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.)

September 26, 2011 - Develop Your Game Around Your Playing Style

Monday, September 26, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

(The first three paragraphs of this come primarily from a response I gave in a blog comment.)

When you start out, you need to develop the fundamentals (see my article on Develop the Basics in the "How to Be a Champion" articles.) As you develop your shots, your playing style will gradually emerge. Some players have a firm idea on how they want to play almost from the start - hitter, looper, blocker, chopper, etc. Others aren't sure at first, often for years, as they develop their game. And the style often changes - I was an all-out hitter my first three years, then switched gradually all-around, with equal emphasis between looping, hitting, and steady countering, plus a little of just about everything else. 

Style comes from two things: what the player does well, and what the player wants to do. They are not always the same, but they usually have a large overlap as players tend to get better at the things they want to do (because they use them more), and they tend to want to do the things that they do well, since that leads to winning. So most often players naturally develop a style based on these two factors. Others really want to play a specific style, perhaps because they saw a top player play that way. They may simply want to be a chopper or lobber because of the spectacular points they play. Or they may develop a blocking style, but simply decide they want to play like most world-class players do and become a looper. (That's a primary reason why I switched from all-out hitting to more looping.) 

With my students, I regularly advise them on how their game is developing, with two things in mind. First, develop an over-powering strength, something that will dominate at whatever level they are at, and develop a style around that strength. Second, develop all aspects of the game you will use since having strengths do not help if opponents can simply play into your weaknesses. So I try to lead them into a style that will win for them. But that style also has to match what they want to do. There's no point telling someone to be a looper if he hates looping, like one of my students. 

Once you have begun developing a style, you should continue to develop that style. Watch players with similar styles, learn what they do and why (this is important - don't be afraid to ask the player), and incorporate whatever you think will work for you.

Since rallies begin with serve and receive, this means developing serves and receives that work for your style. This is probably the most under-utilized, under-thought, and under-developed part of most player's games.

For example, if you have a nice loop against backspin, it might not be to your advantage to push too many short serves back long, since this gives the opponent a chance to loop and so lowers the chance of a backspin return you can loop. It also might not be to your advantage to flip, which gets you into a topspin rally, and again takes away your loop against backspin. Instead, a player like that might develop a short push, which increases the chances that the opponent will push long, giving you that backspin ball to loop. Similarly, short backspin serves will often give you long push returns to loop. And if you serve topspin, you are unlikely to get a backspin return from most players. (This doesn't mean you don't vary in these other receives and serves, just remember they are variations to the shots that should be more central to your game. For example, a sudden long push receive against some players will often result in a push return to set up your loop.)

If you are a hitter or counter-hitter who likes to get into bang-bang topspin rallies, you might want to serve and receive more with topspin. Or you might serve short backspin and follow with a slow, very steady loop to get into those topspin rallies.

Find the unique aspects of your style that give opponents trouble and focus on winning with those shots. Germany's Timo Boll, the #1 European, forehand loops with a somewhat unorthodox extreme forehand grip. This gives him perhaps the best inside-out loop in the world (his lefty loops usually break to the left), and he uses this to great effect. Much of his game is used to set up this shot, which is a primary reason he's the only European who can often challenge the Chinese. At the same time, if a shot is too unorthodox, consider whether the benefits of the shot outweigh the negatives, since the very fact that it is unorthodox means it likely has problems, or it would become "orthodox." (Sometimes the unorthodox becomes orthodox, such as reverse penhold backhands or attacking short serves to the forehand with the backhand.)

One last thing to think about when developing your style. Since so much of style comes from serve and receive, sometimes the style comes from those shots. For example, if you develop a serve that players keep popping up, you might develop a nice smash, and you are well on your way to becoming a hitter - all because of the serve you developed. Or if you have a nice backspin serve, you'll get a lot of backspin returns, and so you might develop a nice loop, and you are well on your way to becoming a looper - all because of the serve you developed. So while you should develop serve and receive to match your style, sometimes style comes from the serve and receive. 

Ultimately, you should develop a personal style that's all your own, and really know your style. Given the chance, you should be able to write a book on your game; if you can't, either you don't know your game or you don't have a game. Sound familiar? See the August 15, 2011 Tip of the Week: The Book on Your Game

Comments so far:: 3

September 19, 2011 - Balance Leads to Feet-first Footwork

Monday, September 19, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Many players move their playing hand and arm first when moving to a ball, when the first thing that should move are the feet. If you move your arm first, several very bad things are happening. First, it means you are slower in moving into position since you haven't started moving your feet first. Second, you will tend to reach for the ball--since by moving your hands first you are reaching for the ball--and so will generally hit an awkward shot. And third, by reaching for the ball, you go off balance, with your weight on the foot in the direction you are reaching, and so will have great difficulty moving the feet at that point, since you are now weighted down on the lead foot, the very one that should be moving first in the direction you need to move. (Try this and you'll see what I mean.)

Instead, focus on staying balanced. This means your weight should always be between your feet when moving. There might be a weight shift once you have moved into position (especially on forehand shots), but not before. Balance allows you to move quickly in either direction and to glide into position. It makes that first step very easy. (Remember to step first with the right to move right, with the left to move left.)

Most coaches do tell you to move your feet first, not the playing hand and arm, but players often have trouble following this. I've found that if you coach the player to focus on the balance aspect, then they more naturally move the feet first, since balance is what allows this to happen easily, and it's the playing hand and arm movement that takes a player off balance--so by focusing on balance, they stop doing that. Give it a try, and get your game into balance!

September 12, 2011 - The Myth of Thinking Too Much

Monday, September 12, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Some players are accused of "thinking too much." There's no such thing as thinking too much. The problem is knowing when to do the thinking.

The rule is simple. You think between games and between points. When the point is about to start, you stop thinking. You blank your mind out and just let go. It is thinking during the point that causes a person to freeze up with uncertainty, often labeled as choking. Once the point begins, the conscious you is not controlling play; it is your subconscious that takes over.

Some players can't stop thinking when play begins, and try to consciously control their shots. That rare;u ends well. Others are able to let go and let the subconscious take over, but don't think between points either. That rarely ends well tactically.

Think about what actually happens when you play. Suppose your opponent gives you a backspin. Do you consciously say to yourself, "Ah, the ball has backspin, I must aim up this much to return it." Hopefully not! Instead, after facing backspins for a while--and probably messing up at the start, and telling yourself you need to aim up against backspin--your subconscious gets the message, learns just how much to hit up against varying degrees of backspin, and it becomes habit. The same is true of tactics.

How can you play tactics during the point if you aren't thinking during the point? The answer is if you spend enough time thinking about tactics, it too will get absorbed by your subconscious. If you decide you need to loop a deep serve to the opponent's wide forehand, you don't wait until you see a deep serve, and tell yourself, "Ah, a deep serve. I should loop it to the wide forehand." Instead, if you remind yourself regularly what you need to do, the subconscious will learn to get the message, and you'll do it automatically. 

September 5, 2011 - Short serves to the middle

Monday, September 5, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

If you like to follow your serve up with your forehand, you probably want to serve short (so the opponent can't attack your serve with a loop) and most often to the middle. Why?

If you serve short to the backhand, the opponent has a wide angle into your backhand. You'll likely have to follow your serve up with your backhand.

If you serve short to the forehand, the opponent has a wide angle into your forehand. To cover this, you have to leave your backhand side open to a down-the-line return, and if your opponent does this, you'll have to follow up your serve with your backhand.

If you serve short to the middle, you don't have to guard against any extreme angles - their return options are limited. The amount of potential table to cover is less than a short serve to the corners. (There's also the added advantage that the opponent has to make a decision between forehand and backhand. And since most players favor their backhand against short serves, this may leave them vulnerable to deep serves, if the receiver is already committed to a backhand receive.) So perhaps make serving short to the middle central to your serve and follow game.

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.