Tip of the Week

A Tip of the Week will go up every Monday by noon.

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

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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.)

August 29, 2011 - Suggested equipment for beginning and intermediate players

Monday, August 29, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

I'm not an EJ - Equipment Junky - and I long ago gave up trying to keep track of the seven trillion different rubbers and rackets. When I started out in 1976, the choice was basically Mark V, Sriver, or D-13, and then it was an earth-shattering event when Butterfly came out with Tackiness. So I'm not going to give specific recommendations on exactly what equipment you should get.

Good technique (from coaching and training) can take a beginner rated 500 to 2500 and beyond. Better equipment may take an 1800 player to 1825, perhaps 1850, i.e. he'll be a little better against his peers. (I'm assuming you at least have something reasonable to start with.) However, having the right equipment is important, and here are my recommendations.

1) Beginners and others not that familiar with what's out there need to go through a period where they try out the various rubber and rackets just so they know what the choices are.

2) Once you find something that fits your game, generally stick with it unless your game changes or there's a major equipment breakthrough. (Equipment breakthroughs generally take place about once every five years or so, though you'll see headlines on "new" breakthroughs every six months.) This doesn't mean you shouldn't try out the equipment of others, and occasionally change if you find something you like. But don't get into the habit of constantly changing or you'll never really get comfortable with any equipment. Most breakthroughs are for the most advanced sponges designed for advanced players, and so won't apply to you unless you are at least an advanced intermediate player.

3) Most players use rackets that are too fast. I recommend a medium speed blade for beginners, a medium to fast blades for more advanced players. Few should use the ultra-fast blades that are on the market as few can control them. (I can't.) The other key is it should simply feel right when you hit with it.

4) Most players used a flared grip. Some use a straight grip, which generally seems to help the backhand. A few use others, such as anatomic. Try them out and see what feels right.

5) If you are playing regularly, and your racket isn't too fast, then you can use modern sponges. I don't recommend sponges with built-in glue effects for beginners, but you do want something modern and relatively fast. Later you can try out the bouncier stuff, which is mostly for looping. Start out with something in the 1.5 to 1.9mm range. 

August 22, 2011 - Strategic Versus Tactical Thinking

Monday, August 22, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

What's the difference? Strategic thinking is how you develop your game. Tactical thinking is how you use what you have to win. For example, if you have a good loop, a strategic thinker would think about what types of serves will set up your loop, and develop those serves in practice sessions. A tactical thinker would think about what serves will set up your loop in a match against a given opponent. Strategic thinking takes place during the developmental stage of your game--which never ends as long as you are still practicing. Tactical thinking takes place while preparing for and playing a specific match. You need both.

Suppose you have a weak forehand attack against backspin. When an opponent pushes heavy to your forehand, you have to tactically choose whether to use your weak forehand attack (perhaps using good ball placement to make up for the weakness of the attack), or whether to just push it back. Tactically, these are probably your only options. Strategically, you should note this weakness in your game, and go practice it so next time you aren't so limited tactically.

Are you developing your game strategically, i.e. giving yourself the weapons you need tactically? Are you developing your game tactically, i.e. learning to use the weapons you have developed strategically?

August 15, 2011 - The Book on Your Game

Monday, August 15, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The Book on Your Game

If you can't write a book on your game, either you don't know your game or you don't have a game. It's as simple as that.

Most likely, if you are reading this tip and are at least a semi-serious player, you do have a game. So what is your game? What are your strengths, weaknesses, and in-between ones? How do you serve, return serves, and rally to get your strengths into play and dominate, while avoiding using your weaknesses? When do you use your other shots (shots that are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but something in between)? While you don't want to tie yourself down on what you'd do in any given situation, you should have a specific repertoire of shots you favor in any given situation, and be able to pick and choose from among those shots in any given situation, based on your opponent's game. Above all else, how do you dominate a match?

Not everyone's a writer, and few of you are actually going to write a book on your game. But you should be able to at least outline the book on your game, and have the entire book in your head. If you can't, then perhaps you need to think about your game and get to know it. Or, if you are new to the sport, develop your game, and get to know it as it is developed. 

August 8, 2011 - Playing Lefties

Monday, August 8, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The problem with playing lefties is two-fold: first, their shots come out differently than righties, and second, your natural ball placement to a righty is usually wrong against a lefty. The first part is more or less a matter of playing lefties until you get used to how their shots come out. The two shots from a lefty that most commonly mess up a righty are aggressive crosscourt backhands to the wide forehand, and their serves, especially forehand serves into your forehand that break away. (Hint - if you wait until the last second and then lunge for the ball as it breaks away, you're probably going to miss. Since you probably lower your racket as you lunge, you will probably go long.) It's just a matter of getting used to these shots.

One trick for returning a lefty's forehand serve into your forehand is to aim the ball down the line to the lefty's forehand. The lefty has to be ready to cover that shot, and so at the last minute you can take the ball crosscourt into their backhand. (This is assuming they are stronger on the forehand; if the reverse, you may do the reverse.)

Assuming you are comfortable against a lefty's shots, then the key becomes tactical. Where do you want to play your shots? For example, against a righty, you might play steady shots to the backhand, knowing the opponent can't put his backhand through you - but now that same shot goes into a lefty's forehand, where he may have more power. Or you might play quick shots to a righty's forehand, if your backhand is quicker than the opponent's forehand - but now that shot goes into a lefty's backhand, which not only may be as quick or quicker than your backhand, but also gives him that wide angle into your forehand.

So you may want to rethink your basic ball placement shots - but also use the reverse. Against a lefty, now you can hit quick, aggressive backhands crosscourt into their wide forehand; now you can lock them up on their backhands with your forehand into their backhand. Plus now you can use your own forehand pendulum serve that breaks into their forehand. (Though here the lefty has an advantage - he's probably more used to a righty doing that to him than you are used to a lefty doing it to you.)

So there are really three basic keys to playing a lefty - the aforementioned getting used to their shots and ball placement. However, the latter is really two things - learning (instinctively) what shots you do against righties that you don't want to do against lefties, and learning (also instinctively) what shots you normally don't do against righties that work against lefties. 

August 1, 2011 - Jerky Strokes and Jerkyitis: World's Most Rampant Table Tennis Disease

Monday, August 1, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Many players have jerky strokes that make them look like a marionette on a vibrating bed. Jerky strokes mean the player is mostly using one muscle for the stroke, often at near full-power, which is nearly impossible to control. It's better to use more muscles smoothly, i.e. at less than full power, for control as well as more power since you are both using more muscles and are smoothly accelerating into the ball rather than trying to jerk your stroke at full power at the last second.

Jerkyitis is a horrible disease, according to top-secret papers from the Center for Disease Control. It cannot be cured. Like an accent a person has when learning a language at an older age, there will always be a bit of stiffness in your shots. But it can be controlled, just as that person with an accent can still develop conversational skills. How do you learn to control your jerkiness? By not rushing your shots, by relaxing your arm, and not trying to consciously guide your shots during a rally.

To avoid rushing your shots, you may need to take a quarter- or half-step back to give yourself more time to take a more relaxed shot. Players who suffer from jerkyitis often are jammed at the table, taking every ball right off the bounce, and doing so only grudgingly since they look like they to want to take the ball before the bounce. This is actually okay for a mostly blocking style, but for most shots, it's a symptom of jerkyitis; left untreated, your game may die a slow, malingering death.

Relaxing the arm is easy - you just need to do so. Before the rally, relax your arm at your side, then gently and smoothly raise it into your ready position. Okay, it sounds easy, and it should be easy, but the key is to keep it relaxed once the rally begins. There's a natural tendency to tighten the muscles as the ball is coming toward you as you try to guide the shot. Instead, just let the shot happen on its own - rely on your many years (months? weeks? days?) of training rather than trying to consciously trying to control each shot - which is the third thing you need to avoid to get rid of those jerky shots.

One way to practice smoothness is to do random drills. This means your partner or coach hits balls randomly to your side of the table, and you just react to each shot, using the principles outlined above. (You can do this either live or with multiball.) At first, have your partner or coach hit the ball randomly either to your forehand or backhand; when you can react to those shots easily and smoothly, then increase the complexity and have the shots go truly random, i.e. to the middle and wide corners.

We'll never wipe out jerkyitis, but if we all work together, we can wipe out much of its effects, and turn your game into an (almost) smooth-stroking table tennis machine. (In the interest of transparency, I am a lifelong sufferer of jerkyitis, but it hasn't stopped me from reaching a rather high level as a player and coach.)