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 10, 2020 - Stepping Around the Backhand Corner

Monday, February 10, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Since the forehand is generally more powerful than the backhand, as well as better for smashing high balls, it is often important to be able to use the forehand out of the backhand corner. An inability to do weakens your game. Of course, some players are not fast enough to do this regularly, but even they should consider doing this against certain shots.

Stepping around the backhand involves five parts: (1) Setting up the shot, (2) assessing whether to step around or not, (3) the footwork itself, (4) the shot itself, and (5) return to ready position.

Getting a shot to step around on involves good shot selection on your part, ball placement, and quick judgment. Generally, there are four shots that you might step around the backhand to use the forehand against: pop-ups, pushes, blocks or weak drives, and deep serves. Pop-ups are the easiest as they allow the most time to move into position. Blocks and pushes are more difficult because you will have less time to react.

Generally don't move until your opponent is committed - the better the player, the longer you have to wait since a good player can fake or change his direction at the last moment.

You can anticipate most pushes going to the backhand as your opponent often doesn't want to give you a forehand shot by pushing that way. Of course, besides direction, you will have to judge the depth of the return or you might find yourself trying to loop a ball that lands short.

Unless your opponent is very predictable, you will have difficulty anticipating where his block or drive is going. You'll just have to wait for him to commit, and then, if he goes to your backhand, you'll have to quickly decide if you should step around for it. The important thing is to force a weak return that you can step around on (or perhaps not, if the return doesn't go to the backhand). There are many ways to do this, such as spin (especially heavy topspin), speed, quickness, ball placement, shot selection, varying the speed and spin of your shot, and, of course, tricky serves. Experiment and see how and where your shots are returned. For example, if you are in a backhand-to-backhand exchange and you suddenly hit a quick one to your opponent's middle (his playing elbow), you might force a weak return to the backhand that probably won't be too angled. Be ready to step around, but be careful - he may go down your forehand line at the last second and all you'll be able to do is applaud his fine play.

If you have a strong forehand (relative to your backhand) but rarely step around your backhand, you will not be taking full advantage of the natural strength and power of the forehand, therefore handicapping your game. Turn your forehand into an all-table weapon!

February 3, 2020 - Did He Really Force You Out of Position?

Monday, February 3, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Players are often caught out of position, leading to the opponent hitting an easy winner to an open part of the table as you lunge for the ball. But did he really force you out of position?

For example, suppose the opponent finds a chance to hit an angled ball to your wide forehand. You run it down, but before you can get back into position, your opponent has blocked a winner to your wide backhand, and you can only wave at the ball and say, "Nice tactic." But did he really force you out of position, or did you allow it?

Most often, when the above happens, it's not really because of what the opponent did, but because of one of two things you didn't do.

First, were you really in position to cover the forehand on the first shot there? Often a player isn't positioned well, and so when the ball goes the forehand (in this example), he gets a late start, and so is already almost lunging for the ball. Result? Even if you make the return, your momentum keeps you from making a quick return back into position, leaving your wide backhand open.

Second, while making the return from the forehand side - key word is while, not after - were you pushing yourself back into position with your right leg (for righties) so that you'd follow through back to the table? Many players finish their stroke, including their follow-through, and then start their return to position. Instead, returning to the table should be part of the follow-through.

If you fix these two problems, then your opponents will find it much, much harder to force you out of position, since he hadn't been doing so before - you had been doing that all by yourself!

January 27, 2020 - Looping Slightly Long Balls

Monday, January 27, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

When a student pushes against a slightly long serve ("half long") or push, I almost always remind them that they should usually loop such balls. Inevitably, the player will respond, "The ball was too short, I couldn't loop it!" But the ball was long, they just didn't read the depth quite right.

How do you learn to read and loop slightly long balls? Here are three tips.

First, practice. Get a coach or practice partner and have them serve to you where they try to make the second bounce right about the end of your table. Your job is to either loop it or let it go. If you think it's too short to loop, by letting it go you get feedback on whether it really was too short to loop. You'll be amazed at how often it really was long enough to loop.

Second, a serve doesn't have to be truly long for you to loop it. A loop is a forward stroke (as well as up), even against backspin, and so you can go over the table some. If the second bounce is at about the table's edge, you can loop it.

Third, jam the table a bit. You can read and loop these serves better if you are looking more down on them than if you are hanging back and seeing it at an angle. As soon as you see the ball coming somewhat short, move in - which means stepping in with your left leg (for righties). This also puts you in a better position to loop with power to all parts of the table - if you are farther from the table, you'll likely only be able to loop with power to the left (for a righty). So loop away!

January 20, 2020 - Whenever You Miss, Shadow Stroke

Monday, January 20, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

This is a bafflingly simple and short tip. I'm always amazed that when a player misses a shot, he expects it to fix itself. Instead, whenever you miss a shot, make a habit of shadow-practicing the shot as you should have done it. For example, if you loop off the end, shadow-practice how you should have looped it against that incoming ball. Over the decades I've played and coached, I've seen the obvious correlation between developing players who do this, and players who improve the fastest. Guess what? If you do this regularly, then like magic, you'll start doing it right, and you'll improve. It's either magic or the habit of shadow-practicing. Which is it?

January 13, 2020 - Don't Learn to Play Every Style - Learn to Adjust

Monday, January 13, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Many players believe that they need to learn to play every style. Well, according to my calculations, there are as many playing styles as there are players in the world. No, you don't need to learn to play every style.

It's true that it's helpful to understand how to play the major types of styles. Note how I said understand. That's because a tactic that works against one player of a particular style might not work against another of that general style, and if you don't understand the reason for the tactic, you'll have trouble adjusting to many players. For example, most choppers are weak in the middle, around their elbow area where they have to transition from backhand to forehand and vice versa. (Most players are weak there, but choppers more than most.) But some very defensive choppers have learned to cover well over half the table with their backhand chops, and so if you go to their apparent middle, you give them an easy chop. Instead, you'd need to go toward their forehand side, where their true middle is. If you don't understand the reason for going to the middle, then you wouldn't be able to adjust to this chopper, especially on the fly in the middle of a match. (It's after the match that you'd realize what happened and would pound your head in frustration.)

No, you do not need to know how to play every style. What you need to learn to do is adjust to any style. It should take you one or two rallies to have figured out where the true middle of that defensive chopper described above is. But if you blindly played the middle because that's how you are supposed to play choppers, it might have taken you a lot longer to figure it out, if you ever did. I've seen entire matches at relatively high levels where strong players never did figure out such seemingly obvious things because they were blindly going with conventional tactics rather than understanding and adjusting them for a given match.

Your job early in a match - or before the match, if you can scout the player or ask others about him - is to figure out how to play this player. Try forcing your own style on him, but with adjustments for how he plays. If you make this a habit, it becomes easier and easier, until it's basic instinct. And when tactics become almost instinctive, that's when you can most easily let yourself go and play in the zone.