Blogs

Larry Hodges' Blog and Tip of the Week will go up on Mondays by noon USA Eastern time. Larry is a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, a USATT Certified National Coach, a professional coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (USA), and author of eight books and over 1500 articles on table tennis. Here is his bio. (Larry was awarded the USATT Lifetime Achievement Award in July, 2018.)
NOTE - Larry is on the USATT Board of Directors and chairs the USATT Coaching Committee, but the views he shares in his blog are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of USA Table Tennis.

Make sure to order your copy of Larry's best-selling book, Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!
Finally, a tactics book on this most tactical of sports!!!
Also out - Table Tennis Tips and More Table Tennis Tips, which cover, in logical progression, his Tips of the Week from 2011-2013 and 2014-2016, with 150 Tips in each!

Or, for a combination of Tales of our sport and Technique articles, try Table Tennis Tales & Techniques
If you are in the mood for inspirational fiction, The Spirit of Pong is also out - a fantasy story about an American who goes to China to learn the secrets of table tennis, trains with the spirits of past champions, and faces betrayal and great peril as he battles for glory but faces utter defeat. Read the First Two Chapters for free!

August 3, 2011

Perfecting your serve

Samson Dubina (2009 USA Nationals Men's Singles Finalist and full-time coach) explains how to perfect your serve, breaking it down point by point. I've always said serve and receive are the most under-developed parts of the game for most players. And serves are the easiest part to develop since you can practice them alone. To quote Nike, just do it!

Here are some articles I've written on serving:

Here are some videos on serving:

Drop shot against a lob

Here's a Pingskills coaching video on how to drop shot a lob (2:23). I'm a little hesitant about drop-shotting lobs that land short as those are the very ones you can smother kill at wide angles, but if you don't have great power, and you are up against a good lobber who's in position and just gave a ferociously topspinny lob that goes short, this is often the best option.

Trolley Car Table Tennis Club

Back on April 8, Philadelphia joined the ever-growing number of big cities with full-time table tennis centers with the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club. They are now they are running a coaching clinic (Aug. 6-7 with coaches Razvan Cretu and Choor Oh) as well as their third tournament (Aug. 13-14, with others scheduled every two months). The club has four coaches (Razvan Cretu, Gerald Reid, Enoch Green, and Choor Oh), eight tables, has a league on Tuesday nights, and is open seven days a week. Here's video (0:24) of their Grand Opening, which includes Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter playing.

Full-time table tennis centers

I'm thinking of putting together a listing of full-time table tennis centers in the U.S. I know of most of them, but if you know of any "obscure" ones, or want to put together a listing yourself, please send it to me! I know of a number in Maryland, the San Francisco bay area, Los Angeles, New York City, and a few here and there. I may have certain requirements - a room with a table isn't a full-time table tennis center. To me, a full-time center (roughly speaking) has a website, at least five or more tables, is open seven days a week (six is acceptable), has professional coaches (preferably at least one full-time), a junior program, and a league. If it's missing one of these but has most of the others, it might make the cut. (This will probably be in tomorrow's blog.)

Back problems - update

As noted in a number of blog posts, I've been having major upper back problems the last few months, which has dramatically affected my coaching and playing. (I already saw an orthopedist sports medicine doctor, and am doing various back exercises.) This past weekend I coached only one hour on Saturday, all multiball, and my back was pretty much okay. On Sunday, I coached two and a half hours - some multiball, most live - and my back was starting to go. Then Coach Cheng Yinghua talked me into joining the two-hour junior session, saying I'd only play beginners. (I had been doing this regularly until my back problems started.) Somehow I agreed, and two hours later my back had gone from bad to massive catastrophe. I was in agonizing pain the next two days. Here's an experiment for you: get a spear, heat up the tip over a fire, and then stick it in your upper back. Welcome to my world.

I've got a two-week camp at Maryland Table Tennis Center starting next week (Aug. 8-12, 15-19, plus regular coaching on the weekend in between), and since that's my job, I'm stocking up with Ibuprofen. Afterwards I may bring in one of our top junior players to do my hitting for me when I coach for 4-6 weeks so the back can heal.

Director Spike Jonze playing with a what?

No day is complete without a picture of Director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Where the Wild Things Are," many more) playing table tennis with his shoe. (And I just learned from his online bio that he lives in Rockville, Maryland, just a few miles from me!)***

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August 2, 2011

Celebrities Playing Table Tennis

Yes, it's that time of month again - the Celebrities Playing Table Tennis site gets updated around the first of each month. There are now 1234 pictures of 720 different celebrities playing table tennis - and any short listing of the Who's Who of Celebrities Playing Table Tennis just wouldn't do it justice! There are sections on Politicians/Leaders; Actors and Actresses; Athletes; Musicians; Talk Show Hosts; Writers; Cartoon Characters; and many more!

New celebrities playing table tennis pictures this month include actors Tom Hanks, Haley Joel Osment, Justin Timberlake, Sam Rockwell, Claudette Colbert, Esther Williams, Broderick Crawford; Prince Akihito of Japan (now Emperor); Ed Lee, Mayor of San Francisco; John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister of England; Ed Nixon, brother of Richard M. Nixon; golfer Tiger Woods; tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs; Chinese Olympic Gold Medalist Hurdler Liu Xiang; pool star Mika Immoren; talk show host Regis Philbin; singers Lil Jon and Anne-Marie Godart; English socialite Lady Norah Docker; and cartoon character Donald Duck.

Short sidespin serve to the forehand

Can you serve a short sidespin serve to the forehand that breaks away from a right-hander? A LOT of players have great difficulty with this serve, and many can't return it except crosscourt, i.e. into a right-handed server's forehand. If you play one of these players and can't do this, you are handicapping yourself. Shouldn't you be ready to throw this serve at these people? Three common ways of doing this serve: the forehand tomahawk serve (i.e. racket tip up); reverse forehand pendulum serve; and the regular backhand serve. (This may be expanded into a Tip of the Week.)

New USATT logo

In case you haven't noticed, USATT recently got a new logo. They went from this to this. (The new one is now up on the USATT home page.) One USATT board member told me at the U.S. Open last month that this symbolizes the "new" USATT, and that things were now different.

To quote the oft-used phrase from the fantasy novel "A Dance with Dragons," words are just wind. (Not always, of course, but words that aren't backed up by action are.) To expand on this, logos are just pixels. Things will be different when USATT addresses the real problems of expanding the sport in this country - and that means accepting that our 8000 or so members is (as noted at the infamous Strategic Meeting in 2009) a round-off error, and that we need to find ways to expand on this - like countries like Germany and England have done through leagues (700,000 and 500,000 members respectively), or how they and other countries like Sweden and France developed top players and large junior membership through club-based junior programs. (I'm using the European examples because their situation is more similar to the U.S.'s, as opposed to, say, China, where table tennis became popular because it was decreed to be the national sport by Chairman Mao.)

New Players, Tennis versus Table Tennis

When a new player walks into a typical tennis club in the U.S., he can sign up for a league with players at his level, for private or group coaching, and kids can sign up for junior training programs. When a new player walks into a typical table tennis club in the U.S., they tell him to call winners on a table, where he gets killed by experienced players, and since there are few leagues where he can compete against players his level, little group or private coaching, and few junior programs for kids, they rarely return. The solution, of course, is a new USATT logo. :) At some point, I'll expand more on this novel concept of table tennis clubs actually addressing the needs of new players as a way of getting new players.

Tennis has been my "side sport" for many years, and I spent years going to a training program twice a week where 3-5 of us would work with a coach, who ran us to death. I also competed in USTA tennis leagues (I'm up to about 4.0 level now), and discussed the tennis situation with tennis coaches extensively. We could learn a lot from tennis if we were only willing to listen.

Ping-Pong for Poverty

If you are anywhere in the vicinity of Virginia Beach Sept. 30 - Oct. 1, why not play in the Ping-Pong for Poverty charity tournament?

The Traveling Ping-Pong Parlor

Yes, a truck that brings table tennis to the masses! Who'd have thunk it. (1:52)

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August 1, 2011

Tip of the Week: Jerky Strokes and Jerkyitis

Yes, you can cure that terrible disease that plagues table tennis - Jerkyitis. Here's how.

Comments on this Blog

While there are a lot of readers on this blog - we're averaging well over 300 per day - there are few comments. Feel free to express yourself! It doesn't have to be Q&A, where readers grill me over what I wrote. Feel free to comment with your own experiences, suggestions, dumb puns or jokes, etc.

Funny table tennis terms

Table tennis has some funny terms. Here are three examples:

  • Heavy no-spin - a serve where you use an exaggerated motion to make it look like there's spin but instead serve no-spin.
  • Fishing - if you don't know what this is, it's explained here.
  • Inside-out off-the-bounce sidespin forehand counterloop - say that fast five times.

What are your own favorite table tennis terms, either real or made up?

Americans in China

A lot of USA juniors are training in China this summer, and it's getting lonely at the club without the pitter-patter of their feet as they race around ripping winners past me. Six top juniors from the Maryland Table Tennis Center (my club) are in China training this summer - Tong Gong, Linan Liu, Pamela Song, George & Derek Nie, and Crystal Wang. Others, like John & Nathan Hsu, stayed home, and are training daily with Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, Jeffrey Zeng Xun, Sun Ting, and others.

Table tennis movie

The movie "Korea" is coming out next year. It is based on the true story of the South Korean and North Korean women’s table tennis teams combining forces at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, where they upset the dominating Chinese team. (At the time, China had won women's teams at every worlds since 1973, when South Korea had won. China would go back to winning afterwards, winning every time until the Singapore team upset them in 2010, with a team made of mostly former Chinese players.)

Problems with the "Winner Stay On" club format

Scott Gordon explains why this isn't such a good format; I concur. Scott also gives his own club's solution to the problem.

Zhang Yining plays the Milwaukee Brewers

Find out how Corey Hart, John Axford and Zack Greinke fare against one of the greatest women players of all time (2:28). (Here's info on Zhang Yining.)

2011 US Open Sandpaper Finals  

In case you missed it - and let's face it, these rallies are great! Alas, there are few such rallies in sponge table tennis.

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July 29, 2011

Sometimes play into an opponent's strength

Something that needs re-emphasis - if something your opponent does give you trouble (other than serves), play into it until you are comfortable with it. Then, just when the opponent has gotten comfortable doing this thing, avoid it like the plague. He'll still probably get to use it, but now you'll be comfortable against it, and he'll have to adjust his whole game in mid-match to find ways to use it. How many times have you come off a table with a loss still feeling uncomfortable against whatever it was your opponent was doing and feeling like you have no answer for it? That should never happen in any match that is remotely competitive.

A classic example is playing someone with short pips on the backhand. If you have trouble with the short pips, play into it until you are comfortable.

Why you choke

Here's an interesting and informative video by former English Table Tennis Champion Matthew Syed on Why Players Choke (5:03). If you are interested in sports psychology, I recommend Dora Kurimay's Table Tennis Sports Psychology page, as well as other articles on sports psychology and my own article on Confidence - then Consistency. I also recommend three books: With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, and Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert. (They use other sports as examples, but all apply to table tennis as well.)

Sponge hardness

Here's an informative article - or rather, series of short tidbits - on sponge hardness, by top coaches and players Stellan Bengtsson, Samson Dubina, Massimo Constantini, Tahl Leibovitz, Sara Fu, and Scott Lurty.

Paul Drinkhall versus the World (or rather China)

Here's an interesting article on England's #1 Paul Drinkhall hoping to break the Chinese domination of table tennis. My first thought is, "Good luck with that!" My second thought is, "Good luck with that," but without the italics on "that." After all, I'm sure people thought the same thing of the Swedes, Hungarians, and Koreans when they attempted to overtake the Chinese, and at various times they all did so.

Back rehab update

As I've blogged previously, I've been having upper back problems which have affected my coaching and playing. I saw an orthopedist sports medicine doctor last Wednesday, nine days ago. He referred me to the Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (which he was affiliated with) for rehab. I called them over and over last Thursday, but no answer, the phone just rang and rang. I tried again on Friday, still no answer, and again on Saturday. I tried again on Monday morning, still no answer. So I called the doctor's office that morning, and they apologized, and said they'd set things up for me and get back to me that day. Nobody called back. On Tuesday I called one more time, no answer. So yesterday I did a web search for "upper back rehabilitation exercises" and found some excellent websites - in particular this and this. I'm now doing my own routine, about 10-15 minutes a day.

Pings and Pongs

What - you mean you haven't yet bought a copy of Pings and Pongs, an anthology of my thirty best published short science fiction & fantasy stories??? Well, what are you waiting for!!! It's only $14.95! It even includes a fantasy table tennis story ("Ping-Pong Ambition")! (Outside table tennis, I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer.) And while you're at it, get a copy of my books Table Tennis Tales & Techniques and Table Tennis: Steps to Success!

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July 28, 2011

Fixing the backhand

I had an interesting coaching experience yesterday with a new ten-year-old student. He'd picked up the forehand pretty well, but was struggling on the backhand. Over and over he'd stick his elbow way out to the side and drop the racket tip during the forward swing, contacting the ball with an awkward downward backspin swat, and follow through with his arm extended completely forward, as if he were lunging for something. Over and over I went through the stroke with him, but nothing worked. I told him to keep the racket tip up, keep the elbow in, hit the ball with a slight upward swing with topspin, and not to follow-through with his arm lunging forward. The problem was that all these were symptoms of the one actual problem. I suddenly realized he was contacting the ball too far out in front. When I told him to take the ball closer to his body, in one swoop all the problems disappeared - instant good technique as frustration on both sides of the net changed to sheer glee. Within minutes we were smacking backhands back and forth like pros.

A National Table Tennis League?

Countries like Germany (700,000 members), England (500,000 members), and just about every other country in Europe gets its huge memberships through team leagues. The same is true of most major participation sports in the U.S. and throughout the world. I've tried for years to convince USATT to study how the European leagues were created and spread, including at the 2009 Strategic Meeting, but I don't seem to be very persuasive, even on the most obvious things. My basic recommendation is that they set up a fact-finding committee to meet with German, English, and other league officials at the World Championships, get the facts, and then get the major league directors in the U.S. together, and lock them in a room and tell them they can't come out until they create a model for a U.S. league. Once this is created, then whenever someone wants to create a regional league, they don't have to reinvent the wheel; we supply them with this model. That's how table tennis and most other sports did it in the U.S. and throughout the world, and that's how we should do it.

Alas, I've been unable to convince USATT of this idea - I couldn't even get them to meet with the people who set up these huge leagues to get the facts - and so while they spend a lot of time talking about doing such things, little actually gets done. Fortunately, some local groups have been taking action on their own, creating their own regional leagues that hopefully can spread, such as ones in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City. If the sport gets big in the U.S., it'll be through such independent efforts - though it sure would help if USATT would choose to be a catalyst for this type of thing instead of sitting on the sidelines hoping others will do so.

I once tried setting up a USATT League, with the idea of starting with a singles league to bring in players (easier to set up initially), and then move to teams, but USATT not only wouldn't support it (except as cheerleaders), they took the $15,000 brought in by the league (memberships and sponsors) and used it for other things. Without a penny of support, and with all income from the league taken out, I found myself trying to set up and run a nationwide league pretty much single-handed (with programming help from Robert Mayer) in my free time (I was also editor of USATT Magazine at the time, plus coaching at my club), and finally pretty much gave up on it.

And yet the USATT League is still running in many clubs, with nearly as many processed matches each month as USATT tournament matches. Since the league began in 2003, there have been 263,433 processed league matches by 13,381 players in 318 leagues. So far this year there have been 33,255 processed matches, an average of 5772 per month through June. For perspective, there were 6264 processed USATT tournament matches in June, and there have been many months where there were more league matches than USATT tournament matches. The league is pretty much self-run by the software.

The Yorkshire Table Tennis League

Here's actual footage of the Yorkshire Table Tennis League, where they play by their own rules - no net, no paddles, and an oversized ball! The 39-shot rally shown in this 31-second video shows that the sport is going to the dogs - but at least one of these players is using his head, or more specifically his nose. This is table tennis at its highest and purest, a model for table tennis everywhere.

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July 27, 2011

Your "Go To" serves?

What are your "go to" serves, the serves you use whenever possible both to build up a lead and to win key points? These could be set-up serves that set you up to attack or to get into your favorite type of rally, or they could be trick serves designed to win the point outright or set up an easy winner. I have zillions of serve variations, but here are some of my major "go to" serves. Most of my serves are forehand pendulum serves, but I use different motions to fool opponents.

Set-up Serves

  • Forehand pendulum short sidespin or side-top to the middle and backhand. While players often misread this serve as backspin and pop it up (easy winner!), it's designed to force a relatively soft but deep return that sets up an aggressive loop.
  • Forehand pendulum short, heavy backspin to the middle. This is usually pushed back long but heavy, setting up a very spinny forehand loop. I do it mostly to the middle so there are no extreme angles - I don't want to have to react to both heavy spin and angle. Key is to keep it very low so opponent won't attack it.
  • Forehand pendulum short no-spin. I do this to all parts of the table. It's usually pushed back with light backspin, often popped up slightly, and sets up an aggressive forehand loop. Key is to use a lot of motion so it looks like heavy backspin ("heavy no-spin"), and to keep it very low. (To serve "heavy no-spin," use a normal spin motion, but instead of contacting near the tip of the racket, contact near the handle.)
  • Forehand pendulum fast sidespin to the backhand. The key is to break it into the opponent's wide backhand, so they have to reach for it awkwardly. Since it's rarely returned down the line, I can step around and use my forehand from the backhand side.
  • Reverse forehand pendulum short sidespin to the forehand. Most players flip this to my wide forehand. Since I'm expecting it, it sets up an aggressive forehand loop or smash.

Trick Serves

  • Forehand pendulum fast down the line. This is against aggressive forehand loopers who are looking to step around, and is often an ace. Even if they don't step around, it still often catches them off-guard, forcing a miss. Plus I put sidespin on the serve, forcing more mistakes.
  • Forehand pendulum fast and dead to the middle. This goes into the net over and over. Aim right for the opponent's elbow. It's not too effective against a forehand looper, who just loops it.
  • Tomahawk serve to the forehand, short or long. Because it jumps away from the opponent, they often reach for it at the last second, and so miss, usually hitting it long.

Table tennis - Sport for the Unathletic?

They list ten: croquet, curling, bowling, chess, pool, golf, archery, shooting, table tennis, and dressage (a form of horseback riding). We're not only in the listing (at #9, though I don't think there's any order to it), but we're the cover sport as well! Anyone with any knowledge of these sports would know that top table tennis players are among the most physical athletes in the world. Should we storm CNBC with a barrage of ping-pong balls?

Coaches fundraising?

I keep getting these notes in the mail (yes, regular mail) from ESPN Magazine on Coaches Fundraising by having students sell ESPN Magazine. Here's info. Don't know if this is a worthy fundraising method (perhaps to fund a junior team to a major tournament) or just another commercial venture.

The Amazing Michael Maze

Here are highlight reels of him when he was younger (4:38).

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July 26, 2011

Table tennis equipment reviews

I have a new student who is interested in table tennis robots. While I'm familiar with them and have hit with most of the major brands, I'm no expert. I told the student I'd investigate them and see what the best values were - he was hoping for one under $1000, and I was hoping for one that could alternate hitting the ball in at least two places (i.e. one to forehand, one to backhand) so he could do a side-to-side footwork drill on it. And lo and behold, I was referred to Denis' Table Tennis World, which reviews just about all table tennis equipment, including robots. Very useful! If you are interested in equipment reviews, then stop by this site and browse away.

I've browsed the robot reviews, and later today plan to go over them more carefully so I can make a recommendation to the student. (They don't seem to have a review yet for the ipong, the newest but coolest looking low-end model.) No, I'm not going to make my recommendation public; I don't have enough first-hand knowledge of the robots to do that. All I can do is go by what others say.

Two Months Notice to USATT

In exactly two months, it'll be two years since USATT finished its "Strategic Meeting" at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs on Sept. 25-26, 2009. The focus of the meeting was how to increase membership. Everyone agreed our membership (in the 8-9000 range) was a "round-off error." Many slogans were created (*sigh*), and three strategic priorities: Juniors, Grow Membership Through Added Value, and Communications. (I consider the Communications priority pointless unless one of the first two gives USATT something to communicate about.) Three task forces were created for these three priorities.

This was the fourth such "Strategic Meeting" I've attended with USATT. All four times I've argued that to be successful, specific goals needed to be created, and specific plans to reach those goals. However, each time others disagreed, and so we were left with just generic priorities. I also argued that the Junior priority should be about recruiting and training coaches to create club-based junior programs, as has been done so successfully in table tennis and other sports worldwide, and that the "Grow Membership" priority should instead be Leagues, as that's how other countries have grown their membership in table tennis and other sports worldwide. However, I was unable to persuade the majority of this view. 

And so on Sept. 26 this year, two years after the meeting, I will ask USATT what they have accomplished since that time. Have we taken our game "to the next level"? I absolutely won't want to hear of things they plan to do; the time for that is well past. I'm going to ask them what they have done. I hope they have an answer. If they don't, perhaps it is time they revisit the way table tennis and other sports have successfully grown worldwide and try to emulate it, rather than constantly and poorly trying to reinvent the wheel?

Back problems and the Search for the Physical Therapists

As I blogged last week, I saw a orthopedist sports medicine doctor on Wednesday last week about upper back problems that are interfering with my table tennis playing and coaching. He referred me to the Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, which was conveniently located near me. (I even stopped by to see the place, and it's pretty nice.) So I called on Thursday morning to schedule my twice-weekly meetings. No answer, and no answering service; it just rang and rang. I called numerous times that day, no answer. I tried again all day on Friday, still no answer. I tried again Monday morning, still no answer. So that morning I called back the doctor's office and told them what was happening. They said they'd never had a problem calling them, and that they'd contact them and get them to call me. No one called back. Now it's Tuesday, five days since I first started calling the place. *Sigh*.

Politicians are playing ping-pong with our economy

So why not take a look at the Politicians and Leaders section of the "Celebrities Playing Table Tennis" page? Here's an alphabetical listing - see how many you recognize! (I've bolded some of the more interesting ones, with apologies to those unbolded.)

Prince Akihito, Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Yasser Arafat, Princess Beatrix, Enrico Berlinguer, Tony Blair, Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles Wayland Brooks, Gordon Brown, Andy Burnham, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Felipe Calderon, Dave Cameron, Juan Carlos, Fidel Castro, Prince Charles, Chiang Kai-shek, Chou En-lai, Jean Chrétien, Bill & Hillary Clinton, Norm Coleman, Irvin Cotler, Bao Dai, Jean-Louis Debre, Alexandra Dinges, Ian Duncan-Smith, Dr. Katharina Focke, Tipper Gore, Stephen Harper, Michael Howard, Mike Huckabee, Princess Irene, Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Boris Johnson, John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, Horst Koehler, Alexandre Kwasniewski, Richard Lagos, Martin Lee, Li Lanqing, Li Zhaoxin, Ma Ying-Jeou, Princess Marta Louise, Chairman Mao, Jack Markell, George McGovern, Mette-Marit, Walter Mondale, Fabio Mussi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Richard Nixon, Kwame Nkrumah, Michael Nutter, Barack Obama, Martin O'Malley, Geun-Hae Park, Pope John Paul II, Göran Persson, Vladimir Putin, Liu Qi, Ronald Reagan, Jacques Rogge, Lenore Romney, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Nicolas Sarkozy, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Eunice Shriver, Sargent Shriver, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Queen Silvia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza, Silvan Shalom, Maria Shriver, Goh Chok Tong, Walter Veltroni, Princess Victoria, Prince of Wales, Lech Walesa, Wen Jiabao, Prince William, Anthony Williams, Yang Jiechi, Lee Kuan Yew.

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July 25, 2011

Tip of the Week

In this morning Tip of the Week, I write about the importance of serve variety.

Looping against the block

Almost nobody loops a block into the net; when they miss, it's almost always off the end. Part of this is because they are attacking the ball, and so driving it deep on the table, and simply drive it too deep on the table. Part of it is because they drop their back shoulder, lifting the ball as if it were a backspin. (I wrote a short article about the proper use of the back shoulder for smashing and looping.)

Since most players learn to loop first against backspin, when they start looping against a block (or an incoming topspin), they tend to drop that back shoulder too much. While dropping a little is okay if you are away from the table - key word is "little" - most do it way too much. Instead, you want to keep the back shoulder mostly up, and loop almost the top of the ball. It helps to hook the ball a little as well, dropping the tip down so it contacts the ball on the far side.

And yet players often have trouble doing this, especially right after looping a backspin. And since a disproportionate number of rallies start with a player looping against a backspin, invariably players find themselves looping a backspin and then a block consecutively.

The standard way to practice for this is with multiball. For example, the coach would feed a backspin ball to the middle backhand, and player forehand loops; then the coach feeds a topspin ball to the wide forehand, and again the player loops. And this is great if the player can afford a coach to do this endlessly until they have it down, and then still more to keep it tuned up.

Here's a way a player can practice this on their own. Suppose they already can loop against backspin pretty well but are having trouble following that by looping against the block. Have the player hold a ball in his non-playing hand. He then shadow-practices a loop against backspin from the middle backhand. He then steps to the wide forehand, tosses the ball backward (to simulate a block), and loops that ball, keep the shoulder mostly up and looping near the top of the ball. A player can practice this over and over on their own. (They might want to have a supply of balls on hand so they don't have to keep fetching the ball!)

When's your next tournament?

I always tell students they should plan well ahead, and practice for specific tournaments that they should be looking forward to. Ideally, look for one or two major tournaments that are held within a few weeks of each other and plan to go to both. Even better, have one or two smaller tournaments that come before the major one(s), which helps get you tournament tough. See the USATT Tournament Schedule. To find the big ones, click on "Major Tournaments." Then take your pick! The two biggest are the North American Teams (Baltimore, Nov. 25-27) and USA Nationals (Virginia Beach, Dec. 13-17). However, there are also large ones (4-star, sometimes 3-star) coming up in New York City; El Monte, CA ($45,000 LA Open); Waukesha, WI; Berkeley, CA; Highland, Indiana; and Milpitas, CA. Plan your season around these big ones, and find at least one or two smaller tournaments to lead up to the major ones.

Transcending Table Tennis

I think I posted a link a while back to Transcending Table Tennis, Part 1 (5:50). Here's Part 2 (4:37)! Both videos show great table tennis action in dynamic slow motion, where you can really see what's happening.

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July 22, 2011

Topspinny backhands (Topspinny ®2011 by Larry Hodges)

Yes, I'm trademarking the term "topspinny." Any time you say it, you have to pay me a quarter. (To the humor-challenged: I'm joking.) I like to use the term to describe players who use a lot of topspin on their backhands, as opposed to others who hit flatter, such as myself. Flat backhands used to be the norm, but these up-and-coming junior players are mostly taught topspinny backhands, sort of half drive, half loop, right off the bounce. I can demonstrate the shot easily, but I don't naturally use it in a match, not after 35 years of hitting "normal" backhands. The shot is highly effective; the ball just jumps at you like a normal backhand loop, with all the quickness of an off-the-bounce flat backhand.

Adjustable height device

On Wednesday, I blogged about new training tools, including a serving height device made by local player and coach John Olsen, with adjustable brackets that hold a pole over the net. We've used it as an exercise both for serving and stroking low to the net. Here are two pictures, set high and set low.

100 degrees

That's how hot it got yesterday here in Maryland, and it's supposed to get a touch hotter today. Aren't we glad table tennis is an indoor sport, and that the Maryland Table Tennis Center bought a new $8000 air conditioning system a month ago? For the last twenty years our air conditioning left something to be desired, but now it's nice and cool inside. Then you step outside and it's like walking into a furnace.

When humidity strikes

However, with lots of players training, it still gets a bit humid inside sometimes, and of course it often does so at tournaments. What does one do when their inverted sheet becomes slick with moisture? First, always have two towels - one for you, and one for the racket and ball only. (Hitchhiker's Guide had that half right.) You could just wipe the racket off every six points or so, and you'd get most of the moisture off. However, since the moisture doesn't form evenly over the surface, I've found that you can dry it off better by first blowing on the racket surface, giving the entire surface a light moisture. Then the towel slides evenly over the surface, drying it much more thoroughly. Yes, it sounds counter-productive to blow on the surface, adding moisture when the goal is to remove moisture, but I've found that it works. This is also good for general cleaning of your racket. 

Xu Xin multiball training

Here's a 39 second segment of Chinese Team Member Xu Xin doing multiball. He makes it look so easy; try this yourself.

First back, then neck

In my ongoing attempts to find a comfortable position to sleep at night with my back problems (I blogged about that yesterday), all I've managed to do is hurt my neck. (I think I slept on my stomach, with my head on its side on a pillow.) When I woke up on Wednesday, it was hurting, but it gradually went away. This morning I woke up in agony; I can't turn or tilt my neck in either direction. So today I answer the age-old question that's been pondered since the time of Aristotle and Confucius: Can one feed multiball in a table tennis training camp when he can't move his back or neck and is in constant agony? (Today's the last day of the two-week MDTTC training camp.)

Confluence (non-table tennis)

Tomorrow morning at around 5AM I'm hopping into my car (or rather gingerly lowering myself into the driver's seat after a bowl of Ibuprofen and milk for breakfast, due to back and neck problems) and driving to Pittsburgh (four hours away) for the Confluence Science Fiction Convention. They seem to have two websites, this and that. I'll return late that night. The guest of honor is Robert J. Sawyer, who was the writer in residence at the Odyssey Writer's Workshop I went to in 2006, and a best-selling SF writer. (Here's my SF writing page.)

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July 21, 2011

Deliberate Practice to deliberately become good or great

So you want to be good at table tennis? Then learn about Deliberate Practice. Not everyone can put in 10,000 hours and be great, but if you apply the other seven principles in whatever practice time you have (make time), you can really improve. And the hours do add up. Below are the eight main principles; the article elaborates on them. Why not print out the article's eight main points with short explanations (they'll fit on one page), and put it on your wall where you can see them regularly?

  1. Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally, requiring high levels of focus and concentration.
  2. It is designed specifically to improve performance—to strengthen it beyond its current levels.
  3. It must continue for long of periods of time.
  4. It must be repeated.
  5. It requires continuous feedback on results.
  6. Pre-performance preparation is essential.
  7. It involves self-observation and self-reflection.
  8. It involves careful reflection on performance after practice sessions are completed.

The back doctor

Yesterday I saw an orthopedist sports medicine doctor about my recurring upper back problems. They did x-rays and some other tests. It turns out it's probably not a disc problem; he thinks it's a muscle problem, where the muscle attaches to the backbone. I'm supposed to meet with a physical therapist twice a week, probably starting next week, plus a series of exercises on my own that they'll assign. They are also hoping I can take one month off from table tennis. So tentatively, after our last August training camp at MDTTC (which ends Aug. 19), I might hire locals to act as a hitting partner for when I'm coaching so I can rest the back for that month. Even feeding multiball is painful, especially when feeding backspin.

Different Types of Table Tennis

This is from the Fun and Games section. Bet you didn't know there were this many types of table tennis! (And yes, that's me playing clipboard table tennis at the end.)

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