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.)

April 10, 2017 - First Step to Blocking Well is Taking That First Step

Monday, April 10, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

We all do it at least sometimes, either out of laziness or bad habit (or more specifically, lack of a good habit). The opponent attacks, and the ball is perhaps foot or two away, or maybe just a few inches, and rather than step to the ball, allowing us to use our honed blocking technique, we instead just reach for the ball, and improvise the blocking stroke. You can get away with it to an extent, but the cost is an erratic block.

In the large majority of cases, it’s not that the player isn’t quick enough to take that step; it’s a matter of not having the habit. It doesn’t matter if the ball is one foot away or one inch, the stroke should start with your stepping into position so you can have a repeatable stroke, rather than an improvised, awkward one. Even against an extremely hard-hit shot you should reflexively be stepping toward the ball even as you reach for it.

You shouldn’t think of it in terms of whether or not you have to step to the ball. You should assume you have to step to the ball, and be flexing your knees slightly as the opponent is hitting as you prep yourself to move. And then, 99% of the time, you step to the ball, even if it’s just a one-inch step. To develop that habit takes practice, but with practice, it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll have a much better block! 

April 3, 2017 - Coaching Tournament Matches

Monday, April 3, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

[This is an excerpt from Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers.]

Many players either give or receive coaching at tournaments at some point. But what magic words of wisdom can a coach say between games that can transform a losing game into inspired victory?

If I had those words, I’d sell them for a lot of money.

Not having those words to give to you, here is the next best thing: what type of things you can say, as a coach, to get the most out of the short time you have between games with your player. It might not transform your player into a member of the National Team (or maybe it will), but it might turn a close loss into a victory, and might even make a lopsided match close.

Start by judging the player’s emotional state. Is he too tense? Too lackadaisical? If the first, your first job is to calm him down. If the latter, you must wake him up.

If you are coaching an overly excitable player, make sure to be calm and relaxed when you speak to him. Speak slowly and clearly. Tell him to take his time and clear his mind. If he is angry with himself, you have to get him to put that aside, maybe even say a joke to get his mind off whatever is bothering him. You have to clear his mind.

If the player seems lackluster, this doesn’t mean you do the reverse and talk fast and excitedly. (An interesting idea!) Tell him to fight! Use your own emotions to psych him up. Perhaps be a little excited. Let him know that his match is important, and perhaps he will start to think so as well. Note that a player often wants to win a match badly, and wants to try hard, but cannot get himself up for the match without help. You are that help.

Now that your player is properly psyched up and/or calm and relaxed, what do you tell him? The basic rule is: Not Too Much.

If you fill your player’s mind with ten intricate tactics for winning, all you’ve accomplished is confusing your player’s mind. He’s not going to remember much of it, if any. It’s best to decide the most important things, and forget the rest. Keep it simple. Remember KISS, which in this case can be for “Keep it Short and Simple.”

Remember the very start of chapter one? “Tactics isn’t about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work.” Remember this both when you play and when you coach.

A good breakdown of advice between games would be, at most, two or three things about serving, one or two things about receiving, and one or two things about rallying. But remember that less is often more—you don’t want to come up with the maximum number of items for each of these three areas. Sometimes you might only do perhaps one thing about serve, one about receive, and one about rallying. Or perhaps some other combination of two or three things.

During a rally a player can’t stop and think about each shot. The only time he can do that is when he is serving. Therefore, service tactics are the most useful ones that can be given, and the most easily followed.

Service tactics can be broken down into the same two types as they were in the chapter on Service Tactics: set-up serves and trick serves. Set-up serves are those that the player should use most often, i.e. perhaps serve short backspin to the forehand and follow with a loop, or maybe serve fast and deep and following up by hitting. Trick serves are those that a player can use to get a “free” point, but can only be used occasionally, such as a fast down-the-line serve to the forehand, or a fast no-spin to the middle. A good coach can figure out which of these types of serves will be most effective.

Receive tactics are often very specific. Should the player loop the deep serve? Against short serves, should the player mostly flip, push short, or push long? Should he return serves to the forehand or backhand side? But remember to remind the player to vary the receive. Often a player, in following the coach’s advice, becomes predictable.

Rallying tactics are the hardest for most players to follow—they can’t stop and think over what to do, and usually they’re busy getting back into position, rather than being in a ready position as when receiving. Give simple and more general strategy, such as “Stay close to the table,” or “Look for chances to attack his middle.” Or the generic, “Play aggressive!”

Service tactics should often be combined with how the serve should be followed up, since that’s normally the whole purpose of the serve. For example, you may tell a player to do a certain serve mostly short to the forehand and follow with a loop mostly to the opponent’s elbow.

One thing that often comes up: when coaching kids, don’t talk down to them. Literally. Squat down to their level. Deep down, it’s psychologically intimidating to have to crane your neck to look up at a coach, who is looking down at you while spewing his words of wisdom.

Also be careful about being preachy when coaching. Make it a two-way thing—there’s no crime in asking the player what his tactics are, and then expanding on what he’s already doing. Before a match, before I say anything tactical, I sometimes ask the player I’m coaching, “What’s your game plan?” If he has a good one, then all I do is expand on it.

Stay upbeat and positive. If you’re not happy with what the player is doing, there’s a temptation to be negative or start lecturing in a preachy fashion. This doesn’t help. Instead, stay positive as you coach. Always remember that what may seem simple from the sidelines isn’t always so simple at the table.

Never bring up the opponent’s rating. If the opponent is higher, it might intimidate your player, while if it’s lower, it puts pressure on them to win against this “weaker” opponent. Never mention how important the match is or anything else that might bring unneeded pressure to the match. In fact, do the opposite to remove pressure. I often tell players to imagine it’s just another match at the club.

Make sure you are familiar with a player’s game and skills if you are coaching him. The last thing you want to do is tell him to do something he isn’t able to do at a proficient level, or isn’t comfortable with. You might want to ask the player to let you know if there’s anything you are saying that he’s not comfortable with—otherwise you may never find out, and your coaching may be counter-productive.

Except occasionally at the beginning levels, between games is not the time to talk about technique. It’s too late; techniques have to be ingrained in advance. Occasionally a coach can spot a basic technique flaw that was causing the player to miss, but it’s rare that the player can make an adjustment on the fly in the middle of a match. However, there are exceptions.

Sometimes a coach doesn’t even have to coach much; sometimes all a player needs is someone he can explain his tactics to, to help him clarify his own thinking, though you should speak up if you have something to add. A good coach should be a good listener before and after matches, and even during a match, within the constraints of the short amount of time he has between games and in time-outs (one minute in each case).

A coach might also want to call a time-out at a key point in a match. See the section on this in the chapter on Conventional Tactics. Remember that the final decision on whether to take a time-out is the player’s, so I always tell my players in advance that if I call a time-out, but they feel they are focused and know what to do, they should turn it down and save the time-out for later when they may better need it.

Now for the clincher. If you are a player and don’t have a coach when you play, you can follow the above and coach yourself between games. Break things down as shown above, and pretty soon you’ll be your favorite, most reliable coach. 

March 27 - Serve and Forehand Loop

Wednesday, March 29, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a common slogan in table tennis was “One gun is as good as two.” This was back in the days of the all-out forehand attacker. Many of the dominant players (especially from Asia) would mostly just block on the backhand – often aggressive jab blocks, but not penetrating attacks – and end the point with the forehand. Some would relentlessly attack with the forehand, others would use those quick backhand blocks to set up the forehand, but the game was mostly centered around the forehand attack, whether it was smashing or looping.

While the art of the all-out forehand attack is dying out, most of the top players still strongly favor the forehand, and often still cover the whole table with it when they can, though they don’t force it as often as players from the past. But there’s one time where top players will still sometimes relentlessly use the forehand – and that’s to follow up their serve. The whole idea of the serve is to force at least a slightly weak ball, and that’s all that’s needed for a top player to end the point – and the forehand is usually best for that.

So how do you go about developing a serve and forehand attack? Here are ten guidelines. (I’m assuming both players are righties; lefties and those playing lefties will have to adjust. Note that serve and forehand attack was my specialty during my playing days!)

  1. Depth of Serve. In general, long serves can be attacked and so are harder to follow up with a forehand attack. So most often you’ll want to serve short. However, generally not too short – if you serve to short, the opponent can take it quick off the bounce and both rush you and angle you. He can also drop the ball short. The “ideal” third-ball attack serve is one that, given the chance, would bounce twice on the other side, with the second bounce as deep as possible, ideally an inch or so inside the end-line. With this depth, a receiver can’t really rush you or angle you, and so you can follow with a forehand attack more often. But vary the depth – sometimes serve very long (first bounce near the end-line) or very short (especially to the forehand) to force the receiver to have to guard against many things.
  2. Placement of Serve. Below are guidelines. The key is to favor the best placement, but vary it so the receiver has to guard against them all, forcing more mistakes.

    -If you serve short to the backhand, you give the receiver a wide angle into your backhand, making it difficult to follow with a forehand. If you have fast feet, this can still be effective as you can crowd your backhand corner, knowing the receiver has no angle into your forehand and can only go down the line there.

    -If you serve short to forehand, you give the receiver a wide angle into your forehand. Since you have to guard against this, it leaves you open to a down-the-line receive into your backhand, taking away your forehand attack. However, many players aren’t comfortable returning down the line against a short serve to the forehand, and automatically go crosscourt, giving the server a third-ball forehand attack. So it depends on the receiver.

    -If you serve short to the middle, you take away both extreme angles and have less total table to cover. This is generally the best placement if you want to follow your serve up with a forehand attack. The down side is it allows the receiver to choose whether to receive forehand or backhand, and so he can use his better side. 

  3. ​​Spin Variation on Serve. Many of the best third-ball serves are backspin serves, since they will often be pushed back long, allowing you to attack. However, if you overdo this, you make things rather easy for the receiver, who can push your predictable backspin serve back more and more aggressively. Instead, vary the serve. One of the best variations is to fake backspin and instead serve a very low no-spin serve. Receivers will often pop it up, and their pushes will have less spin than if they pushed against backspin. Also throw in sidespin and sidespin-topspin serves. The more you mix up your spins, the more problems the receiver will have. Key for all of these serves, especially no-spin serves, is to keep the ball low. This both makes it harder to attack the serve, and often makes passive returns even more passive.
  4. Types of Sidespin on Serve.
    • -If you serve a left sidespin (such as a forehand pendulum serve, racket moving from right to left), then the receiver will tend to return the ball to your backhand side. Perhaps more important, it makes it tricky to return to the wide forehand, and so you can often stand more to your backhand side, allowing you to follow your serve with a forehand attack, even from the wide backhand. Most forehand attackers prefer attacking from the backhand side as it puts them in position to follow up with another forehand attack. This type of sidespin serve is best done to the middle or backhand. If you do it short to the forehand, you have to guard against the angle into your forehand, giving the receiver an easy return down the line to your backhand, which is easier to do against this type of sidespin. This doesn’t mean you don’t ever do it short to the forehand, but it should mostly be as a variation unless the receiver struggles against it.
    • -If you serve a right sidespin (such as a backhand serve, tomahawk serve, or reverse pendulum serve), then the receiver will tend to return the ball to your forehand side, especially if you serve it to the forehand side, where it’s awkward for many to go down the line, especially against this type of sidespin. This allows a relatively easy forehand attack. However, it also puts you on your forehand side, and so the opponent can block your attack to your backhand, taking away your forehand. It’s for this reason that many forehand attackers prefer to attack out of the backhand side, and so tend to favor left sidespin serves. This type of sidespin is also effective to the middle, as it will usually still be returned toward your forehand side, but with less angle. It can also be served into the backhand, though many players find that sidespin to the backhand easier to handle than a sidespin that breaks away from them.
  5. Positioning After the Serve. Where should you stand after your serve? There’s a simple way of determining this. Imagine a somewhat aggressive return to your wide forehand. Stand as far over to your backhand side as you can where you can still just cover that wide forehand shot. If the receiver can make more than just a somewhat aggressive return to your wide forehand, then you need to position yourself to cover that – and more importantly, work on your serves so opponents can’t attack them so easily.
  6. Ready Stance. Make sure after your serve you go into a ready stance where you are ready to move in either direction – weight on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent, relatively wide stance. Flex your knees slightly as the receiver is hitting the ball as this will save you time in starting your movement. The key is to be ready for that first step, no matter which direction it is. 
  7. When to React. Most players wait until they see where the receiver has hit the ball before moving. But you should move well before that – a receiver normally commits to a shot before contact. If you watch their swing when they receive, you can learn at what point you can see where they are going. Generally, by the time the receiver starts his forward swing you should be able to see where and what his return will be, and so should be moving into position to attack. Some players, mostly advanced ones, can disguise or change their shot or placement later in their shot, so watch out for that – but even they have to commit to a shot before contact.
  8. How Hard to Attack. Many players think that they need to rip the ball every chance. That’s usually a mistake. Instead, look to make well-placed aggressive attacks that put pressure on the opponent (winning many points outright) and set you up for the next shot. If you see an easy winner, by all means take it, but focus on placement more than sheer speed. Against a heavy backspin, sometimes the best option is a very spinny, deep loop, which sets you up for the next shot. (The very slowness of your shot even gives you time to get into position for the next shot.) In general, there are two types of placements when you attack. If you see an open corner, that’s where to go. Often opponents guard against the crosscourt, leaving themselves open to down the line attacks. Or they can only cover to the corner, leaving themselves open to more angled attacks. But assuming the opponent is in position and can cover the corners effectively, usually the best place to attack is right at the opponent’s playing elbow. It forces them to make a split second decision between forehand and backhand, leading to many mistakes and weak returns, and it takes away any extreme angles for their returning, thereby allowing you to continue to attack, often with the forehand.
  9. Follow Through Back into Position. It’s not enough to serve and forehand attack; you have to get back into position for the next shot. The key here is to follow through back into position. If you do a forehand from the wide forehand side, follow through back to your left. If you do a forehand from the wide backhand side, follow through back to your right. You may want to position yourself using the same positioning rule used for after your serve – as far to your backhand side as you can be while still covering a moderately aggressive return to your wide forehand.
  10. Mentality. If you want to have an effective serve and forehand attack game, you must have the right mentality for it. First, you must commit yourself to the idea that unless the receiver does something to stop it, you are going to serve and forehand attack. (This also applies to the two-winged attacker, who can commit to attacking from either side unless the receiver does something to stop it.) Second, understand that getting into position to attack with the forehand is more about proper preparation and reaction than foot speed. If you are in very bad physical condition, then you probably aren’t going to be running around playing forehands all over the place, but if you are in reasonably good shape, you can at least do this at the start of a rally, especially after your serve. 

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March 20, 2017 - Everything You Wanted to Know About Down the Line

Monday, March 20, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players attack mostly crosscourt. There are good reasons for this – you have more table, and doesn’t give the opponent an extreme angle away from you on the return. But many players way overdo this. So let’s examine the facts about down-the-line attacks.

  1. Down-the-line is 9 feet. Crosscourt is about 10 feet 3.5 inches. That’s an extra 15.5 inches, making it a safer attack. But if you overdo it, it’s low percentage, since your opponent will be camped over there expecting it.
  2. Opponents often leave down-the-line open. When they see you attacking, they’ll immediately cover the crosscourt angle. Most players fall for this, since they are afraid that if they attack down the line, they’ll be open to a crosscourt angled return. It’s a legitimate concern – if the opponent is covering that line. At all levels, even among top players, there are many who guard against the crosscourt attack, and so are very good at it, relying on opponents who are afraid to go down the line.
  3. Aim crosscourt, go down-the-line. From the wide forehand, set up and backswing to attack crosscourt – then, at the last second, rotate your shoulders to the right and go down-the-line. The opponent will likely have moved to cover the crosscourt and you have an easy winner. Similarly, when doing a forehand attack from the backhand side, set up and backswing as if going crosscourt – then whip your shoulders around vigorously, taking the ball a little quicker, and go down the line. Again, it will often be an ace.
  4. What to do after a down-the-line attack. Since your opponent has an extreme crosscourt angle to block into, your ready position after your attack should be far enough in that direction that you can cover that angle – but you have to get there quickly. Don’t finish your follow through, and then move into position; you should follow through into that position. When you do a forehand from the wide forehand, you can use the momentum from your swing and from the right-to-left weight shift (for righties, reverse for lefties) to help get back into position quickly. When attacking a forehand from the backhand side, your weight should finish on your left foot (for a righty), and so you can push off that during your follow-through to get back into position.
  5. Practicing down-the-line. It’s great practice to attack down-the-line to a practice partner’s block. If you can attack this way consistently, then crosscourt is easy, plus down-the-line attacks in a match situation becomes natural from practicing that way. 

March 13, 2017 - Warm Up the Shots You’ll Be Using

Monday, March 13, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

One of the strangest things I see repeatedly at tournaments is watching players warm up for a match without warming up the actual shots they’ll be using. Most warmup with forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand, then perhaps looping versus block (and vice versa), perhaps a little footwork. Some will play out points, thereby technically using (and therefore “warming up”) all the shots that they use in game play, at least against that practice partner. But are they really maximizing the benefits of such a warm up?

Examine your game and see what shots you actually use in a match. Warming them up in the free-play of playing out points isn’t the most efficient way to warm each of them up. Instead, you want to systematically get each shot warmed up. That’s why experienced players come in early so they have extra time to get each shot ready.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you serve in a match? Of course, and yet how often do you warm up your serves? Or are your serves so basic that they don’t need a warm up? If so, then you better practice your serves until they are more front-line weapons that need warming up. Any serve you have will be better if you warm it up, which leads to more and varied spin, and better control. Better control means you serve lower to the net, more accurately to the opponent’s side, and with the depth you choose. Warming up deep serves is especially important, since they are most effective if they go very deep on the table – but can you really risk serving that deep without risking serving off if you don’t warm up the serve?

Then there’s the receive. Do you warm this up, or try to do so one receive at a time in an actual tournament match? That’s not every effective, and likely will lead to many early losses. Instead, arrange with your partner to do some receive practice, where you throw common serves at each other. Probably over half of tournament serves are forehand pendulum serves to the backhand, so why would someone play a tournament match without warming up against this serve? Better still, scout out your early-round opponents to see what serves they use, and try to get warmed up against them.

And then we get to the actual shots you use in a match. Forehand to Forehand, backhand to backhand, and looping against block are a good start, but what about looping against a push? Isn’t that what loopers will be doing over and over in a match? And yet many only loop against the block, then try to get this shot going in the heat of a tournament match. Do some serve and loop drills with your practice partner – serve backspin, he pushes, you loop. When it’s your partner’s turn, that’s when you warm up your block against an opening loop against backspin, which is usually spinnier than one against a block that most players warm up against. (And then they wonder why, in the tournament, they block off when the opponent loops against backspin.)

Oh, did you forget about your backhand loop? Yes, everything you warm up on the forehand needs the same treatment on the backhand. Amazingly, many players “forget” to warm up their backhand loop, and wonder why they aren’t comfortable using it in a match, especially early on.

Then there are all the other shots you might use, both forehand and backhand – pushing (both short and long), smashing, flipping, counterlooping, perhaps some off-table defense – chopping, fishing, or lobbing. If it’s something you use in a match, you should warm it up. If you sometimes lob, do you think you’ll lob better in the middle of a match without warming it up or if you do a few in advance to get the feel of the shot?

Lastly, you don’t want your first points you actually play to be in a tournament match. So after your shots are warmed up, play out some points. Some play games; most just play out the points for practice, with whoever has the ball serving. Play real points, with real serves, just as if they were tournament matches. Mentally, play it like it’s your first-round match. Then, when you do play your first match, you’ll feel like you are already into the second round, mentally and physically warmed up and ready to play.

So perhaps put together a checklist of all the things you need to warm up for a match, and bring it to tournaments as a reminder. It doesn’t have to be completely comprehensive; there are dozens of loop variations, for example, and you might not be able to warm them all up in the time allocated. (That running off-the-bounce inside-out sidespin forehand counterloop might not make the list.) Perhaps create two lists: things you must warm up, and things you should warm up.