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 7, 2011

Have Things Speeded Up?

We switched the site to a new plan, and the site should be faster now. Is it?

Table Tennis in the Superbowl!

Yes, it was - did you see the 30-second Xfinity ipad ad? It ran twice, with the short table tennis sequence at the start as an example of things you could watch on the ipad. Was this the single largest "showing" of table tennis in history?

World Championships of Ping Pong, I mean International Classic Ping Pong Championship

The "World Championships of Ping Pong," which are today and tomorrow (Feb. 7-8) in Las Vegas, was the original name. However, the ITTF objected to their using the term "World Championships," since they run the World Table Tennis Championships. President Adham Sharara wrote a letter threatening action if they didn't change it, and saying that players who competed in it "will not be allowed to take part in any ITTF events indefinitely." The organizers hastily renamed it the "International Classic Ping Pong Championship. Sharara wrote a second letter saying, essentially, that all was well. (Both letters are in the same link given here twice.)

Did I mention it's an all-sandpaper event, with $100,000 in prize money!!!

Ode to the Backhand

I've been thinking about the most memorable backhand play I've seen. This is not a listing of the "best" backhands, but the ones that really stick out in my memory.

First, can anyone who saw it ever forget Jan-Ove Waldner's lesson on backhand play in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 1987 World Championships, where he absolutely devastated Chen Longcan and Teng Yi of China? Going into the event, Waldner's relatively flat backhand was considered his weakness, but after he cracked about a zillion winners, that thinking might have changed.

Also around that time, the Russian Mazunov brothers (Andrei and Dmitij) seemed on the verge of revolutionizing the game with their backhand looping play. You often see players step around their backhands to loop forehands, rotating their body clockwise as they do so. The Mazunov's often did the opposite, stepping around the forehand to loop backhands, rotating their body counter-clockwise. It was reminiscent of an earlier age, when Victor Barna won five World Men's Singles titles in the hardbat age, often covering the entire table with his backhand as he too would step around the forehand to play backhand, also rotating his body around. (Here's a clip of Victor Barna ding this against Marty Reisman.)

One of the most memorable games ever at the USA Nationals was the big backhand battle between Gao Jun and Jasna Reed. I'm a little hazy on the details, but if I remember correctly it was in the Women's Singles Final, best of five to 21, and Gao had easily won the first two games. Early in the third game, the two started playing straight backhand to backhand, where both are at their strongest. Normally they'd be moving the ball around, but instead both seemed to reach an unwritten agreement to duel it out, backhand to backhand, and settle who had the better backhand, once and for all. And so the scene was set for some of the most vicious backhand rallies ever seen. Jasna's backhand, both looping and hitting, is an unstoppable force; Gao's pips-out penhold blocking backhand is an immoveable object. All I can say is Wow! While I think some of the rallies are still going on, it finally ended, as it should be, at deuce, with Gao winning, I believe 22-20.

The single greatest shot I've ever seen was made by the English Cadet Champion, circa 1987. He was visiting the U.S., and was training with the U.S. Junior Team at the Resident Training Program at Colorado Springs. I was watching as he played a practice match with Chi-Ming Chui, a pips-out penholder. The English kid was only 14 or 15, but he pulled off the shot of the century. He popped up a ball that went high and short, and Chi-Ming went to the side of the table, right by the net, and absolutely creamed the ball. The English kid saw this, and turned his back to the table, as if to avoid getting hit. Then he jumped up, and without looking, did a wild over-the-head backhand swing - and counter-smashed Chi-Ming's smash on the rise! The English kid didn't even see the shot, and was just going through the somewhat-joking motion of a wild swing. He didn't even know his shot had hit until we told him. If only we had that on video....

We'll end with three memorable Cheng Yinghua moments. The first was at the 1985 U.S. Open, when Cheng was still on the Chinese National Team. After Wen Chia Wu of Taiwan upset Cheng's partner, World Champion Jiang Jialiang, it was up to Cheng to take charge, and take charge he did. He devastated the field with his two-winged looping and blocking. However, it was his sudden backhand loops down the line that were most memorable. Over and over, often while returning serves, Cheng would suddenly just rip a backhand loop down the line to the forehand, and over and over we'd see the opponent absolutely frozen, not even moving as the ball went for an ace. Cheng won both singles and doubles.

Three years later, in 1988, Cheng was hired by USA Table Tennis as a practice partner/coach for its Resident Training Program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (I was there from 1985-1989, at various times as manager, director, and assistant coach.) The first time he played Canada's Johnny Huang (another former Chinese team member and about #10 in the world) was eye-opening. Huang was a shakehand hitter with short pips on both sides, and seemed able to hit anything. Against Cheng, Huang seemingly could smash everything, mostly into the backhand. Didn't matter; no matter how hard and how often he smashed, Cheng just backed up a bit and looped everything back. Most memorable were how he took Huang's best smashes and just backhand looped them back from about ten feet back, like it was just another drill. Cheng won easily.

And then there was that rally. Only a few saw it, I was one of the privileged few. It was at the 2000 North American Teams in Baltimore, when Cheng was already into his 40s and past his peak. He played Fan Yiyong, another former Chinese team member now living in the U.S.  Like Cheng, Fan's best shot was his backhand loop. And the two went at it. However, Fan was much younger, and often Cheng was forced to block. And then came The Backhand Rally. One of them backhand looped crosscourt. The other backhand counterlooped off the bounce. The did the same. What ensued was a series of off-the-bounced backhand counterlooping the world (or at least me) had never seen before. It was probably about ten shots in all, with each shot a highlight reel shot. It showed that Cheng could still do it, and of course Fan could as well. It was sort of a changing of the guard, with Fan just eking out the match, 12, -26, 20.


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February 4, 2011

The Myth of Nets & Edges Evening Out

I was thinking about this myth recently after losing *another* match on a series of nets and edges. To be specific, in the fifth game of a practice match, I was up 3-1, and my opponent got two edges in a row, and shortly after followed with another edge and two nets. I got zero nets or edges that game.

Many coaches and players say "it all events out," but it really doesn't. Certain styles get more nets and edges than others. Hitters and blockers (especially those with dead surfaces) tend to hit with a lower trajectory, and so they get more nets. They also tend to hit deeper on the table, since they don't have topspin pulling the ball down, and so get more back edges. Blockers who block at wide angles get more side edges. On the other hand, loopers hit with a higher trajectory, and their topspin tends to pull the ball down shorter, and so they get fewer nets and back edges. Steady, precise players also tend to get fewer nets and edges. So yeah, style matters. It doesn't even out.

Some would argue that the styles that get more nets & edges do so because they are playing more aggressively, i.e. hitting lower to the net and deeper, and going for wider angles. Well, of course. But then say that, and don't fill the air with the fictitious "it all evens out" mantra that many of us know simply isn't true.

Also, the "aggressive" argument isn't always true. For example, long-pipped blockers get hordes of net balls, and they don't do so from playing aggressively. I don't think anyone chooses a style because it'll give them more nets & edges.

World Rankings

Someone pointed out that I should point out that Timo Boll of Germany (photo above care of ITTF) became World #1 in the ITTF Men's Rankings about a month ago. It's been a while since that spot was taken by a non-Chinese player. China still holds spots #2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 11. The only other European in the top 14 is #5 Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus, with Boll's teammate Dimitrij Ovtcharov taking the #15 spot.

The last European man to reach the #1 spot was . . . Timo Boll, back in 2003. (He turns 30 on March 8.) Samsonov reached #2 in 2001. (He turns 35 on April 17.) I think the last European to be #1 besides Boll was Waldner back in the 1990s.

Boll's basically the only European player who can play the top Chinese even up. He can win major titles. Can he win the World Championships, coming up May 8-15 in Rotterdam, NED? The main things against him are 1) he'll be battling 4-7 players from China who are about his level, and 2) they are practicing against a Chinese practice partner whose entire job is to mimic Boll's game, so the top Chinese can practice against it. (Yes, the Chinese do that. They have such a wealth of players that they hire some to essentially become the main Chinese rivals, so the rest of the team can train against that player. There is a Chinese Boll, a Chinese Samsonov, and a mess of Korean mimics. For example, USA's Cheng Yinghua spent much of his career as a Chinese practice partner, first as "Klampar," and then as "Waldner.")

I'd love to see a China vs. the World men's team match. That'd be pretty competitive, though China's still favored.

On the women's side, of course, it's nearly all China, which has the #1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 spots. Singapore's Feng Tianwei has the #3 spot. The top European woman? Li Jiao of the Netherlands. The top European who's not from Asia? After we get past Shen Yanfei (Spain), Li Jie (Netherlands), and Li Qian (Poland), we finally get to Viktoria Pavlovich (Belarus) and Daniela Dodean (Romania), ranked #31 and 32, respectively.


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February 3, 2011

Site Fast Enough?

Sometimes the site seems slow to me. Let me know if you are having trouble with this. The last thing I want are a world full of table tennis players and coaches staring at a screen in impatient disgust. Impatient disgust should only be employed when you miss an easy shot to lose a match at the Nationals, and realize it'll be another year before you are national champion.

The American Youth Table Tennis Organization (New York)

Here's their Winter Report. They have a feature on Middle School Table Tennis at North Star Academy. They're also looking for volunteers and donations. Lots of great stuff is going on there! If only more regions had groups like this. Some of the stuff they are doing:

  • Organized League Matches
  • Saturday Academy Expert Instruction
  • Tournaments
  • Scrimmage Matches
  • Instructional Clinics

2011 Pan Am/National Team Trials & Qualifying Tournament

Deadline to enter is Feb. 7, this Monday. Or you might just want to make plans to go watch. It's in San Jose, at the Topspin Club, Feb. 25-27. Here is the Prospectus (which explains everything), the Entry form, and (if you really need them) the Pan Am Code of Conduct, and the National Team Code of Conduct.

Coaching Stories

I've got a long list of what I call "unique" coaching stories, where a simple but unexpected tactic paid off. Probably my favorite was at the Junior Olympics a number of years ago. In the Under 16 Boys' Final, the player I was coaching, Andy, had pulled off an upset in the semifinals to reach the final. He was about 2150, short pips on the backhand, with a strong forehand loop and good backhand, but slow feet. He had a good forehand pendulum serve, but it always went long. His opponent in the final was a 2350 looper who played shakehands, with his index finger almost down the middle of the blade (like 1967 World Men's Singles Champion Hasegawa), and who, quite frankly, was just better. In the first game, Andy lost badly, with the opponent looping his serve over and over and putting Andy on the defensive. (The match was best two of three to 21.) Between games I asked Andy if could serve backhand. He said he'd never served backhand in his life. I said, "Tough. I want you to serve backhand." He argued, but I convinced him to just backhand tap the ball over the net, short to his opponent's forehand. It worked! Andy won the next two games comfortably. What I'd noticed was that the opponent, with his index finger down the middle of the paddle, couldn't bend his wrist back, and so couldn't receive a short serve down the line with his forehand. So all his returns were to Andy's forehand, which he looped for winners. The moral of this story? Have a wide variety of serves and strokes, i.e. a well-balanced game. You never know when you'll find something useful.

Here's a picture of me and a cat.

No, we're not twins! I think. (Picture of me is about 15 years old. I'm much more distinguished looking now. Really.)


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February 2, 2011

The Minutes for the USA Table Tennis Jan. 10, 2011 Teleconference

Here they are. As usual, they got a lot done. As usual, I don't see anything that'll lead to the large membership increase so needed by our sport. At the USATT Strategic Meeting 17 months ago, our 8000 membership was deemed a "round-off error," and there was a consensus that drastically increasing it was our top priority. That won't happen without a nationwide system of leagues and the systematic development of junior programs (i.e. recruit and train coaches to set up and run them). Or we can sit around and wish for it to happen really hard.

I did notice that at a recent meeting they finally did what I pushed so strongly for at that Strategic Meeting: set up a League Task Force, as opposed to the "Grow Membership Through Added Value" (I'm not making that up) Task Force which implemented nothing and is no longer active. The very people who pushed for the "GMTAV" Task Force instead of a League Task Force back then now seem to make up the members of the League Task Force, so I'm a bit . . . peeved.

=>Message to USATT: Naming new task forces isn't going to solve our problems if nothing useful is implemented. As I said over and Over and OVER at the Strategic Meeting, you need to 1) set goals, 2) work out a plan to reach those goals, and 3) implement the plan. We have yet to reach 1). So, League Task Force . . . what are your goals, what is your plan to reach those goals, and will USATT implement that plan?

Obligatory Groundhog Day joke: Did a USATT official see his shadow, and so we're stuck with six more decades of futility? Just kidding, USATT!!! :)  Actually, six decades ago was 1951. At that time, Marty Reisman and Dick Miles were two of the very best table tennis players in the world. One year later sponge would come out, and no U.S. player has really challenged the world's best since.

New York Times

Got a call last night from a reporter from the New York Times. He's putting together a story about Chinese-American table tennis players and their experiences in America. We talked for over an hour. Right now two types of Chinese players dominate in the U.S.: former Chinese National or Province Team Members who are well into their 40s or 50s (such as Cheng Yinghua, Fan Yiyong, David Zhuang, Gao Jun, Amy Feng, Lily Yip), and Chinese-Americans who developed in the U.S., with parents who immigrated from China (Han Xiao, Adam Hugh, Tim Wang, Peter Li, Justin & Alex Yao, Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, many more). We also discussed the Great Chinese Exodus, i.e. the proliferation of Chinese coaches (i.e. former top players) to all parts of the world, spreading table tennis technique to the masses, or at least to those willing to pay for lessons. There are probably 50 full-time professional table tennis coaches in the U.S., and probably three-fourths are Chinese. I put the reporter in contact with about a dozen top Chinese-American coaches and players. I'll post a note here when it comes out.

Classic Reunion:

Marty Reisman, Dick Miles, Sol Schiff, Lou Pagliaro

On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007, these four all-time greats gathered at Dick Miles' house in New York City. The slideshow is now out! Sadly, Miles died on Oct. 12, 2010, and Pagliaro on July 14, 2009. Here is Miles New York Times obit, and Pagliaro's. Here's the USATT homage to Miles (by Tim Boggan and Marv Leff).

Is this, or is this not, the single greatest reverse tomahawk/reverse backhand serve ever done in the history of the world?

Here it is - tell me if you agree. That's a heck of a serve; I'm going to develop one like it. Next time I play a lefty, he better beware! Here's the tricky part - as hinted at in the title, is this a reverse tomahawk serve or a reverse backhand serve? They really are the same thing, except the tomahawk serve (both normal and reverse) is done from the forehand side of the body (with contact on different sides of the racket), and the backhand (normal and reverse) from the backhand side (with contact on the same side of the racket for both). Most players don't learn the reverse versions, which is too bad. Unless, of course, you have to play someone who doesn't have them, in which case it's very good . . . for you.


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February 1, 2011

Table Tennis or Ping Pong? (Or is that Ping-Pong?)

We now know with absolute certainty that the term Table Tennis overtook Ping-Pong as the primary name for our sport in 1940. How do we know this with such unflagging absoluteness? Why, from the Google Books Ingram Viewer, of course! Put in your own words, and see what comes up.

And now, a short history lesson time. The sport was originally ping-pong. However, the name was trademarked by Parker Brothers, and so in 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation was born with the new name, followed by U.S. Table Tennis Association in 1933. Almost everyone played with a hardbat. Then came sponge in the '50s, looping and lobbing in the '60s, speed glue in the '70s, powerful backhand loops in the '80s, reverse penhold backhands in the '90s, 11-point games, 40mm ball, and no more hidden serves in the '00s, and, well, here we are. That is all. (I did say a short history lesson. Did I miss anything?)

Celebrities Playing Table Tennis

This morning I updated the Celebrities Playing Table Tennis Page. Why not explore it and find your favorite celebrities playing your favorite sport? There are now 664 celebrities pictured. (Special thanks to all the contributors, especially Steve Grant, who's been tirelessly finding and sending photos nearly every month.) I'd give a short listing of some of the major celebrities who are pictured, but any such list wouldn't do it justice. It's simpler to give a list of celebrities who are not pictured. So here it is:

  • Justin Bieber

Yes, it's true. Justin Bieber is the only celebrity in the world not pictured playing table tennis. Really. Someone get me one. Heck, if we get a video of him playing up on YouTube, it'll start a table tennis revolution in the U.S., and we'd quickly leave China in the dust. Really.

Actually, there are two "holy grails" I've been trying to get for a long time. The first is of Babe Ruth playing table tennis in a "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" cartoon I saw long ago. I contacted the Ripley people, but they couldn't find it. The other is one I saw online of former presidential candidate Howard Dean playing table tennis in 2004 in a rec center in Milwaukee. It was shortly afterward that I started the Celebrities Playing Table Tennis page, and I've been trying to get that picture ever since. I checked the local newspapers for that date, but the picture was gone.

Bad Back

The last few times I've played, my back has been killing me. Most people have problems with their lower back, but with me, it's the upper back. Advil doesn't seem to help.


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January 31, 2011

Grip Experimentation

I spent much of my playing time this weekend experimenting with my grip. The problem I run into is that my forehand loop is at its best when I use a forehand grip, i.e. rotate the top of the racket a little bit left. This messes up my backhand. My backhand is at its best when I either use a slight backhand grip and put my thumb more on the racket (better for blocking and punching), or grip it mostly by the handle (allowing more power). But what helps the backhand hurts the forehand.

Over the years I've generally favored a slight forehand grip, but gripping it more by the handle to help the backhand. But when I play someone who loops a lot, forcing me to block more, I sometimes use a slight backhand grip, which doesn't affect my forehand blocking or smashing, but does hamper the forehand loop.

For beginners, it's almost always best to start out with a neutral grip, with the thinnest part of the wrist lined up with the racket. This greatly helps the development of the strokes. Using a forehand or backhand grip can really mess up the strokes if used too early, before the strokes are mostly ingrained. However, at the more advanced level, a lot of players adjust their grip to enhance their shots.

How about you?

USA Table Tennis Plans

For years, USATT has had online links to their "plans," except the plans were all circa early 2000s. They were like a huge banner that said "USATT is way, Way, WAY out of date." Now they've finally put up new ones, linked here, as well as some reports. Include are the following:


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January 28, 2011

Backhand Looping Extraordinaires

Most players in the U.S. don't seem to know or appreciate that the U.S. has three of the best backhand loopers from the past. Cheng Yinghua (52, rated 2634, #5 in U.S., coaching in Maryland), Ilija Lupulesku (43, rated 2751, #1 in U.S., coaching in Chicago), and Fan Yiyong (42, rated 2722, #2 in U.S., coaching in Seattle) all had, during their peak years, among the best backhand loops in the world. Cheng, during his eleven years on the Chinese National Team (1977-87), was the first of the great Chinese backhand loopers, and many considered him the steadiest backhand looper in the world. Lupulesku, the 1988 Olympic Silver Medalist in Men's Doubles, was more off the table and softer, but could spin back anything. And Fan, who was the Chinese Junior Champion, may have had the most powerful backhand loop in Chinese history. Many of you have seen them in recent years; how many of you saw them at their peak, when they could challenge the best players in the world? I did, and believe me, it was a sight to see.

While none of these three still have the world-class backhand loops they once had, there is one active player who still has world-class skills. David Zhuang (47, rated 2657, #3 in U.S., coaching in New Jersey) still has among the best backhand blocks and return of short serves in the world. On the Women's side, Gao Jun (42, rated 2656, #1 in U.S., 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist in Women's Doubles, coaching in the LA area) still has one of the best backhand blocks in the world.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I practiced my serves regularly, I considered my fast, down-the-line serve "world class." This was based on a combination of actual expertise with the serve and self-delusion (we'll leave it to your imagination what the proportions were). What shots do you do at a "world-class" level, either in reality, or at least partially so in your mind?

More on the Nationals in Virginia Beach

USATT Executive Director Mike Cavanaugh explains in his "CEO Blog" why the Nationals this December will be in Virginia Beach.

Table Tennis Is the No. 1 Brain Sport, Scientists Say

The article is from last week, but in case you missed it . . . see the headline! Plus there's more from Susan Sarandon in the article.

And here's the Sport & Art Educational Foundation's Alzheimer's and Dementia Table Tennis Therapy Program (1:26 video).

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January 27, 2011

Visit to Spin TTC

On Saturday I visited the full-time Spin Table Tennis Club in New York City. (I was there for a writer's conference, but managed to get away for a few hours.) You may have heard of it - Susan Sarandon is one of the owners! When I got there a little before 6PM, Coaches Paul David, Ben Nisbet, and Tahl Leibovitz were all there. Paul had just finished coaching, while Tahl was with a student. When Tahl finished, we played some games - with sandpaper! Tahl's getting ready for the $100,000 "World Championships of Ping-Pong" (Feb. 7-8), where everyone will use sandpaper, and Tahl will represent Israel. Tahl's been practicing, and I hadn't, and so you can guess who won. (I think most others at the club were using regular sponge rackets.)

There were 17 tables, but it wasn't your normal table tennis club, even ignoring that Sarandon comes by to play several times a week. The lighting was poor, there was little room behind the tables (except for one "feature" table), there were no barriers, and there was loud music playing that made it hard to hear the ball hit the table. And yet, the place was jammed. You had to reserve a table in advance - none of this drop-in play like at other clubs, and yet many of the tables had parties going on, with 5-10 players on a table. (There was a bench next to the tables.) As to lack of barriers, each table had a large jar that probably held 100 balls. A full-time bellboy - a high school student - picked up balls full-time with a net, so there was little chasing of balls; you just grabbed another from the jar. There was also a bar next to the playing area where you could get drinks or sandwiches.

Your average table tennis aficionado would have been horrified by the playing conditions, and I had some trouble playing with the loud music, but you know what? This might be a good model for table tennis in large cities. I don't think it would work out in the suburbs or most smaller cities, but in a densely populated area like New York City or in a wealthy area where people can afford to pay extra, I think it might work. They have similar Spin Clubs now in Hollywood and Milwaukee, and presumably they use the same model.

New Videos

I've put up five coaching videos by Coach Tao Li of Table Tennis University. The first three went up last week; the last two just went up.

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January 26, 2011

What, no mention of table tennis in the State of the Union Address??? Looks like we'll have to develop our sport on our own.

ITTF Coaching Development

USA Table Tennis is gradually incorporating the ITTF Coaching Certification Process. In September, they held the first ITTF Certification Seminar in the U.S., run by Glenn Tepper. Great thanks goes to Glenn and to USATT Coaching Chair Richard McAfee for putting that together, and for advancing coaching worldwide and in the U.S. Here are three articles about it - and I'm sort of featured in the last one!

One aspect of the ITTF certification process is that everyone has to do it, including USATT national coaches. So even though I'm certified as a national coach by USA Table Tennis (the highest level), I needed to take the ITTF course to get certified as an ITTF coach, as did other national coaches who attended. Besides getting certified as an ITTF coach, I also qualified as a course conductor. I plan on running the second ITTF Coaching Seminar in the U.S. - the first run by a USA coach - sometime in April. Tentative dates are April 16, 17, 23, 24, and 30 (all weekends). It'll be six hours/day, with the last session an optional one on coaching Paralympic table tennis (i.e. wheelchair and standing disabled). I also plan on adding an extra two-hour session at night on "Setting Up and Running a Junior Training Program."

Now we get to the good stuff. Sometimes what happens behind the scenes is more interesting than the public side. Here's where you learn the truth - how I messed up! Not once, not twice, but three times! Or was it four?

Early in the seminar, Glenn was lecturing about how to return a serve that breaks wide to the forehand. Now you get to learn a secret of mine: my hearing isn't as good as it used to be. When there's background noise, I have great difficulty making out words. As Glenn lectured, I thought he'd left something important out, and so I raised my hand. I was sitting on the left, and there was some sort of industrial noise coming out of the wall, probably central air conditioning. It suddenly got louder, and I missed the last thirty seconds or so of what Glenn said. Then he finished, and called on me. I explained what I thought he'd missed. There was a moment of silence, and then someone pointed out that he'd just said exactly what I'd said - in those last thirty seconds that I'd missed! Oops. Highly embarrassing.

During the section on footwork, Glenn was demonstrating crossover footwork. Unfortunately, this is something that the Chinese historically didn't do, in contrast to European players. Early in my playing career, I had a lot of Chinese coaching, and crossover footwork was pretty much drilled out of my game in favor of always using "two-step" footwork. (Unfortunately, these days the trend is toward one-step footwork and crossovers - I'll write about that some other time.) When I was called upon to demonstrate crossover footwork, I thought I'd have no trouble as I knew how it was done, and had done it earlier in my career . . . circa late 1970s. Unfortunately, when I tried to demonstrate, instincts took over, and I simply couldn't do it right, and my feet kept doing two-step footwork. Again, oops. I've since practiced it, and can demonstrate it, but I don't think I'll ever work it back into my regular game.

During the segment on long pips, he called for volunteers. My ears perked up as I've always been very good against long pips. I volunteered. That's when I discovered the difference between a long pipped chopper at 5000 feet elevation, as opposed to sea level. The chops were much heavier, and I kept making mistakes. I'm sure I'd have adjusted with time, but not in the few rallies where I "demonstrated."

It got worse when a group of us went to play horseshoes. I swear my muscles locked up, and I couldn't throw straight. I think I almost hit Glenn one time. I tried every sports psychology method I knew of to focus and throw the stupid horseshoes, but nothing worked. I took solace in the idea that if I'm that poorly coordinated, then I must be a really, Really, REALLY smart player to reach a relatively high level in table tennis! (Actually, my problem isn't so much lack of coordination as it is very tight muscles. I'm almost incapable of doing a nice, relaxed toss of a horseshoe.)

Now that I've got the embarrassing parts out, I did have my moments. I have a tendency to talk too fast, and that's not good when lecturing. Many years ago I took a class in public speaking to help with my group lessons. From there, I learned a much slower, clearer lecturing voice. During the ITTF seminar, we were all required to do two presentations, and I think I surprised the heck out of everyone when my voice switched from my normal voice to my much better lecturing voice. Later, I got some good laughs when I pointed out I'd learned to do public speaking by lecturing (I'm not making this up) my dog and the clothes dryer! (When practicing public speaking, it's always better to lecture to something that actually moves about like these, rather than something that just sits there motionless.)  Since I've been doing table tennis presentations for thirty years, my presentations came off pretty well.

Pingpong therapy brings net gains to Alzheimer’s patients

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"In the study, through tests that measured their reasoning skills, communication and memory, a sample of 3,000 elderly table-tennis players were shown to have increased frontal lobe function after two minutes of play. An additional sample of 113 patients with brain diseases and dementia who were put on a pingpong-based rehabilitation program showed physical, mental and emotional improvement after a 10-month period. The number of patients dependent on a wheelchair dropped from 42 to 15, and those able to walk without any assistance rose from 41 to 66. The number of patients suffering from acute depression was halved. More than 70 patients had their dementia rating downgraded after the study period, 25 of them testing 'normal' when their pingpong regimen was completed."

And about 86-year-old Fryda Dvorak, living with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease:

"She doesn't remember what she had for breakfast or lunch, but she knows she hit the ball 64 times during her lesson, and that Irina lost three times."

My poor, poor back... killing me. On Friday, I played great, but my back was bothering me at the end of the session. On Saturday, I was on a train to NYC, and spent the day sitting in meetings, then took Amtrak back. I think that stiffened my back. On Sunday, I coached or practice partnered for four hours, and my back was killing me. It's killing me even as I sit in my chair. I've got four days of non-stop table tennis on Fri-Mon. This could get painful. I've grown attached to my tricky high-toss serve, but I'll trade it for a new back.

Send me your own coaching news!

January 25, 2011

Tonight, President Obama gives his State of the Union Address. So here's an actual photo of Obama playing table tennis! The large photo hangs on the wall at the White House. (Here are more pictures of celebrities playing table tennis.)

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Four Major Serves

This was a long one. Later I'll turn this into a regular article for the Articles section.

This weekend on the forum Mark asked, "Could anyone put together a list of the various techniques and a brief comment on what they do well, what they do poorly, which tactics they work well with or against, and any quirks that might make it easier to deal with a server using that motion." This seemed like an excellent idea for a blog entry!

First, it's important to understand the concept that it's generally easier for a receiver to handle a sidespin serve that breaks into him then one that breaks away. There are two main reasons for this. Let's imagine a sidespin serve to the forehand that breaks away from you.

  1. When you hit the ball, it's going to jump to the left. (Lefthanders reverse everything.) To counteract that, you have to aim right. But when reaching for a ball, it's more natural to get outside the ball and aim left than trying to get inside the ball and aim right. Get a racket and experiment, and you'll see this. This is true on both the forehand and backhand side, though probably more so on the forehand side.  
  2. As the ball breaks away from you, a player tends to reach for the ball. But as he does so, his racket naturally drops lower as it goes after the ball, which is spinning away and down. Plus, if you are looping the serve, you lower the racket anyway, and so when you reach for the ball, you lower it further. The result is the racket is lower than it should be, and so you lift the ball off the end.

To counteract both these problems, focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping. You also might find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin when looping.

A second concept to understand is that you should attack spinny sidespin serves, and any serve that goes long. This doesn't mean you have to rip them, but you need to be aggressive. If you return a sidespin serve passively, the spin will take on your racket much more than if you attack it, and will generally both pop up and to the side. Against a long serve, if you don't attack, the opponent has all day to set up their attack, so you must be aggressive. (Obviously, choppers and some blockers can get away with more passive returns, but it's a disadvantage, and even if they push or chop the serve, they should do so aggressively - deep and with heavy backspin.)

A third concept to understand is that receive is all about placement and consistency. See the Tip of the Week that went up yesterday (Monday, Jan. 24, 2011), which is titled, "When Receiving, Emphasize Placement & Consistency."

A fourth concept is that with all serves, you can do spin/no-spin combinations. Most popular are backspin/no-spin serves, where you use the same motion and either serve backspin (or side-backspin), or no-spin. You get the no-spin by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the handle, which isn't moving very fast at contact.

Now let's look at the actual major serves. At tournaments, at nearly all levels right up to world class, there are four service motions that dominate. They are the forehand pendulum, the reverse forehand pendulum, the forehand tomahawk, and the backhand sidespin.There are other service motions, but these four serves cover the overwhelming majority of what you'll face in serious matches. (We're going to focus here on spin serves, not fast serves.)  Let's examine these four serves. (Descriptions are for right-handers; left-handers reverse.)

Forehand Pendulum

Description: You do this serve with the racket tip down, moving from right to left. The sidespin breaks away from the receiver's backhand as the ball breaks left to right. This is by far the most popular serve in the world. One reason for this is that it was the easiest serve to hide contact from the receiver, before that became illegal a few years back, and so there are still generations of players who learned that serve for that reason. Another is that it is the easiest to do right-to-left sidespin (so the ball breaks to the right). You can do left-to-right sidespin (that breaks left) with any of the other three "major" serves, and so those who favor that sidespin are split among those three.

Variations: Many players do this with a high toss. The higher toss means the ball is traveling faster when you contact it, allowing more spin. The disadvantage of a high-toss is it is harder to control. Also, with a lower toss, the ball is traveling more slowly at contact, allowing you more motion at the last second for deception. Also, as noted below, you can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a reverse forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: Because the spin breaks away from receiver's backhand, it's awkward to receive with the backhand. It is especially difficult to attack down the line with the backhand (except at the advanced levels), and so the server can almost give up that line, since most returns will be to the backhand or middle of the table. This is a great serve for those who wish to serve and forehand loop, especially if you like to loop forehands from the backhand side. (This allows you to be in forehand position for the next shot as well.)

You can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Another advantage of this serve is you can set up for this serve, and at the last second do a reverse forehand pendulum serve instead. 

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. (Topspin and backspin serves have an axis that's left to right.) However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin, giving the big break. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: There are two main weaknesses of the serve. First, this type of sidespin is easier to loop with the forehand, and so it might risky serving to the forehand side, or long to the backhand if the receiver can step around and loop a forehand. Second, because it's the most popular serve in the world, everyone is used to it.

How to Return: Ideally, loop it with the forehand. Alas, you can't do that if the serve is short, or if it's to the wide backhand and you don't have super-fast feet.

With the backhand, you need to attack it if it's long, usually with a backhand loop, but a backhand drive will do. Remember the problem of lifting too much when reaching for the ball! So don't drop your racket too much except against heavy underspin. If you can attack this serve down the line, you'll mess up many servers. If you find that difficult, then at least return it deep and very wide to the backhand. And remember to hide your placement until the last second, especially against the many forehand loopers who use this serve. Don't let them know where your return is going or they'll have little trouble using their forehand. They may get their forehand on any of your returns, but they'll make more mistakes and weaker loops if they don't know where you're going, and so have to rush at the last second.

In theory, it should be easier to loop this serve down the line with the backhand. When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin. However, in practice, because of the more limited hitting zone on the backhand side, most players find going down the line more difficult.

Forehand Reverse Pendulum

Description: This is the same as the forehand pendulum serve, except now contact is left to right, and the spin breaks into a receiver's backhand as it curves to the left. This serve isn't seen as often until the advanced intermediate level.

Variations: You can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a regular forehand pendulum serve. It's also often done with a high toss, just as with the regular forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: It's a great variation from the regular forehand pendulum serve, and so many advanced players do both. Since it's seen less often, players often have more trouble with this serve, especially as they first reach the advanced levels, since they haven't spent years facing the serve as most players do against the regular pendulum serve.

The serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since you can create tremendous sidespin that breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

The serve can also be highly effective done fast to the backhand since many players simply aren't used to that spin into the backhand, especially from what looks at first like a regular forehand pendulum serve.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it breaks into a receiver's backhand, once they get used to it, it's generally easier for them to attack it, especially with a backhand loop. It's also generally tougher to serve heavy underspin with this serve. The service motion can be awkward when you are first learning the serve, and many players tend to serve with less than maximum spin as they find it hard to control otherwise. However, at the higher levels, this serve is done with great spin and full variation.

Since pendulum serves are mostly used by forehand attackers, they are done out of the backhand corner. So you have less angle into the forehand with this serve, and so it's trickier doing it so that really breaks away from the receiver. You can experiment by serving it more from the middle or even from the forehand side, but it's often more effective to simply do a tomahawk serve from there. (See below.)

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up.

Backhand Sidespin

Description: Just as the name says, it's a backhand serve with the racket going from left to right. (Despite the name, the serve can be done with pure backspin or - less frequently - pure topspin. The racket still goes from left to right, but you contact it very early or very late in the motion, before or after it is moving sideways.) This is the same spin as a reverse forehand pendulum serve. It's the second most common serve used, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels.

Variations: You can also do a reverse backhand serve, as the great Chinese player Kong Linghui used to do, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a regular backhand sidespin serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it.

Advantages: Like the forehand pendulum serve, you can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations. (You do the no-spin version by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the base of the blade, which isn't moving very fast at contact.)

Like with the reverse pendulum serve, this serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since the spin breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

This serve is often the easiest to control, allowing you to serve lower more easily than with other serves. A key to this is to minimize the toss to as close to six inches as possible.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it's such a common serve, many players are used to it. Since so few master a reverse backhand serve, the sidepin is always the same. It's tricky doing a fast and deep serve with this motion, taking away a major variation.

Since you do the serve with a backhand stance, it leaves you in a backhand position, so it can be harder to follow with a forehand.

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up. (Note that his is the same as returning a reverse forehand pendulum serve.)

Forehand Tomahawk

Description: Done with the forehand, tip up, with a right-to-left motion, creating a spin that breaks to the left.

Variations: You can also do a reverse tomahawk serve, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a tomahawk serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it. (A reverse forehand tomahawk serve is really the same as a reverse backhand serve. In both cases, the tip is up, moves from right to left, and contact is made with the backhand side of the racket.)

Unlike the other major serves, this serve is often done from the forehand side as well as from the backhand side.

Advantages: More than most serves, this serve is done with the intent of winning a point outright on the serve alone. A lot of players, especially at the intermediate level, use this serve from the forehand side into the receiver's wide forehand, causing mayhem as the ball breaks away and the receiver messes up. Done from the forehand side, the motion allows maximum angle that really breaks into the receiver's wide forehand.

Done from the backhand, it's similar to a backhand serve. It's most effective short to the forehand, but a deep one to the backhand can also cause some players difficulty.

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: Starting at the advanced intermediate level, players can loop this serve consistently if it's deep to the forehand. It still might be a good surprise variation, but only if used occasionally.  Against stronger opponents, the serve becomes effective only if done short.

It's a bit harder to get the full range of spins with this serve, and many players find it difficult to serve a truly heavy underspin with this serve. So while the serve creates havoc by going long to the forehand to many intermediate players, against more advanced players the long serve is looped, and the short serve doesn't have as much variety as a simple backhand serve. So this serve is used less and less as you reach the higher levels. But it's still a great variation to throw at many opponents for a few free points.

How to Return: If the serve is short, it's pretty much the same as returning a reverse pendulum or backhand serve. The main difference is it's more often done from the forehand side short to your forehand. This means you can return down the line to take out the opponent's forehand.

The most common difficulty with this serve is how to return it when it's done so it breaks wide and deep into the forehand side. I covered this at the start with the first concept covered, but since this is such a huge problem for so many players returning this serve, I'm going to repeat it here, word for word.

To counteract both these problems [ball jumping to the left when it contacts your racket, and the ball curving away from you], focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping.

You might also find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin.

Learn to Do These Serves

Mark also wrote, "I know the standard answer is 'Go learn how to do the serve and then you will understand how to deal with it.'  That is not going to work for me because at the rate it is taking me to learn one serve I will be dead and buried before I come close to understanding the many variations out there."

Alas, it is true that one of the best ways to learn to return a serve is to learn the serve itself, both so you understand what it does, and because you'll then see how others return the serve against you. I strongly recommend players learn the basics of all these serves. You might not use them in tournaments, but you'll learn a lot about dealing with these serves in the process. Once you've learned one good spin serve, the others are easier to learn since you've already mastered the hard part - putting spin on the ball. Plus, you might end up developing a new tournament serve!

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