Tip of the Week

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

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

Have a question about a Tip of the Week? Ask on the Forum!!!

(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 2, 2019 - Relaxing the Arm

Monday, September 2, 2019
by: Larry Hodges


One of the most common problems coaches face when coaching beginning and intermediate players is getting them to relax their arm when stroking. This writer has not only faced this problem hundreds of times as a coach but has also faced it as a lifetime weakness in his own playing game.

If the muscles in the playing arm (or any other muscle) are tight, then they will not stroke properly. The tight muscles (both the ones you are using and the opposing muscles for the opposite movement) will fight you as you stroke, costing both power and control. Instead, try to keep your arm loose--like a rubber band.

Some players can relax their muscles at will. But many think their arm is relaxed, but it's not as relaxed as it should be. If your arm isn't relaxed, then you are at a disadvantage when you play. How can you cure this problem?

To get the arm warm and loose, take a long warm-up, or perhaps shadow-stroke. Then, as you set up to receive at the start of a point, relax both arms. Let them drop by your side loosely. Take a deep breath, and make sure your jaws and shoulders are relaxed. (If you are tense, these are the most likely spots to tighten up. If they tighten up, the rest of you probably will.) Then, as the point is about to start, bring your arms up as lightly as possible. You can do the same thing on your serve - relax your arms at your side, and then bring them up when you are ready to serve.

If you absolutely cannot relax the arm on your own, it's time to take drastic action. Tense the arm muscles tightly for about five seconds. Then relax. This should help relax the muscles.

A good test as to whether your arm is loose or tight is to imagine someone grabbing your arm as you stroke. They should have no problem in pulling your arm up or down. If you resist, then your arm muscles are too tight.

August 26, 2019 - Don't Get Mad; Get Determined

Sunday, August 25, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Some players get very upset with themselves when they lose a match that they think they could have won. Some don't show it or have a frozen smile, but are just as upset or disappointed on the inside, they are just trying to be a good sport about it - but they may be just as unhappy with the result as the one who shows emotions. There's nothing really wrong with such disappointment; true champions, and future champions, hate to lose.

But how many really do something about it? Instead of getting mad, get determined. Immediately after the match, sit down with a pad of paper or other recording device, and analyze why you lost. What techniques do you need to improve to win next time? Do this while it is fresh on your mind. If you are thinking, "I could have won except for . . ." that's great - that's the first step in analyzing it. Perhaps discuss the match with someone who watched it, or even the opponent.

But then do something about it. Isolate what you need to work on, and do drills that specifically address the problem. Then more game-like ones until whatever technique you had trouble with is no longer a problem.

August 19, 2019 - Strategic Tactics

Sunday, August 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Tactical thinking is what you do to win now; Strategic Thinking is what you do to develop your game in the long run. You need both; here are two articles on this:

But there is also what I call Strategic Tactics. What are they? Suppose, in the first point of a match, you push the opponent's serve back, he loops slow and super-spinny, and you block off. You could think, "That's spinny! I better avoid it." And so, tactically, you decide you have to attack his serve or push short over and over, even when you aren't comfortable doing so - which puts you in a weaker tactical situation, since you are afraid to push long, even when the situation calls for it. Instead, perhaps intentionally push long on the second point, so that you can adjust to his spinny loop. If you do this, then you can get used to his spinny loop - and then you can go back to avoiding it when you can (attacking serve or pushing it short), while still having the option of pushing long when you need to. (Here's How to Punish those Slow, Spinny Loops.)

There are many examples of this. If your opponent has a surface you aren't very good at, or a very flat backhand, or very heavy push, rather than avoid it, play into these shots at first so that you get comfortable against them, and then go back to more tactical play.

August 12, 2019 - Serving Short

Monday, August 12, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most fundamental rules of serving is that you have to be able to serve short. A deep serve may be effective against some players, and up to a certain level, it may always be, but if you cannot serve short, you will always be handicapped against most good players.

A short serve is a serve that, if allowed, would bounce twice on the far side of the table. Because of this, a short serve cannot be looped like a deep serve because the table is in the way. This forces the receiver to reach over the table to return the serve, which can be awkward, especially on the forehand side.

There are many types of short serves, with advantages and disadvantages to each. You can serve very short so that the ball bounces very close to the net. You can serve short so that its second bounce would be near the end-line, which is usually the best option. You can serve sidespin, spinning either right or left, combined with topspin or backspin, or else a pure topspin or backspin serve. You can fake spin but instead serve no-spin. You can serve to the wide angles, to the middle, or anywhere in between. There are endless varieties and you should be able to use most of them.

To serve short takes good touch. Get a bucket of balls and practice alone on a table. If you point the table into a corner, the balls will mostly stay in one spot, so you can practice without long breaks to collect the balls. Practice this until you can control the ball's spin, bounce, and placement.

Start off by serving backspin by brushing the BOTTOM of the ball with an open racket. Try to make the ball barely clear the net. It should bounce close to the net both on your side and your opponent's side. If you do it softly enough, it should bounce several times on the other side; it might even bounce backwards. Contact the ball just above the table level so that it will bounce lower. (Later you will want to be more aggressive with this serve, so that the second bounce is near the opponent's end-line.)

As you learn to control the short backspin serve, try putting sidespin on it by brushing the ball from side to side. Experiment until it feels right. Then practice it until you can do it consistently.

When you can do a short sidespin backspin serve, you're ready to try a short topspin serve. This time contact the ball with your racket going diagonally sideways and up. This action will make the ball pop up and go deep at first, but practice will give you control. Remember to keep the ball low to the net (on ALL serves). Experiment until feels right. Practice until you can put maximum spin on all types of serves and still keep them low and short. (Or fake spin but give no-spin - do this by contacting the ball near the handle, where the racket isn't moving much. You maximize spin by contacting near the tip.)

Generally, all short serves can be classified as either backspin, side-top, or no-spin. You can treat a sidespin-backspin serve as if it were a backspin since both can be pushed - you just have to aim a little to the side against the sidespin-backspin one. A pure sidespin can be treated as a topspin once you get used to it, so unless the serve has backspin, it can be considered a side-top or no-spin serve.

The advantage of the short backspin serve is that it is tricky to attack. The disadvantage is that it can be pushed back heavy or short and is easier to return safely. The advantage of a short side-top serve is that it can be awkward returning it, especially on the forehand, and many times is pushed off the end or popped up. The disadvantage is that it is easier to attack than a short backspin serve. But even if it is attacked, the return of a short side-top serve is easier to deal with because you know in advance the return will almost always be deep. A major advantage of a no-spin serve is that the opponent can't use your spin against you, so the receiver can't push or flip with as much spin. It's also tricky to drop short or keep low, compared to a backspin serve.

You will have to decide which types of spins work best for you. For example, if you like to loop pushes, serve mostly backspin. You will find that certain spins work best against certain players. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is often harder to return a sidespin serve spinning away from you rather than one spinning towards you. For example, a righty's backhand serve is usually more effective to another righty's forehand, and a forehand pendulum serve is often more effective to the backhand.

By serving wide to one side, you make your opponent reach over the table even more but you will also be providing him with the opportunity to hit an extreme angle against you. It is often best to serve to the middle and force the opponent to move both sideways and in, while also taking away the extreme angle. Again, this depends on the opponent as well as your own game.

A short serve can be effective even if done over and over as long as you vary the spin. However, a short serve is most effective when used in conjunction with deep serves, so the receiver has more things to worry about.

Finally, you should watch the good players whenever possible and copy their serves. Don't be afraid to ask questions – most players are glad to give you a lecture on their favorite serve. Best of all, work with a coach who can really help you with your serves.

Placement is extremely important. For example, very short serve can be awkward to receive for some, and draws him over the table, leaving him vulnerable to a deep return. But it can be returned at an extreme angle. See what gives your opponent the most trouble, both placement, depth, and spin.

Most importantly though, get out that bucket of balls and practice!

August 5, 2019 - Serving Long

Monday, August 5, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Serving deep has one major advantage and one major disadvantage. The advantage is that it forces an opponent to contact the ball as far from his/her target (your side of the table) as possible. The disadvantage is that it allows an opponent to attack more readily, especially with a loop drive. (Note – a short serve is a serve that, if given the chance, would bounce twice on the opponent's side of the table. Next week's Tip will be Serving Short.)

Before deciding whether to serve long or short, know the advantages of each, and match them up with both you and your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you opponent does not attack deep serves well, and you are a strong counter-driver, you might want to serve deep topspin.

Here are four types of deep serves that are effective.

  • Fast and Flat
    A fast and flat serve is most effective served into an opponent's backhand. By having no spin, it "dies" when it contacts the opponent's racket, and goes into the net. Even when this serve is read properly, most players are forced to take the serve late and lift it, often setting the server up for an easy attack.

    Make the ball hit your side of the table as close to the endline as possible, and hit the opponent's side as deep as possible. This allows you to serve with maximum speed. It is especially important to serve this ball as deep as possible so opponent is forced to back up. Making the serve as fast and deep as possible, the opponent will have little time to make a backswing, which will make an effective return very difficult.

    All serves bounce on the table twice before the opponent contacts it. Each time the ball hits the table, it picks up some topspin. If this is not taken into account, a fast and flat serve will have some topspin, and the ball won't "die" off the opponent's racket. To counteract this, stroke slightly downward at contact, putting very slight backspin on the ball.

  • Deep and Spinny
    Deep spin serves are among the trickiest of serves to return. The receiver not only has to read the spin but is aiming for a target farther away than for a shorter serve.

    A deep spin serve is slower than a fast and flat serve, so an opponent has more time to attack. You have to judge whether the serve is effective against a specific opponent.

    If your spin serve breaks a lot, you might want its first bounce (on your side of the table) to be midway between the endline and the net. That way the opponent doesn't see the break for as long as possible, plus it gives a bigger angle into the receiver's backhand as it breaks sideways. You want it to land deep on the opponent's side so his/her target (your side of the table) is as far away as possible.

  • Fast Down-the-Line
    If you serve deep into an opponent's backhand, but he/she steps around and attacks it with a forehand, you might want to try a fast down-the-line serve. Most players who step around move too soon, so you can often get an "ace" or at a service winner. At the least, the opponent will hesitate about stepping around on the next serve.
  • Just off the End
    Here an opponent has to decide both what type of spin is on the ball and whether the ball will go deep or not. If given the chance, the ball's second bounce (on opponent's side) would be around the edge or just off the end. This serve combines some of the advantages of a short serve and a deep spin serve. It's called a "half-long" serve.