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.)

May 7, 2018 - Serve and Attack . . . Almost Always

Monday, May 7, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

When serving, don't look for a ball to attack. Unless the receiver does something to stop you from attacking, serve and attack over and over. If you aren't confident in your attack, then this will make your attack much stronger and turn you into a better player.

There are tactical exceptions to this, but they are relatively few. Defensive players such as choppers and blockers might serve and only attack if they see a relatively easy attack, but even they should look to serve and attack every chance so as to develop their attacks. Against a receiver with a weak attack you might tactically wait for a better shot rather than force the attack off your serve against a relatively good return - but even there it's good practice to serve and attack so you keep getting better at it. Sometimes it's good tactics to catch your opponent off guard by not attacking, such as a sudden drop shot or quick push against a player expecting you to attack and not ready to attack themselves. But generally, and perhaps even relentlessly, you'll find more success if you serve and attack whenever the receiver doesn't do something to stop you from attacking.  

None of this means you have to serve and rip a winner every time. You only do that if you do get a relatively weak return. Attacks should be varied - forehand or backhand; hard, medium, or soft; usually deep, but when attacking more softly vary the depth; to the opponent's middle (elbow) or wide corners, or even outside the corners; and with varying amounts of topspin and sometimes sidespin. Never serve and blindly attack; attack, but attack with purpose!

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April 30, 2018 - Weaknesses Can Be Strengths

Monday, April 30, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

If you have a weakness, you try to avoid using it, correct? That's the normal thinking. However, sometimes a "weakness" can be a strength, plus (perhaps more importantly), if you use a weakness over and over, it might become a strength, or at least stop being a weakness.

Here are two examples of a "weakness" being a strength. David Zhuang was six-times U.S. Men's Singles Champion. He was a pips-out penholder with a blocking backhand and hitting forehand. What was his "weakness"? Surprisingly, it was his forehand. He had a 2800 blocking game, especially on the backhand, and this raised his level so high that his forehand actually became his weakness. And so, relative to his game - which was 2700+ for years, because of his 2800 blocking - his forehand was relatively "weak." And yet few players came out on top by letting David hit forehands!

I'll use myself as an example. For my level, my forehand loop was below average. Did that make it a weakness? No, because during my peak years I relied on serve, receive, and footwork to constantly get it into play at the start of rallies. It might not have been an overpowering loop like some players, who'd dominate every point if they got a chance to loop, but because I was better at getting it into play, it wore down opponents, not to mention taking their own loops out of play.

Some "weaknesses" aren't really weaknesses, even if they could be improved. I use to coach Tong Tong Gong in tournaments, and he made the USA National Cadet Team twice with me coaching him in the Team Trials. The rap on him was always how weak and simple his serves were. And they were correct in that Tong Tong's serves were too simple, and needed more variation. He mostly served short backspin and short no-spin, almost always to the middle, with an occasional sudden deep serve. But what many missed was that this "weakness" was also a strength - by keeping his serves simple, Tong Tong likely had more control over his serves than just about anybody, and so could keep his serves so low that they practically skimmed the net, and then bounced low on the table. He followed all the rules on serving low. Players struggled to do anything with them, since their extreme lowness made them hard to flip, and so most players just pushed - and so Tong Tong would get the first attack, often with his nice backhand loop.

But there's another reason to get your weaknesses into play, whether they are a "strength" or not - the more you use them, the better they get. I started out with a rather poor forehand loop, but by constant use in game after game (especially at the start of rallies) it became better and better until it was no longer really a weakness. If you have a weak backhand, a weak forehand, a weak block, or weak anything, the best cure (along with drill practice) is to make it central to your game, and then you'll use it over and over, it'll get better and better, and soon it will become a strength.

April 23, 2018 - Are You a 10-8 or an 8-10 Player?

Monday, April 23, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Some players play best when their back is to the wall - when they are down 8-10, they come alive and play like champions. Others are best when they are ahead and have more confidence in going for their shots or playing their game - and play best when they are up 10-8. Or perhaps it's earlier in the game when a player might play his best when he's up or down, such as at 3-7 or 7-3.

If you are one of these players, then you should take advantage of it. Suppose you play best from behind. Then when the score is 0-0, imagine that the score is 8-10 - and do this every point! It's especially effective near the end when nerves become a bigger factor - so if you are an 8-10 player and find yourself leading 10-8, image it's 8-10, and vice versa.

This isn't a perfect system. Often a player comes alive near the end of a game because he's gotten used to the opponent, so you might have to work your way into the match, and use this mental technique only after you have done so. But once you are into the match, start imagining the score where you play your best, and you'll likely play your best. If you do this enough, soon you won't have to do this - from habit, you'll mentally begin to play your best at any score.

April 16, 2018 - If You Miss a Practice Session, You Will Know

Wednesday, April 18, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

The great writer Ray Bradbury wrote, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, "Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know."

This quote applies to most pursuits where you might want to reach a high level, including table tennis. However, it only applies if you understand what Bradbury was actually saying. To some, he was merely making a factual observation. However, if that's your interpretation, I believe you are missing the point.

To one who wishes to reach a high level in something - anything - it is the thinking involved that Bradbury was referring to. While it might be true that after two days of not practicing, the critics would know, and after three days, the audiences would know, what's key is that first day - that if he did not practice for one day, he would know.

Why is this important? Because a champion has high standards or he would not be a champion, and so must set those standards himself, and not rely on what the critics or audiences think. He knows that to reach and maintain those standards, he must practice every day, excluding rest days (generally once a week). And after those rest days, when he knows he's missed a day, if he's a champion (or wants to be a champion), he'll be raring to go, to make up for that missed practice day.

Not everyone has time to practice every day, and you don't have to strive to be a champion in every endeavor. But you too should set a standard for how often you need to practice to reach your particular goals, and when you miss a session, you will know, and will strive to make sure it doesn't happen again. Hopefully, you won't miss so many that the critics and audience will know!!!

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April 9, 2018 - How to Return Nets and Edges

Monday, April 9, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

There are two main problems with returning nets and edges. First, they catch you off guard because they come out unexpectedly in unpredictable ways. And second, there's no way to practice against them systematically.

Except . . . neither of these statements are correct. Why is that?

It is true that you never know when the opponent is going to get a net or edge, so it's unexpected, and it's true that they will come out in unpredictable ways, depending on how they hit the net or edge. But they should not catch you off guard - you should always be ready for anything. This means being in a ready position ready to react to anything, and that includes "unexpected" nets and edges that come out in "unpredictable" ways. Yes, they usually lower your chance of making a good return and winning the point, but that's no different than if the opponent faked a smash and instead did a short drop shot. You just have to react and do the best you can.

It's also true that you can't systematically practice directly against nets and edges. Note the word "directly" that I stuck in there, because you can indirectly practice against nets and edges. How? By always training to be as light on your feet as possible, in a good ready position, ready to react and move in any direction needed. This allows you to quickly react to "unexpected" and "unpredictable" shots, including nets and edges.

Now let's suppose you've trained to always be ready to react to anything, and so you managed to get to that net or edge and are about to make a return. What do you do with it? In most cases, you should focus on controlling the ball back deep on the table, ideally with topspin or backspin. You should also place the ball. For example, against a strong forehand player who likes to play forehands from the backhand side, you might fake toward the backhand side, and then just roll, push, or chop the ball to the wide forehand, catching him going the wrong way. Or if he's s slower player with a strong forehand, perhaps fake to the forehand, then return deep to the backhand. The key is depth (which makes it harder for the opponent to rip the ball, or to attack at wide angles, plus giving you more time to react to the his shot), and doing something to mess him up, whether by putting spin on the ball, placing the shot, or faking one way and going another.

And there's one other key thing to returning nets and edges: Don't Panic!!! Often players get flustered by such shots. Stay cool and react as best you can, and you'll be surprised how many points you can win off these shots. Don't worry about the unreturnable nets and edges - you have no control over them - and instead focus on the ones you do have control over, and try to win those points.

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