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 16, 2012 - Larry's Six-Month Law

Monday, January 16, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Here's Larry's Six-Month Law. If you work hard and improve, and are finally playing at a higher level in practice, you'll generally need to do this for about six months of tournament and practice matches before you'll be able to consistently win at this level in tournaments. During those six months, you'll probably battle closely with players who were much stronger than you until your recent improvement, and occasionally you'll beat one, but mostly you'll lose close matches that, afterwards, you'll swear you should have won - often with good reason.

What's actually happening? The problem you face is that your opponents have played at that level for a much longer period of time, and so are both psychologically and tactically better prepared to win key points than you are, since you are new to that level. You and your opponent may play the same level, but when it's close, the experienced opponent who has been doing this much longer is more confident and knows exactly what to do tactically. He knows what serve to throw at you at the end of each game, how to return your serve, where to place the ball, and he's confident that he can execute the shots needed to win. You don't have this experience, and probably aren't as sure about what to do at the end of each game. Guess who wins most of those key points?

The key thing to understand is that the only thing that now separates you from your opponent is mental. When you miss a shot at a key time, and it's often the same shot you made over and over earlier, it wasn't the physical aspect that messed up, but the mental. Either you weren't confident and so messed up, or you were crossed up tactically and so were fooled into messing up. Learn from your mistakes in these close matches, pay your dues during those six months or so, and it's inevitable you'll start winning. And perhaps, just maybe, you'll be one of those players who doesn't take six months to start winning at your new level.

To reiterate: The key thing to understand is that it's mostly mental. You might as well tell yourself it's all mental, since that's pretty much true. (Here's Dora Kurimay's Table Tennis Sports Psychology page.)

January 9, 2012 - Proper Care of Your Racket

Monday, January 9, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

There are fewer things in life nicer than those first few shots with a brand new sheet of rubber right out of the package. This is especially true with a grippy sheet of inverted sponge, with its surface practically grabbing the ball and throwing it back at the opponent with topspin or whatever type of spin you choose.

If you take proper care of the inverted surface, your rubber can do this for a long time. However, many players do not clean their rubber, and so dust and grime collects on the surface, leading to a non-grippy, often inconsistent hitting surface. The ball starts to slide on the surface, and you lose spin and consistency.

You should clean your rubber after each time you play. Some do so with plain water, and that mostly works, but it doesn't really get off any oils that collect on the surface. That's why the gods of table tennis created rubber cleaners! Use the rubber cleaner at least somewhat regularly, and wash with water at other times, and the surface will retain its grippiness. I especially use rubber cleaner in tournaments or for important matches at the club, i.e. all of them.

With rubber cleaner, just spray the cleaner on and wipe with a towel. To clean with plain water, wet a corner of your towel and wipe the surface with that, then wipe dry with the rest of the towel.

However, it's not enough to just clean the surface between playing sessions - it gets dirty during a session as well. If you watch top players, you'll see a strange thing - many of them will occasionally blow on their racket and then wipe it off with a towel or on their pants or shirt. (Some will wipe it off with the palm of their hand near the bottom, which apparently is a non-oily part of the hand.) The idea is that by breathing on the paddle, you create slight moisture, enough to wipe off the dust and dirt. I do this regularly, usually every five minutes or so, and recommend you do so as well.

It's especially important to wipe your paddle off regularly if you have a new ball. New balls come with some sort of powder all over them, which leaves a dusty mark on your paddle which takes away the grippiness. With a new ball, I wipe the paddle off (using the breath method) every few points.

If you have a pips-out surface, wiping it with a cloth will help clean the surface of the pips, but it won't do a complete job, especially since most pips do not have flat surfaces. For pips, you might need to clean it with a toothbrush.

You should keep your racket covered when not in use. Normally you do this with a racket case. You can also keep in a plastic bag, but that practically screams out "amateur!" If you leave the racket out, the surface will deteriorate more rapidly in the air.

If you have a long trip to the club or tournament on a cold day, keep the racket inside the car with you. You don't want the racket to get cold, which will make it dead until it warms up, which can take a surprisingly long time. I've learned this the hard way.

Take good care of your racket, and it will take good care of you!

January 2, 2012 - Pushing and Looping Deep Backspin

Tuesday, January 3, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

If you want to play table tennis at a high level, you really should learn to loop any deep backspin ball. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are few (such as choppers and some blockers). On the forehand side, where you have a big hitting zone, you should never really need to push against a long backspin. Think of this as a given - deep backspin to your forehand means you forehand loop. Don't even think about it, just do it.

On the backhand side, ideally you should also loop any deep backspin. However, there are times where you might get caught too close to the table against a quick, aggressive push, and since the body is more in the way on the backhand than on the forehand, you might have to push. Also, you can get away with pushing on the backhand more because you have an angle into the opponent's backhand, where most opponents aren't as good attacking. Of course, some have great forehands from the backhand side, and others have great backhand loops, so it all depends on the opponent.

Learning to loop these deep backspin is a technique issue, and you should work with a coach or watch the top players to learn how to do this. However, here's one important tip - if you want to be ready to loop against deep backspin, hold your racket relatively low. Many players hold their rackets too high and so are rushed trying to get them down to loop.

Since you are going to loop deep pushes every chance you can, should you learn to push against deep backspin? On the backhand side, yes, since most players do have to do this at least sometimes. On the forehand, probably not. You may learn to push with the forehand by pushing back and forth against deep balls, but that's just to develop the shot. At the higher levels, the forehand push is done almost always against a short backspin only. Against deep backspin, many top players literally never forehand push, and if asked to do so (perhaps in a demonstration), some find the shot awkward to do since it's not something they ever practice. 

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December 26, 2011 - Balance is a Habit

Tuesday, December 27, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Recently I had an epiphany. It wasn't anything that wasn't obvious, but it was something that underlined a primary difference between hackers and pros - or more generally, between lower-level and higher-level players. And that is the habit of balance.

While practicing with a student, I hit a net ball to the right-handed student's forehand side. The student immediately reached for the ball. This put his weight on his right foot. Since he could no longer step with that foot (try it, you'll see), he was forced to lunge for the ball. He managed to reach it and popped it back on the table, an easy winner for any decent opponent. On the very next point, the student hit a net-edge to my forehand. When it nicked the net, without thinking I stepped toward where the ball was going. When it hit the edge, I took an immediate step sideways toward the ball's new direction, and without ever losing balance, reached the ball and made an easy and effective return.

The epiphany was that I didn't have to think about getting the net-edge, or reach for it, or even make a weak return, though that is often the result. The habit of balance took over, and so rather than lunging toward the ball, the years of training took precedence, with the result that I stepped to the ball, and reached the ball in perfect position to make the shot.

This is not a matter of practicing balance while returning nets or edges. It's a matter of practicing balance all the time, always stepping to the ball, always balanced, rarely lunging. (There are rare occasions where you step to the ball and then have to make a last-second lunge at a ball that's otherwise out of reach, but that's as a last resort, and only after stepping first. And you'll be surprised at how balanced you can be even when lunging.)

So develop the habit of always staying balanced, and stepping toward shots, not reaching. This makes it easy to move in any direction and ready to make a strong shot. It's that first move - stepping that keeps you in balance versus reaching that puts you off balance - that makes the difference. 

December 19, 2011 - Time-Out Tactics

Monday, December 19, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Time-Out Tactics

Each player is allowed a one-minute time-out during a tournament or league match. (Often a coach calls the time-out, but the player can waive that off if he doesn’t want one at that time, except in a team match.) When should you call a time-out? Here are some scenarios where you should call a time-out—but remember, you are only allowed one, so choose carefully. I’ve put them in order of priority. There are also times you shouldn’t call a time-out, such as when you are in the zone (i.e. focused and playing well), and a time-out might only disturb your concentration. If a coach calls a time-out and you really, really don’t think you need one (and want to save it for later), then waive him off. (You might want to let him know in advance you might do this.)

When to Call a Time-out

  1. When losing focus before a key point. This is the most important time to call a time-out. A time-out is a good way to get your concentration back.
  2. To think about or discuss tactics at a key point. Generally do this when you are about to serve, since you have complete control over choosing your two serves. If you have a coach, he might be able to help choose two serves to use. Call it when you are receiving mostly if you have a good idea what the opponent will serve, and are debating how you should return that serve. Or call it to think or discuss any other tactical plans. It’s also valuable to call a time-out when you are winning a relatively close game (especially late in a match), such as at 10-8 or 9-7, so as to clear your mind, think tactically, and close out that game. This is often when the Chinese team calls time-outs.
  3. When falling behind in a key game. It’s useful to call a time-out if you lose the first game and are falling behind in the second (since you absolutely do not want to fall behind 0-2), or if you have already lost two games and will lose the match if you lose another. The key is not to wait until you are way behind; instead, call the time-out when you are still relatively close and can still find a way to come back. The time-out allows you to make sure you are focused and to rethink your tactics. It’s also a good way to give your opponent a chance to cool off if he’s playing well—there’s nothing wrong with calling a time-out in hopes of disturbing his concentration or throwing off his rhythm.
  4. Desperation tactic. Far too many players call time-outs as a desperation tactic near the end of a match when they are way behind and are pretty much out of it, but this rarely leads to a win. If you are losing badly, why wait until you are way down in the last game? It’s far better to call the time-out earlier in the hope of not being in this situation, where the time-out will rarely help.