Tip of the Week

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

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

Have a question about a Tip of the Week? Ask on the Forum!!!

(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.)

September 3, 2018 - The Flat Smash That Isn't

Tuesday, September 4, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Many players with good looping strokes, and others that don't, have trouble doing "flat" smashes because they don't understand what the shot is - or more exactly, what it isn't. The main thing to understand about a flat smash is that it is NOT flat. There is no such thing, in fact, as a good flat smash, except off a high ball that lands short enough so that you can hit straight on with consistency. 

The contact for a "flat" smash - which from here on I'll just call a smash - is a glancing upward blow that puts topspin on the ball. (This is against a ball that's not too high. If you are smashing a lob, then the stroke isn't really upward, but contact is still a glancing topspin stroke.) It's not as much topspin as a loop, but quite a bit more than it would seem from watching. The ball sinks into the sponge and into the wood, and then rebounds out with topspin. Without that topspin it would be difficult to control for three reasons. 

First, of course, the topspin is needed to pull the ball down. It is this topspin that gives a good hitter a powerful yet consistent smash. 

Second, hitting with an upward topspin stroke allows the player to make last-second adjustments. If you hit the ball flat, then the only way to adjust just before contact is by changing the racket angle, and it's almost impossible to control that at the last second - as a basic rule, never change your racket angle on a drive once you start your forward swing. But if you are swinging with an upward topspin stroke, you can easily increase or decrease the topspin part of the stroke as you adjust to the incoming ball. 

Third, if you do hit the ball flat, the ball will likely sail. If you hit it truly flat, it goes out like a knuckleball and shoots off somewhat randomly. If you are off by just a touch and put a tiny amount of backspin, that will make the sail out of proportion to the amount of spin on the ball, due to the ball's speed, and the ball will shoot off the end. 

If you want to see just how much a smash is an upward stroke, watch how the old hardbat players hit the ball, where their "flat" shots are actually very upward shots, essentially upward slaps of the ball. Similarly, a sponge smash (unless the ball is very high) has to be an upward glancing blow, though not as much as with a less bouncy surface. 

Here's a great way to develop your smash with proper contact. Stand at one side of the table with a box of balls, and one by one, toss them in the air and smash them, using this upward glancing blow. When you can control this shot with a satisfying "smack," you are ready to do it at the table. 

August 27, 2018 - Never Think About Winning or Losing While Playing - Excise the Thought and Play Well!

Monday, August 27, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

To some, this might be obvious. We've all had that experience where you wanted to win so badly that you get nervous, and your whole game fell apart. It might happen for a number of points, or might happen at that one incredibly important point that meant the difference between winning and losing.

The reality is that most who understand this aren't really applying their thinking on this effectively. It's not enough to know you shouldn't think about winning or losing while you play; you have to actually not think about winning or losing when you play.

How do you do this? For many, it means a big change in their thinking. Too often they play with the primary goal of winning, and if that's your primary goal, then rest assured that when it's close, and they are on the verge of winning or losing, they will be thinking about winning or losing.

Instead, make it your primary goal to play well. If you do this, then you will maximize your chances of winning, while if you make winning your primary goal, then you will essentially minimize your chances of doing so.

Making it your primary goal to play well doesn't mean you play dumb. Part of playing well is playing tactically smart. In fact, your sole thinking at the table should be tactical, though only between points. (During a point you have to let your subconscious take over - that's why you practice, to train it for exactly that, so let it do its job.)

How do you know when you've really maximized your playing by not thinking about winning or losing? When you do lose, if your goal was to play well, then there should be a moment of literal surprise when you realize, "Oh, I've lost." If you were thinking about winning or losing, this won't happen because you will have been completely aware of winning or losing - and that's exactly the type of thinking that often turns a probable win into a remorseful loss.

August 20, 2018 - How to Quadruple Your Chances of Winning Those Five-Game Matches

Monday, August 20, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

There are four main components that lead to winning close matches. Here they are!

  1. Have all of your shots going. In reality, you want to have them as ready as possible before the match starts, and by the end of game one you should be confident in all your shots. Some take longer to adjust to an opponent, but if you aren't comfortable or confident in your shots and it's already game five, you need to practice those shots and get them into play early in the match so next time they are ready when you need them.
  2. Get used to your opponent. You should be used to whatever your opponent does by the end of game one. If not, then perhaps early on in the match you need to focus on reacting to whatever it is he does that gives you trouble. If you have trouble with his slow, spinny loop, then perhaps push long and heavy on purpose one time, letting him slow loop so you can focus on reacting to it properly. If you have trouble in backhand exchanges, perhaps get into a few on purpose to focus on that. Of course, if you can tactically avoid a certain shot your opponent does, and are confident you can do that most of the time, then you can just do that - but you have to be used to and confident against whatever shots the opponent can get into play.
  3. Know what worked and what didn't. This is key - if you have a winning tactic but don't remember it, you'll probably blow the match. It's mind-boggling how often a player comes off the table thinking or saying, "Why didn't I do what worked before?" If you have a serve or shot that worked over and over, then use it. Many are afraid that the opponent is expecting it, but guess what? When you don't use that serve or shot that gave him fits, that loud sound you hear is your opponent sighing in relief.
  4. Mentally strong. If you are a nervous wreck, worried about winning or losing, you might as well concede the match. Focus on execution and playing well (including tactically well), and you'll maximize your chances of winning.

August 13, 2018 - Make Up-and-Coming Players Your Rivals - and Stay With Them!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Here's a little trick that will give you both incentive to improve, and lead to real improvement. Next time you are at your club, pinpoint someone who is perhaps a little weaker than you, or perhaps your level, but is practicing hard seems "talented," and is likely to improve beyond his currently level, and beyond yours. Often an up-and-coming junior would be your choice.

Then make it your goal to 1) play this player as often as possible, and 2) keep up with him. Turn it into a mini-rivalry. You'll be surprised at how this will narrow your thinking down to what's needed to stay with this player, and you'll find yourself developing your game as you try to keep up, week after week and month after month. By playing him regularly when you are still better you will likely get him to keep playing you, even when he's caught up or (NO!) passed you, meaning you get to continue playing him and battling to stay with him.

Much of improvement is mental, and if you truly turn this into sort of a rivalry (a friendly one, of course), you'll find yourself striving to play at levels you might not have considered before. Next thing you know you'll be practicing the shots you need to stay with him, thinking tactically, and you'll be dying to get to the club to continue this rivalry.

And guess what? All of this will develop your overall game, and so you won't just keep up with this player (at least as long as possible), your whole game will go up. This means you'll be playing against better and better competition, which will drive your level up even more. So find that up-and-coming player, make him your rival, and stay with him!!!

August 6, 2018 - Training the Subconscious

Monday, August 6, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Advanced players seem to always know exactly what shot to do and where to put it. It's one of the reasons why they are advanced. But there's no time during a point to really analyze the situation, so it's all done reflexively, i.e. the subconscious is calling the shots. How do you get your subconscious to do this? The answer is that your subconscious is always there, listening and watching, and if you let it know what you want it to do, it'll learn to do it.

For example, suppose you realize that an opponent is weak when you attack his middle (his playing elbow). Between points you can tell yourself to go after his middle every chance you can. You don't need to say, "Hey, subconscious, attack the middle!" If you keep telling yourself to do something, it'll get the message.

When it doesn't work - for example, an opponent attacks from the middle with his forehand - note when and why it doesn't work. Again, your subconscious will pick up on this, and if you decide you should attack the corners if your opponent is looking to play a forehand from the middle, the subconscious will get it - and it will start making reflexive decisions on whether to go after the middle or an open corner. The more you do it, the better you get at this and any other tactics you think about. The goal is to train your subconscious to reflexively play smart tactics in any given situation.

I've met literally hundreds of very smart people who were good tactical analysts away from the table, but tactical disasters at the table because they never went through that stage of thinking about tactics at the table so as to train the subconscious.

The converse to all this, of course - though it's not that obvious to many - is that if you keep telling yourself negative things between points, like "I can't make that shot!" or "I'm no good!" or "I'm choking!", the subconscious will pick up on that as well and reinforce and thereby magnify it,  which is why players who do negative self-talk have great difficulty improving, while those who are positive shoot up as fast as their subconscious can drive them.