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.)

June 27, 2011 - Complex Versus Simple Tactics

Monday, June 27, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

There's a myth that top players use complicated tactics to defeat opponents. Perhaps as they are about to serve they are planning out their first three or four shots? After all, chess players plan things out many moves ahead, and table tennis has been called chess at light speed.

That's not what happens in table tennis. Top tactical players don't work out complicated tactical schemes; they look at all the complexities and find simple patterns to disarm an opponent. There are just too many variables to plan too much. It's better to focus on a few simple tactics that will tend to favor what you want to do. The key is choosing those few simple tactics. That's your primary goal in the first game of a match, equal in importance to actually winning that game. Some tactics are for setting up your own strengths. For example, if you have a powerful loop against backspin, you might serve backspin so you get a lot of push returns. If the receiver pushes at wide angles, you might serve backspin low to the middle, thereby taking away some of the angle. If you have trouble with heavy backspin, you might serve no-spin, which is more difficult to push heavy. (If you fake backspin and serve it low, it'll usually get pushed.) If you have a good smash, you might serve varying sidespin and topspin serves, with varying speeds and depths. If you are quicker than an opponent, you might serve topspin so you can get right into a topspin rally.

Other tactics are to take away an opponent's strength. For example, if an opponent has a powerful forehand, a simple remedy would be to serve short to the forehand, and then attack out to the backhand, thereby taking the forehand out of the equation. If an opponent has a strong push that is difficult to attack, then serve topspin. If an opponent has strong side-top serves and a good follow-up, then focus on returning the ball deep. If an opponent has a strong forehand and backhand, perhaps go after his middle, the changeover spot between forehand and backhand. And so on.

Similarly, you can use tactics to play into an opponent's weakness or to avoid exposing your own weaknesses. See if you can come up with your own list of tactics of this type. Ideally you'll learn to play your strengths against an opponent's weaknesses. But sometimes you'll play your medium shots to the opponent's weaknesses, or your strengths to the opponent's medium shots.

Most top players focus on just a few tactics - perhaps two or three serve tactics, one or two receive tactics, and one or two rally tactics. This doesn't mean they don't use other tactics as the situation comes up, but they are standard tactics that are ingrained from years of playing and thinking about the sport. The specific tactics against a specific player are far more limited, and yet, if chosen properly, will pay off dividends. 

June 20, 2011 - Are You a Tree or a Squirrel?

Monday, June 20, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Squirrels run circles around trees, and there's a lesson there. If you are a tree, you just stand there, rooted to the ground, waiting on each shot to see if you have to move. By the time you realize you have to move - how often does your opponent happen to hit the ball right into your forehand or backhand pocket so it'll hit right in the middle of your paddle? - it's too late, and so you can only awkwardly reach for the ball. There are no proud redwoods in table tennis, only weeping willows.

If you are a squirrel, then you are constantly in motion. You expect to move, and so between shots you flex your knees, perhaps do a small bounce, and instead of deciding whether to move, decide where to move. And then you lightly scamper after every shot, or perhaps lumber if you're an out-of-shape squirrel, but at least you are moving, allowing you to make strong shots.

A good way to practice this is with a random drill. Have a partner block or feed multiball randomly all over the table. Your job is to be ready to move instantly as soon as you see where the ball's going, while at the same time not anticipating, just reacting. Make sure your first move is always the right move. With practice, you'll become proficient, and that'll show up in your match results. 

June 13, 2011 - Playing the Fisher

Monday, June 13, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The fisherman (or fisherwoman?) . . . the scourge of many. The player who backs up and softly and defensively topspins everything back a few feet over the net. His shots are not quite lobbing, not quite looping, and not quite counter-hitting. It can take a lot of work to race around the table attacking his shots with your forehand - not easy when the fisher puts the ball side to side, deep on the table, with both topspin and sidespin so the balls jumps as it hits your side of the table. How does one play this style?

First off, you have to decide how physical you can play. If you have the foot speed, stamina, and a strong enough forehand (looping or smashing) to attack each of these shots with your forehand, then by all means do so, though (as explained below) the occasional change-of-pace may be important, depending on how steady the fisher is. The key is how you attack them.

If you don't have the foot speed, stamina, or a strong enough forehand to keep attacking, then you will have to mix in blocks, especially with your backhand. (Of course, if you have a far more powerful backhand than forehand - rare, but sometimes the case - then attack with the backhand.) Don't feel as if this is a major weakness - more players lose to fishers by over-attacking than by ones who change the pace by mixing in blocks along with their attacks. 

The arc of a ball from a fisher is longer, and the topspin makes the ball bounce out, so the top of the bounce is about a half step farther off the table than you might expect. Unless you have great reflexes and timing and can take the ball off the bounce, you'll need to take a half step back to smash or loop at the top of the bounce. Otherwise you'll get jammed. 

Here are the keys to playing a fisher.

Placement: Never attack the middle forehand or middle backhand - those are the easiest shots for the fisher to return. Instead, focus on the wide backhand and middle (elbow area), and the wide forehand when you think you have a clean winner (or if the fisher happens to be weak on that side, though usually that's the strong side). Since a fisher needs to anticipate where your attacks are going in order to react to them, if you can aim one way and go another, he'll struggle.

  • On the forehand side, the fisher has a bigger hitting zone, more range, can more easily create both topspin and sidespin, and can more easily counter-attack, usually with a counterloop. Usually avoid this side until you see a clean winner.
  • On the backhand side, the fisher is more cramped, and normally has less range, less spin, and less potential for a counter-attack. Go after this side with a vengeance, along with attacks to the middle.  Most attacks to the wide backhand side will come back to your backhand side, allowing you to continue your attack into the wide backhand, where you have more table than if you go down the line or to the middle. The catch is to do so, you have to step all the way around your backhand side if you want to use your forehand.
  • In the middle, the fisher has to make a split-second decision on whether to go forehand or backhand, plus it's usually easier to run a ball down in the corners then to get out of the way of a ball in the middle. Focus on attacking the middle slightly on the backhand side to force an awkward backhand return. This is often a good spot to end the point on. However, there's more table when you go after the corners, so if you attack the middle over and over you are more liable to make a mistake. Some fishers seem to get every ball back on the backhand side, but that's because all the attacks are going right to the backhand side; mix in attack to the middle, and the fisher will begin to crumble.

Change of Pace: Once a good fisher gets his timing down, he can often seemingly return shot after shot even as you smash or power-loop over and over. How do you break out of this pattern? Try changing the pace. Attack one ball softer than normal, or perhaps block one. The fisher is consistent off your strong attacks only because he is anticipating them, and so his timing and positioning are set for strong attacks. Change the pace, and you may mess up his timing and positioning. You might even try looping soft and spinny as a changeup, and watch the fisher struggle to adjust without missing or giving you an easy ball to put away.

Loop or Smash? You can do either against a fisher, or (often even more effectively) do both. Do whichever you are more comfortable with. If you have a powerful loop, the extra topspin of your loop will make it easier to keep your attacks on the table; at the higher levels, top players pretty much kill-loop over and over against a fisher. But if you have a good smash, use that, especially if you can be deceptive with it.

The Short Ball: As long as he keeps the ball deep on the table, a good fisher can run down almost anything you attack. The goal shouldn't be to end the point with each shot; the goal should be to put pressure on the fisher until he returns a ball that lands short. (Of course, in trying to force this, you'll force plenty of outright misses as well.) When you get that short ball, that's when you end the point. You can now attack the ball much closer to the table, at wide angles, and your opponent has less time to react. As long as you don't telegraph your shot, you should be able to rip this ball at a wide angle so that the opponent simply can't run it down, or to the middle where the opponent simply can't react.

Special thanks to Deriderj, who raised this question on the forum

June 6, 2011 - Practice Matches

Monday, June 6, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

A practice match is just that - a practice match. The problem is that many only get the second part - "match" - and forget about that first part - "practice."

This doesn't mean you don't take a practice match seriously or don't give it 100%. It's not a goof-off match; it's a practice match. But how should you approach a practice match differently than a tournament match?

To start with, you should treat most practice matches almost the same as a tournament match. That means playing to win. But there are differences. Winning may no longer be top priority. On the other hand, playing well should always be a priority in practice - even if you don't win.

In practice matches, if the goal is to improve, then this is your chance to practice whatever it is you need to improve. For example, if you're a blocker who is trying to develop his loop, practice matches are an opportunity to do that. Decide how you want to play in the future, and strive to play that way in practice. Your goal is to play well and to improve.

But not all opponents are the same. Some are weaker; some are about your own level, and some are stronger. How should you approach these matches?

Playing weaker players is a blessing. Now you can really practice your shots! Here's the chance for a blocker to work on his serve & loop; the looper to work on his blocking; and so on. Pick out something you need to work on, and go for it. Need to develop a counterloop? Let your opponent loop first and try to counterloop. Have trouble looping a heavy backspin? The weaker player might not have a good attack, but if he can push heavy, you have your practice. And so on. Against weaker players, practice your weaknesses, practice against their strengths, or go all the way and pit your weaknesses against their strengths. Or perhaps practice your own strengths, and see if you can completely dominate the match, if that's what needs work.

Against players your own level, find a balance. Here's where you incorporate the things you developed playing against weaker players. When there are no tournaments or other important matches coming up, try to improve and add on to your game. If there are important matches coming up, focus more on playing to win, while picking and choosing what new techniques you can now use. Use the match to practice your normal game. 

Against stronger players, here's your chance to push your own strengths to a higher level. Improving isn't just about working on your weaknesses; it's also about making your strengths dominating. Do you have a good loop? Now's your chance to see if you can dominate a stronger player with it. Do you play fast? Now's your chance to see if you can play at the pace of the stronger player. And so on.

Let's suppose one of these "practice" matches is close, and it's near the end of a game. What do you do? You could try winning with the shot or shots you are working on. Better still, this is your chance to practice learning how to win. So instead, play to win using whatever tactics are best. Practice isn't always about practicing a shot; it's also about practicing tactics. Learning to win, and what tactics to use to win, are huge practice.

Let me re-emphasize that you should give 100% in practice matches; otherwise, you aren't being fair to your partner, and you are wasting your own time. But use the time intelligently, and optimize the development of your game. Play to win, but play to win using the shots you want to use for winning. 

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May 30, 2011 - Play Into the Weird Stuff

Monday, May 30, 2011
by: Larry Hodges


Suppose your opponent has something that gives you problems. It could be a weird shot, like an inside-out or a sidespinning loop, or an extra-flat backhand, or a playing surface that gives you trouble. Should you avoid it? That's probably the first inclination, and if it's something you truly can avoid, then that might be the best strategy. But won't your opponent be trying to get whatever gives you trouble into play? You are probably going to have to deal with it. And the last thing you want to do is to still be having trouble with it near the end of the match, and lose because of it.

Instead, find chances to play into it when you are ready for it, and get comfortable against it. When you can do that, then you can play tactics to avoid it, knowing you'll be ready for it when necessary.

Here's one tip that may solve most of your problems with "weird" surfaces and strokes. Keep the ball deep on the table, and you'll have a lot more time to react and your opponent won't be able to angle you much. It's those short balls that come back quick and angled that cause most of the problems.