, you should be proficient at these types of rallies in matches. (You don't necessarily have to do all of these drills every practice session from here on, but once you gain proficiency in them, you should come back to them regularly as a "tune-up.")
  • The middle is where partner's elbow (roughly the midpoint between forehand and backhand) would be in a rally, typically a little to the left of the middle line (for a righty). For these shots, partner stands toward the middle and plays his choice of forehand or backhand.
  • "Side to side random" means partner goes randomly to both corners, but not middle.
  • "Complete random" means partner goes randomly to all three spots, the corners and the middle.

Drills Progression

  1. Forehand to forehand warm-up.
  2. Backhand to backhand warm-up.
  3. Forehand down the line to partner's backhand.
  4. Forehand to partner's middle.
  5. Backhand down the line to partner's forehand.
  6. Backhand to partner's middle.
  7. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's backhand.
  8. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's forehand.
  9. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's middle.
  10. Random side to side, to partner's backhand.
  11. Random side to side, to partner's forehand.
  12. Random side to side, to partner's middle.
  13. Complete random, to partner's backhand.
  14. Complete random, to partner's forehand.
  15. Complete random, to partner's middle.
  16. Both sides serve topspin and rally placing the ball to any of the three spots – forehand, backhand, or middle.

January 21, 2019 - The Grinding Mentality - How to Play It and Against It

Monday, January 21, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

The Grinder is a style of play, or really a mentality, where your single-minded focus is on not making any mistakes or iving the opponent any easy shots. This often means trying to stretch out rallies as long as possible, since the Grinder isn't making many mistakes or giving the opponent many chances to end the point. It's a defense-oriented way of playing, usually by choppers and blockers, the latter sometimes blocking with long pips on one side. It basically means you grind out each point. It doesn't mean the Grinder doesn't attack, but when he does, it's usually either to throw off the opponent's timing or to end the point off a weak ball.

Mentally, the goal here is to "break" the opponent, who becomes so impatient at finding a good shot to end the point that he starts trying low-percentage shots, and so makes mistakes and loses. Often he falls into the trap of thinking, "Jeez, he won't miss, so I better attack harder to force him to miss." This rarely works.

If you play a defensive style, you should develop the grinder mentality, where you simply refuse to miss or give the opponent anything easy to attack. If the rallies go long, you are happy, as you know the pressure is on the opponent to find a way out of these long rallies, and if he can't, you win.

But how does one play the Grinder? It's all about finding the right mixture of patience and decisiveness. First, find the weakest part of the Grinder's defense. Find out what serves, receives, and rallying shots give the Grinder the most trouble. Since they are focused on keeping the ball in play, they often are passive against deep serves, so perhaps serve long, spinny serves that give you lots of time to follow up. For receive, mostly play safe as there's no point in making an error attacking a serve when you can just push it back and look for an easier attack.

In rallies, usually the weakest spot for the Grinder is the middle, roughly the playing elbow, midway between forehand and backhand, though for many Grinders, the middle is slightly to the forehand side. By attacking the middle, you often force a weaker, erratic return as the Grinder has to decide whether to use forehand or backhand, you take away the extreme angles, and you force the Grinder out of position, often opening up a corner to attack.

But the single most important thing about playing the Grinder is being both patient and decisive. Keep picking away at him with serves and rally shots, looking for balls you can easily attack. Don't force it; if the shot's not there, don't take it. This doesn't mean you don't attack unless you get an easy ball, but that you should only attack consistently until you get the right one to end the point. Instead of trying to loop hard against the Grinder's often very good push, slow loop it, and look to see if you can end the point on the next shot. If you can't, continue playing consistent until you do get the right shot.

While you probably don't want to try beating the Grinder in a pure consistency battle - that's his strength - you also don't want to feel like you have to go for low percentage attacks. Take your time, play the percentage shots as you pick away at the Grinder's defense, and then - when you get the shot you've been working for - WHAM!!! End the point. 

January 14, 2019 - If You Can't Do It Without a Ball, How Can You Do It With the Ball?

Monday, January 14, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Shadow-practice is when you practice a stroke without the ball. It's the best way to develop proper technique and streamline your strokes, especially with help from a coach or experienced player. You do need to combine it with practice at the table, with a ball, so that you can develop the stroke with proper timing and racket angle. But trying to do all of this at once is difficult, and shadow-practice allows you to zero in on just getting the technique right.

So . . . when should you shadow-practice?

Suppose one of your strokes doesn't feel right. Do you think you have a better chance of getting it right by practicing it while also trying to hit a moving ball, or by shadow-practicing it until you make a habit of doing it right, and then doing it with a moving ball?

Suppose you miss a shot because you didn't do a stroke properly. Do you think you have a better chance of getting the stroke right the next time, perhaps in the next rally, by not practicing it until then, or by immediately shadow-practicing the stroke as it should have been done?

Suppose you miss a shot because you misread the incoming ball's spin, speed, depth, or height. Do you think you have a better chance of getting it right the next time by doing nothing, or by immediately shadow-practicing the shot as you should have done it, so your subconscious can better connect what to do with any given shot?

Do you think you have a better chance of improving your strokes by only practicing them when also hitting a moving ball, or by regularly shadow-practicing them to develop the proper technique?

If you watch the top players, especially during their developing years, you'll notice that most regularly shadow-practice their shots. When they miss a shot, many will shadow-practice the shot as they should have done it. There's a direct correlation between those who shadow-practice to get their shots right and quickly improve, and those that don't and don't improve nearly as quickly.

So . . . why not make shadow-practice a part of your practice routine?

January 7, 2019 - Top Ten Things to Remember in Doubles

Monday, January 7, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Most players play doubles as if it were just a version of singles, but that's a mistake. Doubles is actually far more complicated since there are two players on each side, so there are four different playing styles interacting, plus all the movement as players alternate shots. But you don't need to spend years mastering all these complications to play good doubles. Here's a Top Ten list of things to remember in doubles.  

  1. Signal serves. Let your partner know what's coming! Sometimes the receiver signals the serves, since he's the one who has to follow them up. Typically, signal under the table by pointing a finger down for backspin, thumb up for topspin, sideways for sidespin, and make a fist for no-spin. It's normally assumed the serve will be short, but if you are serving long, point a finger at the opponents to signal it.
  2. Serve to set up your partner. Discuss with him what he's most comfortable with.
  3. Normally don't serve long. If you serve long, it's usually easier to attack. At the higher levels, very few serves are long. At the lower levels, it might be effective if the receiver can't loop it or otherwise attack it effectively.
  4. Normally don't serve too wide. This gives the receiver a wide angle into the forehand, which could give your partner a problem. This is a triple problem, as your partner will have to cover the wide angle, he'll be out of position for the next shot, plus you might be in his way.
  5. Serve low. It's amazing how many players think their serves are low until they have to serve to someone who knows where your serve is going, as in doubles, and is receiving with their best shot. In doubles, you really need to serve low!
  6. Receive to set up your partner. Talk to him so as to find out what he is most comfortable with. You should often receive to the left, so the server gets in his partner's way.
  7. Attack deep serves. For this reason, most players receive forehand. But if you have a strong backhand attack, then there's no reason you shouldn't receive with your backhand. Some players set up to receive forehand, so they can attack deep serves, but when they see the serve is going short, will reach in and receive backhand, either pushing or flipping.
  8. Don't move too much sideways. This is the natural reaction of most players to get out of the way of their partner, but it means they are out of position for the next shot. Instead, step backwards just enough to allow your partner move in front of you. As he hits his shot, you start to move into position, and right after he hits his shot, you move into the table and into position. Try to move into position to favor your strongest shot. For example, a righty with a strong forehand wants to stand a little to the left. One special case - if the opponents play the ball wide to the right, it means your partner has to move wide to the right. If you are a righty, this is the perfect opportunity to step back out of your partner's way, move to the left, and then step in, so that you are in perfect position for the next shot.
  9. Place your rally shots. Most often hit the ball back toward the player who hit at you, or to the side away from his partner, so he gets in his partner's way. But beware giving the opponent's an easy angle they can use against your partner.
  10. No squabbling!!! When there's a problem, discuss it as teammates, because you are a TEAM.