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.)

April 2, 2012 - Grip and Stance

Monday, April 2, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Let's do a thought experiment. Hold a piece of paper so you hold the top with one hand, the bottom with the other. Now twist the top. Notice how the entire piece of paper twists? Now twist the bottom. Same thing. How does this relate to table tennis?

Now imagine holding a table tennis player in your hands. (You are either very strong or the player is very small.) Hold his playing hand in one hand and his feet with the other. Twist his playing hand and his entire body twists. The same if you twist his feet.

This is what happens when you have a bad grip or foot positioning. It twists your entire body out of proper alignment, and are the most common cause of technique problems. Most often they are not recognized as even many experienced coaches often treat the symptoms of these problems rather than recognizing the cause.

This is why I strongly recommend that players should use a neutral grip (along with a proper stance) during their formative years, and usually well beyond that. (For shakehand players, a neutral grip means the thinnest part of the wrist lines up with the racket. If the top is tilted away from you when you hold the racket in front of you, it's a backhand grip. If the top is tilted toward you, it's a forehand grip.) A neutral grip means your racket will aim in the same direction as your body is stroking the ball. A non-neutral grip forces you to adjust your stroke in often awkward ways since the racket is aiming one way while your wrist, arm, shoulder, etc., are aiming another direction. This can lead to many problems.

For example, a forehand grip often leads to an overly wristy forehand loop, which makes it difficult to learn to control the ball, and also makes counterlooping and looping in general against fast incoming balls tricky. It can force the back shoulder down in an awkward attempt to adjust for the naturally overly closed racket angle for this grip on the forehand, which throws the timing off for many shots. It can make the backhand too wristy as well, also making it difficult to learn to control the ball.

A backhand grip may make forehand looping awkward as it tends to tighten the arm up on forehand shots as well as making it more difficult to close the racket against an incoming topspin, or to loop anywhere except crosscourt. It can force the back shoulder to hunch up in an awkward attempt to adjust for the naturally overly open racket angle for this grip on the forehand, which throws the timing off for many shots.  It can also make hitting aggressive backhands awkward since the arm's natural stroke path and the wrist no longer are aiming in the same direction. These are just a few of the problems a bad grip may cause, and there are just as many problems caused by poor foot positioning and playing stance.

At the advanced levels some players do adjust their grips, taking on usually slight forehand or backhand grips. (I generally use a slight forehand grip, but only after I'd been playing ten years.) There are some technical advantages to this, but only after you have ingrained proper stroking technique.

Similarly, make sure you are in at least a slight forehand stance when hitting forehands (i.e. right foot slightly back for righties, making it easier to rotate your shoulders back as you backswing), and a neutral stance when hitting backhands (feet roughly parallel to the table). Advanced players sometimes adjust their stance based on their playing style, and may play forehands from a nearly neutral stance or backhands from a forehand or backhand stance, but again, I recommend against this until you have ingrained proper stroking technique. For example, if you keep your feet parallel when hitting forehands when developing your strokes you'll likely end up with a short, jerky forehand (whether hitting or looping) that uses only the front part of your forehand hitting zone.

Also make sure the feet aren't too close together as this leads to balance problems when looping or hitting with power. The feet should also be at least slightly angled away from each other, with the front of the right foot angled to the right, the front of the left to the left. If the feet are parallel, then it will be difficult to make quick body rotations when you backswing, especially on the forehand side, as well as balance problems on power shots.

Even at the advanced levels players often have trouble with a specific stroke because of their grip or stance. Because they've played this way so long they don't even recognize the cause of their problem, and most often they are destined to an eternity of stroking like a crinkled piece of paper. In a few cases they realize what the cause is, and fix the problem, which often simply means going back to a more neutral grip or adjusting the foot positioning.

Like a piece of paper, if you get the top and bottom parts right, the rest falls into place. 

Comments so far:: 2

March 25, 2012 - The Great Scourge of Table Tennis Footwork: Leaning

Monday, March 26, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

The ball goes to your forehand, you lean that way, and . . . suddenly you can't move. And so you lean more, and perhaps you are able to making a flailing, off-balance return. Then you watch a top player move to the ball, and while in perfect position, he makes a perfect forehand. What goes through your head? "He has a better forehand than me."

What's wrong with this picture?

This type of leaning footwork is pervasive at the beginning and intermediate levels. It happens on regular drives and loops, and even more when blocking, where players reach instead of stepping toward the ball, and wonder why their off-balanced blocks are so erratic. It's also a primary reason why so many players are unable to play from off the table. They are so used to reaching for the ball when closer to the table that when they are off the table, and have more ground to cover (but more time to do so), they fall into their old habits and lean in the direction they need to move, thereby making it impossible to actually move in that direction.

If you need to move to the right, step first with the right foot. If you start by leaning to the right, then your weight is on the right foot, and you can't move it. Similarly, if you need to move to the left, step first with the left foot. If you need to move in, step in with either foot (the right foot for righties against short balls to the forehand, which are usually the tough ones to reach), but whatever you do don't just reach for the short ball (which means leaning) and then wonder why you can't reach it or are off balance if you do.

There are also two ways of taking that first step when moving right or left. You can start with a short step and then shuffle both feet together, or (especially when moving to the forehand) you can start with one long step. The short step and shuffle (called "two-step footwork") is considered the norm and is the most taught method, but many or most top players start by taking one long step. (This was pointed out and shown on tape at the ITTF coaching seminar held in Colorado Springs in September, 2010.)

How do you learn to step instead of lean? Practice. But not just at the table - you can practice anywhere. Make a habit of shadow practicing your footwork - it's great practice and exercise, and you don't need a racket to do so. (But if you want to have a "racket," almost anything will do - I've been known to shadow practice with a stapler.) So leave behind the leaning and get in step by stepping. 

March 19, 2012 - Fixing the Biggest Weakness in Your Game

Monday, March 19, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Everyone has a "biggest weakness" in their game, almost by definition. Beginning and intermediate players may have many weaknesses, but there's probably a biggest. Even great players don't do everything great - it's all relative, and their biggest weakness might be something that would be a powerful strength for an intermediate player.

So what should you do about this "biggest weakness"? FIX IT!!! So how do you go about doing that?

The first step, of course, is really identifying this biggest weakness. Is it a stroking technique problem? Footwork? Weak serve or receive? Choking under pressure? Analyze your results and figure it out. Perhaps watch videos of yourself playing, and compare what you do with what top players do. A coach or top player might be able to help out in this analysis.

Once you've identified the biggest weakness, how do you fix it? To fix a stroking or footwork problem, some might do a few practice drills, or perhaps work with a coach once or twice. If it's serve or receive, perhaps they'd work on this a few times. If they choke under pressure, they'd probably tell themselves to relax under pressure and hope that solves the problem.

None of these fixes will work.

The problem with a bad habit (i.e. your "biggest weakness") is that it has gotten ingrained. You aren't going to fix it with a little practice or a few sessions with a coach. (You might quickly get it right in a drill, but under match conditions?) To fix an ingrained bad habit you have to focus on it and make it your single-minded top priority to get it right. Until you spend an extended period of time - lots and lots of practice sessions - you won't be able to undo the bad habit that you've spent your playing career ingraining the wrong way.

You also need to work with a coach or at least study videos of top players to see how the technique should be done. You don't want to replace a bad technique with another bad technique.

You not only want to turn the bad technique into good technique; you want to turn this weakness into a strength! For example, if you have an awkward backhand, don't just aim to develop a decent backhand, where if you are successful it'll be a decent backhand, while if you are "not successful" you'll continue to have a weak backhand. Instead, aim to make it a strength. If you are successful, it'll become a strength. If you are "not successful," you'll probably end up with the decent backhand you wanted anyway - and so will be successful.

To fix a bad stroking habit often you have to exaggerate the fix. For example, early in my career when I stepped around my backhand corner to attack with my forehand I wouldn't rotate around enough or bring my back foot back far enough. Because of this I could only effectively attack down the line; if I went crosscourt I had little power. To fix the problem I spent two weeks doing drills where I'd forehand hit or loop from the backhand side crosscourt with my back foot way back, and my body rotated around to the right way too much. This put me in a perfect position to attack my own forehand court (!), but not to hit to the other side. But after doing this nearly every day for two weeks, I began to naturally rotate about when I stepped around to use my forehand from the backhand side in games. After doing this exaggeration drill regularly for a few months, the problem was cured.

The same exaggeration technique works with other stroking problems. Is your stroke too long or too short? Exaggerate the other way for a while. Do you block loops off the end all the time? Have someone loop to you where you focus on closing your racket so that when you do miss, it's in the net. Can't get enough spin on your serve? Practice serving on a rug (away from the table), and focus on just spinning the heck out of ball, not caring where the ball goes, and make it jump when it hits the rug. In each of these cases, if you aren't sure about technique, see a coach or video. Be creative in finding ways to exaggerate the fix or finding other ways to get it right.

If your biggest weakness is sports psychology (such as choking under pressure), then read up on sports psychology or even meet with a sports psychologist. Then play simulated pressure matches where you start out each "match" at, say, 9-9 in the fifth. (The key is to convince yourself that these are tournament matches.)

Once you've fixed the problem, it'll be fixed for life. Then, if you dream of becoming a much better player, find the next "biggest weakness" and focus on that. Keep doing this, and you'll leave all your rivals far behind as you move up in the table tennis world.

You can spend years working halfheartedly to fix a problem in your game and never fix it. Or you can focus on the problem as your top priority for a few months and fix it, and even turn it into a strength for the rest of your playing days. Which do you choose?

March 12, 2012 - Developing a Smash

Monday, March 12, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

At the highest levels, many top players don't even bother to smash - even if the ball is eye-level high, they loop. However, for most players, a smash is a must. Here are some keys to developing a good smash, forehand or backhand.

First, get some coaching or watch the top players. Here's a tutorial from PingSkills (3:58) on the forehand smash, and here's Tahl Leibovitz demonstrating the backhand smash (1:35). It's still best to work with a coach who can figure out and fix any flaws in your technique.

Second, practice. Here are two of the best smashing drills.

  • Hard-Soft Drill. This really should be called the Hard-Medium Drill. Your partner blocks while you alternate hitting a medium drive and then a smash. As long as you keep the ball to the same spot, your partner should be able to return many of your smashes, with practice. A variation is to hit two medium drives and then a smash. This allows you to focus more on technique with the two drives. You can do this forehand or backhand.
  • Loop and smash drill. You serve backspin to your partner's backhand, your partner pushes it back to the middle of the table, you loop to his backhand, he blocks to your forehand, you smash, then play out the point. The key here is to lower the shoulder for the loop, but keep it up for the smash. After looping, many players drop the shoulder on the next shot, and their smash will almost always go off. (Here's a short article on the topic.) There are numerous versions of this drill:
    • You can start by serving to the backhand, forehand, or middle;
    • Your partner can push to any pre-set spot on the table - forehand, backhand, middle, or even add some randomness by having the push go anywhere on the forehand or anywhere on the backhand side.
    • You can loop to your partner's forehand instead of his backhand. But to keep the rally going consistently, your first loop should go to the same spot each time.
    • Rather than free play, the smash also goes to the same spot, so your partner has a better chance of returning it, and so you have longer rallies. 
    • Your partner blocks to another place on the table, and you move there to smash.
    • You can do this drill on the backhand side, with a backhand loop followed by a backhand smash, both from the backhand side.

Third, use the smash in games. If you don't, you won't learn to use the shot in a real match. Find ways to set it up, with serves, loops, aggressive backhands, etc. Once you have a good smash, it'll not only allow you to end the point quickly when given the chance, but it'll be one more thing your opponent has to guard against - and most players aren't going to return a good smash.  

March 5, 2012 - Proper Use of the Free Arm

Monday, March 5, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

A lot of problems arise when players don't use their free arm properly. It's a major problem with a lot of players. Here are two common problems.

First, many players let their free arm just sort of hang down instead of holding it up as a counterbalance to the playing arm. Every time they stroke the ball there is no counterbalancing arm to act as a counterweight, and so they are thrown slightly off balance with each shot. Worse, they become so used to this they don't even realize it is happening. The cure - hold the free arm up for balance at all time, wrist about as high as the elbow, and let it naturally counterbalance your playing arm. Note that this is true on backhands as well as forehands. On the forehand, the counterbalancing is more obvious. On the backhand, as you extend your playing arm out, the free hand needs to counterbalance this by naturally pulling back slightly.

Second, when hitting forehands, players don't use their non-playing side. You should pull with the non-playing arm as you rotate around on the forehand. The non-playing side (the left side for righties) is just as important as the playing side when you hit a forehand. Your body can't rotate properly unless both sides rotate.

Here's a video of the two best players in the world right now, world #1 Ma Long and #2 Zhang Jike of China (15:29), playing the final of the Austrian Open in September. Watch the way they use their free arm on each shot. (Of course, you can learn a lot from this video besides just the use of the free arm!)