Tip of the Week

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

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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.)

January 22, 2018 - Doubles Signals and Why You Should Use Them

Monday, January 22, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

When you serve in singles, you know what serve you are about to do, and so can be ready for the possible returns off that serve. Imagine playing where you had no idea what serve you did, and so couldn't prepare for the follow-up. Pretty awkward, right?

That's what happens when you don't signal your serve to your partner in doubles. He has no idea if you are serving short backspin - and so must be ready for a push or flip; topspin, and so should be ready for a drive; or deep, and so must be ready for a loop.

Sometimes the server's partner signals the serve. After all, he's the one who has to follow up, so many top doubles teams do that. Or if one of the players is more experienced than the other, then he might signal all the serves, whether he's serving or not.

Sometimes you don't have to signal the serve; you can just discuss it quietly with your partner. But that can lead to stalling, so you have to limit that. Which is why you should have signals.

Make sure to use serves that match your partner's game, not yours. If you aren't sure what types of serves he wants, ask him. The most common serving pattern in doubles is mixing in short backspin and no-spin serves (very low to the net), often toward the middle of the table to cut off the wide angle to the forehand. At lower levels, topspin serves and deep serves may work, but at higher levels they usually get attacked.

There are different signaling systems, but here's the simplest, which I've used for over forty years. You do the signals under the table, so your partner can see it, but not your opponents.

  • Backspin: point down with index finger.
  • Topspin: point up with thumb or index finger.
  • Sidespin: point sideways in the direction of the sidespin.
  • Combinations, such as sidespin-backspin: point in both directions.
  • No-spin: make a fist.
  • Long serves: It's assumed in doubles that you will serve short, so the opponent can't loop, but if you are serving deep, point at the opponents.

Some doubles teams even signal the direction of their receive (pointing under the table), so their partner can be ready. I don't normally do this as I often change the direction of my receive as I see the opponent's move, but I've had partners who do this, and it greatly helps me, especially since I'm always looking to attack with my forehand, and it makes it a lot easier to do so when you know where your partner's receive is going to be. 

January 15, 2018 - Best Way to Learn – Watch, Mimic, Practice

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Often the best way to learn table tennis is to watch a top player and mimic what you see. Pick out someone whose game or strokes you like (or ask a coach to suggest someone to watch), and just watch how they do their shots. Then copy them by shadow-practicing (practicing your stroke without the ball) until you can the shot as well as that player . . . at least without the ball. Then find a coach or practice partner and practice the shot until you CAN do it as well as the player you were copying.

Feel free to ask the player if you have any questions on how he does it. Most players are glad to help out – and since many top players spend many hours every day thinking about their game, they may be just dying to talk about it! You should also have a coach see how you are doing to really hone the technique. 

Try watching a top player just before you play a match. You'll be amazed at how much better you can do the shot in a game if you first watch someone else doing it really well. In table tennis, it's often monkey see, monkey do!

January 8, 2018 - Systematically Practice Against What You Have Trouble With

Thursday, January 11, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Often a player has trouble with something very specific, and yet only practices against it in actual games, where he only sees it now and then. This allows little chance of any type of systematic practice to develop the proper technique. The same player probably did lots of systematic practice to develop his main strokes – forehands, backhands, looping, serves, and so on. And yet, he doesn’t apply this to other aspects of his game.

For example, if you have trouble with a specific serve, it should be your quest to find someone – a coach, top player, or practice partner – to do that serve against you over and Over and OVER until you are so proficient against it you never have trouble with it again.

If you have trouble attacking heavy backspin, the same applies. Perhaps have someone feed heavy backspin in multiball so you can systematically work on your technique. Or do a drill where you serve backspin, partner pushes back heavy, and you attack. You’d want to do both of these, the multiball ball for more systematic practice, the latter because it’s more game-like.

If you have trouble blocking spinny loops, such as the ones you get when you push with heavy backspin, then have someone serve and loop against your push as a systematic drill. In fact, to maximize practice, get a box of balls and don’t even play the point out – partner serves backspin, you push, partner loops, you block, and as you do so your partner is already grabbing the next ball.

If you have a specific weakness against something, work out a drill so you can systematically practice against it until it is no longer a weakness. Or just play games, have fun, and spend the rest of your table tennis career with a fixable weakness that you’ve chosen not to fix. 

January 1, 2018 - Elbow Drill

Tuesday, January 2, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Playing the opponent’s middle – roughly where the playing elbow, the midpoint between forehand and backhand – is one of the more difficult tactics for players below the advanced level. It’s easier with the backhand, where the opponent’s right in front of you. But below the advanced level most players struggle with this. Instead, they tend to just play the corners. Here’s a simple drill where one player learns to attack the middle, and the other learns to defend against it.

The drill is simple: Player A just serves topspin to Player B’s backhand, and they rally. But B’s job is to move the ball around to all three spots – wide corners and middle – with an emphasis on attacking the middle. A’s job is to simply return every ball to B’s backhand. Once you are comfortable with this drill, do the forehand variation, where Player A serves to Player B’s forehand, and returns every ball there.

Player B should make minor adjustments when going after the middle. For example, some players cover the middle with their backhands, and so their true “middle” is a bit to the forehand side. And vice versa. Once B finds the opponent’s middle, he should put a big X on it and go after it every chance. 

When you do this drill, Player A will quickly see how difficult it is to respond effectively to a good shot at the middle. Player B will quickly see how much trouble Player A has with these shots. If they apply this to matches, both will improve. 

December 11, 2017 - Push-Button Matches - Playing the Scary All-Out Attacker

Monday, December 11, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Ever have one of those matches where you felt like the opponent completely dominated with their attack and controlled everything, and yet you won? I call those “push-button” matches. In matches like that, the opponent basically attacks everything, no matter what you do. If their shots keep hitting, they win. Since there’s nothing you can do to stop them from attacking or counter-attacking, your job is to tactically make sure their attacks are low percentage. How do you do that? Here are ten guidelines.

  1. Try not to change your own game too much. You need to focus on quality shots, and your best chance of doing that is if you play your normal game, even if the opponent is trying to attack everything.
  2. Attack first. The best way to stop an opponent from attacking effectively is to attack first. This doesn’t mean going for wild shots or forcing an attack on balls you can’t make a good shot on. But it does mean looking for every chance to attack first, especially on your serve, and forcing the opponent to go for a wild counter-arrack. If he’ll push your serve back, then serve backspin (mixed with no-spin serves) and attack.
  3. Keep the ball deep. Most often when a player is counter-attacking consistently it’s because the shot he’s counter-attacking against isn’t going deep. Loops and drives that go deep on the table are much harder to attack than ones that land shorter.
  4. Vary the spin. In fact, use every spin, from heavy backspin to no-spin to heavy topspin. This will throw off the attacking opponent’s timing.
  5. Push effectively. You don’t need to make great pushes, but your long pushes should go pretty long, normally to the wide corners, with last-second changes of direction, and be low, heavy (or varied), and somewhat quick. If you do all of these pretty well, your push is hard to attack strongly. If you do all of these well except one, that’s the part that gives the opponent an easy attack.
  6. Rush them with your first shot. If they are quicker than you, then don’t try to take them on in a quickness battle. But for the first shot of the rally, perhaps an aggressive block, you should often be able to get in a quick short, and if well-placed (to a wide corner or at the elbow), it’ll force a lot of mistakes from the opponent.
  7. Place your shots. If the opponent is mostly a forehand attacker, go to the wide corners. If he attacks equally well from both sides, go at his elbow.
  8. If there’s a certain winning shot the opponent keeps making, then force him to make different winning shots. Don’t let him beat you with his best shot – make him beat you with his second or third best shots.
  9. Throw in some varied deep serves. If the opponent is overly aggressive, he’ll likely make mistakes if you serve, for example, fast no-spin at the elbow or wide backhand; big breaking sidespin serves to the wide backhand; or sudden fast down-the-line serves to the forehand.
  10. Don’t panic if the opponent makes a few great shots. Players who go for great shots over and over will tend to make a few great shots. It’s all about percentages – so make sure the percentages favor you as much as possible. Playing all-out attackers is psychologically tough, but if you stay focused and play smart, you will often win matches where you felt the other guy dominated every rally.