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.)

December 4, 2017 - How to Mess Up Your Opponent When Forced to Make a Weak Shot

Monday, December 4, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

No matter how much you train you will sometimes find yourself out of position and having to reach or lunge for a shot. It’s not something you want to do; it’s something you have to do in those hopefully not-too-often situations. Most players understand the importance of trying to keep the ball at least low in these situations. But there’s a lot more you can do to win the point.

Just getting the ball back weakly might work at the lowest levels, but it doesn’t work beyond that. Instead, you need to do something to make the shot tricky for the opponent so that he doesn’t have an easy winner. Here are five ways to make the opponent uncomfortable. Some players will automatically argue that they are just trying to keep the ball in play and can’t do any of these, but that’s because they haven’t tried and are still thinking like a beginner.

  1. Depth. By keeping the ball deep you keep the opponent farther away from his target (your side of the table) so that he’s more likely to miss, you give yourself more time to react to his shot, and you cut off the extreme angles the opponent can attack to. That’s a triple whammy.
  2. Angled placement. Even if you are reaching or lunging, you can aim your paddle to a wide corner, forcing your opponent to move and thereby increasing his chances of a mistake.
  3. Last-second change of direction. If you aim for one extreme angle, the opponent will likely move in that direction, and then, at the last second, you can go the other way, completely messing him up. Often this means aiming crosscourt, then going down the line.
  4. Spin. Even when lunging you can spin the ball. Putting a good topspin on the ball can be tricky for some, but even when reaching or lunging for the ball you can give the ball a good backspin. You can even put some sidespin on the ball. In some situations you can even let the ball drop below table level (where the opponent might not even see your contact) and sidespin the ball back, perhaps even faking the opposite sidespin after contact, which can catch the opponent off guard.
  5. Heavy no-spin. If you fake backspin but just meet the ball so it has little or no spin, you’ll be surprised how many players lift it right off the table. 

November 27, 2017 - The Non-Playing Arm

Tuesday, November 28, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Many players do not use their non-playing arm properly. Often the problem is that you can sort of get away with not using the non-playing arm in many drills – either static ones, where you aren’t moving (i.e. working on basics with beginners), and often in moving drills where you know where the ball is going and so don’t have to make sudden unexpected changes in direction. And so players will sometimes get lazy and let their non-playing arm just hang there like a dead snake. (I call it “dead snake syndrome.”)

Often the consequences of a limp non-playing arm aren’t apparent as they affect your ability to recover from a shot – meaning it doesn’t so much affect the shot you are doing as much as it does the next shot. And then, rather than blaming the slow recovery on the lack of balance and fixing the problem, they call out, “I’m too slow!”

There are really three things about the non-playing arm you should focus on.

  • Keep the arm and hand up in your ready position for balance, making it easier to make quick starts, using the arm as a counter-balance.
  • It should be used as a counter-balance to your playing arm while rallying. This is especially true when making big forehand shots, but also true on big backhand shots if you turn sideways. It’s also used as a counter-balance when reaching in for short balls to the forehand.
  • When making big forehand shots, where the body is rotating in roughly a circle, not only is your playing arm side moving forward, but the non-playing arm side should be moving backwards – so you should essentially be pulling back with that arm, adding to your power. 

November 20, 2017 - Three Simple Side-to-Side Drills

Monday, November 20, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most table tennis movement is side-to-side, and so you need to practice this a lot. Here are three drills you should be doing - but only do the second when you are proficient with the first, and only do the third when you are proficient with the second. At all levels you should do all three, even the more basic first one - just do it faster and quicker. All three drills can be done either with a partner, where you return each shot to the same spot (partner's forehand or backhand - most often it's the backhand), or with a partner or coach feeding multiball. 

  • Drill One: Side to Side Forehand and Backhand. Your partner hits the ball side to side, alternating. Your focus is on consistency and strong shots. As you advance, take the ball quicker. 
  • Drill Two: Side to Side Random Forehand and Backhand, Two Spots. Your partner hits the ball randomly either to your forehand or backhand. Your focus is on reacting, not anticipating. Make sure your first move is the right move. Don't rush - you have more time then you think. 
  • Drill Three: Side to Side Random Whole Table. Your partner hits the ball randomly anywhere, focusing on going to the corners and middle (your playing elbow, roughly midway between forehand and backhand). Your focus is on reacting, not anticipating, while also covering shots to the middle. Make sure your first move is the right move. On shots to the middle favor your strongest shot, whether it's forehand or backhand, but make sure to move into position to do so. 

November 13, 2017 - How to Play Doubles with a Much Stronger Player

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

What are the best tactics when playing doubles with a much stronger player? This often happens in rating doubles. Many believe that a more balanced team has an advantage over a more lopsided team, but that's mostly true only if the balanced team is experienced playing together. In general, I have found that a lopsided team that plays smart generally is favored against a more balanced team. This is because they can play tactics that allow the stronger player to make more of the decisive shots. 

Tactically, there are five things the weaker player should focus on when playing. The key thing to remember is that your stronger partner will likely dominate, if given the chance, since he's stronger then the two more evenly matched opponents. So give him every chance to do so. 

  1. Confidence. The weaker player is probably a bit intimidated, since his partner is much stronger, and he's the weakest player at the table. If his team loses, it's mostly because of his mistakes. However, this is the wrong way to look at it. Assuming this is a rated doubles event, then the only reason the strong player is eligible is because he's paired with a weaker player. So the thinking should be, "Without me, you can't even compete!" It's extremely important that the weaker player not be intimidated or he'll play poorly. His goal shouldn't be to outplay his partner or even his opponents, who are stronger players; his goal should be to play his level or better, and to play smart
  2. Serving. If the weaker player's serves are easily attacked, then he put his stronger partner on the defensive right from the start of the point. This is a double-whammy - a lopsided team should be at their absolute best when the weaker player is serving, since this means the stronger player gets to make the first shot. If the weaker player’s serves allow the opponents to take the initiative, then it potentially puts them at their weakest. In the large majority of cases, the single most important thing here for the weaker player is to be able to serve low and short, with either backspin or no-spin. Ideally, he should practice in advance so he can serve short, low serves. If he does this, it stops the opposing team from making strong returns, and allows the stronger partner to dominate the point. This is the single most important thing a weaker player can do in preparation for playing doubles with a stronger player. 
  3. Keep the ball in play with well-placed shots. Don't take your stronger partner out of play by constantly going for (and often missing) risky shots. If you are an attacking player, perhaps tone your attack down some for consistency. If you loop, focus on consistent loops, not trying to rip the ball. In general, try to keep the ball deep so your partner has time to react to the opponent's shots. In general, by keeping the ball in play without giving the opponent easy attacks or put-aways, you allow your stronger partner to dominate. And guess what? When he dominates, you get equal credit for giving him the opportunity to do so.
  4. Don't hesitate to end the point. This may seem contradictory to the idea of keeping the ball in play, but it is not. The stronger player will often force easy balls to put away, and the weaker player shouldn't hesitate to end the point when he gets one of these. The key is that he must focus on keeping the ball in play until he sees an easy put-away - and then unhesitatingly put it away. 
  5. Get your strengths into play. Whatever your best shots are, if you don't use them, your level goes down. Therefore, you should work with your stronger partner to find chances to get your best shots into play. Sometimes this will contradict some of the above, so you have to find a balance.

November 6, 2017 - Become Your Own Feedback

Monday, November 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

You should make it a habit to be aware of how you win and lose points. If you do this, it will become second nature, and you’ll have immediate feedback when you play on what you need to do to improve, both tactically (what you do in a given match) and strategically (how you develop your game).

For example, are you aware of how likely you are to get the shot you are looking for with each of your main serves, and how likely you are to win the point with them? How often you win with each of your receives off of each of the opponent’s serves? How often you win with the various placements of each of your shots? What types of loops, blocks, pushes, and other shots work, and with what placements (including depth), spins, and speed? The questions are seemingly endless, but all you need to be aware of are the main ones in any given match.

This doesn’t mean you rely completely on yourself all the time. You should also make it a habit after a match to sometimes ask opponents for their feedback, and have coaches or experienced players watch you play (or play you) and get feedback from them as well. In these cases, you are essentially getting feedback on your own feedback to see if it is accurate. You may find your own perceptions of what happens do not match what others see, or there might be something important that you are missing, and so you might have to re-evaluate your perceptions.

Ultimately, when you win or lose a match, you should know why – including both what worked and didn’t work in both wins and losses – and know what you need to work on to improve, both tactically and strategically.