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.)

February 18, 2019 - Judging the Depth of a Serve

Monday, February 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the things coaches stress is that you should be aggressive against deep serves. (A short serve means that, given a chance, the ball would bounce twice on your side; a long serve would only bounce once.) Against a short serve, you can rush and angle the server by taking the ball quick off the bounce, plus you can drop the ball short. But against a deep serve, you can't do this, so a passive return gives the server an easy attack. If the server has a weak attack, that might be okay, but in most cases, if you don't attack deep serves, you put yourself at a disadvantage as the server gets an easy attack.

But to attack the deep serves you first have to recognize that the serve is long. How do you do this?

Imagine an outfielder in baseball running down a fly ball. (Or any other sport that involves judging the trajectory of a thrown or hit ball.) He doesn't do mathematical calculations to judge where the ball will drop. He simply watches the ball as it rises, and from that, with experience, he learns to judge the arc the ball will take. And so, after time, a good outfielder can immediately run to almost exactly where the ball will drop.

It's the same thing in table tennis - not just in judging whether a serve is long, but on ANY shot. With experience, you learn to judge, as the ball is leaving the opponent's paddle, where it will go. (Advanced players take this to another level and often know where the ball is going before contact, by watching the ball and racket as they approach each other.) When an opponent serves, it's the same thing. Watch his paddle, and as the ball bounces off of it, you should be able, with practice, to almost instantly judge its trajectory. If you can do that, you'll immediately know if it's long or short.

More specifically, you'll see how fast the ball comes off the paddle, how downward it travels (which lets you know high it will bounce, which is part of the trajectory), as well as the spin. (Topspin will make it bounce out at you, and so usually goes long, while backspin slows it down, and is more likely to pull the serve short.) Advanced players can judge the depth reflexively as the ball is leaving the paddle or sooner. With practice, you should be able to do so before the ball bounces on the server's side of the table.

You do have to judge it quickly as it takes time to set up an attack. So how can you practice this? Get a coach or practice partner and have them serve to you! Ideally, have them do "half-long" serves, where the second bounce, given the chance, would either bounce very close to your end-line, or just off it. You get to judge which it is. It can be difficult to tell if a ball is going to go one inch long or short, but you should be able to judge it so that if the ball goes six inches off, you always loop it. And then four inches, and so on. Top players are masters of judging this to within an inch or so, and instantly jumping on serves that go too long.

February 11, 2019 - Wanting to Win Versus Hating to Lose

Wednesday, February 13, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

These are both great incentives in practice. Some want to win so badly that they'll practice, hour after hour, to achieve their goals. Others hate losing so much that they'll use it as incentive to train forever to avoid it. A little of both often helps.

The problem comes when you have to play a match - and that's when hating to lose becomes a problem. For some, it might help in practice, but in a match it's a quick way to choke away as you nervously play to avoid losing rather than playing to win. If you play to win, then you'll focus on doing what's needed to win, and you'll be so focused on that that you won't even think about losing, and so won't get nervous or choke.

Where are you on the "Want to Win" vs. "Hate to Lose" spectrum? Here's a simple test. If, at the instant that you lose a close match, you are surprised, that means you were focused on winning, which is what you want. If, however, you are not surprised at that instant, you were focused on not losing, and that very type of thinking might be what brought on the loss.

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February 4, 2019 - Straighten the Belt and the Rest Falls into Place

Monday, February 4, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Imagine when playing that your body is a belt. If your feet are in the wrong position, or if your grip is off, then it affects everything in between. If your foot positioning and grip are both correct, then like a belt that's been straightened, everything in between falls into place. Isn't that a great analogy?

As a coach, I've noticed that most technique problems come from improper foot positioning or grip problems, although many players (and some coaches) often treat the symptoms instead of the root cause. When you fix the root cause - often the two ends, i.e. the foot position and grip - the rest often falls into place. Not always - longtime problems with foot positioning and grip can create bad habits, and they can be hard to break. But getting the two ends right is a great step in that direction, and one of the top priorities with new players so they develop good technique from the start.

January 28, 2019 - Progressive Drills to Improve Rallying Skills

Monday, January 28, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Many players rally very well in drills, but not so much in matches. Once they get into a match, they not only lose consistency, but they also rally like a drill, hitting the ball right back at the opponent rather than trying to win the point with placement. Here is a progression of drills you can do to solve this problem - but do them in this specific order. (If working with a partner instead of a coach, take turns.) The key is to first build up accuracy from both the forehand and backhand sides, then do so off random balls, while always attacking (and reacting to) the three spots you should always go after in a match – wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle. (People often forget to practice shots to the middle and reacting to such shots, and so can't do either effectively in a match.) A few notes:

  • Do each drill until you are proficient at it. After that, perhaps two minutes each as you work your way through the progression. Once proficient at each, you should be proficient at these types of rallies in matches. (You don't necessarily have to do all of these drills every practice session from here on, but once you gain proficiency in them, you should come back to them regularly as a "tune-up.")
  • The middle is where partner's elbow (roughly the midpoint between forehand and backhand) would be in a rally, typically a little to the left of the middle line (for a righty). For these shots, partner stands toward the middle and plays his choice of forehand or backhand.
  • "Side to side random" means partner goes randomly to both corners, but not middle.
  • "Complete random" means partner goes randomly to all three spots, the corners and the middle.

Drills Progression

  1. Forehand to forehand warm-up.
  2. Backhand to backhand warm-up.
  3. Forehand down the line to partner's backhand.
  4. Forehand to partner's middle.
  5. Backhand down the line to partner's forehand.
  6. Backhand to partner's middle.
  7. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's backhand.
  8. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's forehand.
  9. Alternate forehand and backhand, to partner's middle.
  10. Random side to side, to partner's backhand.
  11. Random side to side, to partner's forehand.
  12. Random side to side, to partner's middle.
  13. Complete random, to partner's backhand.
  14. Complete random, to partner's forehand.
  15. Complete random, to partner's middle.
  16. Both sides serve topspin and rally placing the ball to any of the three spots – forehand, backhand, or middle.

January 21, 2019 - The Grinding Mentality - How to Play It and Against It

Monday, January 21, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

The Grinder is a style of play, or really a mentality, where your single-minded focus is on not making any mistakes or iving the opponent any easy shots. This often means trying to stretch out rallies as long as possible, since the Grinder isn't making many mistakes or giving the opponent many chances to end the point. It's a defense-oriented way of playing, usually by choppers and blockers, the latter sometimes blocking with long pips on one side. It basically means you grind out each point. It doesn't mean the Grinder doesn't attack, but when he does, it's usually either to throw off the opponent's timing or to end the point off a weak ball.

Mentally, the goal here is to "break" the opponent, who becomes so impatient at finding a good shot to end the point that he starts trying low-percentage shots, and so makes mistakes and loses. Often he falls into the trap of thinking, "Jeez, he won't miss, so I better attack harder to force him to miss." This rarely works.

If you play a defensive style, you should develop the grinder mentality, where you simply refuse to miss or give the opponent anything easy to attack. If the rallies go long, you are happy, as you know the pressure is on the opponent to find a way out of these long rallies, and if he can't, you win.

But how does one play the Grinder? It's all about finding the right mixture of patience and decisiveness. First, find the weakest part of the Grinder's defense. Find out what serves, receives, and rallying shots give the Grinder the most trouble. Since they are focused on keeping the ball in play, they often are passive against deep serves, so perhaps serve long, spinny serves that give you lots of time to follow up. For receive, mostly play safe as there's no point in making an error attacking a serve when you can just push it back and look for an easier attack.

In rallies, usually the weakest spot for the Grinder is the middle, roughly the playing elbow, midway between forehand and backhand, though for many Grinders, the middle is slightly to the forehand side. By attacking the middle, you often force a weaker, erratic return as the Grinder has to decide whether to use forehand or backhand, you take away the extreme angles, and you force the Grinder out of position, often opening up a corner to attack.

But the single most important thing about playing the Grinder is being both patient and decisive. Keep picking away at him with serves and rally shots, looking for balls you can easily attack. Don't force it; if the shot's not there, don't take it. This doesn't mean you don't attack unless you get an easy ball, but that you should only attack consistently until you get the right one to end the point. Instead of trying to loop hard against the Grinder's often very good push, slow loop it, and look to see if you can end the point on the next shot. If you can't, continue playing consistent until you do get the right shot.

While you probably don't want to try beating the Grinder in a pure consistency battle - that's his strength - you also don't want to feel like you have to go for low percentage attacks. Take your time, play the percentage shots as you pick away at the Grinder's defense, and then - when you get the shot you've been working for - WHAM!!! End the point.