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 16, 2011 - A Levels Approach to Tactics

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
by: Larry Hodges


I like to divide tactics into five levels. First, think of your game and your opponent's game as a combination of strengths, average aspects, and weaknesses. Then there are nine possible combinations, divided into the five tactical levels.

Level 2 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's weaknesses

Level 1 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's average
  • Your average against opponent's weaknesses

Level 0 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's strengths
  • Your average against opponent's average
  • Your weaknesses against opponent's weaknesses

Level -1 tactics

  • Your average against opponent's strengths
  • Your weaknesses against opponent's average

Level -2 tactics

  • Your weaknesses against opponent's strengths

Next time you play a practice match, why not analyze your game and your opponents, and the tactics you use, and see what level tactics you are using? Are your tactics positive, or are you falling into negative territory?

May 9, 2011 - A Journey of Nine Feet Begins at Contact

Monday, May 9, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

When you serve, do you just serve? Or do you stop and visualize the serve first? And when you visualize the serve, do you visualize all of it, or just part of it? You should visualize the entire journey the serve takes, all nine feet of it (or 10.3 feet, if you serve crosscourt).

Contact point: How high from the table? Most players contact the ball too high, and so the ball bounces too high. Also, how far behind the endline? For spin serves, contact the ball just behind the endline - any further back simply gives the receiver more time to react, plus it's harder to control the depth from farther back, especially if you want to serve short. For fast & deep serves, contact is farther back so that the first bounce can be near your endline. Finally, where on the racket is the contact? For maximum spin, generally on the point on the racket furthest from the handle (the fastest moving spot). Or near the handle if you want to fake spin but serve no-spin. Visualize the contact.

Spin: How much and what type of spin? You should visualize this very clearly before serving. Also visualize any extra motion you use for deception, such as a changing follow-through to deceive the receiver.

Speed: How fast is the serve going out? If it's a spin serve, you don't want it going out too fast, as that would mean much of your energy went into speed instead of spin. However, even for a short serve, you might want it to have some pace to rush the opponent and to make it harder for him to control the return. Visualize the speed of the ball.

First bounce: Where on the table? Generally, for short serves, the first bounce is nearer the net. However, the farther the bounce is from the net, the lower you'll be able to serve as the ball will have a lower trajectory as it passes the net. You should clearly visualize where the ball is going to bounce, as well as how it will bounce out from there. (On the first bounce, spin doesn't take nearly as much as the second bounce, but it does affect the bounce some.) This is probably the most overlooked part of serving.

Curve in the air: How does the ball curve through the air? If a backspin, it should float; if a topspin, it should sink; if a sidespin, it should be breaking sideways. Visualize!

Height over net: You want the serve as low as possible. Visualize this! If it is bouncing too high, then either your contact point was too high, or you are serving downward too much.

Bounces on far side: Where is the first bounce? How does the ball break from the bounce? How high is the bounce? If too high, perhaps try serving so the first bounce on your side of the table is farther from the net, so the ball can cross the net with a lower trajectory. Given the chance, will there be a second bounce, and where would that be? Visualize it.

Putting it all together - the serve as a whole: Once you've visualized all of the above, you should think of it as one continuous thing, not a series of discrete parts. Visualize the contact, spin, speed, bounces, and path of the ball as a whole. Then serve a winner!

May 2, 2011 - Exaggerate the Opposite Motion on Serves

Wednesday, May 4, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

If you serve backspin, you follow through down, right? And if you serve topspin, you follow through up, right?

WRONG! At least, you shouldn't. Instead, right after contact, try changing the direction of your racket and exaggerate the opposite motion. Don't try to bring the racket to a stop and reverse directions; whip it about in a tight semicircle, making it almost impossible for the opponent to pick up just when you contacted the ball.

Logically, if you always follow through downward on topspin serves, and upward on backspin serves, your opponent will pick up on this, right? Actually, not very often. Since returning serves (and most other table tennis strokes) is done instinctively, the receiver's instinctive reaction to a downward motion is to read backspin, and for an upward motion to read topspin. So in most cases you can get away with this, though you should vary your follow-through just in case.

Note that you normally wouldn't serve pure backspin or topspin in table tennis; you more likely would serve side-backspin or side-topspin. When you serve side-backspin, follow-through up and to the side; when you serve side-topspin, follow through down and to the side. You'll be amazed at the confusion and havoc this will create. 

April 25, 2011 - The Short Serve & Short Receive, and Looping

Monday, April 25, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The Short Serve & Short Receive, and Looping
By Larry Hodges

If you have a nice loop, then you want to serve and return serves to set it up, right? Many players learn by the intermediate level that to serve and loop, you usually want to serve short. If you serve long, the opponent can loop, but if you serve short, usually with backspin, you normally get a long push return you can loop. So the centerpiece of many intermediate and advanced games is serve short and loop. (You can also serve short sidespin, topspin, or no-spin. Rather than a push return, you'll often get a flip return, which is also long and loopable. If the serve is very low, the flip will usually be weak enough for you to attack.)

The corollary to this is that if you return a short backspin serve with a short push, you'll probably get a long push return you can loop. It takes practice to do this - you have to read and recognize the serve as short backspin, step in, and have the control to push with enough touch to keep it short and low. If you don't learn to do this, then you'll probably be pushing long (letting the other guy loop) or flipping (not a bad idea, but predictable and off a low ball, it can be attacked). At first you'll mess up a lot, but with practice, it'll be a big part of your game, regularly setting up your loop. Watch the best players, and you'll see that short receive is central to many of their games.

April 18, 2011 - Fifteen Important Deep Serves

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Fifteen Important Deep Serves
By Larry Hodges

When you serve fast & deep, you want to aim at one of three main targets: to the wide forehand, wide backhand, or at the receiver's elbow. It's also best to have at least two variations so they can't adjust, ideally with a fast sidespin or side-topspin serve, and a fast no-spin serve. (No-spin serves don't jump off the paddle as fast, so opponents have to stroke the ball more, which is problematic when you rush them by serving fast no-spin.) So players should develop at least six variations of their fast & deep serves - but preferably more. You can do it with sidespin left, sidespin right, side-top left, side-top right, and no-spin, and can do all of these to the wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle. That's fifteen variations, and that's just to start, since you can vary the degree of each type of spin, as well as the motion used for the serve. (Regarding the motion, I like to serve down the line to a righty's forehand by aiming to their backhand and switching directions the split second before contact. Try it!)

It takes more timing to do a fast & deep serve with great speed than with other serves. So even if you use these serves only occasionally, you need to practice them far more than the proportion of times you use the serves. If you don't, when the score is close and the time comes to catch the receiver off guard with a fast & deep serve, will you really be able to pull it off consistently at full speed?