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 16, 2019 - Topspin Defense

Sunday, September 15, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Look through almost any table tennis instructional book or video, go to almost any table tennis camp, and you'll hardly ever see or learn anything about topspin defense. (Also known as "fishing.") It seems to fall through the cracks for most coaches - it's not quite lobbing, but it's not your basic forehand or backhand drive or loop either. As a result, it is often shunted aside and ignored. But watch any tape of the best players in the world and you'll see topspin defense over and over.

What exactly is topspin defense? It's a halfway shot, half lob, half loop or drive. It is done from off the table, against either a smash or a loop kill. The ball crosses the net perhaps one to three feet high, sometimes higher or lower. It should have at least some topspin, and sometimes sidespin as well. The ball should land deep on the table, and bounce outward due to the topspin. It should be done against an aggressive drive, loop, or smash.

Topspin defense is easier and more effective with inverted rubber, but it can be done with other surfaces as well, but with less spin.

Although lobbing is a type of topspin defense, topspin defense is generally more effective if the ball is kept lower. This way the opponent has less clearance for smashing, with the ball bouncing mostly outwards instead of up. How does one execute topspin defense?

Start off from as far from the table as necessary to react to the opponent's attack. As the ball approaches, start with racket just below the ball, and use a mostly forward, slightly upward stroke. Contact the ball on the back and just "fish" it back. If you have a good loop, just think of it as a soft loop. If you are a good counterdriver, think of it as a counterdrive with a little extra topspin. Try to keep the ball deep, relatively low, and with some topspin.

Depth is key. If your shot lands short on the table, the opponent will be able to cream the ball at wide angles, often right off the bounce. But if you keep the ball deep, it's low percentage for him to do that, and since you have more time to react against a weaker ball that's not wide angled, you can get a lot of balls back. Make sure to move the opponent around to increase the chances of a mistake - either missing or a weaker attack.

However, the goal of topspin defense isn't just to wait for the opponent to miss - it's also to find a ball that you can counter-attack, usually from your stronger side, which for most is the forehand. (The body is less in the way on that side, so it's easier to counter-attack.) It's sometimes good to fish into the wide forehand, so the opponent might attack into your forehand.

To fully appreciate topspin defense, you have to see it in action. Watch a video of some of the best players. The rallies are spectacular!

September 9, 2019 - Smashing Lobs

Sunday, September 8, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Smashing a lob is more difficult than it looks. There are several reasons for this. The height of a lob makes the ball bounce upwards, something you aren't used to hitting. If it bounces higher than your head, hitting it can be awkward. When it hits the table, it jumps quickly (usually with topspin and often sidespin), making it difficult to hit unless you wait on it. But if you wait on it, it will bounce away from the table, so that you may have to hit it from well off the table, a long way from your target. And if it has spin, it can force you into additional errors. So what should you do?

When you see a lob coming, the first thing to do is to read the spin. If it has topspin, it will jump at you from the table, so don't get too close. If it has sidespin, it will jump sideways, so move to that side. You should also read the depth, and back up some for a deep one.

You should hit a lob above eye level, either as it goes up or as it comes down. If you are tall, this gives you an advantage. You should practice smashing lobs as they drop until you are consistent. If a lob lands short, you should take it on the rise. This way, you can get such a good angle on the ball that it will be impossible for your opponent to cover both sides.

Many players make the mistake of going for an outright winner even off the best lobs. It is low percentage to try to smash a good lob for a winner against a good lobber. Instead, keep smashing hard, but place the ball, usually to the backhand where most players have difficulty counter-attacking. What you want to do is to force a weak lob, one that lands short, and perhaps with less spin, and put that one away. Often a smash to the middle will force a weak lob. But be careful, you don't want to let your opponent counter-hit, so usually avoid his forehand side, until you go for a winner.

There are several advanced techniques for smashing a lob. It is a good idea against all lobs (for righties) to raise the right shoulder. This gives you a better angle on the ball. A good way to do this is to start with your weight on your right foot, then, as you transfer your weight forward, lift your right leg off the ground, raising your right shoulder in the process. Make sure you put your weight into all smashes.

Another way of smashing a lob is to jump in the air, so as to contact the ball high in the air. Although this can make you look foolish if you make a mistake, and is considered a poor method by many - yet some do this pretty well. To do it, you back up from the table, take short running start, and jump in the air, sideways to the table, with your right leg leaving the ground first. As you smash the ball, you do a scissors kick – that is, your right leg goes backwards, your left leg goes forward. This helps you thrust into the shot. By jumping into the air, you get a better angle on the ball, and contact the ball closer to the table, but it may hurt your timing. At the very least, this is a spectacular way to smash in an exhibition!

Many advanced players like to smash lobs right off the bounce, sometimes even against deep balls. This takes great timing, but once perfected, your smash becomes almost unreturnable. But it's easy to miss-time the ball, so it's usually better to take off the bounce only against a short lob.

You should generally avoid drop shots off lobs unless you think it will be an outright winner. If your opponent gets to it, you've let him back into the point. Since it is hard to drop shot a deep lob effectively and a short ball is easy to put away, a drop shot is usually a low percentage shot. However, against a very good lobber who gets into a rhythm and gets ball after ball back, a drop shot is a good change of pace to bring him in, allowing you to attack the next ball when he's too close to the table.

September 2, 2019 - Relaxing the Arm

Monday, September 2, 2019
by: Larry Hodges


One of the most common problems coaches face when coaching beginning and intermediate players is getting them to relax their arm when stroking. This writer has not only faced this problem hundreds of times as a coach but has also faced it as a lifetime weakness in his own playing game.

If the muscles in the playing arm (or any other muscle) are tight, then they will not stroke properly. The tight muscles (both the ones you are using and the opposing muscles for the opposite movement) will fight you as you stroke, costing both power and control. Instead, try to keep your arm loose--like a rubber band.

Some players can relax their muscles at will. But many think their arm is relaxed, but it's not as relaxed as it should be. If your arm isn't relaxed, then you are at a disadvantage when you play. How can you cure this problem?

To get the arm warm and loose, take a long warm-up, or perhaps shadow-stroke. Then, as you set up to receive at the start of a point, relax both arms. Let them drop by your side loosely. Take a deep breath, and make sure your jaws and shoulders are relaxed. (If you are tense, these are the most likely spots to tighten up. If they tighten up, the rest of you probably will.) Then, as the point is about to start, bring your arms up as lightly as possible. You can do the same thing on your serve - relax your arms at your side, and then bring them up when you are ready to serve.

If you absolutely cannot relax the arm on your own, it's time to take drastic action. Tense the arm muscles tightly for about five seconds. Then relax. This should help relax the muscles.

A good test as to whether your arm is loose or tight is to imagine someone grabbing your arm as you stroke. They should have no problem in pulling your arm up or down. If you resist, then your arm muscles are too tight.

August 26, 2019 - Don't Get Mad; Get Determined

Sunday, August 25, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Some players get very upset with themselves when they lose a match that they think they could have won. Some don't show it or have a frozen smile, but are just as upset or disappointed on the inside, they are just trying to be a good sport about it - but they may be just as unhappy with the result as the one who shows emotions. There's nothing really wrong with such disappointment; true champions, and future champions, hate to lose.

But how many really do something about it? Instead of getting mad, get determined. Immediately after the match, sit down with a pad of paper or other recording device, and analyze why you lost. What techniques do you need to improve to win next time? Do this while it is fresh on your mind. If you are thinking, "I could have won except for . . ." that's great - that's the first step in analyzing it. Perhaps discuss the match with someone who watched it, or even the opponent.

But then do something about it. Isolate what you need to work on, and do drills that specifically address the problem. Then more game-like ones until whatever technique you had trouble with is no longer a problem.

August 19, 2019 - Strategic Tactics

Sunday, August 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Tactical thinking is what you do to win now; Strategic Thinking is what you do to develop your game in the long run. You need both; here are two articles on this:

But there is also what I call Strategic Tactics. What are they? Suppose, in the first point of a match, you push the opponent's serve back, he loops slow and super-spinny, and you block off. You could think, "That's spinny! I better avoid it." And so, tactically, you decide you have to attack his serve or push short over and over, even when you aren't comfortable doing so - which puts you in a weaker tactical situation, since you are afraid to push long, even when the situation calls for it. Instead, perhaps intentionally push long on the second point, so that you can adjust to his spinny loop. If you do this, then you can get used to his spinny loop - and then you can go back to avoiding it when you can (attacking serve or pushing it short), while still having the option of pushing long when you need to. (Here's How to Punish those Slow, Spinny Loops.)

There are many examples of this. If your opponent has a surface you aren't very good at, or a very flat backhand, or very heavy push, rather than avoid it, play into these shots at first so that you get comfortable against them, and then go back to more tactical play.