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.)

November 21, 2016 - Getting "In the Zone" by Adapting to Your Opponent

Monday, November 21, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Every have a match where you were "In the Zone," where the ball seemed to slow down, and you could almost do no wrong? This is relative, of course; an intermediate player "In the Zone" isn't going to compete with a professional, but he would dominate against his normal peers. Here's a good article on the topic: Being in the Zone – Sport’s Holy Grail.

There are many articles and books about getting into this "Zone," including ones listed in the Sports Psychology listing I have here. (Dora Kurimay, a table tennis champion, can help with this, and another good one for this specifically is Michael Lardon's "Finding Your Zone" – he's also a former table tennis star.)

However, there's a pre-requisite to getting into the zone that has nothing to do with sports psychology. You cannot be "In the Zone" if you are not comfortable with what your opponent is doing. If your opponent does something that you are having trouble with, then you either have to keep him from doing it, or adapt to it. Being "In the Zone" means reacting automatically to what your opponent does, and you can't do that if you are uncomfortable with what he does. 

Suppose your opponent has a weird inside-out forehand that looks like it's going one way, but goes the other. You can't really be in the zone against something like this if you are constantly going the wrong way. This means you have to adapt to what he's doing. Sometimes this means letting him do the shot simply so you can adjust to it. The more you see it, the more you adapt to it, and the more you can react to it. Once you are able to react to it properly, you are ready to be "In the Zone."

The worst thing you can do is to lose a match, and afterwards realize you never adapted to what the opponent was doing. This usually means you only faced it when you weren't ready for it, and so didn't adapt. Sometimes it's best to play right into it, so you know when it's coming, so you can make the adjustment.

Here's an example. Many years ago I had to play a 2200 long-pipped blocker, i.e. a "push-blocker," with no sponge under his long pips. Unfortunately, there was no one at my club who played like that or with that surface, and so it had been years since I'd played anything like it. Before the match I realized that if I didn't adapt to his no-sponge long pips, I could lose. But more importantly, I realize that the only way I could lose was if I didn't adapt to his long pips. Why? Because I knew that once I adapted to them, I would be "In the Zone," and he would have nothing to threaten me with. So instead of playing to win points, right from the start all I did was rally into his long pips. We had lots of long rallies, and we battled close, but I didn't worry about the score until near the end of the game. Around 8-all, I went after his forehand and middle, and won three straight. The second game was a repeat – again, lots of long rallies. Near the end of that game I figured it was time – and then I played to win the points. I was now completely comfortable against his pips, and I was now "In the Zone." I won easily the rest of the way.

There are many other examples. Does your opponent have a very strong backhand? Perhaps play into it intentionally a few points, challenging his strength as you adapt to it so that you'll be comfortable against it when you have to, and then go back to your game. Does he have a spinnier loop then you are used to? Play into it a few times so you can adapt to it, then go back to your game. Does he push heavier than you are used to? Serve backspin into it so you can attack a few so you can adapt. And so on. Sometimes you might challenge the strength and then go to the weakness. For example, after challenging the opponent's strong backhand so you can adapt to it, perhaps counter-attack to his weaker forehand side. You get the best of both worlds – you adapt to his strength, and you play into his weakness.

None of this means you should continue to let your opponent play his strengths – you should normally use tactics to avoid them. But if you are going to have to face them, then it's better to adapt to them than not to do so, and adapting to them allows you to enter "The Zone," and suddenly his strengths, when he gets to play them, won't be so scary.

So next time you have a match, quickly find out what your opponent does that gives you trouble, and do what it takes to adapt to it. Then play your best game, where you now can be "In the Zone" against whatever your opponent throws at you. 

November 14, 2016 - How to Develop a Quicker Forehand

Monday, November 14, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Many players have sluggish forehands. Some are forced to back up, while others stay at the table but make awkward shots. How can you develop a quicker, more effective forehand?

First, it's all about technique and footwork. If you have poor forehand technique, then you will likely struggle with your forehand shots, period. So work on the technique. This might mean working with a coach, but isn't it worth doing that a few times rather than face a lifetime of frustration?

Once your technique is relatively solid, you can go about making it quicker, allowing you to make those quicker, more effective shots you see top players do so smoothly. How do you go about doing this?

Practice. But not just practice – just as with any other aspect of your game you want to develop, it must be proper practice. In this case I have three drills to recommend for developing that quicker forehand. I swore by these three when I was developing, and they helped me develop a quick forehand, both hitting and looping.

  1. Partner blocks or strokes side to side as you alternate forehands and backhands. Your focus is to move side to side smoothly, and play the forehand a little quicker than usual. The reason is if you can do it quickly here, it'll transfer into game situations. I used to drill with a lefty on this drill, allowing me to play into their backhand – my forehand crosscourt, looping quick off the bounce, my backhand down the line. With a righty, you can play into their forehand or backhand.  
  2. Partner blocks or strokes side to side randomly, you react with forehand or backhand, trying to play the shots a little quicker off the bounce than usual. Don't anticipate in this drill; just react. Watch your partner's racket, and you should be able to see where he's going the instant he starts his forward swing, allowing you to jump on each ball, which should become a habit. This drill develops quicker reactions and shots in game situations, as well as a quick return to ready position after each shot.
  3. Hit backhand to backhand with your partner, aggressively, where he randomly picks out one to suddenly go to your forehand, then play out the point. Now you are not only practicing a quick return to ready position after each shot – absolutely necessary in this drill or you'll get clobbered – but a quick move to cover the forehand when the ball goes there. From drill #2 above you should be reacting a little quicker to your partner's shots, so you should be able to cut off those shots to the forehand more quickly than before. As I drill #2, don't anticipate; just react, and jump on each ball as you see where it's going to go, just as you want to do in a match situation. 

November 7, 2016 - Three Ways to Play the Forehand

Monday, November 7, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

If you are a backhand-oriented player, you still need to play forehands. Many have difficulty with this because they stand in a backhand stance, and have difficulty switching to a forehand stance. Even some forehand players, once they play a backhand, go into a backhand stance, and have trouble with their forehand after that. So how do you go from playing a backhand to a forehand? There are three basic ways.

  • Pull Back Leg Back for Forehands. (When we say back leg, we mean the right leg for righties, the left for lefties.) A player in a backhand stance often has his legs either parallel or the back leg actually in front (i.e. a righty has his right leg in front). To play a forehand in this manner, he needs to pull the leg back quickly, rotating the body around, to get into a forehand stance. This is the most standard way, and the choice for most players. However, many backhand-oriented players, especially those who do not train regularly, have great difficulty with this. It's all a matter of training to make it a habit.
  • Play Forehands with a Neutral Stance. This was considered a no-no in the past, but in the modern game, which is faster and more two-winged, most top players learn to play with their feet mostly parallel to the table. This gives them a strong backhand. When playing forehand, if rushed or close to the table, rather than pull the back leg back, they simply rotate the body at the hips and waist. This takes a lot of training, including physical training. But once mastered, it allows players to play a strong two-winged attack without backing up.
  • Play Backhands with a Forehand Stance. This was very common in the past, but less common these days as backhand techniques have advanced and more and more players develop their backhands into strong weapons. If you play a mostly blocking or consistent backhand, then you can do this with a forehand stance, with right leg back (for righties). This allows you to play quick backhands and make a very quick transition to forehand play since you are already in a forehand stance. (Note – this is how I generally play my backhand.) 

November 1, 2016 - How Do You Win and Lose Points?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Most players only have a vague idea of how they win and lose points. Ask them how they won or lost most points, and they really don't know. They just have a general idea of their playing style or game plan, and don't really get any feedback on its success, i.e. what is working and what is not.

Top players who have played many years generally get a good feeling for this, though not always. But if you want to become a top player, you need to develop this sense of what works and what does not. How do you do that?

Videotape yourself playing a few matches. Then watch the video, and keep track of how each point was won or lost, from your perspective. (You can also have a coach do this for you.) Did you win it with your serve (receiver missed it or popped it up), with serve and attack (serve set you up for an attack, though not an easy winner), receive, forehand or backhand loop, forehand or backhand drive, blocking, placement, consistency, pushing, lobbing, or what? Make a chart and keep track, adding columns for each type of thing that wins a point for you as they come up. Also keep track of how many points you won with different serves and receives.

When you've done this, you might have a better idea of what works and doesn't work, and with that feedback, you can both develop your game to focus on what works, develop the parts that aren't working, and get a better feel in match play for what is tactically working or not working.  

October 24, 2016 - Winning Cheap Points

Monday, October 24, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Cheap points are when you do something seemingly simple, often subtle, and force the opponent into an error. For example, you might push a serve back extra heavy, and the opponent loops into the net. Or, after serving short several times in a row, you serve fast at the receiver's middle, catching him off guard, and again get an easy point. Or a last second-change of direction. Or a suddenly well-placed dead block. There are many possibilities.

The problem is that most players are so focused on either ripping winners or keeping the ball in play that they don't develop the instincts to win these cheap points. Most of what they do is predictable, and while they may rip lots of winners and keep the ball in play, so does the opponent.

How do you learn to win such cheap points? Experiment, observe the result, and learn. This doesn't mean playing all sorts of weird shots; it means trying out different things and seeing what works - a last-second change of direction, an unexpected change of spin, a change-of-pace block, and so on. These are the type of things that win cheap points for you by your opponent missing or making a weak shot. You can also win cheap points on your serve by throwing in an occasional "trick" serve.

Here are some of my favorite ways to win a cheap point:

  1. Sudden fast serves, either breaking into wide backhand, no-spin to the middle (receiver's playing elbow), or quick down the line.
  2. After several backspin serves, a side-top or no-spin serve, but with a big downward follow through.
  3. Quick blocks and other attacks to the opponent's middle.
  4. Set up to loop crosscourt from forehand, at the last second rotate the shoulders back and go down the line.
  5. Set up to loop crosscourt from the backhand, at the last second whip the shoulders around and go down the line.
  6. Backhand loops that go down the line or at the elbow instead of the normal crosscourt ones.
  7. Aim a backhand crosscourt, then at the last second bring the wrist back and go down the line.
  8. Against short backspin, sudden very aggressive and angled pushes.
  9. Aim a push to the right, at the last second drop the racket tip and push to the left. Can be done short or long.
  10. Take a shot right off the bounce, throwing opponent's timing off. This can be done against serves or other shots, with quick drives, blocks, or pushes.
  11. Dead blocks that mess up opponent's timing. They can be no-spin, or chop blocks and sidespin blocks.
  12. Suddenly aggressive dead block, especially if you pin them down on the backhand.
  13. Slow spinny loops that drop short, near the net. Opponents often mistime them if they hesitate.
  14. No-spin "Dummy" loops. Exaggerate the normal looping motion but use no wrist.
  15. When fishing and lobbing, vary the height, placement, and spin of the shots.
  16. Place your weak shots. If you have to make a weak return, at least make the opponent move! Perhaps aim one way then go the other to catch the opponent off guard.