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 4, 2017 - Weapons to Allow Opponents to Beat Themselves

Wednesday, September 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players, especially in their developmental years, spend huge amounts of time developing direct weapons for winning – serves, footwork, and of course a big forehand or backhand. Or perhaps something more subtle, like a steady aggressive backhand, quick blocking, or steady looping that wears down an opponent. These are all direct weapons for beating an opponent.

But experienced players also develop weapons that allow an opponent to beat himself. For example, suppose your opponent likes to attack with his forehand from the backhand corner. You could attack yourself, thereby making his attack more difficult and the match might turn into a bashing contest. And most of the time a strong attack does win. However, you should also sometimes do something simple and yet high-percentage to win the point with less risk, especially when the opponent is serving. In the example here, perhaps just aim to his backhand side, and then at the last second – as the opponent begins to step around – change directions and do a simple push or block to the wide forehand.

There are many ways of allowing an opponent to beat himself. If he loops very fast all the time, he has little margin for error, so all you might have to do is vary the amount of spin on your push, and watch him miss as you go from light or no-spin to super-heavy backspin. Or change your contact point, sometimes taking the ball later, other times quicker, to throw off his timing. (A quick push can especially rush an opponent and create “unforced” errors.) If your opponent constantly counter-attacks, then simply vary your own shots dramatically so he can’t get his timing, and watch him beat himself as he misses against your barrage of varied pushes, blocks, and loops.  If he’s strong on both wings, rather than feed those powerful wings you might simple go to at least somewhat aggressively to his middle, and watch his shots struggle, plus put him out of position for the next shot. And, of course, if he’s over-aggressive on receive, give him a barrage of varied serves.

There are many ways of allowing an opponent to beat himself, but you can only learn them by trying different things out and seeing what works. It comes with experience, but only if you experiment. 

August 28, 2017 - Covering the Wide Angles

Monday, August 28, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players have trouble when an opponent attacks at a wide angle, whether it’s to the forehand or backhand. Here are five principles to help you cover them.

  1. Position yourself from the previous shot. That means if you put the ball to, say, the opponent’s wide forehand, he has an angle into your forehand. So you have to position yourself toward that side so you can cover it.
  2. Step to the ball. Many players lean or reach, but this greatly limits your range as well as the ability to make a good shot.
  3. Move in to block. Many players move sideways to cover the wide angles, which allows the ball to move away from you. Instead, move sideways and in and cut the ball off before it can get away from the table.
  4. Angle back. If the opponent angles you, he gives you the same or greater counter-angle. If he moves to cover it too much, you can catch him off guard by going down the line.
  5. Position yourself again. After moving wide to cover an angled shot, you need to get back into position quickly or risk leaving the table open. If you counter-angled back, then you don’t have to move too much as you need to cover his potential angled return – essentially a counter-counter-angle. 

August 21, 2017 - Fourth-Ball Backhand Loop Attack

Monday, August 21, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most valuable times to have a good backhand loop is when receiving – but not necessarily for the receive itself. It can also be a good backhand drive against backspin, especially for some older players and those with non-inverted surfaces, but an ability to attack backspin with the backhand is key to the fourth-ball attack. There are two basic ways of setting this up when receiving against a backspin serve. (Fourth-ball attack means you attack the fourth ball – serve, receive, server’s first shot, receiver’s second shot, which is the fourth ball.)

The first is to aggressively push the serve back - right off the bounce, heavy, low, deep, and angled into the server’s backhand. This will often catch the server off guard, leading to a push return, usually crosscourt right back to your backhand. And you are just standing there, waiting for it, with your backhand loop at the ready! Of course, the server may still attack this push, but it’ll likely be a weak or erratic attack, so be ready for that as well. But against many players, you’ll get to fourth-ball backhand attack.

The second is to push the serve back short. Since the server is likely hanging back, looking to attack a deep return, a short push can catch him off guard. What’s his most likely response? He’ll likely push it back, and often deep. Again, he’ll likely push it to your backhand, and you’ll be waiting with your backhand loop at the ready!

No tactic is perfect. In the first case above, the serve may still make a strong, consistent loop against your push. In the second case, he might push your short push back short, or flip it. If so, you change your tactics. But against many or most players, one of these tactics will often set you up for that backhand attack. If it doesn’t, before changing tactics you need to make sure you are doing it correctly – pushing aggressively in the first case, and pushing short (and low!) in the second.

Plus, none of this works if you can’t attack the push to the backhand, so practice that until you can do it against any long push. Older players often prefer backhand drives, but against a push, it’s surprisingly easy to develop a decent backhand loop at any age, so give it a try. (To be clear, loops are heavy topspin; drives are light topspin.) Make sure to place the backhand attack – players go crosscourt way too often when it’s usually more effective to attack the opponent’s middle (elbow) or wide forehand. 

August 14, 2017 - Attacking the Middle with the Forehand and Backhand

Monday, August 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Many players are effective at attacking an opponent’s middle with their backhands. (The middle is roughly the opponent’s elbow, the mid-point between forehand and backhand, which is usually the most awkward shot to react to.) This is because as they are lining up the shot, the opponent is in clear view. However, on the forehand, you turn sideways, and so lose sight of the opponent.

Top coaches often say that you have to learn to attack the opponent’s elbow early on to make it instinctive. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to develop this as a successful habit. However, I believe this is true more of the forehand than the backhand, and many players do learn to attack the middle with the backhand. So what can one do to learn to do so with the forehand?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is to practice it. The problem is that most players either don’t think about it much when playing games and so don’t develop it, or if they do try it, it’s not often enough to develop it as a habit. And so in game situations, either they simply don’t do go for the middle, or when they do, they miss this moving target, and instead give the opponent an easy forehand or backhand. So to learn to attack the middle with your forehand, you need to do it not just in games, but in drills.

The first step is to simply learn to hit there. Most players drill to the forehand or backhand corners, and so instinctively go there in games. To make a habit of going to the middle, do drills where your opponent literally sets up to play his backhand (or forehand) from where his elbow would normally be. For a righty in a typical ready position, this would normally be just to the left of the middle line.  So do drills where you hit to that spot to make it a habit.

But the middle is a moving target – your opponent isn’t always in the same spot. His ready position should move relative to where you are hitting the ball from. So his middle is in a different location depending on whether you are hitting the ball from the wide backhand, wide forehand, or any area between. So you need to do free-play drills where you focus on going after the middle. For example, do serve and attack drills where you go after the middle relentlessly. If the opponent tries to cover for it, you simply move your target to where his new middle is. If he does to play one-winged, perhaps covering the entire middle area with his forehand or backhand, then you might go to the open corner just to keep things honest, forcing him to go back to a more normal ready position.

If you don’t already attack the opponent’s middle with your backhand, then start developing that habit – it’s relatively easy since you can see your target in front of you, and line up your racket, ball, and the opponent’s middle. But you really need to do this with the forehand as well, so develop that as well with some systematic practice - and turn your forehand into an even more formidable weapon!

August 7, 2017 - Feet Parallel to Table is Usually a Backhand Stance

Monday, August 7, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Suppose you are a righty playing a righty, or a lefty playing a lefty. (That’s something like 85-90% of the time.) Suppose your opponent serves from his backhand corner, as the large majority of players do, and the rally starts out backhand to backhand in some fashion, as often is the case (since players don’t want to give the other guy an easy forehand, which is usually more powerful). What is a good ready stance here? Many think a neutral stance means standing with their feet parallel to the end-line. But if you do that, you are basically facing the opponent’s forehand side. An actual neutral stance would involve you facing the opponent, with your feet parallel to him – meaning your right foot would be slightly back.

This keeps coming up as I see beginning/intermediate students and other players who think they are in a neutral stance, and aren’t ready to forehand attack when they get the chance because of this stance. They are actually in a backhand stance, and so can only effectively attack with their backhand. Even against pushes toward their forehand side they end up pushing with their backhands.

So what would be a truly neutral stance? That would be with your feet roughly parallel to wherever your opponent’s expected contact point would be on his next shot. Make it a habit to face your opponent so that your feet naturally fall into this position.