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!

February 25, 2011

The U.S. National and Pan Am Team Trials

They start today, with the qualifier today, and the main trials on Sat & Sun. Here's the USATT coverage page, with draws, results, live streaming, media coverage links, etc. Here's a three-minute video about the Trials. Good luck to everyone, and may both players in every match win!

Playing the wide angles

Why don't players focus on this more? For the great majority of shots, everything should go to one of three spots: wide backhand, wide forehand, or at the opponent's middle, i.e. playing elbow. And yet most intermediate players tend to play most shots to the middle backhand or middle forehand.

Giving examples of specific matches where this made a difference makes it sound like unique examples, when in fact this is a regular tactic that will win for you. But I'll give two good examples. At the Junior Olympics a while back, I was coaching a player who had made the final of Under 14 by upset. In the final he faced the top seed, who he'd never beaten. The top seed had a very nice serve and forehand loop. So what was the strategy? I told the player I was coaching to early on return a few serves to the wide forehand. Then the rest of the match he took the serve (mostly backspin serves) right off the bounce and basically chip it back inside the server's wide backhand. He didn't do it aggressively at all, yet this simple placement strategy completely took away the server's third ball attack, and won him the National Championship. The following year he played the same player in the Under 16 final, and using the same strategy, upset him again.

Here's another example. I was playing an elderly pips-out penhold player with a very nice forehand smash. I realized that if I simply put the ball inside his backhand corner - with the threat of going to the wide forehand occasionally - he couldn't get around fast enough to use his forehand. So that simple strategy won the match.

Congressional Award

I'm an advisor with one of our cadet players who is working for the Congressional Award for Personal Fitness. Here's the website for the Congressional Award, and here's info on the Personal Fitness Award. Most U.S. cadet and junior players aren't in nearly as good shape as their overseas rivals; this is a great way to encourage and inspire them to get in the shape needed to compete at the highest levels. Or to just get in shape.


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February 24, 2011

Serve and Attack

A discussion I had with Dan Seemiller (5-time U.S. Men's Champion) has always stuck out with me. It was back in 1990-1991, when I spent two summers staying at his house all summer as his assistant coach for all his summer camps. He said that the thing that confused him the most about players was why so many didn't understand what he considered the simple concept that the purpose of the serve was to set up your attack, and that if you aren't attacking off your serve, then something's wrong.

There are two ways of going about this. One way is to develop an attack based on your best serves and the type of returns you get off those serves. For example, early on I developed tricky side-top serves, and so I developed a nice serve & smash. It wasn't until years later that I really learned a good backspin serve & loop game.

The other is to develop serves based on your attack. If you have a good loop, serve short and loop. If you have a good smash or counter-hitting skills, serve more side-top and fast, deep serves.

I finally figured out that the best way to develop serve and attack was to go both ways - learn to attack the type of returns I got off the serves I had developed, and to develop serves that set up my best attack shots. That gives quite an arsenal of serve & attack, and if an opponent can stop one, you can switch to another.

Some might argue that it's better to develop serves based on your best attacking shots, and while there's a good argument for that, it limits your game in that you may find a tricky serve that messes opponents up, but doesn't match your best attacking shots. By using that serve, you'll develop the attacking shot that works with that serve, and you'll have another major weapon.

ITTF Coaching Seminar

I plan on running an ITTF coaching seminar at the Maryland Table Tennis Center on April 16-17, 23-24 with an optional Paralympic seminar on April 30. More on this next week.


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February 23, 2011

Looking for coaching in the Gaithersburg, Maryland area?

I have openings--contact me if interested. Coaching rates and other info are at the Maryland Table Tennis Center webpage - click on "Private Coaching."

The last few years I've been doing a lot of outside writing (science fiction!), and wrote a lot of short stories (47 published lifetime) and two novels (both now making the rounds at publishers & agents), but with the second novel now done, I'm about to increase my coaching hours. (Here is my science fiction & fantasy page.)

What should you do when you have extra time for a shot?

Someone asked me this recently, and I told him my response would probably become a blog posting. Here it is!

When you have extra time, there are four things you can do.

  1. Use the extra time to make sure you are positioned properly, and to really time the shot. Ultimately, this is most important - if you don't do this, then you'll be inconsistent and nothing else really matters.
  2. With better positioning and extra time to time the shot, you can go for more power, both speed and spin. This doesn't always mean a longer backswing; it means accelerating into the ball faster. The better positioning and extra time allow you time it better. While you can extend the backswing for more power, this implies a shorter swing on less powerful loops, which can be a mistake, and lead to shorter, choppier, and less consistent loops. It's better to set up about the same all the time, and simply accelerate more for more power. However, in actual match situations, there are times when you'll be rushed, and then you do shorten the swing. (And so you'd use a longer swing when you have time.) When returning serves, players often shorten the swing when looping, but if you read the serve well, and have time, then take a full swing at it.
  3. With the extra time, you can set up one way, wait a split second longer, and then go the opposite way, with the opponent reacting to the way you set up. Almost all players develop a certain timing, and even if you haven't really started your forward swing, will move to where they think you are going. So set up crosscourt, wait a split second longer, and go down the line. Or do the reverse.
  4. Most advanced is similar to 3) above, except now you actually watch to see which way the opponent reacts, and go the other way. It's trickier since you don't decide the direction until the last second, but advanced players learn to do this. I do it all the time when I'm not rushed.


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February 22, 2011

Why Players Use Too Much Shoulder on Forehands

I was watching players at the club this weekend, and noticed a number of them use too much shoulder on their forehand strokes, both drives and loops. The problem with this is when you use a lot of shoulder, you aren't using your full body rotation. The key is to rotate the shoulders, not stroke with them. Otherwise, you lose power (which also leads to a loss of control), plus you'll probably eventually hurt your shoulder.

Older players often do this because of muscle stiffness, and so don't rotate the shoulders back. If you don't rotate the shoulders back, you can't rotate them forward. And so their stroke becomes mostly arm.

Beginning juniors, especially when very young, are natural mimics and so often copy what they see others do, whether it's good or bad. But even if they copy good strokes, and learn to backswing properly, sometimes they stop their shoulder rotation early on the forward swing, and so end up using too much arm at the end, and losing the power from the body rotation. It's important to rotate forward through the stroke, and not stop early and end up with just the arm swinging forward at the end.

A good way to overcome this is to imagine a rod going through your head when you do a forehand. Rotate in a circle around that rod, and make sure to do so completely through the ball.

That growing realization that you better try something different

I played a match this weekend with one of our up-and-coming junior girls. For two games, we battled it out, my steadiness versus her vicious hitting. On her serve, I'd either topspin the serve back and start countering, or push it, she'd loop, I'd block, and we'd be countering. On my serve, I'd mix in side-stop serves which she attacked, or backspin serves, which she'd push, I'd loop, and she'd jab-block or hit so aggressively I stopped using them. In most rallies, within two-three shots I'd be back fishing, then lobbing, and she wasn't missing.

She won the first two games. It finally dawned on me that no matter how steady I was, I simply wasn't going to out-counterhit her. Since counter-hitting wasn't going to work, I decided I had only one option, and went all-out physical and switched to all-out forehand looping. (I actually had another option, chopping - I can win that way, and might have gone that way in a tournament - but I wanted to win with topspin. I was determined!) It was physically exhausting (I'm 51 in a week), but once I made the decision to unhesitatingly go for the loop, the loops became stronger and steadier, and in particular deeper (thereby making them harder to attack), and I won three straight. The down side - now I dread playing her again, because it's so incredibly exhausting!

Moral of the story: sometimes you have to make a major strategy change. If you do, commit to it utterly. This doesn't mean doing only one thing. It means having complete confidence in whatever you decide to do tactically, and look to do it every chance.

Congratulations Western Open Champion Timothy Wang!

Note that you can pull up the draws and complete results for any event - take a tour!

Complete Results


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February 21, 2011

Happy President's Day!

With people off work today, I'm off to coach this morning, something I rarely do - nearly all of my coaching is afternoons and nights.

Clinic in Lancaster, PA

Barney J. Reed will run a three-hour clinic just before the Manor Open, in Lancaster, PA, on Friday, March 4, 6-9 PM. $55/player, maximum ten players. For info, contact Assistant Coach Rich Burnside, 717-968-2713.

The 2011 U.S. Open Entry Form... up!

It's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 30 - July 4. Note that this year it's five days long, Thur-Mon, unlike recent years when it's been four days, Wed-Sat. There's also been some rescheduling of events, so check it over carefully. I'll be there, but other than some hardbat events (I normally use sponge), I'll just be coaching and probably attending some meetings.

Playing the Wide Forehand

I played a practice match with cadet star Nathan Hsu (rated 2208, but recently as high as 2278. He's a two-winged looper who can seemingly loop anything, often off the bounce. When he's in position, standing in his backhand corner ready to attack from either wing, he can be a terror. I finally figured out that the only way I could battle with him was to get him out of position. (It's not easy playing lightning-fast juniors when you're a week away from 51 and still trying to play a mostly forehand attack game!) So I returned nearly every serve out to his wide forehand. If I did so aggressively, he'd almost always loop crosscourt, and then I could have him on the run. Even when my receive was predictable, it mostly worked. The match went into the fifth game. Starting at 5-5, I pretty much returned every single serve to the wide forehand. Did it work? Alas, I had many match points (two of them I should have won, grumble grumble), but he won 20-18 in the fifth! But we had some nice rallies.


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February 18, 2011

Adham Sharara interview

Here's an interview with ITTF President Adham Sharara, done in Shanghai this month (6:39). It covers the various rule changes in the sport and whether they were aimed at China or for the betterment of the sport, Olympic representation, various top players, and other issues.

Why do so few players mix in fast, deep serves?

It always amazes me how so many players spend years playing and practicing their games, often developing advanced serves, and yet so many of them never learn to vary in fast, deep serves. When your opponent isn't a threat to serve fast & deep, then you know the serve is either going to be short, or slow and deep, so you have plenty of time to loop it. When you add in the threat of a fast & deep serve, then you can't assume you have all that time to loop the deep serve.

You should learn all the variations:

  • Placement: Wide backhand, wide forehand, middle (elbow).
  • Spin: Topspin, sidespin breaking right, sidespin breaking left, no-spin. (You'll note there's no backspin here - a truly fast serve with backspin will fly off the table. But see note below about no-spin serve, which sometimes has a light backspin.)

Let me elaborate a little on the topspin and no-spin serves. If you basically meet the ball straight on, is that a topspin or no-spin serve? After bouncing twice on the table, it has a light topspin, so I call this . . . light topspin. You can, of course, contact with a more brushing motion and create more topspin.

To serve a true no-spin, you need to put a light backspin on the ball to compensate for the two bounces on the table. Some even put enough backspin on the ball so there's still a little backspin when it reaches the opponent. This makes the ball float more, but is deader than a no-spin ball, and can force more errors.

While all of these serves have their place, the two that I find most valuable are fast no-spin at the middle (which players put in the net over and over, or return weakly), and fast anything down the line to a righty's forehand (which catches forehand-favoring players over and over). Fast serves to a lefty's forehand are also effective, but because of the angle you have, a lefty generally covers that angle.

Now comes the really tough question: Why do they call it "fast & deep"? If it's fast, it's going to go deep!!! (Yes, there are short serves that come at you quick, but they are not really "fast" serves or they wouldn't go short.)


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February 17, 2011

The Professional Table Tennis Coaches Handbook

Interested in being a table tennis coach? Or just want to read about the subject?  Check out the Professional Table Tennis Coaches Handbook. I wrote this for USA Table Tennis a few years ago, and have periodically updated it since. It covers most aspects of coaching, including some key aspects that are rarely covered elsewhere, such as how much money you can make at coaching (quite a bit, surprisingly). I look at it as both an educational and recruitment tool.

I've made the argument for years that USATT should focus on recruiting and training coaches to be professional coaches and to set up and run junior programs. It's always boggled my mind that the most common response to this by many of those who run our sport is "There aren't enough students for all these coaches." Well, jeez! The whole point is that coaches need to learn to recruit new players, not focus on those who are already playing! It's not a zero sum game; it's a constantly expanding base of players, IF we focus on constantly expanding the base of players.

The chapter listing tells you much about the content:

Table of Contents

  1. The Profession of Coaching
  2. How Much Income Can You Make As a Table Tennis Coach?
  3. What Credentials Do You Need to Be a Table Tennis Coach?
  4. Getting a Facility, Tables and Other Equipment
  5. Start With a Plan
  6. Recruiting Students
  7. Setting Up and Teaching a Class
  8. Setting Up and Running a Junior Training Program
  9. Private Coaching
  10. Keeping Players Interested
  11. Drills Library
  12. Sample Flyers
  13. Helpful Links & Resources

The Takeover Tour Commercial

This commercial features Nigel Sylvester (professional BMX rider - a type of cyclist) and Stevie Williams (professional skateboarder) competing in a variety of sports, including five seconds of "enhanced" table tennis (starting at 0:24 - yeah, the ball's put in by computer). From the commercial, I couldn't at first figure out what they were advertising, but from the description below, it seems they are promoting "The Takeover Tour," which brings together "top talent in skate and BMX for a cross-discipline, traveling event that has yet to be seen in the sport." So where does table tennis fit in this?


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February 16, 2011

Teaching table tennis to a tennis player

I've always found it interesting, even fascinating, to coach table tennis to a tennis player. I've had many tennis players as students over the years. I also play tennis at a 4.0 level (that's like 1800 in table tennis), but with an extremely lopsided forehand-oriented game. But that's true of most table tennis players - the first time we play tennis, we have nice forehands, but find the backhand somewhat awkward.

Yesterday I coached a 6'5" former 5.5 (that's like 2100-2200) tennis player. He'd never had lessons before, and had only been a "basement" player. He very quickly picked up the forehand, and after five minutes, was pounding forehands. He also quickly picked up on the backhand, but did so in a very backhand stance (like tennis), and basically played an aggressive blocking backhand from a bit off the table. Near the end of the session we did a drill where I looped my forehand rather aggressively to his backhand, and though it was the first time he'd ever done this, he was able to block them back very consistently, though he took the ball a couple steps off the table rather than off the bounce, as you are "supposed" to do when blocking. But the blocks were surprisingly effective, as he kept them rather low. (It did leave him open on the wide forehand, and I don't think he has a counterloop yet!)

Because of his tennis skills, he quickly picked up just about every aspect, could even loop backspin after a few tries. He had great difficulty in reading my serves, but without any coaching, quickly figured out how to push my backspin serve back, i.e. did a tennis "slice." He also learned to serve with backspin pretty quickly, though he wasn't able to get a good sidespin. A few times when I went to his forehand, he did a highly professional-looking running forehand.

In general, tennis players do have trouble learning table tennis backhands, though sometimes they can pick up the backhand loop pretty well. They have good forehands and can rally and move well, can clobber anything that's high, and handle backspin (slice to them) rather well.

Penhold, anyone?

Someone asked on the forum about Japanese penhold play, in particular inside-out looping and reverse penhold backhands. I posted these on the forum - they aren't exactly Japanese penhold, but they are some good penhold play! Even shakehanders should watch these, since you have to play (and beat!) penholders.

  • Here's a video that shows a number of inside-out penhold loops, including ones at .12, .35 (two in a row), .43 (several in that rally), 1:02, and so on.
  • Here's a videothat shows reverse penhold backhand in slow motion.
  • Here's a video that shows both reverse penhold backhands and loops against block.
  • Here's a video that shows reverse penhold backhands and loops, against both backspin and blocks.

Interesting thought on penhold play. At the beginning/intermediate level, penholders are usually weak on the backhand, and often the best strategy is to play to their backhands. At some point at the intermediate/advanced level, they often develop better backhands (whether it be conventional jab-blocks or reverse penhold), as well as nice forehands from the backhand side. At that point, the best strategy at is often to play the (usually stronger) forehand, and then come back to the backhand (which both takes out the forehand and makes them move or reach to hit the backhand). The difficulty here, of course, is that you have to be able to handle that first forehand. If you watch many of the top players in the U.S. against David Zhuang (6-time U.S. Champion), and you'll constantly see them go to his forehand side first, then come back to his backhand. (For example, Cheng Yinghua routinely serves long to David's forehand, over and over.) At what level (rating-wise, in U.S. ratings) do you think it becomes better to usually go to the forehand first against a penholder?


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February 15, 2011

How many hits in a minute?

Can you do 173? If a 12-year-old from Japan can, why can't you? You really should watch this video - great counter-hitting, and a real example of concentration. (There's a short commercial at the start - sorry.)

I'm toying with trying this, but going backhand-to-backhand right off the bounce, perhaps with one of our local juniors, who have natural machinegun-like backhands. If you want to see how many you can do, here's a key hint: don't think as you hit, don't try to control the shots, just blank out the mind, just watch the ball, and let the strokes happen. After about 20 seconds, you'll start sweating--mentally, if not physically. After 40 seconds, your eyes will glaze over.

Arrested at a Table Tennis Camp?

Here's an article about a fugitive who was caught because of his table tennis addiction. They picked him up when he went to a table tennis camp in Delhi! Inspired by this, the Maryland Table Tennis Center (my club) will now operate as a sting for the police, attracting table tennis criminals from all over the world. (Note to the criminal table tennis underground: I'm just kidding, feel free to come to our camps. We will teach you to kill. Maybe even loop kill.)

So . . . how bad did you play?

[This is from an article I wrote a while back.]
"How’d you play?"
"How bad?"
"So bad that--"

  • The umpire started coaching me.
  • The crowd rose to its feet when I returned a serve.
  • My opponent bought me an instructional book.
  • I saved $5 on a haircut from all those balls whizzing by.
  • My coach hid in the bathroom.
  • It had to be my equipment.
  • The computer that does the ratings had to be reprogrammed for negative numbers.
  • Butterfly offered me a long-term contract to use Stiga products.
  • George H.W. Bush named me one of his thousand points of darkness.
    (You have to be a certain age to get this one, from twenty years ago.)
  • My kid sister beat me.
  • My kid sister offered to spot me points.
  • My kid sister spotted me points and beat me.
  • My kid sister's best friend, who's never played, spotted me points and beat me.
  • My kid sister's best friend's little brother's pet turtle beat me.
  • Every time I play, all the dogs in the neighborhood howl until I stop.
  • Rodney Dangerfield asked me to be his sidekick.
  • Wayne Gretzy outscored me, and he was playing hockey.
  • I distinctly heard the ball laughing at me.
  • I remember every point I scored. It was an edge ball.


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February 14, 2011

Ma Long and MDTTC Juniors

Let's start with the big news. Many of you know of China's Ma Long, currently world #4 but #1 in the world for nine months last year? Well, Ma Long was at the Maryland Table Tennis Center last night, as a guest of Cheng Yinghua. I played a challenge match - and beat him, 3-0! We're not talking hardbat or sandpaper - we played with regular rackets.

Okay, it was Ma Long's 9-year-old namesake, a student of Cheng's. But it was fun to beat him!

I also played two matches this past week with 8-year-old Crystal Wang, another MDTTC player. She's rated 1833, and is #2 in the U.S. in Girls' Under 10. Now, for the record, I've played 35 years, and I've never, Never, NEVER lost even a game to an 8-year-old, not even when I was a beginner. Well, in the first match, she went absolutely crazy with her shots, and before I could wake up, I'd lost the first game and was down 9-10 in the second in this best of five. Anything with topspin she killed, forehand and backhand. When I looped, she smashed. When I pushed, she'd spin loop from either wing, and follow with a smash unless I did something drastic. Somehow, she was returning my best serves with ease, sometimes backhand smacking them in. She even hit my lobs pretty well, and I felt guilty about lobbing, so I stayed away from that. Anyway, I managed to serve and loop a winner to get to deuce, then caught her completely off guard the next two points by chopping. I then all-out looped the next two games to win somewhat easily. In the second match, I was ready - I wasn't going to get caught like that again, and I had my "A" game ready. I won the first two games easily. Then a strange thing happened - she began smashing everything again! Down 4-8 that game, I decided enough was enough - and switched to chopping. I use fast inverted on both sides, but chop almost as well as my regular topspin game. I tied it at 9-all, and then pulled off two big serve & follows. Seriously, sometimes she misses too much, but when she gets on a roll, she's scary. Let's see where she is in a couple years. Unfortunately, I'm about to turn 51, and every year she (and other juniors) get better, and I get . . . stiffer.

With another of our other juniors, I came up with three table tennis quotes while we played. He was a captive audience who couldn't leave; you are not. You have advance warning.

  • "In my first match, I'm never warmed up, and in my second match, I'm too tired, but in between I'm really good."
  • "My loop has been called the most powerful loop in the world. I don't care what anyone says, I'm going to keep calling it that."
  • "Nobody can get my shots back, not until they start hitting."

Hints for those who play against up-and-coming kids.

They are usually weak against heavy backspin, have trouble with hard, angled shots, and varying spin (on serves or rallies) drives them nuts. Lob when necessary, but don't overdo it. And whatever you do, don't take them on backhand to backhand!!!

Backhand Footwork Drills

How come players do so many forehand footwork drills, but almost nobody does backhand footwork drills? Sure, most players cover less ground with the backhand, and you can actually get away with reaching for the ball more on the backhand - but you don't want to reach, and you should be able to cover more table with the backhand when necessary - such as when you've been pulled off to the forehand side. Just as players do side-to-side forehand footwork drills, you should do this with the backhand. When Eric Owens upset Cheng Yinghua to win Men's Singles at the 2001 USA Nationals, he credited to all the backhand footwork drills he'd been doing. (Eric was a big forehand looper, but against Cheng, his backhand was almost as good.)


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