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.)




July 29, 2019 - Do You Want to Know an Opponent's Rating Before a Match?

Monday, July 29, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

If you know your opponent's rating before a match, you have several advantages:

  1. You can use tactics and techniques that will generally defeat that level;
  2. If the opponent is lower rated, you can go in with confidence;
  3. If the opponent is higher rated, you can go in feeling you have nothing to lose, and so play better than normal.

On the other hand:

  1. The opponent's rating might be inaccurate, and so the advantages mentioned above can all backfire;
  2. If the opponent is lower rated, you may feel pressure because of a possible upset, or just play down to that level, and lose;
  3. If the opponent is higher rated, you may feel intimidated, and so not play well.

I would say that far more players have lost matches because of the latter reasons than players who won for the former reasons. In fact, it's not even close. For most players, it's best to approach each match with your own game plan, and worry about the opponent's playing style, not his rating. If you execute properly, you'll beat most of the "weaker" players, and probably lose to most of the "stronger" players. But this is better than pulling off an occasional win by knowing the opponent's rating, and losing five for the same reason.

In most tournaments, an opponent's rating is usually listed on the draw sheet and match slip, and so you usually will know his rating; you'd have to make an extra effort to avoid seeing it. And, of course, you might simply know the player and his rough rating from the past. So what do you do?

Simply put it out of your mind. To reiterate, the opponent's playing style is what is important, not his rating. (Note that playing style includes his level at the various techniques. A rating doesn't give you that info.)

There are some players who do like to know the opponent's rating in advance, for the very reasons given above. As long as you are flexible in your thinking and tactics in the middle of a match situation - and most players are not - that's fine. It's usually better to figure out the opponent's level of play in the match itself, not hope his level matches the number next to his name.

Also, an opponent's overall level isn't nearly as important as what the opponent's level is for each technique. If his rating or level is 2000, but he loops like a 2200 player and blocks like an 1800 player, then your goal isn't to beat a 2000-level player; it's to avoid the 2200 looper, while going after the 1800 blocker.






July 8, 2019 - Take the Shot

Monday, July 8, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Many players hesitate in taking an aggressive shot because they are afraid of missing. On the contrary, if you are afraid of taking a specific shot, then (unless it's a championship match), any good coach will tell you that's a reason to take that shot, so you'll learn to do it under pressure - and especially when you need it when you do have a championship match.

The more you go for the right aggressive shot under pressure the better you'll get at it. In fact, an experienced player will be nervous about not taking the right shot, since he knows he's not playing the percentages, and so is literally playing to lose. This doesn't mean killing every ball; it means learning what the high-percentage shot is, and taking that shot whenever it comes up, regardless of the score. A great example of this is looping or otherwise attacking a deep serve. If you are afraid to do this in practice, then how will you do it when you really need the shot?






June 24, 2019 - Learning to Win

Monday, June 24, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most common problems players face in their table tennis is the inability to recognize the difference between learning the shots, and learning to win. There's a big difference.

Many players have a good idea of what to do out at the table - but just don't have the strokes. This article is not directed toward these players, who generally know who they are. These players need to see a coach to fix up their strokes, and will improve as fast as their strokes develop.

An equal number of players have good strokes, but don't know how to put them together to win matches. Players like this can spend years perfecting shots, but never improve as fast as they should - and often quit the game in disgust as others pass them in rating or ranking. This article is directed toward these players.

To get the maximum out of whatever shots you have, you have to combine the shots in various combinations. For example, a player with a great loop against backspin won't get the most out of his game if he constantly serves topspin. Similarly, a player who counter-drives well may not get the most out of his game if he mostly serves backspin. This is tactical thinking.

And yet a player who is weak at one area of his game should often play to use that weakness in practice matches to make it stronger - and develop a more powerful game. This is strategic thinking.

It goes beyond just serve and receive, of course. A player with a good loop kill may regularly go for a winner on the first shot in the rally, and although he may get away with it sometimes, he'd do far better if he set himself up better with other shots. He may end up winning by ripping every shot - but he'd be even a better player if he learned to pick his shots.

How does one learn to win? There are two main variables in this:

I. DEVELOPING THE RIGHT SHOTS

Many players develop their games with no real thought behind it. As mentioned previously, it doesn't make sense for a player who loops backspin well to constantly serve topspin. (Unless, of course, this player is trying to strategically improve that part of his game.) Instead, a player such as this should develop the shots that set up his loop against backspin - a short backspin or no-spin serve, perhaps a short push to force a pushed return. Similarly, you should develop your game to favor the shots you do well.

Take the time to think out what type of game you best play:

1. Strengthen Your Strengths

  • What type of rallies are you best at?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to get yourself into that type of rally?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to become even stronger in that type of rally?

2. Strengthen Your Weaknesses

  • What types of rallies are you weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will strengthen yourself in the rallies that you are weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will keep you out of the rallies that you are weak at?

II. KNOWING HOW TO USE THOSE SHOTS

Table tennis is very similar to chess. A top chess player can spot a weaker player a few pieces, perhaps even the queen, and still win because he knows how to use the pieces better. Similarly, a table tennis player will often win against a player with better shots if he knows how to use the shots he does have more effectively.

How many times have you heard someone say, "I could have won except for..." Shouldn't that player learn to handle or avoid that one "except for" shot?

BACK TO LEARNING TO WIN

How does one take what has been given above and apply it to match situations?

If you only play against stronger players, you will most often be forced to react to your opponent's shot, rather than forcing your shots and combinations on your opponent. On the other hand, if you play players who are weaker, you will force your game on your opponent - and instead of reacting to your opponent's shots, you will be practicing your own combinations.

Players who rarely have the opportunity to play stronger players are handicapped in their development. But so too are players who only play players who are stronger. To reach your maximum potential, you need both. A player with a rating, say, 100 points lower than yours is perfect for developing your own combinations.

So, develop the shots you need to win and learn how to use those shots. Develop your shots by playing stronger players when you can. But stop avoiding those weaker players. Turn them into practice fodder, rather than be fodder yourself.






June 17, 2019 - Six-Step Training Progression

Monday, June 17, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Developing your table tennis game is a steady progression from the simple to the more complex. Many players, however, get stuck at the beginning or intermediate stage, and never move on toward developing the more advanced parts of their game. It's a common syndrome--players spending year after year trying to completely perfect their most basic shots, and refusing to learn anything more advanced until the basic shots are (in their mind) perfected--and so they never improve as fast as they should. It's sort of like a sprinter spending all his time trying to perfect his walk while his rivals are practicing sprinting. Decide for yourself where you fit in the following six steps, and work your way toward the final step. It's not an exact thing--even when you are doing drills from Step Six, you should still be doing some of the drills from all five earlier steps.

Although most of the drills given below are simple rallying-type drills, as you get more advanced, you should begin many drills with serve & receive techniques to simulate game situations. For example, rather than have your partner serve a simple topspin serve to start a drill, have him serve deep backspin, you loop, partner blocks, and the drill continues. Or partner serves short, you flip the short ball, and continue the drill. Or partner serves backspin, you push, partner attacks, you counter-attack, and the drill continues.

In all drills below, whenever your forehand or backhand is mentioned, that means either a drive or a loop – you decide. If you're a beginner, mostly drive. As your loop becomes more advanced, use the loop more often. However, make sure you can do each drill competently with a drive before doing it with a loop. I'd recommend using your forehand loop in as many of the drills as possible as soon as possible. Depending on your style and level of play, you may also use the backhand loop in many of the drills. (Drills are written as if there were two righties; lefties should adjust.)

Step One: Stroke & Stroke Before you can run, you have to learn to walk. In table tennis, that means you have to learn the strokes before you can use them in more advanced drills. In practice, this means:

  • Forehand to Forehand Cross-Court
  • Backhand to Backhand Cross-Court
  • Forehand to Backhand Down-the-Line

A common mistake is to over-practice the strokes by doing simple forehand to forehand, backhand to backhand, etc., over and over, session after session, sometimes for years. You have to start out this way, but don't spend too much time each session on this. Once you can hit 20 in a row with good form, you can start doing drills from Step 2. However, you do need to make the strokes automatic--which means you should start most sessions with the basic forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand for 5-10 minutes until you can consistently get 20-100 in row. As the shots become more instinctive, spend less and less time doing forehand to forehand, etc. Think of this as a simple warm-up, and do no more than 2-5 minutes each session as you warm up each shot. Use the more advanced drills to fully warm up your shots.

Step Two: Move & Stroke Now it's time to add footwork to your strokes. You have to learn to move to the ball.

  • One-One Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide forehand, one ball to your middle forehand. You move back and forth, hitting all forehands and returning each ball to the same spot for your opponent, either his backhand or forehand.
  • One-One Forehand Footwork from Backhand Corner. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one ball to the middle of the table. You return each with your forehand, moving side to side
  • One-One Backhand Footwork. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your wide backhand, one to your middle backhand. You move side to side, returning each ball with your backhand.

Step Three: Different Strokes Now it's time to combine your forehand and backhand strokes. Here are some drills you can do:

  • Forehand-Backhand Alternating. Partner alternates hitting one ball to your backhand, one to your forehand. You alternate hitting backhand and forehand, returning each ball to the same spot (either partner's forehand or backhand).
  • Two-One Drill (Falkenberg Drill). Partner hits two balls to your backhand, one ball to your forehand, then repeats sequence. You return the first ball with your backhand, step around your backhand corner and return the second ball with your forehand, then move to your wide forehand and return the third ball with your forehand.
  • Cross-Court/Down-the-Line. Partner hits every ball down-the-line, while you hit every ball cross-court. Ball will travel in a figure eight. Next, you hit down the line, partner hits cross-court.

Step Four: Choose & Stroke Now it's time to add some randomness to your drills. This is the step that many players never get to as they spend eternity trying to develop the perfect forehand or backhand. The key thing in this step is to keep it a simple choice between only two possibilities. Here is the key drill:

  • Random side-to-side. Partner hits ball either to middle forehand or middle backhand. You return with either forehand or backhand, depending on where ball is going. Keep the footwork and stroking practice here to a minimum--the key thing to work on here is making the choice between forehand and backhand, and smoothly executing the stoke. Try not to anticipate; just react. You shouldn't be moving in one direction, and then have to change directions. Make sure your first move is in the correct move.

Step Five: Choose & Move Now it's time to combine decision-making, stroking and footwork. Don't just use the drills given below--make up your own! There are an infinite number of potential drills.

  • Random Forehands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your forehand side. You move to each ball and return with a forehand.
  • Random Backhands. Partner hits the ball randomly all over your backhand side. You move to each ball and return with a backhand.
  • Backhand-Random Forehand. Partner hits one ball to wide backhand, one ball to either middle of table or wide forehand. You alternate hitting backhand from backhand corner, and forehand either from middle or wide forehand, depending on where your partner hits the ball.
  • Random Deep Serves. Partner serves either deep to your forehand or deep to your backhand. Depending on your playing style and foot speed, you can attack either with forehand or backhand, and continue with any drill sequence, or attack all serves with forehand, and continue with any drill sequence.
  • Alternate Two-One. Same as the Two-One (Falkenburg) given in Step 3, except after hitting the second ball to backhand, partner has option of either hitting to wide forehand (as in normal two-one) or hitting third ball to your backhand, and then going to your wide forehand. If partner hits third ball to your backhand, you return with your backhand--smoothly, without starting to move to your wide forehand.

Step Six: Whole Table Now it's time to pull out all the stops and most of the rules and play almost like you were in a match.

  • Whole Table Random. Partner hits balls to all parts of table, randomly. You return with forehand or backhand.
  • Serve & Attack. You serve backspin, partner pushes anywhere on table. You attack (mostly by looping), either with all forehand, or with forehand or backhand, depending on your playing style and footspeed.

And now you can do Step Seven, the ultimate random: Matches!






June 10, 2019 - Should You Play Differently at Deuce?

Monday, June 10, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

The simple answer is Yes and No. Yes, as in there's no point any longer on holding back on anything tactically. If you have a tactic, serve, or other shot that the opponent has trouble with, which you've been using sparingly so he wouldn't get used to it, now's the time to use it. Some figure the opponent is expecting it, and so hold back on their best tactic - this rarely ends well, and usually leaves the opponent and viewers wondering, "Why didn't he do that thing that gave his opponent so much trouble?"

No, as in the score doesn't affect the tactics, except that you no longer are holding back. Some believe that at deuce, you should "play safe." That's only true if you are a nervous wreck and can't do your more aggressive shots - in which case you need a trip to a sports psychologist. Of course, if your opponent is a nervous wreck, that might change tactically what you want to do. It works both ways. Under pressure it's usually easier to make an opening shot, where you choose the shot you are doing, than it is to react to an opponent's shot, where there's more uncertainty. So if the high-percentage shot is to attack, then you should attack, even if you are nervous - and the more you do this, the better you become at doing it under pressure.

The simplest way of looking at all this is that the highest percentage tactic at any time is whatever the highest percentage tactic is, regardless of the score.