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.)

May 15, 2017 - Towel for Fast Serve Practice

Monday, May 15, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players, when trying to serve fast and deep, are not really aware of where the first bounce is on their side of the table. Even those who are aware have a hard time seeing it as it happens rather fast. To maximize the speed, you want the ball to bounce as close to your end-line as possible - but most players, when doing this serve, have the first bounce well over the table, usually over a foot in. When asked, they often aren't sure of where the first bounce is, but assume it's close to their end-line, even if it wasn't even close to that. How to solve this problem?

Spread a towel on your side of the table, about six inches from your end-line. Then practice your fast, deep serves. Your first ones will likely hit the towel - instant feedback!!! Try serving so the ball hits in that first six inches. If you have trouble doing it, try hitting the side of the table on your end-line. Eventually you'll become more aware of where your first bounce is, and learn to keep it close to your end-line, maximizing the speed of the serve. Once you've done that, watch how deep your serve goes - now's the time to make sure it hits very deep, or once again you are not maximizing the speed. Once you've learned to serve so the first bounce is near your end-line, and the second bounce near the opponent's end-line, you can work on perfecting the serve, with various topspins, sidespins, and flat versions, to the wide corners and where the opponent’s middle would be. (It turns out Douglas Adams was right about towels!) 

Here are some Tips on deep serves:

May 8, 2017 - Advantage of Passive Receives

Monday, May 8, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most coaches stress the importance of playing aggressive. This is especially true when you are serving, where you should generally follow up your serve with an attack unless the receiver does something to stop it. But many coaches also stress the importance of being aggressive on receive, and many players adopt this, and so are constantly attacking the serve. Against long serves, you should almost always be aggressive, but many are just as aggressive against short serves.

There are many advantages to this. By attacking the serve, the receiver takes control of the point, and the more he does this, the better he gets at it. There is, of course, the downside that if you are aggressive when receiving, you’ll make more mistakes. But that’s part of attacking, and is often offset by the points won by attacking the serve.

But there are also problems that arise with players who habitually attack the serve, especially short serves. Many players make it central to their game to flip nearly every serve, whether forehand or backhand. The first problem that comes out of this is that this type of player is predictable. An aggressive flip of a short serve is more effective when it is unexpected. When the receiver does this over and over, the server can adopt a serving plan specifically for that – focusing on serving very low, with great spin and/or spin variation. They can also position themselves after the serve for the predictable flip coming. Between the missed flips and the server being able to anticipate and prepare for the predictable flip, a smart server will have the advantage here against players his own level. This alone is reason enough for a smart receiver, even an aggressive one, to vary his receive.

But there’s a more hidden long-term problem with being overly aggressive against short serves. Players who habitually push short serves back long, giving the server the attack, learn to handle those attacks. Their games become much more flexible as they are comfortable both attacking and reacting to an opponent’s attack. (Note I didn’t say defending – some handle the opponent’s attack by counter-attacking, usually with aggressive blocking or counterlooping.) Players who attack most short serves often do not always develop this flexibility, and are only comfortable on the attack. This especially happens as a player improves and plays better players, who can counter-attack more effectively against these flipped receives – and so the attacking receiver, who might be used to dominating rallies with their flips, suddenly find themselves dealing with counter-attacks they aren’t used to or able to handle, and so have great difficulty in learning to deal with it – which wouldn’t have been a problem if they’d developed a more rounded receive from the start, with both aggressive and non-aggressive receives.

So it’s important to develop the skill of pushing short serves back long and handling opponent’s attack as at least one aspect of your receive game. Key to this, of course, is pushing long effectively – something you can only learn to do by doing it, just as you can only learn to flip a short serve or push it short by doing it. Practice all three – pushing long or short, and flipping – and you’ll have a much better receiving game and more developed game overall. Sometimes the best way of doing this is to have stages where you focus on one of these three receives until you are comfortable with it, and then focus on another – and eventually use all three interchangeably, depending on the opponent.

Here are some Tips on pushing.

May 1, 2017 - Strive to Make Every Shot a Memorable One

Monday, May 1, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

How often do you play a careless, nonchalant shot, one that you’d like to quickly forget? Perhaps a soft, just get-the-ball-on-the-table push, or a please-hit-the-table loop, or perhaps a keep-the-ball-in-play backhand?

Now watch a top player, live or on video. (Go to Youtube.com and put in “Table Tennis” and lots will appear.) Watch and see how often they do careless, nonchalant, forgettable shots. Basically, never. They may make mistakes, but rarely do they do something where they aren’t even attempting to do the shot well. They strive to make every shot count . . . because Every Shot Counts. Even when they do something as simple as a push, watch how focused they are on doing it correctly, perfectly . . . memorably. For a top player, every shot is a memorable shot, or it’s a weak shot.

You should have the same attitude. It doesn’t matter whether you are looping and smashing, or just pushing and blocking; like the top players, you should strive to make every one of them a memorable shot. If you push long, make it a memorable push, one that the opponent has to struggle with because you did it so well that the shot would be remembered – if not for the fact that you are striving to make every shot memorable, and so it gets lost in a seas of memorable shots.

Memorable doesn’t mean spectacular. If the goal of the shot is to, say, simply tie up the opponent on his backhand side, a simple block will do. But it should be done correctly – perhaps right off the bounce, deep into the wide backhand, aggressive enough so the opponent can’t do anything with it. It may seem a boring, bland shot, but if you do it exactly as needed, so that it does exactly what it is supposed to do, it is a memorable shot. Maybe not to you, at first, but to the opponent it is memorable as it is the shot that he remembers that (in this example) keeps him tied up on his backhand.

And guess what? When you can string together many such memorable shots, you become the top player on the video players study to see how top players strive to make every shot memorable. 

April 24, 2017 - How Do You Develop Ball Control and a Feel for the Ball?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

We’ve all see those types of players who have this “feel” for the ball, who can adjust to anything and make the ball do anything. Some do it close to the table, with regular blocks at different speeds as well as topspin, chop, and sidespin blocks, or pushes they can put anywhere on the table, short or long. Others do it off the table, with lobbing, fishing, and counterloops. Anything these players can touch they can get back anywhere on the table, with varying spins and speeds. How do they develop these skills?

Like anything else, you develop this through practice. If a player can vary his blocks, it’s because he’s practiced this, either in drills or games. If he has great control of his pushes, he’s been practicing it. If he has great topspin control from off the table, it means he’s practiced it until he’s develop such a feel for the ball that he can topspin anything back, whether he’s counterlooping, fishing, or lobbing.

Suppose you want to develop an off-table topspin defense game. Then have someone practice their attack – whether looping or hitting – while you practice your off-table topspin defense game. It’s as simple as that. Many players complain they don’t have the feel for the ball needed for this, but that’s because they haven’t systematically practiced it, which is how you develop that feel. The same is true if you want to learn to vary your blocks – you have to practice these variations with a practice partner.

Note that when you do such practice, you are not only systematically practicing a specific shot, but you are also systematically practicing adjusting to incoming shots. While adjusting to an incoming shot is central to developing any shot, it’s more extreme with ball control shots – and making this a habit is central to developing a ball control game.

So you develop ball control with the same systematic approach as other shots, except instead of just systematically developing the shot, you also systematically develop the habit of adjustment. That means that if you are close to the table blocking, instead of just blocking the same way every time, try changing the pace, placement, and spin (topspin, sidespin, chop) of your blocks, and have your practice partner give you different shots to work against, until you develop a feel for such adjustments.

If you are more off the table, it’s the same thing, except now you are counterlooping, fishing, or lobbing – but do so with different spins (topspin, sidespin both ways), and with different contact points – sometimes top of the bounce, sometimes a little after that, sometimes (against a hard-hit shot) farther back, thereby developing a feel for these shots from anywhere on the court against any incoming shot.

It’s a different mentality than the more common systematic attacking, counter-attacking, or standard blocking play of most players – but that’s why many players aren’t ball control experts. It also doesn’t fit all parts of everyone’s game – some players are simply better with all-out attacks, rarely backing up (so rarely fishing, lobbing, or counterlooping from far off the table), and there’s nothing wrong with that – but that doesn’t mean they can’t develop ball control with other shots, such as pushing (short and long pushes against short backspin or no-spin serves) or change-of-pace blocks. And by using such ball control shots, they’ll learn when they are effective in setting up the other parts of their games – and maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn to add such ball control shots to their game at times when they are more effective than just blindly attacking or counter-attacking everything. 

April 17, 2017 - Serving to the Backhand Flipper

Monday, April 17, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

What do you do against a player who attacks all of your serves with his backhand, even the short ones? Even if you serve short to the forehand he reaches over and backhand flips. (Or perhaps he does forehand flip – much of this article deals with that as well.) He may be doing this with a regular backhand flip or a banana flip, but the effect is the same – you are on the defensive over and over on your own serve. What should you do? Here are six options.

  • Serve Low. Most players don't really serve low, and get away with it because most opponents don't attack backspin serves, especially if they are short. Become aware of how low your serve is when it crosses the net, and even more importantly, how low it bounces on the far side, and practice so you can serve with the ball barely above the net, with a nice low bounce on the far side. This makes it much harder to attack, and when an opponent does attack it, the attack is usually either softer or more erratic. (Here's my article Serving Low.)
  • Serve Long. If an opponent keeps attacking your shorter serves, throw deep serves at him. Few players are equally good at attacking short and long serves, especially if you mix them up. (Here are my articles Turn Opponents into Puppets with Long Serves and Fifteen Important Deep Serves.)
  • Serve Heavy. If you load up the backspin, many opponents will struggle to attack it. This is true of any spin, but heavy backspin especially will stop many attackers. If they do open their rackets a lot to attack this backspin, throw in a side-top serve and they’ll likely flip it off.
  • Backspin/No-Spin Combos. Mix up the spin, from backspin to no-spin serves. Often players who attack short serves use your spin against you – but when faced with a low, no-spin ball (key word: low!), have great difficulty. So throw no-spin balls at them, and watch them struggle – and then mix in backspin and other serves, including side-top and deep serves. (Here's my article The Power of a Low, Short, No-Spin Serve.)
  • Serve from Middle of Table. The problem with serving short to the forehand with some players is they just step over and receive backhand. What you need is more angle – so serve from the middle of the table. This gives you an angle into the forehand. If you use the same motion and can serve short to the forehand or long to the backhand, your opponent will have to guard against the latter, and so have to receive with their forehand when you serve into the forehand.
  • Counter-Attack. If you know your opponent is going to attack your serve, expect it, and be ready to counter-attack. Since you know it's coming, even against a quicker opponent you should be able to get one good counter-attack in, so make sure it's a good one – and that means place it well, either to the wide corners or (usually most effective on the first attack or counter-attack) the opponent's elbow. If the opponent is over the table attacking your short serve, you can jam him on that first shot. 

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