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.)

October 8, 2018 - Counterlooping and the Forehand Block

Monday, October 8, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

At the higher levels, most players essentially counterloop any topspin ball on the forehand side. (Many also do it on the backhand side.) But that's almost inhuman. And yet, many players try to do that. Here's the problem with doing that. 

If you play close to the table and try to counterloop everything on the forehand side, you'll be vulnerable to any strong, deep loop, since you'll have little time to react. The smart players will also vary the placement, sometimes going wide, sometimes at the middle. And so you will likely make too many mistakes. 

If you take a step off the table so you can react and forehand counterloop, you'll be vulnerable to slow, spinny loops that drop in front of you. These balls are easy to counterloop away (or smash) if you are close to the table and don't hesitate, but if you are a step off the table looking to counterloop, they are very tricky to counterloop - most players go off the end over and over. 

So what do you do? Simple - find a distance where you can comfortably forehand counterloop against most topspins, including slow, spinny ones. But also develop your "reflex block," where you forehand block against very aggressive balls to your forehand. You can also block the first one and perhaps then take half a step back so you can counterloop the next one. Since you'll only be blocking against faster loops, practice against those, and unhesitatingly counterloop (or perhaps smash) anything slower. (All of this can also apply to the backhand side, though many find counterlooping on that side trickier since the body is in the way.)

On the other extreme, many players only block against incoming loops, on forehand and backhand. That's a weakness - learn to attack a weak loop, whether by counterlooping or smashing, or at least a very aggressive block.

October 1, 2018 - How to Punish those Slow, Spinny Loops

Monday, October 1, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

It's almost a cliché that players have more trouble with slow, spinny loops than faster ones, at least below the higher levels. There's a simple reason for this - slow, spinny loops are mostly against backspin, and come out with a higher spin-to-speed ratio than a loop against a block. But guess how we practice most of our blocking against loops? You guessed it - with someone looping against your block. And so you pretty much ingrain blocking in such a rally, but are completely unprepared in a match when your opponent loops against one of your pushes or backspin serves and the ball has that extra spin, and drops more quickly than you are used to. 

When he does this, your own backspin increases the amount of spin he can produce, resulting in a spinnier loop than you are likely used dealing with. The ball arcs more sharply, drops in front of you, and jumps out at you with a low, quick bounce. When you hit the ball, the ball also jumps more than normal. So every one of these differences is working against you. 

How should you deal with it? You have to adjust to the ball bouncing shorter than you are used to, and with more spin. To deal with the ball coming shorter, you have to do three things: stay closer to the table (or step in when you see the ball coming slower and dropping short), do not hesitate, and aim lower. The reality is these slow, spinny loops are easy to attack - if you do all three of these things. If you do, you shouldn't just block; you should block aggressively, smash, or counterloop. But most players simply aren't used to dealing with this shot, and so mess up at least one of them. (Most common problem - hesitation. It takes practice to unhesitatingly go after these slow, spinny shots.) 

How do you practice against them? You could just do so in games, like most players, or perhaps do a drill where your partner serves, you push, he loops, and you play out the point. But you can get far more and better systematic practice by doing a modified multiball drill. Get a coach or practice partner, and a bucket of balls, and do this drill. Your partner serves backspin, you push, partner loops slow and spinny, and you block or counter-attack. Do not continue the rally; as soon as your partner finishes his loop, he reaches for the next ball and does it again. This allows you lots and lots of practice against a slow, spinny loop in a short period of time. And your partner gets lots and lots of practice looping against backspin. Then you switch and you do the looping. So it's a win-win drill for both.

September 24, 2018 - Top Ten Guidelines for Playing the Unconventional Style

Tuesday, September 25, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

When a conventional player plays an unconventional style, they each face a different fundamental problem. The conventional player has to deal with the fact that the unconventional player is used to playing conventional players while he is likely not as used to playing this unconventional style. The unconventional player has to deal with the fact that he has, almost by definition, an inferior style, or it would be the conventional style. The conventional player has an edge IF he gets used to the unconventional player. The problem is he often goes into the match with a number of trained habits or reactions that will hurt his play. He may even know what some of these problems are, but they are so ingrained into his game from playing conventional players that the habits are hard to break in a sport where you are forced to react quickly and reflexively. Here is a list of the Top Ten Guidelines for Playing the Unconventional Style. But remember - they are only guidelines, as unconventional styles vary. 

  1. Don't jam the table in rallies. He's more used to your game than you are used to his, so you need more time to react to his shots.
  2. Keep the ball deep. He's used to your game more than you are used to his. By going deep, you give yourself more time to react. 
  3. Serve long. If you like to serve short and attack, then you may find yourself in a trap as your opponent can hit quick, off-the-bounce returns and rush you with shots you may not be comfortable against. This is especially true against racket surfaces you are not as familiar with. 
  4. Find the weak spots. By definition, all unconventional styles have weaknesses or those styles would be conventional. Find the weaknesses and play into them. This is where it might be helpful to do some scouting or ask the advice of coaches or advanced players who are familiar with this player or style. 
  5. Experiment. Test them out early with whatever you have and see what works. 
  6. Spin or no-spin. Most unconventional styles have trouble either with heavy spin or no-spin. (The latter is especially true of pips-out, especially longer pips.) Test them out. 
  7. Do not go into game two without being completely comfortable against this style. You should fight like crazy to win game one, but don't worry about losing that game as long as you know exactly what to do in game two, and are now comfortable against this unconventional style. Ideally, you should do this earlier in the first game, but unconventional styles have a long history of winning game one and then losing three straight. 
  8. Do not rely on conventional tactics until you test them and verify they work. Before the match you should literally list all the things you do against conventional styles that likely will not work in this match. Often you will want to do the exact opposite of what you would do against conventional players. Remember that unconventional players have developed their style against conventional players, and so are often at their best against conventional tactics. 
  9. Be flexible in your tactics. If something doesn't work, try something else. If something works but stops working, put it aside and try something else, and perhaps come back to it. Often the unconventional player can adjust to any one tactic, but cannot do so against multiple options. So work out multiple options against whatever he does and make him uncomfortable. 
  10. Keep your cool. It's very easy to mentally fall apart early in a match against an unconventional player. Accept the fact that his unconventional play is often based on the idea of throwing weird stuff at you, with the idea of forcing you into mistakes. But in so doing, he's also playing a weaker style. So don't worry about making a few careless mistakes or even blowing a game. Once you figure the player out, you can come back from almost any score - as long as you keep your cool and focus. 

September 17, 2018 - Development of an Outrageously Great Spin Serve

Monday, September 17, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Here are six steps to doing so!

  1. Spin and catch. Practice tossing the ball up, spinning it with your paddle, and catching it. Do this over and over, in various ways with different spins, until you can put an outrageous amount of spin on the ball, with different types of spins.
  2. Spin the serve. Now do the same thing at the table, where you focus, again, on putting outrageous amounts of spin on the ball. Don't worry at first about serving legal or low, just get lots of spin on the ball. As you get better, make sure you are doing so legally (especially the six-inch toss) and low to the net.
  3. Spin with variations. Now that you can serve with outrageous spin, learn to do different variations. Try serving with backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. And don't forget one of the great serves of table tennis - fake that outrageous spin, but contact the ball near the handle with a stiff wrist so there's no spin, and then exaggerate the wrist and arm motion after contact - i.e. "heavy no-spin."
  4. Spin with semi-circular deception. Now is where you add real deception. Use a semi-circular motion in your serve. For example, for a forehand pendulum serve (i.e. racket tip down), start with a downward motion, then go sideways, and then up, all in a smooth semi-circular motion. Depending on where you contact the ball in this semi-circle, you'll get different spins. If on the down, backspin. If on the sideways part, sidespin. If on the upward part, topspin. Plus the in between spins - if you contact on the ball as the racket moves down and sideways, you get sidespin-backspin. If you contact the ball on the sideways and up part, you get sidespin-topspin - which tends to be trickier to learn with this particular serve, but comes with practice.
  5. Spin with quick, deception motion. Now that you can serve all sorts of different outrageous spins with a semicircular motion, it's time to shorten and speed up the motion. By making it shorter and quicker, it's harder for the opponent to read what direction the racket was moving at contact. And then, just after contact, move the racket in a different direction, further throwing off the receiver.

Perfect these steps, and you too can have an outrageously great spin serve, with great spin and deception - and with practice, there's no reason why you can't do this as well as the pros.

September 10, 2018 - Develop Ball Control by Playing with Different Surfaces

Monday, September 10, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Today's tip will be controversial. Some might not agree the following, but I've found it to be consistently true, and it makes sense if you think about it.

Have you ever noticed how some players seem to have great ball control? They can seemingly adjust to any shot and make nice, smooth returns. How do they do this? They do it because they are in the habit of adjusting to incoming balls. Some do this somewhat naturally. Others are in more of a rut, with their subconscious stubbornly doing what it's used to doing, and so not adjusting to balls that are different. These players need a little extra, more extreme practice.

You can and should practice against shots that give you trouble with your regular racket. But using the same racket all the time minimizes the amount of adjustment you must make. If you really want to learn to adjust to anything, try something more drastic. Get a different racket - slower or faster blade or sponge, short pips, hardbat, sandpaper, even wood - and play with it for a while. As you adjust to this different playing equipment, you are literally training your subconscious to make adjusting a habit.

Then, when you go back to your normal racket, your subconscious will have this new adjusting habit. Instead of stubbornly doing what it is used to doing - and so not adjusting to incoming shots, leading to a lack of consistency and ball control - your subconscious now has the habit of adjusting, and so you'll suddenly have consistency and ball control. You don't need to do this very often; a few times is enough. Give it a try, and see if it works!