Larry Hodges's blog

March 18, 2011

Tournament Morning

This morning I'm playing in the Cary Cup. Though I'm "only" playing in hardbat (the rest of the way "just" coaching), I still have to prepare. What does that mean?

  1. Get up early. I don't want to feel rushed.
  2. Some easy jogging and stretching. I don't want to feel stiff.
  3. A good breakfast of waffles. Because I want waffles.
  4. Get to the playing site early. I don't want to feel rushed.
  5. Some more easy jogging and stretching. Yada yada yada on the stiffness thing.
  6. Check out draws. Duh.
  7. Find someone to warm up with. I usually arrange someone to meet with the day before, but didn't have anyone this time. Hopefully I'll find someone.
  8. For hardbat, I want to warm up the forehand, backhand, backhand chop, and serve. For sponge, the forehand, backhand, forehand loop, backhand loop against underspin, push, and serve. In both cases, play out points at the end.
  9. Stop warmup about ten minutes before match time so I can rest.
  10. Wait for match time, and then play.

Maybe this is a good time to mention my pre-match ritual, done after the two-minute warmup with my opponent, and after hiding the ball (or flipping coin) to see who serves. Everyone should have one; here's mine.

I take a few steps back from the table, toward the left so I can approach the table from the backhand side, i.e. in forehand position. I do a deep knee bend to loosen up the knees. (Careful, don't want to hurt the knees!) I stand up and do a quick foot shuffle to wake up the legs. I tell my opponent good luck. Since I always give away the serve at the start of the match (maybe I'll write about this next week), it's almost always my opponent's serve, so I hold up my left arm and approach the table, and go into my ready position. Then I lower my arm to signal that I'm ready, and we're off! (If it's my serve, it just means I don't have to hold up my left hand, and instead go to my serving ready stance.)

March 17, 2011

Off to Cary, hardbat and coaching

Tim Boggan and I are leaving for Cary, NC for the Butterfly Cary Cup Table Tennis Championships this morning. It's about six hours away. He's doing the coverage for USA Table Tennis Magazine, and then continuing on to South Carolina, where he'll meet his wife for a vacation through March 28. I'm playing the hardbat event on Friday (roughly 10AM-3PM - I'm the defending champion), and then I'm coaching the rest of the way. I'll mostly be coaching Tong Tong Gong, a member of the USA National Cadet Team and MDTTC, though I may coach some other Marylanders when I'm free.

Though I'm normally a sponge player, I've been playing hardbat for many years. At the U.S. Open or Nationals, I've won Hardbat Singles twice, Hardbat Doubles ten times, and Over 40 Hardbat four times. (I'm the current champion from the Nationals in December in the last two.) I'm basically an all-out forehand hitter, with five types of forehands: smash, quick hit, counter-hit, roll, and off-table counter-hit. (I also have deceptive placement - basically, all my forehands look like I'm going to the left, so I mostly hit to the righty, i.e. a righty's backhand.) I'm weak on the backhand - that's no secret - but I cover that side by mostly chopping. I tend to attack most serves with my forehand, relying on deep, aggressive returns to keep my opponent from counter-hitting an aggressive, angled return, since at age 51 I don't have the mobility I used to have. While hitting is my strength, I'm more proud when I win points by chopping. (It's amazing how often players hit off when I give them a no-spin chop.) One of my favorite tactics is to chop until I get a weak topspin to my backhand or any type of attack to my forehand, and then I counter-attack with my forehand. On my serve, I use almost the same serves as with sponge - forehand pendulum serves, with a fast, varying contact, followed by forehand attack.

European Stars Practicing

Here's a nice video (7:12) of European stars practicing at the European Top Twelve. How many can you name? More important, are you doing the same type of drills they are? These drills got them to where they are, so why not follow in their footsteps?

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March 16, 2011

Butterfly Cary Cup

Tomorrow I leave for the Cary Cup Open in North Carolina. I'm only playing in the hardbat event (I'm the defending champion, though I'm normally a sponge player), which is on Friday morning and afternoon. The rest of the tournament I'm just coaching. (Wait a minute - what's this "only" thing? Next time I'm playing in a tournament I'll tell people I'm "only" playing, not coaching. Hmmm...)

So what does one do just before a tournament? Why, practice serves, of course. Sometime today I'll stop by the club and practice my hardbat serves - yes, hardbat - so they'll be ready.

History of U.S. Table Tennis: Vol. 11!

It's hard to believe, but after 13 consecutive days of non-stop work, Tim Boggan's History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. 11 (!) is done. (516 pages, 805 photos.) Tim moved in with me on March 3, and has been sleeping on my sofa ever since. (Mal Anderson helped tremendously by supplying and scanning most of the photos.) I spent my days doing the page layouts and fixing up photos (you can do wonders with Photoshop), with Tim sitting at my side, saying things like, "That photo there, but first remove that black mark over there, flip him so he's looking the other way, lighten it, and take those people out of the background." This is the tenth straight year we've done this. Visit TimBogganTableTennis.com for more info on these volumes - and remember that Volume 11 will be out in a few weeks!

More on Tim Boggan - the Table Tennis Nominee for the George Steinbrenner III Sport Leadership Award

Here's Tim's nomination! Sean O'Neill wrote the first draft, and then I made some additions (with Tim's help) and proofed it. Cross your fingers.

A Ping-Pong Paddle Shaped Hotel.

Yes . . . a Ping-Pong Paddle Shaped Hotel. Looks like it's for a pips-out penholder, with convenient ball-shaped garage.

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March 15, 2011

Doubles Training at Double Speed!

Here's Massimo Costantini (head coach at ICC and former long-time member of the Italian National Team) training Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang in doubles. It's a pretty impressive video, though only a minute and nine seconds long. If you want to see some really advanced doubles footwork training, take a look. Just watching it will tire you out.

I've coached doubles at tournaments many times, and I've given lectures on doubles tactics and footwork. However, I've never had the opportunity to train a really, Really, REALLY high-level doubles team like this, especially on a regular basis. Unless you train for it a lot, this type of footwork is more likely to lead to horrible collisions and agonizing losses than glorious wins. But if you really want to be really good at doubles at a really high level, this is what you really need to learn how to do. Really.

One interesting note - the first time through, I thought Massimo was feeding multiball. The second time through I realized he was rallying with them. He's got great ball control, both on his blocks and short pushes.

A Lot in a Few Words

While coaching two players today one of them suggested crystallizing what they had learned in as few words as possible. It turned out to be a nice exercise. I didn't write it all down, but here are a few they came up with, with my notes in brackets.

  • Move to the ball
  • Turn shoulders [for forehand]
  • Same backswing each time
  • Punch the backhand [this was for blocking]
  • Wrist on serves
  • Low contact [on serves]
  • Visualize [this was for serves, though it's useful for all shots]

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March 14, 2011

Losing your edge

This weekend I played a match against a fairly strong player, about 1900. It was near the end of a training session, and I was feeling tired and stiff (okay, feeling old), so we played two out of three to eleven. In the first game, I didn't really do much, and he kept missing. Up 9-0, I played two points chopping and lobbing to give him a chance, but he botched two shots, and I won 11-0. In the second game, I told myself not to let up . . . and then proceeded to let up. Consciously, I wasn't letting up, but subconsciously something was missing. Now I fell behind 0-4. At 4-9, I switched to chopping, and made it to 9-10 before chopping a fast, dead serve into the net. In the third game, after losing the first point and realizing that I could actually lose this match, my subconscious woke up, and now I could do no wrong as I won 11-2.

So why was I unable to play my best for that one game? In some ways, this is the root of sports psychology, i.e. bringing out your best. I really wanted to continue to play well, and yet something was missing and I was unable to. Deep down, both I and my subconscious knew (or thought we knew) that the match wasn't a challenge, and being tired, stiff, and feeling old, that little extra that separates playing well and not playing well just wasn't there . . . until I really needed it. In tournaments, I've rarely had this problem, perhaps because the stakes are higher.

New Jersey Training Program

This spring, NJTTC will be offering an 8-week training program for intermediate-level players, coached by Peter Strucinski and Frank Yu. Sessions will run on Saturday mornings from 10:30am - 12:30pm. The first class will be on Saturday, March 19, 2011. The cost for the 8-week program is $200 for club members ($250 for non-members.) More information is available on this flyer. If interested, email them.

Spring Break Camp at Maryland Table Tennis Center

The Spring Break Camp at MDTTC will likely fill up, with schools closed in both Montgomery and Prince Georges County, so we expect hordes and hordes of marauding juniors with cannon forehands and lightning feet. I'll be there during the morning sessions, and probably some afternoons. Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and Jeffrey Zeng Xun (the new coach from China) will also be there. It'll mostly be a junior camp, but all ages are welcome. Since I'm running an ITTF Seminar on the weekend before and after, we're expecting some of the coaches to attend as well as part of their training.

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March 11, 2011

Talent versus hard work

There's much debate these days about whether table tennis players need talent to reach the highest levels, or if hard work will overcome it. The debate is often dominated by those who believe something toward the extremes as dogma. To be the very best, most seem to believe one of the following:

1) You have to have talent, and if you have that, hard work will pay off; or

2) There's no such thing as talent; it's all about working hard, plus proper circumstances (starting early, good coaching and competition, etc.).

Some look at just the best players, see that they work hard, and conclude it's all about hard work. They are not looking at the people who work hard don't become the best. Others see that some are more talented than others - we've all seen this type of thing in grade school - and conclude it's all about talent, and that if you don't have it, you can't be great.

Here's my take (short version). There's no question that there is such a thing as talent. Some kids simply pick things up very fast, others struggle. We're not all born with exactly the same brain structure. As early as a kid can crawl you can see differences in their skills - just toss a ball at them and you'll some can grab it, others can barely hold onto it. Even the book "Bounce" by former world-class chopper Matthew Syed of England, which argues that players reach the highest levels by hard work and proper circumstances, doesn't argue there is no such thing as talent. It simply argues (roughly speaking) that hard work and proper circumstances will overcome that. It might be right.

Can those with low talent become the best? I've coached kids and seen kids coached who were so low on the talent spectrum that I just don't see them ever becoming world-class table tennis players, no matter what they did. I can't think of a single example of someone like this who eventually became a truly elite player. But I have seen players like this struggle for years, work at it, and eventually become very good. (You often read of elite players who apparently struggled for years before reaching the highest levels, and then you realize that while they were "struggling," they were already among the best, and that their struggles were against the very best.)

I can think of many examples of top players who didn't work hard for years and still pulled away from much harder-working peers - apparently, they were simply more talented. But they would often fall behind their harder-working peers in the long run, and in the end, the very best players were always hard workers.

Having said all this, I tend to think that if you start early, work extremely hard, have good circumstances (start early, coaching, competition, etc.), you can become extremely good - maybe even the best in the U.S. The jury is still out for me on whether you can be the best in the world (which is several levels above best in the U.S.) at table tennis without talent - and I mean that as I said it; I'm really not sure, though I'm doubtful for those who truly start out on the lower end of the talent spectrum. But who knows? Far too many people are sure of the answer here when there's no basis for such certainty.

What is talent for table tennis? Roughly speaking, I'd say it's a combination of the following - and I'm sure I'm missing other aspects:

  1. Hand-eye coordination
  2. Ability to control body
  3. Ability to make smooth and controlled movements
  4. Ability to track the ball with the eyes
  5. Mental skills (many)
  6. Ability to mimic
  7. Ability to repeat a motion
  8. Reflexes
  9. Speed (fast twitch muscles)

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March 10, 2011

USATT Club, Coaching, Editorial Committees

I've been on the USATT Editorial Committee for the last couple years. Now I'm on the Coaching and Club Committees. What have I gotten myself into???

Actually, I chaired both these committees at various times in the 1990s. (Sometime I'll blog about the Club Catalyst & Creation Program - yes, CCCP - which led to an increase in clubs from 226 to 303 while membership went from roughly 5500 to 7500.) So I have plenty of ideas. The hard part is trying to get others to understand the difference between what I call "nice stuff" and "Big Stuff." Nice stuff is stuff that's helpful, but isn't going to make a major difference. And that's nice. But I'm more interested in doing some Big Stuff. Such as the systematic recruitment and training of professional coaches, the creation of a club-based nationwide league, or the regionalizing the sport so that each region can self-govern and grow, rather than wait for USATT (with a budget smaller than a 7-11) to do it for them.

The problem with doing Big Stuff is that if you suggest it, everyone will agree it's a great idea, so feel free to do it. That won't work. USATT can't do Big Stuff unless they get behind the Big Stuff as a priority, not in words, but in actions. I once tried to set up a USATT League, but USATT wouldn't get behind it, so I was stuck trying to work a full-time job as USATT Editor and Webmaster, coaching at MDTTC, and in my free time (right!) set up, promote, and run a nationwide league.

Your thoughts? Or are you ready to leave your entire table tennis future in my (okay, our) greedy little hands?

ChineseNational Table Tennis Training Center

Want to train in China? See below! (They emailed me the info.)

2011 Spring Table Tennis Training Camp in CNTTTC

Dear Sir or Madam:

Welcome to Chinese National Table Tennis Training Center (CNTTTC). It is a great place for all table tennis players, lovers, professional or recreational, for all who know that a great sport to stay healthy and happy. The mission of the Center is to provide a conducive environment that nurtures, coaches and develops aspiring table tennis players of all ages and all countries to achieve their goals by realizing their potential in the sport and promote Ping Pong to its fullest. All table tennis teams, clubs, individuals, groups from social to competitive level can participate at any time; there is a spring intensive training camp in the center which begins on March 1st, 2011 and ends on June 19th, 2011.During this period. A lot of table tennis players from many foreign countries will come here for intensive training. You are most welcome to the center for spring table tennis training camp. Don’t hesitate to participate in our training programs. Cherish this precious opportunity to take national level training in China’s BEST table tennis developing center. As for details, Please feel free to visit our official website: www.cntttc.org or contact me hebocst2@gmail.com

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March 9, 2011

Use the flippin' down-the-line flip!

I beat a top junior player twice in a row in practice. How? He served almost the same short backspin serve over and over, allowing me to drop them all short. Then he'd either push long (so I was attacking first on his serve), or occasionally flip - but all his flips were crosscourt, so I had no problem attacking them. Note to all readers: 1) Vary your serves; and 2) Use the flippin' down the line flip!!! (Except against me, of course.)

Generally, you should flip to the forehand only when can do so very aggressively, or when the opponent has a weak forehand. More often you should move in as if flipping to the forehand, then flip it quick and wide into the backhand. You can also flip into the middle (the opponent's elbow), but only if you are flipping aggressively - and if you are, you might want the extra table you have when flipping to a wide corner. After all, you won't have all the topspin of a loop to pull it down.

Complete Idiots Guide doesn't think Complete Idiots play table tennis

As I blogged previously, I had an agent shopping "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis." Unfortunately, below is the response from the publisher, including her surprise at the large number of players who play table tennis in the U.S. (The agent is now shopping it to the Dummies people, but they already turned it down a couple of years ago.)

"I am surprised at some of the numbers below. I have to admit, it’s a bigger market than I would have guessed. And the author is ideal for such a project. However, I’m going to pass because I’m not convinced this a book that can work for us in today’s environment. There are too many more visually compelling ways to learn how to play table tennis than from reading a book. I don’t think we could sell enough copies for this to work financially for us. Sorry."

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March 8, 2011

The Forehand Loop: Chinese vs. European Theory

The forehand loop is often taught differently by Chinese and European coaches, though there is, of course, a lot of overlap. The general Chinese theory is that the loop is an extension of the drive, and so you focus first on the forehand drive. When that's very strong, then you extend the backswing and learn to graze the ball, and you have a loop. The general European theory is that they are two very distinct shots, and the loop is often taught very early.

Kids who focus on hitting early on (and generally develop strong blocking games as well) tend to get better early, while those who focus on looping early on seem to catch up when they are bigger and have enough power. If the hitter gets stuck mostly hitting and blocking, the loopers tend to pass them. If the hitter develops a big loop and learns to use it, well, that's almost the definition of a top Chinese player. Meanwhile, players who learn to loop early on but never really develop their table game (especially blocking) often get stuck at a level because of this hole in their game. 

Losing weight

Losing 17 pounds seems to have made me a better player. How 'bout that! People keep asking me how I lost 17 pounds in two months. Basically I did it by snacking constantly! Yes, from morning to night, whether I'm hungry or not, I keep snacking . . . on celery, carrots, cabbage, and tomatoes. When it was meal time, I wasn't that hungry. I also stopped drinking ice tea and went with plain water. I also tried to get exercise, mostly through table tennis and a few shadow practice sessions each week - I keep a weighted racket at my desk. (Good for practicing forehands and braining intruders.)

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March 7, 2011

Table Tennis Chats

Sometime after the Cary Cup Championships (March 18-20), I'm going to ask in my blog and on the forum who would attend. Assuming there is enough interest, we'll have a test chat, and then I'll start scheduling guests - coaches and top players.

Ping-Pong and third baseman J.J. Hardy of the Baltimore Orioles

Yep, he's a table tennis player! Here's an excerpt from an online interview:

Q: What are some things you like to do when you're not playing ball?
J.J. I've got a lot of little hobbies. Fishing – now that we're out here in Florida for Spring Training, I fish pretty much every single day when we're done here.  In the off-season I spend a lot of time playing Ping Pong, try to keep my game up there.  Not as much golf anymore, I used to golf quite a bit.  Kind of shot that down, now more Ping Pong and fishing.

Q: How did you get to become a Ping Pong player?
J.J. My dad was a professional tennis player, and he still teaches for a living, and we grew up around it and I have a brother who is about 17 months older than I am, we played Ping Pong growing up and it was a sport that we kind of clicked at, and having someone as good as I was at it, and me as good as he was, kind of kept us getting better. I take a lot of pride in my Ping Pong.

Things from 1981 I'd forgotten about

As I've reported, I'm spending a couple weeks with Tim Boggan doing the page layouts and photo work on his History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. 11 (!). We're covering 1981 right now, which is right when I shot up as a player, starting with winning the North Carolina Open, going undefeated and winning the North Carolina Teams, and then pulling of a series of upsets at the U.S. Open. Here are some excerpts from Table Tennis Topics, now USATT Magazine:

North Carolina Teams

"Larry, in his contest with Billy James, gave 'reckless abandon' a new meaning. He hustled about like maybe Nittaku was going to stop making balls."

"None were able to withstand Larry's relentless cannon-like loops."

U.S.Open

"Larry downed both Zvi Rathaus, who'd played for Israel in the '71 World's, and Canada's Alain Bourbonnais, who'd gotten to the semi's of the 2400's and would that fall make the Canadian National Team." (Note - I also upset Sean O'Neill, then rated 2303, the last time I'd ever beat him.)

Northern Virginia Top Twelve Invitational

"Would that or something so equally analyzable ('Keep the ball out of the middle third of the table') explain how Randy [Seemiller] beat Sean O'Neill yet lost to Larry Hodges? . . .  After his win over Randy he's gonna . . . offer his services as local, regional, national, or international coach—wherever he's wanted."

1981 USTTA Olympic Camp

"During free time crazy games were played—like the raw egg toss, or the watermelon seed-spitting contest. Special awards were given out—for example, for the tidiest room (won the first week by Larry Hodges who also shared the two weeks' Most Congenial award with Anh-Tai Nguyen)."

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