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.)

November 25, 2019 - Serving from the Forehand Side

Monday, November 25, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

If you watch the top players serve, one thing you'll notice is that the vast majority of them serve various types of forehand pendulum serves mostly from the backhand side. There's a reason for this - it puts them in a better position for the next shot, especially if they want to favor the forehand if they get a weak return. It also allows them to get used to a limited number of returns - if they serve from the forehand side, they have to get used to returns that come at them differently. But players do this so mind-numbingly often that receivers are used to this type of serving. (Some top players do use tomahawk or even backhand serves from the forehand side, but these are relatively rare.)

A few years ago Baltimore Orioles star shortstop J.J. Hardy visited the Maryland Table Tennis Center. He was probably the best table tennis player in non-table tennis professional sports, at least in the U.S. - about 1850-1900 level. He had strong shots from both wings, but had one very unorthodox thing - his best serve was a forehand pendulum serve from the forehand side. Against MDTTC players, over and over they struggled with this serve since they had literally never seen it coming at them from this angle before! The ultimate test was when J.J. played against a 2400 player - and he struggled with the serve as well. As he put it, "I've never seen anyone serve that serve from the forehand side."

There are a number of advantages of serving from the forehand side. Here's a listing. (For this, I'm assuming both players are righties or both lefties.)

  1. It forces the receiver to adjust to a serve he rarely sees.
  2. It gives an angle into the short forehand, so that you can serve there and force an opponent with a good backhand flip to receive forehand. If you serve short to the forehand from the backhand side, there's no angle, and so the receiver can just reach over and flip with the backhand. If a receiver tries to "cheat" and move over to receive backhand, you can serve quick down the line and catch him out of position.
  3. Against players below the top levels, many players can't receive effectively down the line against a serve short to the forehand. And so you can serve from the forehand side short to the forehand and then just camp out on that side, following your serve up with a big forehand.
  4. If you are a strong two-winged player, the serve leaves you in perfect position to follow the serve up from both wings, depending on the return.
  5. A tomahawk serve from the forehand side that breaks wide to the receiver's forehand, but goes off the side of the table so that the table is in the way of the receiver, is an extremely effective serve. It's very hard to loop, since the table is in the way. Lefties do this all the time to righties, serving forehand pendulum serves from their backhands that break outside the righties forehand side, with the table in the way. The serve can be effective even if done very deep. Because it breaks away from the receiver, he tends to reach for the ball, causing two problems - first, he loses control as he lunges for the ball, and second, he tends to lower his racket as he reaches, and so lifts the ball off the end.

So why not take a couple steps over and experiment with these serves? And if they work for you, then that's one more tool in your tactical toolbox.

November 18, 2019 - "Proper Way" is What Works for You

Monday, November 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Kids are almost always taught the "proper way" to play by coaches. But older players sometimes already have bad habits or have developed an unconventional playing style. Should they also be taught the "proper way" to play?

The answer is . . . it depends. Some older players may simply want to play like the top players. An older player who is a good physical athlete might also want to learn to play like the top players, i.e. the "proper way," since they have the athleticism to do so, even if they are learning it late. In general, if you want to become a good player, it's usually best to learn the "proper way," and focus on learning the tried and true techniques that are used by top players.

And yet . . . this isn't true for everyone. If you've spent years trying to develop a strong forehand and failed, but have developed a really good backhand and a nice blocking game, perhaps you should forget much of the "proper way" and focus on dominating with your backhand and blocking game. This doesn't mean you should stop trying to develop your forehand - the better it gets, the better you'll be - but perhaps, at this point, it's best to focus on having a forehand that doesn't lose for you, and then you can win with your backhand and blocking. Or pushing. Or whatever else you actually do well.

Similarly, if there's a technical flaw in one of your strokes, but you've done this shot that way so long that it's ingrained, it might be better to just go with that shot, and learn the rest of your game the "proper way."

There's nothing wrong with having something unique in your game that isn't the "proper way" - in fact, it'll win you matches since opponents aren't used to it. However, it's best not to go overboard. Surround these unorthodox strokes or tactics with an otherwise solid game i.e. the "proper way" - and you may reach a higher level than if you just mindlessly try to play the way the top players play.

November 11, 2019 - Three Spots or Two?

Monday, November 11, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When a coach refers to "playing the three spots," he's referring to playing both wide angles, and the middle. (The middle is not the middle of the table; it's the mid-point between the opponent's forehand and backhand, usually around his playing elbow.)

In any match, you should be playing all three of these spots. The only question is how often to go to each spot, and what types of shots to each. For example, a weak ball to the middle makes it easy for the opponent to set up his best shot (such as a big forehand or backhand loop), and so going to the middle is mostly effective when you attack it. Against a player with a big forehand, you'd only go to the forehand when the opponent is out of position or to draw him out of position. And so on.

But many players are what I call "two-spot" players - players where you mostly want to focus on two spots. For example, against a player with a big forehand but a weaker backhand, you might want to pin them down on the backhand by attacking that side. But if you only go to one spot, then the opponent's weaker side might just get warmed up and won't be so weak. So it'd be better to go to the backhand and middle (perhaps a touch to the backhand side, to avoid that big forehand), and force the opponent to move side to side with his weaker backhand.

If you play a player with the Seemiller grip or convention penhold - these players use only one side of their racket - they often have less middle weakness, and so you might focus on going to the wide corners. (This is almost always true against a Seemiller player. Some conventional penholders can be weak in the middle.)

Against a player with a strong backhand but less powerful forehand, you might focus on moving him around on the forehand side, and so focus on going to the wide forehand and middle (perhaps slightly to the forehand side).

So try to find out in matches what type of an opponent you are facing, one where you want to go regularly to all three spots, or focus on two.

November 4, 2019 - How to Push Extremely Heavy

Monday, November 4, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

A heavy push can cause havoc when done at the right time, and sometimes is all that's needed to take away an opponent's effective attack. How do you do this shot?

First, keep in mind that it's not enough to just have lots of backspin. It also needs to be low, deep (unless you are pushing short, a different type of push that usually isn't as heavy), well-placed (usually to a wide corner, sometimes to the middle against a two-winged looper), deceptive (sometimes aim one way then go the other), and somewhat quick to rush the opponent (either off the bounce, with some pace, or both).

To get that extra bite on your heavy push, here are some tips.

  1. Use wrist. Bring the wrist back before contact and then use both wrist and forearm to smoothly accelerate the racket.
  2. Accelerate through contact. You want the racket accelerating right through contact.
  3. Graze the ball with a relatively open racket. The more you graze the ball, the more spin you'll get. In fact, if you graze it enough, you'll have to put extra energy into the shot to make it go deep, since most of that energy is going into spin.
  4. Grippy rubber. You simply get more spin with a spinny rubber.

How do you develop this shot? Practice! You can do this both with regular practice and in games. One mistake many make is having two players both practicing their heavy push at the same time. Result? You develop a really nice heavy push against an incoming heavy push - and then, in games, you pop the ball up against serves and pushes that aren't equally loaded. The best way to develop your heavy push might be to have someone practice their serves, where they vary from heavy backspin, side-backspin, and no-spin, and you learn to push heavy against all of them. (Chop down against no-spin to keep it low. You can even push against short topspin/sidespin serves by chopping down at contact.)

Then, as the ultimate practice, try to win practice matches with your newly-developing heavy push. Find someone who likes to serve short and then loop, and see if you can win by loading up your receives with heavy backspin - but remember to push deep, well-placed, deceptive, and quick & fast!

October 28, 2019 - A Lightbulb in Your Head: Mindless Swinging or Tactical Shot-making?

Monday, October 28, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When you see a top player go for - and usually make - a big shot, is it mindless swinging or tactical shot-making? Actually, it's both.

There are two times when a top player normally goes for a big shot. First, of course, is against a weak ball. From years of training, they are mindlessly efficient at putting anything weak away - and that's not only high balls, but also balls that don't put any type of pressure on the player - from speed, spin, placement, depth, deception, or even extreme lowness.

But sometimes a top player will also rip a winner off a seemingly difficult ball. Is this a mindless, perhaps brainless lucky shot? Sometimes yes, but other times it's because, despite the seeming difficulty of the shot, the player instinctively reads the ball perfectly and is in perfect position, and so is not only able to make the shot, but knows he can make the shot. Two examples might be an opponent who smashes or loop kills the ball right into the player's middle forehand, allowing a relatively "easy" countersmash or counterloop; or perhaps a low, heavy, deep, and angled push - but the player simply reads it perfectly and is in perfect position for the shot, and instinctively realizes this, and so he takes (and usually makes) the shot. It's as if a lightbulb has gone off in his head telling him to take the shot.

And so these seemingly mindless shots are actually high-percentage tactical shots, but only because of years and years of practice and training. And yet . . . they are also mindless. Why? Because, as with all table tennis shots, it is the trained subconscious that guides these shots. The conscious mind just gets in the way. And so while it might be years of training that allows the player to do these shots, the shots themselves are essentially done mindlessly.

How does this apply to non-top players (or top player wannabes)? You too should be training to make these shots. This doesn't mean you should constantly be looking to rip winners (except off weak balls - though even there it's best to only go at maybe 80% and rely just as much on placement), but that you should jump on balls that, after enough training, you realize you have read and are in position for, and then make strong shots. As you get better, your shots will get stronger and stronger . . . until, one day, you might be that "top player" making those "mindless shots."

I often undergo this "lightbulb going off" in my head that tells me that I've read a ball perfectly and am in perfect position for it (as well as when I get a "weak" ball), and when I do, I take the shot - and it usually hits. You too can develop this "lightbulb" instinct. Alas, for most non-top players who often go for big shots, there is no lightbulb going off, and it is just mindless swinging, with little distinguishing between whether they've really read the ball or are in position for the shot - and so their shots are erratic and low-percentage. How to overcome this? Slow down your attacks except when you really see a weak ball or are certain you've read the ball perfectly and are in position for the shot, and soon distinguishing these type of shots will become subconscious habit - and that lightbulb will start to go off in your head.