Butterfly Online

171 Tips of the Week

By Larry Hodges

From November of 1999 until August of 2003 I did a weekly "Tip of the Week" for the USATT home page. You could read them there, but do you really want to look up all 171 of them, one by one? Besides, you can't really curl up with a computer screen in bed, or take it to the table tennis club. And so, organized by type (serving, receiving, rallying, tactics, psychology, equipment, general), here they are! (A few have been expanded into regular articles.)SERVING TIPS

Deep Serving Strategy There is a particularly good pattern for serving long to most players. Try these two combos: • Serve long to the wide backhand, and following with an aggressive shot right back at the wide backhand; • Serve long to the middle (opponent's playing elbow), and follow with an aggressive shot right back at the middle.

In both cases the opponent will often be caught moving back into position after the first return, and will be going the wrong way when you make an aggressive shot right back to the same spot. When serving to the wide backhand, it helps if you can serve a sidespin serve that breaks into the opponent's wide backhand.

When Playing a Strange Player, Focus on Serve & Receive When you face a new and unknown opponent, you aren't sure yet how the rallies are going to go. But you can control how the rallies start. Learn to use serve & receive force rallies to go the way you want them to go, and so make your opponent adjust to you. It doesn't matter if the opponent plays very orthodox or has an unusual or weird style, you can often force them into the type of rally you want. A few examples: • A backspin serve often forces a backspin return. • A topspin serve often forces a topspin return. • Fast & deep serves often get you into a fast exchange, and can back players slightly off the table. Forehand loopers are often forced out of position by fast, deep serves. • A fast but dead (spinless) serve not only forces many mistakes, but is often returned softly. • Short & low serves often set you up for a first attack, often a loop. Short backspin serves are usually pushed, while short sidespin serves are either pushed back (usually high) or attacked relatively weakly (assuming the serve was low). • Slow but deep sidespin serves, against an opponent who doesn't loop, sets you up for all sorts of attacks. • A short and low no-spin serve is hard to either attack or push heavy.

Experiment with Serves and Receives Early Early in a match you should test your various serves when playing an unfamiliar player. What proportion of the time should you serve long versus short? How often should you serve topspin serves versus backspin serves? When receiving, how often should you receive aggressively as opposed to control receives? Don't wait until the match is nearly over to figure these things out – that's usually too late. Try to get a good idea of these things early on.

Sidespin Serves that Break Away Tend to be More Effective A backhand sidespin serve tends to be more effective to an opponent's forehand, while a forehand pendulum serve tends to be more effective to an opponent's backhand. This is because the racket angle needed to return these sidespins is less natural when done this way. This doesn't mean only serving these serves to the side that's less comfortable, only generally serving it more to that side. Each opponent is different, so try out each combination and see what happens.

Use Simple No-Spin Serves in Doubles In singles, you can serve to all parts of the table. This means you can usually force your opponent to receive from his weaker side, whether it's forehand or backhand. Not so in doubles! Now your opponent can choose his stronger side to receive. If you serve long, he'll probably attack it, usually by looping. If you serve shot sidespin or topspin, he'll probably attack it as well with a flip or drive. If you serve backspin, he can drop it short, push heavy, or flip it to a corner. What is a server to do?

Surprisingly, the answer is often a very shot, very low no-spin serve. At the world-class level, it's the most common serve in doubles, and often in singles. Why is this? A shot no-spin serve is tricky to push – it's easy to pop up, and you can't put as much backspin on it, since you don't have a ball's spin to rebound off your racket – you have to create all your own spin. It's also not as easy to flip aggressively as a ball with spin. You can use the spin of an incoming ball to help your flip. A topspin or sidespin ball rebounds out with topspin when struck properly. A backspin ball can be rolled, and the backspin "continues," except now as topspin. But a no-spin ball doesn't rebound out, and you can't use its non-existent spin. Plus, it's easy to keep a no-spin ball low. (A slightly high no-spin ball is easy to attack, so beware!) This doesn't mean you should serve all no-spin. But it can be the primary serve, with other serves used as variations.

Forehand Pendulum Serve vs. Other Serves Try Out Other Serves The most common serve in the world at both the intermediate and advanced levels is the forehand pendulum serve. This is the serve where a player (usually serving from the backhand corner) serves with his forehand, racket tip down. With this motion, a player can accelerate the racket very rapidly into the ball, and change the direction of the paddle throughout contact via a semi-circular motion. This change of direction gives great deception, while the rapid acceleration of the racket means great spin.

But should you adopt this serve? A good recommendation is to learn the serve, since it is obviously a very effective serve. Also, learning the serve will make it easier for you to return it – you'll understand better what the server is doing.

But so many players have adopted this serve, there is beginning to be a backlash. Opponents are no longer used to returning other types of serves. Anyone who uses a different type of serve (a backhand serve, for example) is now "unorthodox," and so have trouble with their serves. So developing any other serve gives you an advantage.

So perhaps you should "Think Different," and experiment with different serve motions. Watch the confused looks on your opponents' faces!

Serving Second: Let Opponent Mess Up At Start! Whether you alternate serves every 5 points (in 21-point games) or every 2 points (in the new 11-point game rules), the time when a player is most likely to miss easy shots is at the very start of the match. That's when a player may not yet be fully warmed up. So it's often best to let the other guy serve first, let him mess up on his serve & attack at the start, and then get your chance to serve, when you are more into the match.

There's another, more mathematical way of looking at this. Suppose in a given match, the serve will score 60% of the points. So you figure every time you serve a point, you should score an average of 0.6 points. That means if you mess up on your serve and lose two in a row because you aren't yet warmed up, you've mathematically lost 2 x 0.6 points, or 1.2 points. If you do so when receiving, you've only lost 2 x 0.4 points, or 0.8 points. In other words, you can more easily afford to lose a point on the other guy's serve than on your own – so let him serve when he's not warmed up, and put off your own serving until you are warmed up.

The exception, of course, is the player who needs to get a quick lead to build up confidence. If you lose confidence when you fall behind and don't play as well, then by all means serve first. But in this case, you need to work on your mental game.

Fast, Quick Motions Disguise a No-spin Serve Many players learn to put decent spin on their serves. However, when faced with disguising this spin, they have great difficulty. Why not develop a no-spin serve, with a fast, violent serve motion? Change directions as the racket contacts the ball (contacting the ball as the racket is changing directions at the split second where it is nearly motionless), or contact the ball near the handle of the blade (where the racket is moving slowest) so there will be little spin … but your opponent will be left making a snap decision on what's on the ball. A no-spin serve is just as effective as a spin serve if the opponent thinks there is spin on the serve!

Fast, Down-the-Line Serve Having trouble keeping that tricky sidespin serve short? Against most players, you probably can get away with it, but then there's always __________ (fill in the blank), who always loops your serve. What should you do?

Whip that ball down his forehand line, and call an ambulance for your opponent, who's probably sprawled on the floor diving for the ball! Most players who step around their backhands to loop a serve move before the ball is actually contacted. Make them pay for this! When the match is between a lefty and a righty, of course, the dynamics change. Now it's a fast cross-court serve that will catch an opponent, and you should substitute "cross-court" for "down-the-line."

A fast, down-the-line serve is probably the most underused of serves. There are many ways of doing this, but the following basics will get you started.

1. Use the same motion for the serve as any other serve. 2. Make sure your paddle is aimed cross-court (diagonally) until the last moment. 3. Contact the ball as low to the table as possible. 4. Make the first bounce hit as close to your end line as possible. 5. Keep the ball as close to the sideline as possible. 6. Get ready to follow up the serve with a strong attack. 7. Get a bucket of balls, and Practice!

Practice Service Spin … on a Rug! It's often difficult to judge how much spin you are putting on the ball when you practice serves. Without this feedback, it's not easy to improve your serves. So try this – find a large, carpeted room, and practice serving there! Simply pretend there's a table, and see how the ball reacts when it hits the rug. Learn to maximize your spin there, and then go to the table and learn to control it.

Fool Your Opponents – Exaggerate Serving Follow-Through in "Wrong" Direction Many players can put good spin on their serves, but it is obvious to anyone watching what type of spin is on the serve. There are many ways of hiding the spin, but here's a simple one: the instant after contact, change the direction of the racket, and exaggerate the follow-through – but in the "wrong" direction. So if you are serving topspin, you might use an exaggerated downward follow-through to make it look like you served backspin. You might also try following through to the side to disguise backspin or topspin. Remember – the hand is quicker than the eye, and serving is the "trick" part of table tennis.

Should you High-Toss Serve? The Chinese revolutionized the service game in the 1960s with their use of the high toss serve, now used by top players all over the world. By tossing the ball anywhere from ten to twenty feet in the air (measured from the ground), the ball comes down faster than normal tosses. This extra speed makes it difficult to pick up the contact point (especially against players not used to the serve) and gives more spin, since the ball's speed converts to spin when contacted properly.

The serve is done almost exclusively with a forehand pendulum (racket tip down) service motion, although other variations are used. Tibor Klampar, Peter Karlsson and Zoran Primorac have all developed medium-high toss backhand serves, for example. So has USA's hard bat champion, Ty Hoff.

In recent years, the high toss serve has been done more and more with a medium high toss. The ball is tossed only a few feet over the head. However, 15-foot tosses are still used regularly, as are two-foot tosses, and everything in between. Some players, such as USA's Gao Jun, are known for tossing the ball extremely high, perhaps 30 feet or more in the air. Other players use a very short toss, either so the opponent has less time to see the ball, or (in the case of most backhand serves) because the body is in the way of a higher toss.

Should you use a high toss serve? It all depends on what you are trying to do with the serve. There are several reasons why many top players now use a medium toss rather than a high toss serve. A high toss serve, if done at full racket speed, can accidentally go long when a short serve was planned, and (at the higher levels) this often leads to a very quick loop kill of the serve.

Because the ball is traveling faster downwards at contact, the ball only spends a fraction of a second at racket level. This leaves little time for a player to do any fake motions with the racket, and so the spin is harder to disguise. With a shorter toss, a player can bring the racket through a complete range of backspin, sidespin and topspin motions, and (depending on when the contact is) use any of these spins with the same motion.

Another disadvantage of the high toss serve is that it is harder to fake spin, and serve no-spin. A spinless serve, if it looks like it has spin, is just as effective as a spin serve, and at the highest levels, no-spin serves are as common as spin serves. A player simply uses a spin serve motion, but meets the ball more straight on at contact. However, with a high toss serve, if the ball is struck too much straight on, it jumps out, and is too obviously a no-spin serve unless player has great touch.

Yet the high toss serve lives on. It still allows the greatest spin, and there is great joy in serving the ball with so much spin that an unwary opponent's return shoots off in all directions, leaving the opponent to stare at his/her racket in confusion. Pure deception may not be as easy, but the sheer amount of spin on the ball makes it more difficult for an opponent to read the amount of spin, and an opponent who is not used to such a serve is in for an unpleasant surprise.

It is probably the most difficult serve to master, and so there is the challenge of developing the serve. Yet, there is something about the high toss serve that transcends other serves. It is the only serve that immediately marks a player as "advanced," since non-advanced players don't ordinarily have this serve.

For those who do master this serve, it is an extremely effective serve. For those in doubt, try your luck against U.S. Women's Champion Gao Jun, whose serves often challenge the highest ceilings. Others who use high toss serves include world #4 Vladimir Samsonov, European #3 Csilla Batorfi, and many of the Chinese. Many others use medium to high toss serves.

Developing the high toss (or medium toss) serve gives you a two-pronged service game that, in the absence of high winds, will give you all the weaponry you'll need to set up your other shots.

Here is a short listing of the advantages and disadvantages of the high toss serve:

Advantages • More spin; • Hard to pick up contact; • Players not used to it have great difficulty making good returns;

Disadvantages • Hard to control, including proper contact, type & amount of spin, depth, direction, consistency; • Especially difficult to serve short (so that second bounce would be over table); • Ball spends little time at racket height, so less time for deceptive racket motions; • Harder to do deceptive no-spin serves; • Takes more practice to develop than other serves;

Tips to Learn the Serve If possible, watch a top player or coach demonstrate the serve, and copy what you see. Make sure to practice the toss itself until you can toss it up with your eyes closed, and still catch it in your palm. When you can do this, you're ready for the real thing! Try to contact the ball near the bottom, very low to the table, with a very fine grazing motion. Learn to control the serve with a medium-high toss, then work your way to higher and higher tosses until you're tossing the ball around light fixtures. Then use the serve to knock your opponent's lights out!

Backhand Serve Deception The key to deception on the backhand serve is the elbow. To get a good sidespin or side-topspin, you should vigorously pull up with the elbow (up and to the right if you are a right-hander), and contact the ball on the sideways or side-up portion of the swing. However, if you are serving backspin (where you contact the ball earlier, on the downswing), this all takes place after contact. But by still using this vigorous elbow pull just after contact, your opponent will often see the big follow-through, and mistakenly read sidespin or side-topspin on your backspin serve!

Inside-Out Forehand Serve Many players use the forehand "pendulum" serve. It's the most popular serve in table tennis. Roughly speaking, the racket tip is down, and the racket moves from right to left (for a right-hander). However, at the advanced level, inside-out forehand pendulum serves are just as popular, with the racket moving the other way. Practice this serve, as even with less spin than your normal serves it is effective against most players, since the serve is so rarely seen below the advanced levels. The quickest way to learn it is to watch a top player do it. (Serves are very difficult to teach in print, even with photo sequences.)

Fast-Serve Against Looping Opponents Some opponents have very good loops, and loop any serve that goes long. However, unless they are at a very high level, most players cannot loop a very fast serve. So … develop fast & deep serves for these players! They are especially good against opponents who like to loop but don't counterdrive well.

What is a Good Serve? What is a good serve? Ask ten people, and you might get ten answers. But there is a simple definition: a "Good Serve" is one that helps you win. Ideally, this would mean a serve that the other guy can't return – but if you can do that, your opponent isn't your level anyway. What you really want is a serve that sets up Your Game.

This means that if your best shot is a loop, then your serve should set up your loop as often as possible. If your best shot is a smash, then that's what your serve should set up. If you are more of a counterdriver, then that's what you want the serve to set up. And so on. On the other hand, what's a good serve for one player might not be a good serve for another. A short backspin serve might set up a looper who wants a push return – but it might not set up a counterdriver, who wants to get into a topspin-countering rally. A fast & deep serve might set up a hitter or counterdriver, but it might take a looper's best shot away. This doesn't mean a player should always serve the same way – but that they should favor the serves that will set them up.

Serve With the Red Side With an Orange Ball It's a game of inches, and you have to use every fair and legal advantage you can get. It's easier to see an orange ball against a black background than against a red background, so if you serve with the red side, your opponent may not see contact as well. In fact, if you push a lot with your backhand, you should consider using red on your backhand for that reason.

RECEIVING TIPS

Reading Spin Returning serves is everyone's biggest weakness - or at least it seems that way. To learn to read spin, try focusing just on the contact period - ignore the rest of the motion. Imagine taking a mini-video of the split second of contact. If you do this regularly, pretty soon you'll be able to isolate in your mind the actual direction of the racket at contact. From that, you can read the type of spin. You can also read spin by the way the ball comes off the paddle, travels through the air, and from both bounces on the table. Imagine how the spin will affect the ball, and figure out what to watch for.

Use Ball Placement and Variation Against Short Serves You should have different strategies for returning deeps serves and short serves (short serves are serves that, if given the chance, would bounce twice on the receiver's side of the table). Against short serves, you can't really loop, since the table is in the way. So it is difficult to be too aggressive against a low, short serve. The key against short serves is ball placement and variation. Since your opponent has little time to react to your shot (your contact point is closer to him than against a deep serves), so he is vulnerable to quick shots, wide angles and varies shots that he can't anticipate. Mix up your placement, going wide to both angles and (when returning aggressively) at the opponent's elbow (the crossover point between forehand and backhand). Mix up your shots, giving the opponent a variety of long, quick pushes, heavy pushes, short pushes, and flips at varying speeds. (Against backspin or no-spin serves, use the whole variety; against sidespin or topspin, mostly flip, but occasionally push by chopping down on the ball so that it doesn't pop up.) Whatever you do - keep opponents guessing!

Attack Deep Serves You should have different strategies for returning deeps serves and short serves (short serves are serves that, if given the chance, would bounce twice on the receiver's side of the table). Against deep serves, you should be aggressive. Usually this means looping or driving the ball. (You can also chop aggressively, but that's less common.) The reason to be aggressive against deep serves is that since you are contacting the ball from farther back, your opponent has more time to react to your shot. Also, since you are from farther back, you can't go for wide angles as well. If you make a passive shot, your opponent has lots of time to set up his best shot, and doesn't have to move much for it. So be aggressive against deep serves! The good news – since you take a deep serve from farther back, you have more time to watch the ball, and the table is not in your way (so it doesn't interfere with your backswing, especially when looping). If the deep serve comes at you slow and deep, you have a lot of time to prepare your attack. If the deeps serves comes at you fast, then you can use the ball's own speed and counterdrive it aggressively.

Receive: Shorten stroke Returning serves is all about ball control. In a rally, the incoming shot is usually more predictable than a serve, which normally has a much wider range of variation – topspin, sidespin, backspin, at all speeds and placements. To control your return of the serve, shorten your strokes when receiving. This cuts down on power, but the shorter backswing gives you more control.

How to Vary Your Receive Against Short Backspin Serves Most players return short backhand serves with a simple push, without much thought to it. This makes the player predictable and vulnerable to third-ball attacks. The key is to vary the return. Let's take a look at just how many effective returns you can actually do against a short backspin serve – and ask yourself how many of them you actually do! (Below are the most common effective returns – but there are others. Use your imagination!) • Topspin flip to wide forehand • Topspin flip to wide backhand • Topspin flip to middle • Flat flip to wide forehand • Flat flip to wide backhand • Flat flip to middle • Quick push to wide forehand • Quick push to wide backhand • Heavy underspin push to wide forehand • Heavy underspin push to wide backhand • Short push to wide forehand • Short push to wide backhand • Short push to middle • Sidespin push to wide forehand (breaking away from opponent) • Sidespin push to wide backhand (breaking away from opponent) • Any of the above where you fake one shot or direction, and do another

On Short Serves to the Forehand, Challenge the Forehand, Go Down the Line Assuming two right-handers play, a common rally starts with a short serve to the forehand. Many receivers don't understand the strategies in receiving this shot. The two main things to think about are this: First, if the receiver goes crosscourt, he has the long diagonal to go after (10.3 feet, instead of 9 feet down the line), as well as a wide angle. Therefore, if he attacks the serve (by flipping), he should usually go crosscourt. Second, because of the threat of this crosscourt wide-angle attack, the server has to guard the wide forehand angle. So the receiver should often fake this shot, and at the last second go down the line, to the usually weaker, and often unprepared backhand. (Similar strategies take place when one or both players are left-handers – think them over.)

The Quick Backhand Topspin Receive One of the more effective ways to receive backspin serves to the backhand is with a right-off-the-bounce backhand topspin flip. It's done just like a regular backhand, except you use your wrist to put a bit of extra topspin on the ball. The trick is to take the ball right off the bounce. By taking it right off the bounce, you won't have to lift much. Just hit through the ball, using your wrist's upward flick to compensate for the backspin with sort of a mini-loop. Brush the ball at contact to create topspin, and follow through upward and forward.

Three things that can make this even more effective: • Learn to vary between hitting with topspin, and hitting it straight on with little or no topspin. With no topspin, you'll be less consistent, but the change-up will make up for this. • Aim for a wide corner – rush the opponent. • Aim one way, and at the last second go the other way.

What To Do With Problem Servers Everyone has at least one serve that gives them trouble. It might be a certain sidespin, or a deep serve, a short serve, a no-spin serve, an angled serve, etc. The question is what to do against these problem serves?

The obvious answer is to learn how to return them. If you do this, your level will go up - and relative to your new level, you will find other serves that give you trouble. So you should learn how to return each serve - but at the same time, you have to know what to do with these problem serves when you see them in a match.

Try a "scare tactic." If there's a single serve that really bothers you, attack it hard the first time you see it. Loop kill it, flip it hard, even smash it! Scare the dickens out of the server. Even if you miss it, most often he won't use it again, at least very often. If he does keep using it, then you'll just have to figure out how to return that serve because you're up against a smart opponent! By going for the shot, you are not really giving up the point. You still want to win the point, and the shot may hit. But even if it doesn't hit, keeping your opponent from using the serve will often pay off in the end.

Conversely, is there a serve that you are very good at receiving? One that you really can loop kill at will, for example? Don't go overboard attacking this serve early in a game or you'll never see it again! Consider slowing down your attack against this serve, be consistent instead, and slowly build up a lead. At the end of a game, if it's close, go for it!

Sidespin Receives – Learn to Go With the Spin When receiving a sidespin serve, you probably either aim the opposite way to make up for the sidespin, or simply hit through it (with a drive or loop), and basically overpower the sidespin. However, there's a third way, mostly used by top players. That's to "go with the spin." Imagine an opponent's forehand pendulum serve (righty vs. righty), with his racket tip down. With this type of sidespin, the near side of the ball is rotating to your left. Why not contact the ball with a right-to-left "swiping" motion, and return the server's own sidespin? (And do the reverse for a sidespin going the other way.) If you are really looking to "mess up" your opponent, this is a great way to do it!

Returning Serves Short At the highest levels, the most common return of a short serve is a short push, even against a sidespin serve. At the lower levels, most players just push them deep, giving opponents the chance to loop. If you develop a short push, especially against backspin serves, you will disarm your opponents, and probably get pushed returns that you can loop.

The problem with returning serves short is that if you misread the serve even a little bit, you will make many mistakes and give the opponent a lot of easy pop-ups. In general, most players can't really return serves short effectively until about the 2000 level – but if you wait until you are 2000 before working on this, you'll be years behind your peers. Why not start now? You may find it effective well before you reach that magic 2000 number – and it might even help you reach it.

Inside-Out Forehand Floppy Wrist Flip (Say that ten times fast!) When an opponent serves short to the forehand, many players reach in and return it with a nearly stiff wrist, and invariably go crosscourt with a forehand flip. Most players do this "Asian style," i.e. using the forearm to power the shot. This gives consistence and power, but less deception than the "European style" wrist flip. To do this, approach the ball like any other flip. But at the last second, bring the wrist back, and brush the ball more on the inside (i.e. the back-left side of the ball, if you are right-handed). This puts the ball down the line, while your opponent has probably already moved to cover the opposite corner. The wrist must be very loose to do this shot. Advanced players can even sidespin the ball back with a right-to-left motion (for right-handers).

Now, the next time you're at the club, you too can tell others that you now have the inside-out forehand floppy wrist flip. (Say that fast ten times. Another table tennis joy!)

Flat Flip vs. Topspin Flip Suppose you face an opponent who serves short, and loops your long returns, even if you flip them. To stop this, you could learn to push short. But this can be tricky, and often leads to mistakes. Plus, it's very difficult to push a sidespin serve short, and even harder against a topspin serve. (Yes, you can serve short topspin so it would bounce twice on the table, although usually only advanced players can do this.) A way to stop this is to vary your flips. You can do this with changes of direction, or even mis-direction. But another way of stopping it is to learn to flip both flat and with topspin. A "flat" flip means you put little or no topspin on the ball. A topspin flip is rolled with topspin, and the topspin gives more control. If you use both of these variations, you can throw off an opponent's timing. You will lose some control on the flat flip, so don't hit it too hard – but the advantage of the timing difficulties you give your opponent can make the shot valuable.

RALLYING TIPS

Use Both Sides of the Body When Forehand Looping Most players think of looping as a shot done from their playing side. So a right-handed player might think of rotating his right side around as he loops his forehand. However, this will limit your power. You should use your other side as well. This means that a right-handed player should not only rotate his right side forward and around, but he should "pull" with his left side as well, and rotate it backward and around. (This is why, for table tennis players, weight training is important on both sides, not just the playing side.)

Push Effectively Other than the pace of play, the biggest difference between a top player and an average tournament player is often how they push. A top player doesn't push to keep the ball in play; he pushes with the intent of winning the point.

How does he do this? He does so by pushing effectively, so the opponent doesn't have an easy ball to attack. The opponent is forced to either attack weakly or erratically, or must simply push back – potentially giving a ball to attack, if the push isn't equally effective.

How does a top player push effectively? There are four things he does that lower-ranked players don't do.

1. His pushes are consistently low. 2. His pushes are quick off the bounce, so the opponent doesn't have time to react. 3. His pushes are well placed, usually wide the backhand, with occasional quick pushes to the forehand. 4. He can push both long and short.

In general, #1 simply takes practice. #2 is a technique problem – most players push on the drop, which is how beginners are taught. If you want to have an advanced push, you need to push quick off the bounce. (You can take the ball late as a variation, or if you are trying to really load up on the backspin.) #3 is simply a habit to develop, with practice. #4 is the hardest to learn, since pushing short takes quite a bit of touch. You should start developing this habit now if you plan on using it someday.

Have you practiced your push much recently? I didn't think so!

Should You Develop Your Forehand Push? At the lower levels, pushing is often over-used; at the higher levels, spectators often underestimate its value. All top players have excellent pushes. However, advanced players – and even intermediate players – rarely push against deep backspin to the forehand, unless they are choppers. It's simply better for them to attack, usually with a loop. (The same can be said on the backhand, if you have a good backhand loop.) So … should you develop your forehand push?

The answer is yes – but not necessarily against long backspin to the forehand. You need to develop your forehand push mostly against short backspin to the forehand. Against this ball, you can attack, but pushing is often the better bet. You can push short, push quick and long, go for angles, heavy spin, etc. – all sorts of variations. And because you are closer to your opponent, he has less time to react. (At the same time, don't predictably push – learn to flip short balls as well.)

The problem is how do you practice your forehand push? If you push forehand to forehand with a partner, then unless both of you are practicing short pushes, you'll be practicing pushing against long balls. The answer is to develop the forehand push this way with a partner, but once it becomes relatively advanced, start focusing on drills where you start the drill by pushing against a short backspin, and then continue the drill/rally with other shots. You won't get as much repetitive practice this way, but you'll practice what you need to develop. For example, your partner serves short to your forehand; you push quick off the bounce to your partner's backhand; he pushes quick to your backhand; and you loop, either forehand or backhand. (Or, alternately, your partner loops off your forehand push, if it's "his" drill – and you still get practice pushing!)

Meanwhile, a nice drill is to push forehand to forehand (or backhand to backhand) where both players push short – but the first time a player pushes long (by mistake), you loop. This develops your short push, develops your loop, and best of all, develops your judgment on whether a ball is long or short.

Go All The Way When Stepping Around the Backhand Corner Many players step around their backhand corner to play their forehand. However, many players don't go all the way around, either because they don't have time or because they aren't in the habit of doing so. What you want to do is to go so far around that your weight will be moving toward the table. Players who don't go all the way around end up with their weight going off to the side (to the left for right-handers).

There are two reasons for this. First, with your weight going toward the table – and the direction of your shot – you get more power. Second, you will finish closer to the table. If your weight is going off to the side, you will be way out of position for the next shot.

To get all the way around, make sure your right foot (for right-handers) goes all the way around, and rotate your body all the way around so that you can step toward the table with your left.

What Exactly is "Fishing"? If you read most books on table tennis, it's a good bet that you'll read about all sorts of table tennis terms – forehands, backhands, loops, blocks, chops, etc. – but rarely will you come across the term "fishing"! That's because it's a relatively rare type of rally, except at the higher levels. But what exactly is it?

Think of fishing as halfway between lobbing and countering or looping. It's basically a defensive shot, with topspin, done from off the table, but not thrown up as high in the air as a lob. Typically, it'll go a few feet over the net, and land deep on the table. It can be done on the forehand or backhand. A very defensive "fish" has light topspin, and is basically a low lob with a little spin (i.e. half lob, half counter). A better "fish" has more topspin (i.e. half lob, half loop). At the higher levels, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a soft loop from off the table, or an aggressive "fish"!

The shot is done when the opponent is smashing or looping, and you are forced off the table. It's not as defensive as a lob, and can often keep you in the point. It does take some mobility, although good anticipation can make up for much of that. So … next time someone asks where you're going, and you're embarrassed to say you're off to play ping-pong … say you're off fishing!

Creating a Heavy Topspin Loop Some players naturally get a huge amount of topspin on their loops, especially against backspin. How do they do it? Here are three tips. • Against backspin, backswing very low, with bent knees and the back shoulder dropped. • Accelerate smoothly into the ball. Many players try to jerk the shot to quickly; use the whole backswing and your whole body weight to generate force – but do so smoothly and gradually. (This is the most important item.) • Graze the ball. If you have trouble doing this, try pulling the racket back from the ball slightly as you approach the ball.

Two Tips to Increase Forehand Looping Power If you are the type of player who has trouble generating power when looping, try out these two tips, and you'll be surprised at the improvement. First, keep your legs farther apart. Second, contact the ball more from your side. By following these two tips, you'll automatically put more body weight into the shot. If your basic technique is roughly correct but you don't have good power, these two steps will probably be a huge help.

Get the Back Foot Around When Stepping Around When stepping around the backhand corner to play a forehand (usually a loop or smash), many players don't get their back foot around enough. They end up with the back foot directly behind their front foot (relative to the table) or not even that far out. Besides making it awkward to go crosscourt, it means that your weight will be going in the wrong direction, pulling you out of position and slow in getting to the next shot. Get the back foot all the way around, so it is outside the front foot (i.e. to the left of the front foot if you are a right-hander). This will allow you to easily play to all parts of the table, put your full weight into the shot, and have your weight go in the right direction, leaving you in better position for the next shot.

Learn To Play Close to the Table Many players enjoy playing from away from the table, and some (especially defensive players) base their game on this. However, for most players, you want to stay close to the table whenever possible. Otherwise, you "give up" the table. By backing off the table, your opponent has more time to react to your shots, and you have to cover more ground to cover the wide angles and in and out movements. Basically, you are at the mercy of your opponent.

If you have trouble staying at the table during a match, try this remedy. When you practice, put a barrier behind you to make sure you stay within an arm's length of the table. You might even exaggerate it some, and really jam yourself at the table (with the barrier right behind you) so that you'll learn to do this. It will pay off in the long run.

Flex Those Knees, and Assume You Have To Move! Most players go through the following sequence during each shot of a rally:

1. Opponent is about to strike ball. 2. Opponent strikes ball. 3. Player sees incoming ball. 4. Player decides if he has to move to make shot. 5. Player decides if he can or should step around backhand to play forehand. 6. Player moves. 7. Ball whizzes by, player barely reaches it in time.

Top players go through the following routine:

1. Opponent is about to strike ball. 2. Opponent strikes ball; player flexes knees, prepares to move. 3. Player sees incoming ball, moves immediately. 4. Player is in position, with lots of time to step around backhand to play forehand if player chooses.

As you can see, the second sequence is much quicker. The two key points to remember are these: • As opponent is hitting ball, begin to flex your knees. This prepares you to move quickly. • Assume you will always have to move.

If you follow these two tips, you'll find you'll be in position for far more shots than before. If you have a good forehand loop but think your feet are too slow, you'll be shocked (with a little practice) at how easy it is to loop many deep balls, especially pushes and serves! The secret is in technique, not foot speed.

For Looping Power, Arm Snap Comes LAST Many players who wish to have more powerful forehand loops try to do so by really snapping their arms as hard as possible into the shot. However, this often makes the shot less powerful. The reason? When you snap the arm forward and in front of the body, it tends to stop or slow down the rotation of the body from the legs and waist. If you snap the arm too early, you lose the power from this rotation. So make sure not to snap the arm until as late as possible, and don't snap it in front of the body – continue the rotation of the body so that the arm stays more to the side.

Forehand Position for Backhands? When playing close to the table, you have very little time to make a transition from forehand to backhand shots, and vice versa. If you are playing a quick, off-the-bounce backhand, there's no need to go into a backhand stance for this shot. Therefore, learn to play this shot from a forehand stance, with the right leg (for right-handers) slightly back. That way you'll be able to make a quicker transition to the forehand.

Relax Your Arm During Backswing Especially when looping, you need a very loose arm to maximize power, especially for spin. Many players literally jerk their arm backwards when looping. Instead, relax it into a natural backswing position, and with your relaxed arm, use the natural elasticity of the muscles to add power to your forward swing. Think of your arm, even your body, as being made of rubber.

Footwork Versus an Off-Table Player A player with good footwork doesn't wait to see where the ball is going before he prepares to move. He flexes his knees before the opponent hits the ball, and is set to move instantly when he sees where the ball is going. However, this gets many players in trouble when playing someone who plays a countering or topspinning game from a step off the table.

The problem is that players get in the habit of timing their move as if the opponent is closer to the table – and so are about to move as the opponent hits the ball. But if the opponent is farther off the table, and so hasn't yet hit the ball at the time the player is used to moving, the player gets "stuck" – and hesitates, waiting for the opponent to hit the ball. By the time the opponent hits the ball, the player is stuck in place, and so doesn't move very quickly to the ball. The result – the slower the opponent, the harder it is to move!

The solution is to consciously change your footwork tempo against this type of player. If the opponent is off the table, take your time preparing to move.

The Forehand Down-the Line Block When players loop to the forehand, almost invariably it is returned crosscourt, at least until you reach the higher levels. This can be effective, since you do have a wide angle to the forehand, and more about 15.5 more inches going crosscourt then down the line. But it is so common that players are used to this – but they are often absolutely frozen by an unexpected down-the-line block. It's not a hard shot to do, it's just one that few bother learning, partly because they warm up crosscourt so much, and because, deep down, they are trying to play it safe, and go where there's more room and with the more natural block. Instead, learn to tilt the racket tip back so as to angle your forehand block down the line, and watch the awkward returns of your opponent!

Proper Backswing One of the most common mistakes I see when players warm up or practice is hit each shot properly, but then backswing immediately for the next shot with no move to a ready position. In other words, if they are hitting backhand to backhand, after each shot the player goes directly from the forward swing to the backswing for the next backhand.

In a game situation, you wouldn't know that the next shot is a backhand. So you'd instead move toward a ready position. In a very fast rally, you might only partially get to the ready position, but that's the direction you'd be going. As soon as you see where the ball is going, then you begin your backswing.

So, instead of practicing a one-two forward swing/backswing, do a one-two-three forward swing, ready-position/backswing.

Blocking Tips One of the most common reason players have trouble blocking against heavy topspin is because they hold the racket too high. This would seem to make it easier to keep the ball down, but what really happens is that players end up holding their racket at different heights for different blocks, and so cannot really ingrain the proper racket angles. Instead, make sure to hold the racket pretty low, and take the ball off the bounce. This will allow a player to get a feel for the proper racket angle against a heavy topspin loop. It will also make sure you take the ball quickly, which not only makes the shot more effective, but catches the ball before the ball can jump because of the topspin, and so increases consistency.

Another common problem is taking a backswing. Except when blocking very aggressively, take little backswing. Generate force with the follow-through.

Stay Balanced When Attacking With the Forehand Many players, when attacking with their forehand (especially when looping) throw their upper body into the shot, so that their upper body goes way to the left (for right-handers). This gives good power, and sometimes you have to do this. Top players usually do it either on shots they know won't come back (for extra power), or when they are moving to their left and are late in getting there.

Doing it this way throws you off balance, and you can't get back in time for the next shot. Instead, try rotating in circle. Imagine a pole going through your head, and rotate in a circle around it. This way you stay balanced, and ready to continue the attack.

Inside-out Backhands Want to really tie your opponent in knots – not to mention win a lot of points? Aim your backhand crosscourt with a normal backhand stroke. At the last instant, just before contact, push your wrist forward, but let the racket fall behind. Your racket will now be aimed to the opponent's forehand – but your opponent will probably have already reacted to a crosscourt backhand. (Lefthanders, reverse the above.) This is especially good when blocking loops. Watch how often you ace your opponent!

Whole Body Shots Many players stroke with too much arm, with little body rotation. This greatly limits the power they can generate. It also creates inconsistency in a fast rally as the stroke comes under stress to keep up the pace with just arm movement. Watch how the top players (and even the intermediate ones) generate force by rotating their body into their shots, especially on the forehand side. Then spend as much time as needed shadow practicing these shots until you too can do it. (Shadow practicing means practicing the stroke away from the table, without a ball.)

Forehand Counter-Smashing When Lobbing The Funnest Shot of All!

There is nothing more spectacular and more thrilling than counter-smashing a winner from 15-20 feet back! Yet – it's not as hard as it looks. There are two types of counter-smashing when lobbing. If an opponent smashes to your forehand, where you generally have a bigger hitting zone than on the backhand and more natural power, it's actually a relatively easy shot, if you can get to the ball. Here the problem is anticipation – your opponent is not about to let you know when he's going to smash to your forehand.

However, there is an easier way. If you lob to an opponent's wide backhand, he will smash crosscourt to your wide backhand over 90% of the time. (This for righty vs. righty. Lefties make appropriate adjustments.) So … wait until he's just about to smash the ball, and then race around to your wide backhand, and prepare to counter-smash with your forehand. This way you can anticipate the direction of the smash, and be ready for it. Your opponent will not be able to change directions at the last second, and will almost always smash to your backhand – where you are now waiting to forehand counter-smash. He won't know what hit him, until he sees the ball whizzing by him as you counter-smash.

The Importance of Lobbing One of the strange things top players and coaches often notice is that beginning/intermediate players who "goof off and lob" during practice often improve rapidly. There is a reason for this.

When a beginning/intermediate player backs up and lobs, he develops off-the-table mobility and footwork, and learns to react to hard-hit shots from off the table. Most players at this level don't have the ability to play effectively from off the table – as most top players do – and often don't even practice it until they've played for many years, when it's hard to add new aspects to their game. Players who do play off the table early on have a big advantage. Later on, as they become more advanced, their off-the-table play, especially covering ground when looping or counter-looping, or simply reacting to hard-hit shots from off the table, is much better than it would have been otherwise. There are two classic cases of this. Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner and Mikael Appelgren were called "uncoachable" as juniors due to their tendency to "goof off and lob" during practice, rather than stick to the prescribed drill. Both went on to be ranked #1 in the world, with two-time World Men's Singles Champion and Men's Singles Olympic Gold Medalist Waldner often called the best player ever.

Pushing Short: When to Learn? At the higher levels, short pushing becomes more and more important as a way to stop an opponent from looping. (A short push is a push that, given the chance, would bounce twice on an opponent's side of the table.) It is especially used when returning short serves. However, until a player reaches a 2000 level or so, it is usually a low-percentage shot, since it is so easy to make a mistake and pop the ball up or go into the net. But here's the problem: if you wait until you are 2000 level before developing the shot, you will be years behind your competition in developing your short push. So, if you have aspirations to reach 2000 and beyond, start developing your short push now, even if it means losing a few practice matches.

Don't "Guide" Your Loop Many players, when learning to loop, try to guide the shot consciously. This is a mistake, and leads to a soft and weak loop. Instead, let the shot go. This doesn't mean putting every bit of power into the shot, but you should accelerate throughout the shot. If you miss – and you will miss a lot – adjust the shot on your next shot, and again let it go.

Assume You Will Move Most players look to see where their opponent hits the ball before deciding if they have to move or not. You'll be much faster if you assume you will have to move, and flex your knees in preparation for moving, even before you know which way you are moving. Since you should be moving to nearly every ball – how often does the opponent just happen to hit the ball right into your forehand or backhand pocket? – how fast you are able to do this makes a big difference. Assume you will have to move to every ball and you'll move much faster.

Don't Telegraph the Direction of Your Attack Many players telegraph the direction of their attacking shot. Often, the opponent isn't sure how he knows where you are going, he just senses it. That's because when he sees the same stroke pattern resulting in the ball going one way, and another stroke pattern going the other way, it becomes habit to react to it – even if he isn't sure specifically what in your stroke is different. (When you recognize a person's face, do you consciously see the distinct features that make this person's face unique?) So try to keep your shots identical as long as possible, and even use misdirection. For example, if you set up for a forehand shot as if you were going to the right (for a right-hander), your body might face to the right. At the last second, whip the shoulders around, and go to the left. Or try hitting the ball "inside-out," where you set up as if you were hitting a forehand cross-court, and at last minute hit the inside of the ball (relative to you).

Location of Shoulder When Looping and Smashing A common problem for players who smash a lot is to have trouble lifting the ball against heavy backspin when looping. A common problem for players who loop a lot is to follow their opening loop against backspin by smashing a blocked return off the end. The two problems are related, and have to do with the back shoulder – the right shoulder for a right-hander.

Players who smash a lot often do not drop their back shoulder when looping (or don't drop it enough), just as they don't when smashing. This costs them lifting power when looping, and leads to a weak loop against heavy backspin. Players who loop a lot often automatically drop their back shoulder for the next shot, as they do when looping. This causes the player to lift slightly when smashing against a blocked return, and so the smash goes off the end. So remember this rule: when looping against backspin, drop that shoulder; when smashing the blocked return, keep that shoulder up!

The Backhand Sidespin Push Tired of your opponent stepping around and looping your pushes with ease? You could try attacking, but we'll put that aside for now, since you obviously have a reason for pushing. What can you do to stop the opponent's attack? Why not do a backhand sidespin push? If you're right-handed, start with your racket a little to the left of the contact point, and brush the ball with a right-to-left motion. The ball will curve to your right, into the opponent's backhand. Four things will now happen:

1. Your opponent will misjudge how far to step around, and will get jammed. 2. Your opponent will try lifting your sidespin push, thinking it has more backspin instead of sidespin, and will loop off the end. 3. Your opponent will look at you with a strange and quizzical look. 4. You'll laugh your head off as you add the point to your score.

Developing a Loop If you want to develop a good loop (a heavy topspin shot, done forehand or backhand), you need to do two things: learn it properly (i.e. get a coach), and practice it. Since the loop is the dominant shot in table tennis, a good way to develop one is to develop your game around it. A great way of doing this is very simple: serve short backspin, and (assuming the opponent pushes it back long) follow the serve up with a loop. You'll get in the habit of looping, and your loop will quickly improve.

Back Up Slightly When Opponent Backs Up Suppose you've hit a quick, hard shot, and your opponent has moved five feet back to return the ball with a counterdrive or soft topspin. Many players stay right up at the table, and end up getting jammed, and forced to block or go for a wild, rushed shot against what should be an easy shot. Why does this happen? Imagine the trajectory of the ball. If an opponent hits the ball from farther from the table, the ball will have a longer trajectory, i.e. the top of the bounce on your side will be farther off the table than normal. To compensate, when your opponent backs up 2-3 steps, you have to back up slight as well, perhaps one step, or even half a step.

Increase Forearm Snap to Increase Smashing Speed Many players have difficulty generating great speed on their regular smashes (i.e. off a relatively low ball, not a lob, which uses a different stroke). Most often the problem is lack of forearm snap. To generate great force on the smash, your body has to work together – the legs, waist, shoulders and forearm. However, it is the forearm smash at the very end that really gives the ball great speed – and is the part that is most often lacking in a weak smash.

One way of helping generate forearm snap and the proper timing is to imagine your legs, waist and shoulders as being used not to increase smashing speed, but simply to get the forearm going. Then really snap the forearm just before contact. To develop the forearm snap for smashing, get a bunch of balls, and go to the side of the table, near the net. Bounce the ball on the table high, and smash, using nearly all forearm snap. Make sure to keep the elbow down.

If you are doing this correctly, you can smash at full speed and carry on a conversation without missing a syllable.

TACTICS

Can Your Opponent Adjust to Your Tactics? If your opponent is one who analyzes an opponent's game and adjusts to it, and is able to identify patterns and take advantage of it, you need to be unpredictable, and vary your tactics. But many players, probably most, do not do this. If your opponent is not one who adjusts, then don't make the mistake of "over-thinking," and trying to mix up tactics that are lost on your opponent. Against the non-adjuster, just use the best tactic in any given situation. It's against the opponent who can adjust that you must vary your tactics.

In a Lopsided Match, What Should the Higher-Rated Player Do? At both club and tournament matches, when two players of very different levels play, there is often a period of awkwardness. This is not about competitive matches with serious rallies; this is about matches where the outcome is not in question. Usually the lower-rated player has paid good money to get into a higher event for the experience.

Should the stronger player play his best, and perhaps win 11-1 or even 11-0? Should he use his best serves, which the weaker opponent may not be able to return? Should he rip winner after winner? Or should he ease up some, use simpler serves, and mostly just keep the ball in play?

If you're the weaker player, why not just tell the stronger opponent what you "expect"?

If you're the stronger player, your best bet is to find something the weaker player does that you can practice against. Perhaps go to a simple backspin serve, and practice your loop. Or perhaps work on your footwork, playing all-forehand. Or … just ask your opponent if he wants to see your best game, best serves, etc. If he wants to see your best … give it to him!

Know When to Anticipate Whenever your opponent is hitting a shot, there are two points in time that are important. The first is when the opponent has committed to his shot – both the specific shot and the placement, speed and spin. The second comes a split second later, and is when you can see what your opponent's shot is going to be.

You could just wait until you see what your opponent is doing before you react. Most often, that is what you should do. However, you are giving up a lot if you never try to anticipate.

Suppose you have a strong forehand. If you play a strong backhand to the opponent's backhand (assume both players are right-handed), then it is very likely the next shot will come back to your backhand. If you wait until you are sure of this, it'll be too late to get your powerful forehand into play. If you wait until your opponent has committed to his shot, and then move – then you are very likely going to get an easy forehand. By waiting until the opponent is committed, you don't have to worry about him changing directions and acing you to the wide forehand.

The most common time to anticipate is when following up your serve. If you serve into your opponent's backhand, and your opponent doesn't want to feed your forehand, he's probably going to go to your backhand. Anticipate!

Corollary: Don't over-anticipate. If your opponent begins to anticipate your anticipation, and crosses you up several times, you are overdoing it.

Power Player Control Shots There's nothing an experienced and tactical player likes better than facing a player with big shots … but little else. On the other hand, there's little more scary than an opponent with big shots … and ball control to set the big shots up and withstand opponent's attacks. If you are one of those players with big shots, and feel you dominate many matches – and still lose – perhaps it's time to stop thinking about these big shots, and develop the "little" shots.

For a power player, here are a few of these "little" shots that you might want to develop:

• Short serves. You can't get your shots into play if your opponent is looping your serve. • Develop backspin/no-spin serves. A no-spin serve is just as effective – often more effective – than a spin serve, if the opponent isn't sure it is no-spin. Mixing up backspin serves and no-spin serves (with other serves thrown in for surprise and variation) is a great way to set up your big shots. Both tend to get pushed back deep, and the no-spin serves tend to be popped up slightly with less backspin. • Return short serves short, especially against backspin serves. A short backspin serve is relatively easy to return short; if you push it long, your opponent can attack, taking away your big shots. (This is a tricky shot to control, and it takes a long time to develop, but it pays off eventually.) • Develop a quick, fast push. It'll catch opponents off guard, and set up your big shots. • Learn to block back an opponent's opening slow-to-medium speed loop. The single most effective way of beating power players is to loop first with a steady loop, forcing them into many mistakes. If the power player makes one good block against the opening loop, he'll often get a shot he can go after on the next shot. You can also counterloop these opening loops, but if you try to force the counterloop too often and too predictably, an experienced opponent will force you into all sorts of mistakes. Example: If an experienced player sees his power-looping opponent take a step back to counterloop, he knows a short, spinny loop will give him great difficulty. This same short, spinny loop would be easy to jab-block (or loop off the bounce) if the opponent hadn't predictably stepped back. • Have complete confidence in your big shots. If you are playing good tactics to set them up, don't hesitate to use them. But know when to play a set-up shot instead, and then don't hesitate to follow the set-up shot with a big shot. • Fight to the end. There's nothing more nerve-racking than trying to hold a lead against an opponent with big shots who keeps his head and plays smart. That's a recipe for choking.

Play the Forehand of a Forehand Player If he's going to step around anyway, go to his forehand! How often have you played a forehand-happy player, who keeps putting the ball away with his forehand from his backhand corner? The worst part of it is that even if you get the ball back, he follows with another forehand. How do you get out of this situation? It's counter-intuitive, but at the higher levels, you'll find that players play right into the forehand of players with strong forehands. Why? So they can move the forehand player to his wide forehand, and come back to his backhand! The added benefit is that the forehand player now has to move to his (weaker) backhand, and so is not as set for the shot. You basically give up one forehand shot in return for turning your forehand-hitting opponent into a backhand player the rest of the rally.

Playing Against Seemiller Style Players No two players play alike, and this applies to those with the Seemiller grip as well. (This is the grip where players use one side of the racket for both forehand and backhand, sort of like a windshield-wiper. It is sometimes called the "American Grip.") However, there is one general rule that applies to playing those with this grip: keep the ball to the corners. This grip has little middle weakness, but is more difficult than the shakehand grip in covering the corner. Try it, and you'll see how the wrist sort of locks up when trying to cover wide angles. To cover for this, some players with this grip stand more to the backhand corner, but in a forehand stance. If they do this, then they have the wide backhand covered, but are leaving the wide forehand somewhat open.

Another tip: Most players with the Seemiller grip have antispin on one side. They usually use it to return serves. Some use it to return all or most serves. Some have the ability to quickly see what the depth of the incoming serve is, and use the anti against short serves, the inverted to loop or otherwise attack long serves. If they use the anti to return most serves, serve deep, and you should get a relatively weak return. Often a deep serve to the forehand is especially effective. If they try to flip the racket based on the depth of your serve, mix in short spinny serves and fast, long serves, and watch them struggle to flip appropriately – it is not easy! It is very important not to telegraph your serves – players like this are very good at picking up small cues, so try to use the exact same motion for both short and long serves, at least until contact.

How to Play a Player Who Attacks With Long Pips One of the most difficult shots to handle is a ball attacked by a player with long pips. You have little time to react to an attacked ball, and so have to rely on your reflexes – except your reflexes usually aren't tuned to reacting to a ball attacked by long pips. So how do you handle this? Here are four ways.

1. Don't let them attack. Long pips can only attack against backspin, or sometimes against a short and weak topspin or no-spin ball. So keep the ball deep, and usually either put no spin on the ball (and so get a no spin ball back) or give topspin (and so usually get a slower backspin ball return).

2. Take a step off the table, and return with a topspin drive of some sort. By backing off the table, you have time to react. By putting topspin on the ball, the ball arcs onto the table, and stops the long-pipped player from attacking with the long pips again.

3. Stay at the table, open your racket, and be willing to lose a number of points as you get used to this.

4. Play against players who attack with long pips in practice as often as possible until you get used to it.

Should You Stick With Your Best Shot If It Is Missing? The situation: Your best shot is missing, and you are losing because of this. Should you keep using it, or abandon it? It takes years of tournament experience and hard thinking before a player can consistently make a sound judgment in a situation like this as to whether to change his strategy, or keep using the shot that is missing in order to get it going again. There are three possible reasons why you are missing your best shot: You are nervous, your opponent is doing something to throw you off, or you are simply off.

Psychologically, you have to learn to be calm during a match. That's mostly separate from the tactical side. If you do get nervous, that's a good time to take a one-minute timeout, or at least take your time to get yourself together. Nervousness is the most common reason for a player's best shot to start missing.

The majority of players, even at the advanced levels, do not recognize when an opponent is doing something that is throwing them off. Those that don't recognize these strategies often talk and think strategy quite a bit - but only from their point of view, forgetting to take the opponent's strategy into account. Ideally, you neutralize your opponent's strategy by dominating with your own - but to do so, you need to know what the opponent is doing, or is capable of doing. So the first thing to do is figure out whether you are missing because you are really off, or because your opponent is doing something to throw you off. If the latter, then you have to find a way to counter it.

Finally, there are those times when, for inexplicable reasons, you are simply "off," and your best shot keeps missing. That's when the judgment of years of play can pay off as you judge whether to keep using the shot, in the hopes that it will come back, or switch to other shots and strategies.

A good general rule is that you have to get your best shot going in any competitive match, or you'll probably lose. Most often you should go down with your best shot, since you are also likely to end up winning with it. But if you see a way to win without your best shot – usually be taking away your opponent's best shot, so both of you are going with your "B" games – then you should take it.

General Rules of Ball Placement When Attacking Crosscourt: It gives you the largest margin of error, but is usually the easiest for the opponent to return. (Corner to Corner crosscourt is about 10.3 feet, compared to 9.0 feet for down the line – so you have about an extra 15.5 inches.)

Down the Line: It is the most likely to surprise the opponent, and gives him the least amount of time to react, but it gives you the smallest margin for error. It also can often leave you open to a wide-angled return to an open court, if you don't move to cover it. To the Middle (opponent's elbow): This makes the opponent choose between forehand and backhand, and so they have the most trouble reacting. Most top players will agree it is the most effective place to play when attacking against a player who is close to the table. However, many beginning and intermediate players have trouble with accuracy, and when aiming for the middle, end up going to the middle forehand or backhand, the worst place to go!

Against Shakehanders: They are especially weak in the middle, since they are the only major grip that normally uses both sides of the racket for these shots.

Against Penholders: They are less vulnerable in the middle, but still have to choose between forehand and backhand, and so are still weak there. Most penholders tend to be weak on one corner.

Against Seemiller style players: This grip is not particularly common outside the U.S., but you will face them in U.S. tournaments. This is the only grip that is strongest from the middle, but is relatively weak on both corners.

Learn What to Do in the "Big Points" Some players have reputation as being "winners" because they seem to be able to pull out close matches. There are two aspects to this. One is mental – nervous players don't do well in close matches. The other aspect is tactical – you need to learn what to do in a "Big Point" near the end of a game.

This means being aware of what has worked, and what hasn't worked, up until that point. Many players find a successful tactic, but don't think to use it when the game is on the line. Or they use a tactic that hasn't worked. You probably aren't going to keep track of exactly how many times each tactic worked or didn't work, but you have to develop a feel for it.

Keep the Ball Deep Against Pips When playing a player with pips – short or long – there is one simple tactic that you should use over and over and over: Keep the Ball Deep!!! This doesn't mean you can never put the ball short, but those should be variations. Pips-out players are almost always better against short balls then deep balls.

Backhand Chopping in an Emergency You are stuck out of position away from the table on your forehand side of the table. Your opponent quick hits the ball to your wide backhand, and you can't possibly get to it and make an effective backhand drive. What do you do? This is the perfect time to chop the ball. Not only is it easier to do this shot from out of position than a more aggressive backhand drive, but it's a good change-up. However, many players don't use this shot because they don't think of themselves as choppers. You don't have to be a chopper to be able to throw in a good chop now and then. Just remember three principles, and your backhand chop will start to rescue you out of what was before an impossible position.

First, let the ball drop to table level or even below. Second, contact the ball more toward the back of the ball, not the bottom, with your racket facing more forward, not so much up, and graze the ball with a mostly downward stroke. Many players chop too much under the ball, and so pop it up. (Top choppers can do this, but that's a more advanced technique involving letting the ball drop almost to the floor, and vigorously chopping the ball with a very fine grazing motion.) Third, most topspin-style players tend to chop off the end since they aren't used to the way a backspin ball floats long. So try chopping so the ball hits your side of the table – and watch it float to the other side!

The Magic of No-Spin Pushing & Chopping to the Middle Most players, when pushing, push to the wide corners, especially to the wide backhand. And that's usually the correct strategy. However, there is an exception to this rule. A "no-spin" push or chop to the middle of the table can cause havoc to many players. This means you fake backspin, but put very light or no spin on the ball. (You do this by exaggerating a wrist snap after contact.) The opponent will tend to be more used to looping against backspin, and if you fake backspin, will tend even more to lift. If the shot were from a corner, then the opponent would have the full corner-to-corner table to work with. By going to the middle, the opponent has less table to work with, and so is more likely to loop off the table. Added benefits are he has less of an extreme angle against you, and he has to decide between forehand and backhand. (This strategy is very common for top choppers.)

Ball Placement Whenever you're practicing, always place the ball where you would in a tournament match. What you do in practice you will do in a match. But where should you place the ball?

For now, let's just talk about fast topspin or counter-driving type rallies. Most beginners and intermediate players place the ball to two spots: either the middle backhand, or the middle forehand. Top players place the ball to three spots: wide backhand, wide forehand, and middle.

If you place the ball to the middle backhand or forehand area, your opponent doesn't have to move to play his shot. If you put the ball wide to the corner, your opponent will have to either move or reach. Either way, he will not make as strong a shot on the average.

The middle is a trickier area to play because it's somewhat of a moving target. Your opponent's middle is roughly his playing elbow, the midway point between his forehand and backhand. When you play a ball aggressively there, your opponent has to: 1) decide whether to play forehand or backhand; and 2) move. This is a "double-whammy," so strong shots to the middle are often better than shots to the corners. (Some players favor the forehand or backhand somewhat, and so the "middle" might be a little to the side of the elbow.) A very bad habit of many players is to place the ball to the middle backhand or forehand area when drilling, and to never practice shots to the middle. I'll say it again: what you do in practice you will do in a match. Change the way you drill, and add points to your rating!

Related subject: how do you return these shots hit at your middle? If you have good footwork and a good forehand, you should probably try to play forehand whenever possible. (And there are those with such good backhands that they should favor them, but this is rarer.) A general rule would be this: If you are close to the table or have little time, favor your backhand; if you are away from the table, or have extra time, play your forehand. When playing the forehand, remember to get out of the way of the ball by moving away from it, so you can use your entire forehand hitting zone.

Think Strategy, Then Let the Shots Happen Between points, think about what you want to do, especially at the start of the rally – what serve to use, what type of receives. Think about what shots you want to do during a rally as well – looping, hitting, quick blocks, etc. If you do this, you will learn to reflexively go for the shots you are thinking about. However, before the rally starts, blank out your mind, and let the shots happen. If you try to control your shots during a rally, you will not play well. The conscious mind is only a fraction as fast as the unconscious mind.

When and How to Push Probably the most over-used and under-used shot in table tennis is the push. This may sound contradictory, but it really isn't. Most players either push too much or too little.

Many players push because they feel uncomfortable attacking the incoming ball. Others don't push because they feel they should attack every ball. Both of these are poor reasons to push or not push.

Instead of pushing because of what you can or cannot do, push based on what your opponent can or cannot do. For example, if your opponent has an excellent loop against backspin, you should attack first whenever possible. Pushing simply helps your opponent.

On the other hand, if your opponent doesn't attack backspin well, why "force" your attack, and make mistakes? Instead, pick your shots. Don't push because you have to; push because you choose to for tactical reasons. This means that you should learn to attack against any given ball, but then choose tactically whether to push or attack.

Having said all this, I recommend favoring attacking whenever possible, especially in practice. Why? Because, although it won't always be the best tactic, you will improve faster as a player by doing so. The problem, of course, is that if you don't push much in practice matches, how can you perfect the shot so that you can use it in tournaments? You need to find some sort of balance here.

You also may not want to overdo the use of pushing as a tactic in tournaments. There's a lot more pressure on you in a tournament than in a practice match, and it's a lot easier to push under pressure than to attack. Therefore, you may need to attack more often in tournaments than good tactics would suggest, so that you can become more comfortable attacking under pressure.

Usually, the player who tries to attack first in practice and tournaments becomes a stronger player than those who push more often, and don't develop as strong an attack. However, a player who favors attacking, but learns to push effectively, becomes best of all. If you doubt this, watch tapes of Jan-Ove Waldner, Liu Guoliang, Kong Linghui, or USA players such as Cheng Yinghua, Jim Butler and David Zhuang. All favor attacking, but push quite effectively. But only when they choose to for tactical reasons.

Playing Dead Blockers Dead blockers slow the ball down (throwing off your timing), and keep it shorter than you are used to. To compensate, serve and rally as deep as you can. This makes it difficult for the dead blocker to deaden the ball, and it gives you time to adjust your timing to their dead balls. It also gives you time to get your best shot into play. Put lots of spin on the ball (topspin and backspin, but sometimes even sidespin loops) to force errors, and be ready to follow up with winners.

Forehand Attackers Should Serve & Backhand Attack If you are primarily a forehand attacker, many of your opponents will get used to you serving and looping from your backhand corner. Why not throw them off? This is especially effective against an opponent who routinely returns your serve to your backhand corner. Surprise them - sometimes serve and get into a backhand position, and follow with a backhand loop or attack! Too often players only backhand attack when the shot comes up, and they aren't able to use their forehand. Imagine how much more effective this is if you plan it, and have time to prepare. Many top players use this as a variation. It means you don't have to step around (and, of course, many of us can't do that effectively anyway!), you won't be out of position, and your opponent has to adjust to a different type of loop.

The key is not to telegraph what you are doing, and to be ready to use your forehand if the opponent surprises you by going to your forehand. (If they do, simply rotate your waist to your forehand side, and do a steady forehand loop. But once in a backhand position, you can, if necessary, cover 2/3 of the table with your backhand attack.) To avoid telegraphing your intentions, you might have to wait until the last second before going into a backhand position – either just before your opponent is contacting the ball, when he can no longer react to you and change his direction (if you are anticipating a return to your backhand) or after he contacts the ball if he varies his returns more.

Coming Back or Beating Stronger Players Suppose you are well behind in the first game. Your only way of winning that game is if you play very well, and your opponent plays poorly. Therefore, assume this is true, and play your tactics accordingly!

The same strategy can be used when playing a much stronger player – if you can't beat him unless you play well and he doesn't, then assume both, and play your tactics accordingly!

In both cases above, you assume your opponent is going to miss if he goes for difficult shots, and so you give him those types of shots. At the same time, you assume you will make most difficult shots, and so take those shots. However, don't overplay – that's the quickest way to blow a lot of points. Find the right balance.

Anticipate an Opponent's Direction Get in the habit of watching how an opponent hits the ball. Does he change direction at the last instant ever? Or does he commit early on to a direction, with the stroke and racket position showing where the shot is going? Most players stroke the ball in such a way that you can see where they are hitting the ball well before they hit the ball – but most players don't react to the ball direction until after the ball has been hit, losing vital time. Learn as early in a match as possible when an opponent has committed to a direction, and learn to move at that time. You'll find that this is how top players can seemingly return smash after smash against weaker players – while a top player's first smash (better disguised) usually wins on the first shot.

Place Your Quick Backhand Attacks When attacking a ball right off the bounce with their backhands, most players automatically go crosscourt to the opponent's backhand. That's not usually the most effective place to go. There are three places you should normally aim for: wide forehand, wide backhand and middle. A player's forehand defense is usually not as quick as their backhand defense, so unless your opponent is quick enough to launch a powerful forehand attack, it's usually more effective to go to the wide forehand. Even more effective is to go right at the opponent's playing elbow, and force an even more awkward return.

Tactics Early In a Match There are basically two ways to play tactically early in a match. You can either feel your opponent out to see what he can do and then adjust your tactics based on this ("The Explorer"); or you can force your game on the opponent right from the start, making tactical adjustments as you go on ("The Dominator").

The Explorer uses a variety of tactics early on as he tests his opponent. He uses all his shots - pushes, blocks, loops hard and soft, counterdrives, etc. – and puts the ball all over the table at various speeds. He uses all of his serves and receives as he judges the best tactics to use in the match. Some players in this category fall into the trap of over-adjusting to an opponent, and end up letting the opponent do what he wants. Being an Explorer doesn't mean you simply adjust to the opponent's shots; it means you are willing to risk falling behind early on as you search for the best tactics. Ideally, the explorer will find a way to use his strengths against the opponent's weaknesses.

The Dominator comes in with his best shots right from the start, trying to force the opponent to adjust to his shots. Some players in this category fall into the trap of not adjusting to an opponent's adjustments, and often lose due to this lack of flexibility. Being a Dominator does not mean you simply throw your best shots at the opponent and hope for the best; it means you start off with your best game, and then make tactical adjustments. Are you an Explorer or a Dominator? Whichever you are, perhaps you should experiment with a little of the other. To be at your best, you need some of both.

When Playing Table Tennis, Take Few "Risks" – and Letting an Opponent Control Play is a Risk! The next time you are in a close match, and are worried about making mistakes, and so play very safe to avoid any risky shots … consider this. Letting your opponent control play is the biggest risk you can take in table tennis. You no longer have any control over your fate. What can be riskier than that?

This doesn't mean you go for big shots when it's close. It means, for example, pushing quick and wide-angled rather than a safe push to the middle of the table. It means taking the ball a bit quicker on some shots so your opponent doesn't have time to take control. There are many other examples. Take control – it's less risky!

Playing the "Weird" Style You've probably all had the experience of playing someone who plays "different." They might use a "weird" surface – long pips, antispin, hardbat, etc. Or they might have "weird" shots – sidespin, dead balls, etc. Regardless, keep in mind that there is a reason why these surfaces or shots are not as common as other surfaces or shots – so use your head and take advantage of their weaknesses, rather than complain about the "weirdness."

Playing Lobbers Players lose way too many points against lobbers. Here are a few tips. 1. Make sure to backswing backwards (or even slightly down at first) before raising your racket during your backswing. If you raise your racket right away, it can put you off balance, and you can't really rotate properly into the smash. 2. If the ball lands short on the table, try to smash it on the rise. Here's your chance to sidespin smash at a wide angle. If the ball lands deep on the table, you probably have to take a step back, and smash it as it drops. 3. If the lobber is well off the table, smash to the wide backhand; if the lobber is not too far off the table, smash to the middle, i.e. his playing elbow. 4. Keep smashing – even if you miss and lose now, you'll get better and better smashing, and soon you'll have little to fear!

Don't Give a Quick Player a Short Ball If your opponent is quicker than you, than the last thing you want to do is let him rush you. If you put the ball short over the table, then your quick opponent will be able to hit very quickly at wide angles. So keep nearly everything deep against quick opponents to give yourself more time. (This is especially true against players who attack quick off the bounce with short pips.)

Hit Twice to the Same Spot In table tennis, it's good to keep moving the ball around to make an opponent move. However, sometimes you want to go to the same place twice. Here are a few good examples.

You've just blocked the ball to the opponent's wide forehand. The opponent had to go out of position, but made a somewhat aggressive topspin return from his wide forehand. After the shot, he began to move back to cover his wide backhand. Most players try to take advantage of the opponent being out of position by going back to the backhand. This will often work, but it's often better to go right back to the forehand. The opponent is moving in the wrong direction, and will have trouble covering this shot a second time in a row. Even if he does, he probably won't have time to get to the shot and put much power on the shot.

Now suppose you're playing a chopper. You've made a good attacking shot, but the chopper chopped it back. You did a drop shot, the chopper ran in and pushed it back, and then quickly stopped back for your next attack. Do you attack again? Only if the opponent is too close to the table, or if his push was weak. If the opponent is stepping back to prepare for your attack, why not do a second drop shot, and catch him going the wrong way? Most likely you won't get an ace, but you'll not only get a relatively weak return from a lunging opponent, but your opponent will probably now be jammed at the table, unable to get into position to chop your next ball. Easy point!

Finally, you've smacked a strong shot right an the opponent's playing elbow – usually a player's weakest spot. The opponent manages to make a return, but not a particularly strong one. You get ready to attack his weak return. Why not go right back to his middle? If you go to the corners, you might give the opponent and easy forehand or backhand counter. By going to the middle, you can catch him again. Since his previous shot was weak, he's unlikely to be looking to counter-attack from the middle since he'll more likely be in a defensive position. Why not sit down and list for yourself what your best options are in various situations you come up with? Against some opponents, what works once will work every time. (In other words, your opponent is not a thinker.) Against other opponents, you have to mix things up. This means knowing when to change directions – and when to go right back to the same spot.

A Trick to Beat a Tricky Pusher Some players have very accurate pushes, and will push very wide to your backhand over and over – until they see you stepping around, or even hedging that way. That's when they push to your wide forehand, and catch you off guard. So here's a simple trick: Serve backspin to the pusher's backhand. Then take a step to your left with your left leg (for right-handers). As the pusher is about to push, step back into position. You'll be amazed at how many pushes you'll get right into your forehand, where you are now ready and waiting! The pusher saw your fake "step around," and changed directions – but you were one step ahead of him!

Play the Middle Against a Two-Winged Hitter Some opponents hit well from both sides, seemingly taking a big swing and smacking in everything, both forehand and backhand. If you play someone like this, remember that since they are taking a big swing on both sides, they will have power on both sides. However – if you hit to the middle (the playing elbow), then they won't be able to take as big a swing unless they move quickly. So play strong quick shots to this type of player's middle, and watch their strong hitting deteriorate. (This is especially true of some penhold hitters with big backhand hits – from the corners, they can be incredible, but they fall apart from the middle.)

Placement of Aggressive Shots When attacking, you should generally put all your shots to one of three places: wide forehand, wide backhand, or middle (opponent's playing elbow). But when should you put the ball to each of these spots? One thing to remember is that most players have a bigger hitting range on the forehand, but are quicker on the backhand.

Wide Backhand: Since most players have less range on their backhands, they can be vulnerable on well-angled shots. However, most players block better and quicker on the backhand than on the forehand. So this is probably, on average, the place you should least attack. (Yet, it is the spot most often attacked.) One exception is if your opponent has a strong forehand counterattack – in which case you want to pin them down on the backhand. Also, if a player is off the table, they are usually weaker on the backhand than the forehand.

Wide Forehand: Most players are not as quick blocking on the forehand as on the backhand. So most players are more vulnerable to attacks here than on the backhand side, unless they back off the table.

Middle: This is where most players are weakest. However, it is also the least attacked spot. Advanced players know this is the often the best place to go, and go there over and over, forcing the opponent to choose between forehand and backhand returns.

Learn to Adjust to the Shot Many players do the same shot over and over against varying incoming balls, whether they are ready for the shot or not. For example, loopers might loop hard against any block to the forehand, even if rushed, off balance or not in position. Or they might loop a serve at the same speed over and over, regardless of whether they are sure they have read the serve properly. Instead, learn to slow down some shots, or choose a more controlled shot, if you are not really set for the shot (i.e. rushed, off balance, out of position or not sure of the spin).

Changing the Pace A major weakness of many players is an inability to change the pace, and thereby throw your opponent's timing off. Not doing so is a quick way of helping your opponent's timing! Many players try to change the pace, but do so unsuccessfully – often because they don't really understand the purpose of changing the pace. There is one simple way of looking at it. Against aggressive players, you change the pace to win the point outright via the aggressive player's misses. Against control players, you change the pace to force a weak shot for you to attack.

Rally Down Faster & Quicker Players When faced with a faster or quicker opponent, many players try to match them in speed, and end up losing because of too many unforced errors. Instead, ask yourself if it is realistic to play at the opponent's pace. You might decide you can do so for perhaps one shot in a rally, but not afterwards. You might decide to take perhaps a half step backwards to give yourself more time. Or you might decide you really can pick up your pace and match your opponent. However, if you decide you can't play consistently at your opponent's pace, instead learn to out-rally him, using his own pace against them. If your opponent hits the ball hard, you don't need to create your own speed – just meet the incoming ball, and let it bounce out. Since you don't need to create much speed on your own, you can shorten your stroke, and just keep the ball in play … and out-rally your fast but frustrated opponent.

Fake the Opposite Way Against Left-Handers Many players have trouble playing left-handers – they simply aren't used to them. (Left-handers have this trouble as well – they too play mostly against right-handers!) Because a player's instincts are often wrong against a lefty, many players often end up feeding the lefty's stronger side.

Here's a simple tip that will disarm many lefty attacks. Start off most shots by "aiming" toward the lefty's stronger side. At the last minute, go the other way. This forces the lefty to guard that side, leaving the other side open. This is a basic strategy that works against righties and lefties, but it is particularly effective against lefties since it helps make up for not being used to playing them.

If You Have a Big Lead, Should You Experiment? With games to 11, few leads are really safe. It only takes a short series of careless shots, and what seemed like a big lead becomes a big loss. However, if you do have a big lead, and the match won't be over if you win that game, consider experimenting tactics for the next game. Don't do anything that's probably low percentage – but perhaps try out a new serve or new serve & follow, or a different receive, and see what happens. Often you'll find something that'll be useful later on. But caution – the first priority is to win the current game, so use some judgment here! If you do find a new tactic, you might then consider to hold back on it in the next game, and do whatever you did to get your big lead in the previous game. After facing your "new" tactic, your opponent might not be ready for the tactics you had been using, and you now have an "ace in the hole."

You've Heard About Playing the Middle. You Know Others Play the Middle. You Might Think You Play the Middle. But Do You Really? Except at the advanced levels, few players really play the middle effectively. Many think they do, but what they think is playing the middle often isn't. For example, their crosscourt backhand "to the middle" might cross the table in the middle, but by the time it reaches the opponent, it's moved diagonally into their backhand court. (So they need to aim the shot so it reaches the middle as it reaches the opponent.) Or a shot that seems to go the middle just feeds a moving opponent's forehand attack off that middle shot. (So they need to judge better when to go to the middle, and perhaps do so more aggressively.) Or a player might start a rally by going to the corner, planning on going to the middle on the next shot – but faced with a strong return, are unable to make a strong shot to the middle. (So they need to play the first shot at the middle.) So … are you really playing the middle?

How To Play Wildly-Attacking Junior Players No matter what your level is, at some point you've had to go up against some up-and-coming junior player. If he was your average up-and-coming junior, and you are an average adult, and the two of you were roughly equal in level, then the following was probably true:

1. The junior was faster and quicker than you.

2. You spent much of the match on the defensive, trying to withstand a barrage of all-out attacks from the junior player – much of which would hit, much of which would miss.

So how can you increase your chances against such a player? You can't match him in speed or quickness. But you can beat him with control and tactics. The key is to use your own strengths, but vary your shots enough so the wildly-attacking junior can't get a rhythm. Play solid shots with few unforced errors, force the wildly-attacking junior into erratic shots, and you'll take control, even if it seems the kid is taking most of the shots.

When Attacking: You don't need to be fast or quick to attack the first ball in a rally. And you don't need to attack it wildly. Why not focus on making steady aggressive shots to start off each rally (such as looping), and force the wildly-swinging junior to go for difficult counterattacks? The catch is you have to vary your attack. If you do the same type of attack over and over, the wildly-swinging junior will find a rhythm, and his shots will become too strong and steady. You also don't want to turn it into a speed contest, if the junior is faster and quicker. Try attacking at different speeds, at different depths, with different amounts of topspin, and change directions constantly. Down-the-line shots are particularly effective against juniors who often drill too much crosscourt. Aggressive, angled shots give smaller juniors difficulty, as they don't have your reach.

When Not Attacking: Play ball control with lots of variation. Wildly-attacking juniors have difficulty timing their attacks if they have to do it against varied shots. When you push, push very heavy and deep, which will force many errors. However, many players make the mistake of playing too passive, and giving the wildly-attacking junior easy balls. Make sure you choose which balls he gets to attack, and which ones you get to attack. Lobbing is often a good tool against juniors, as is any type of defense. However, even if they can't hit as hard as you, do you really think you are favored to win if you let them smash at will? But if you do play defense, the key is to vary your shots to force mistakes. Juniors are very good against predictable shots, and can sometimes get into what seems an unstoppable rhythm. But usually this is because of a lack of variation in the shots they are facing. Don't let this happen to you!

Psychology: This is often the most difficult aspect. Remember, the wildly-swinging junior is swinging wildly for a reason – he's been trained to attack! If he's near your level, and is training regularly, he's a serious threat. Many players, while consciously knowing this, subconsciously play down to junior players, and pay for it.

Attack a Penholder's Forehand No two players, and no two penholders, play alike, but most players make the mistake of playing directly into a penholder's backhand. The problem is that the two most common strengths of penholders are their forehand attack from the backhand corner, and their quick backhand block. (Many players have stronger forehand attacks from the backhand corner because the table's not in the way, they know they can follow up with another forehand, and they won't be leaning the wrong way as they might when moving to cover the wide forehand.) Many players are afraid of a penholder's forehand, and so fall into this trap.

Instead, try attacking the wide forehand of a penholder first, then come back to the backhand. You'll not only find the penholder's backhand, but it won't be so quick or effective, as he won't be crowding the table as much as if you play into the backhand from the start. You have to make sure the attack is effective – if he can smash your attack consistently, then the attack is too weak. But the penholder will often have a weaker forehand here than if he were to do it from the backhand side. This doesn't mean you shouldn't play a penholder's backhand – many have trouble with this, especially against spinny loops, and if they don't step around, they might be susceptible to a strong backhand-to-backhand attack. But you can often make them even weaker if you go after the forehand first.

Play the Percentages, But Don't Warm Up Your Opponent! Against a player who goes for "crazy" shots, it's often a good strategy to feed him shots that he'll go for and miss. However, don't overdo it – it's very easy to accidentally warm up your opponent, and those "crazy" shots suddenly start hitting!

Be Quicker or More Powerful If you look at top players, you might notice a slight skewing in sizes – there tend to be more tall or short players then the average population. Why is this? Here's a theory, and a suggestion that might help your game.

If you are tall, then you generally have more power and reach than most of your opponents, but are not as quick. So you develop a game that takes advantage of your power and reach, while adjusting to playing quicker opponents.

If you are short, then you generally are quicker than most of your opponents, but do not have as much power or reach. So you develop a game that takes advantage of your quickness, while adjusting to playing more powerful opponents with more reach.

If you are of average size, then you spend half your time playing taller, more powerful players with more reach, and half your time playing shorter, quicker players. So you end up having to develop two games! One for more powerful players with more reach, one for quicker players.

So there is a natural advantage to being taller or shorter than average. If you are tall or short, take advantage of this. This doesn't mean a tall player shouldn't play quick shots, or a shorter player shouldn't use power, but they should develop their games around their strengths. If you are average size, then what should you do? Learn to play against both opponents, but develop your game to emphasize one or the other – either power/reach or quickness. You can still beat a quicker player if you are almost as quick, while having more power; and you can still beat a more powerful player with more reach if you have almost as much power/reach, and are quicker. So develop more of an all-around game, but emphasize either power/reach or quickness.

Note – if you are average size, and want to develop "reach," what does that mean? Footwork practice, lots and lots of side-to-side footwork practice.

Play Against Conventional Wisdom Conventional wisdom is usually correct – that's why it's conventional. The problem is that if everyone follows conventional wisdom, opponents get used to it, and so become strong against what should give them trouble. Equally, they become weak against things that they should be strong against, because they don't see it very often.

The classic case is the long pips player. Many players know that if you give spin to a long pips player, you get your own spin back. So if you use a tricky spin serve against a player with long pips, you get your spin back. Instead, they usually serve no-spin against the long pips player. It is generally a good strategy.

However, because everyone does it, two things happen. The long pips player gets used to no-spin serves; and he becomes weak against spin serves, since he rarely sees them. Result? They may become very good against these no-spin serves, and yet people keep giving it to them; they may lose the ability to read spin serves and become weak against them, but few players take advantage of it. So be ready to go against conventional wisdom sometimes.

Play the Middle Against Tall Players; Wide Angles Against Short Players A tall player's forehand and backhand shots are farther apart than a short player's. So he is weaker in the middle area, where he has to decide whether to hit a forehand or backhand. So against a tall player, play aggressively toward his elbow, which is roughly the midpoint between his forehand and backhand. When he's off the table, usually aim slightly toward the backhand; when he's close to the table, usually aim slightly toward the forehand.

A short player's forehand and backhand shots are closer together, and so he has less trouble in the middle. But he has more trouble covering the corners. So play aggressive shots to wide angles. You can go side to side, but often a better strategy is to play over and over to one wide angle. Why? Your opponent has to move to cover a wide angle; after making the shot, he moves back to ready position – but if you rush him, you catch him while he's still moving back into position, in the wrong direction.

Use Quick, Deep Pushes to Set Up Your Attack Many players use pushing as a neutral "sparring" shot. Instead, use it as a weapon. There are many ways to do this, but one way is to push quick, fast and deep, usually to the opponent's wide backhand. Most opponents will be caught off guard if done properly. If they attack, they will often make either a weak shot or miss entirely. If they don't attack, their return push will be from deep on their side of the table – so they will have less angle to go for, and you'll have more time to set up your own attack.

Use Depth Tactically Learn to control the depth of your loops and other shots. Big, powerful players often jump all over deep balls that come out to them, but struggle against shorter ones. Smaller players often jump all over short balls, but struggle with ones that go deep. Every opponent is different, but if you learn to control the depth of your shots, you'll have a big tactical weapon.

Locking Up Your Opponents The easiest and simplest way of beating a player is to "lock him up." This basically means forcing him to do what he doesn't want to do. The classic case is to force a player with a weak backhand to go backhand to backhand. Another example would be take away an opponent's strong loop and force him to instead block by getting the first loop each rally. How do you "lock someone up"? Often, the best bet is to base much of your tactics toward this goal. It often takes a lot of thinking and a lot of work. You've got to figure out what your opponent want to do. Then you have to figure out how, using your own weapons, you can force him to do what he doesn't want to do. Too often players think only about what they want to do, and forget about forcing their opponents to do what they don't want to do.

How to Maximize Your Chances of Winning Most players put pressure on themselves because they want to win very badly. However; putting pressure on yourself will usually make you play worse. If your goal is to win, then to maximize your chances of winning, make your goal to play well and dominate the match with good shots and tactics. Making winning the primary goal is counter-productive.

The No-Spin Backhand Chop You're out of position, and you're about to do a backhand chop to stay in the point. But you know your opponent is going to either loop the living daylights out of your chop, or that you're so out of position that you won't be able to handle any loop by your opponent. In fact … you realize that you need to win the point with the chop!

Solution: Just meet the ball straight on, with a more closed racket than you normally would for chopping, and let the ball sink straight into your sponge. Cushion the impact slightly with a loose grip, and by having almost no forward motion. Then follow through vigorously and downward, like you've chopped the living daylights out of the ball – when in fact, you've just "chopped" a no-spin ball. Result? Your opponent will think there's a good backspin, will lift the ball when looping, and will go way, way off the end. It's one of the best "trick" shots in table tennis. (If he pushes, he'll pop it up as well.)

Always Have Something Ready at the End Many a close match is won not by the player with the big shots or steady rallying ability, but by the player who pulls something at the end to "trick" the opponent. It might be a new variation of a serve, or perhaps the same serve with a different motion. It might be a fake loop or push that looks spinny, but is dead. It might be the reverse, a suddenly very spinny loop or push. It might be a different return of serve than what you had been doing. Whatever it is, it's always a good idea to learn a few "tricks," and learn when to use them. In some matches, "trick" shots may backfire. However, if used at the right time, they can win a lot of matches that otherwise would have been lost – possibly by an opponent's own tricks. With experience, you'll learn when to use them.

Aim One Way, Go the Other Many players develop strong rally shots. However, they are often very, very predictable. An opponent can anticipate where each ball is going early in your stroke, and so always has lots of time to get to the ball.

Instead, try faking one way, and going the other. For example, aim your backhand to go crosscourt – and at the last second, push your wrist forward, and go down the line. Or turn your shoulders way, way back when looping, making it appear you are looping down the line – and then turn the shoulders nearly 180 degrees and loop crosscourt. (You'll also get great power this way!) Or, against a short serve to the forehand, aim crosscourt, where 90% of these balls are returned – and at the last instant, tilt the wrist back, and return down the line. By doing this, you get a double-whammy. Not only do you stop your opponent from anticipating and having lots of time, but he'll be going the wrong way as well.

How to Adjust to a Penholder's Dead Block The following applies equally to some shakehand players. However, penholders are known for their ability to vary the pace on their backhand blocks, sometimes jabbing fast, angled shots, and other times doing slow, dead blocks. It wreaks havoc on an opponent's timing. However, there is a way to see this change of pace from most penholders.

Simply watch the penholder's backswing. If he brings the racket back to his stomach, he's almost for certain about to jab block. If he brings his racket out in front early, he's almost for certain about to dead block. So by watching this, you'll know well in advance which shot is coming, and have more time to prepare.

When to Backhand Loop, and When to Backhand Hit There is a smaller hitting zone on the backhand then on the forehand since the body is in the way. So some shots are more difficult to do on the backhand then on the forehand – and for most players, this includes the backhand loop. Trying to catch a moving and spinning ball and spin it back is difficult enough, but to do so with a small hitting zone – such as on the backhand – is even more difficult. (On the forehand, you can take the ball earlier or later more easily.) So … on a ball hit to your backhand, when should you backhand loop, and when should you backhand hit? (This assumes you have both.)

Here's a general rule. If the ball is coming to your backhand low and slow, you should favor a backhand loop. If the ball is coming in high or fast, you should hit.

Use Your Strengths, But Test Your Opponent It's wise to approach a match with the idea of using your strengths, but don't forget to test your opponent as well. You don't want to lose a match because you didn't find a glaring weakness in your opponent's game! Often you can win a match by matching your weakness against an opponent's even bigger weakness. So test your opponents – serve long & short, test their forehand, loop at different speeds, try pushing, etc. Don't risk not knowing your opponent's weaknesses!

Learn From a Match The quickest way to learn to beat a stronger player is by losing to him, but understanding why you lost. This way you know what to work on so as to increase your chances of winning next time, or at some time in the future. It's a continuous learning process, and players who improve rapidly are constantly learning. For example, if you looped every ball off the end, don't spend the next two months working on your looping technique. It's quite grooved – you simply have it grooved to go off the end, and so need to learn to aim lower. It's all these bits and pieces learned here and there that add up to a savvy player.

Against a Fast Attacker, Make At Least Two Strong Shots It can be difficult playing someone with a fast attack, who rushes you and takes over the attack with his or her counter-attack. How do you beat someone like this? There are many ways, depending on your style. If you are an attacker, you may run into a problem that when you attack, you get quick-blocked out of position, and quickly lose the point. Instead of trying to make shot after shot against such an opponent, focus on making two strong shots. That means your first shot is designed to set up the second shot. That means placement and depth. It also might mean slowing down your first shot to give yourself time to prepare for the second shot. Often there's nothing more effective then a slow, spinny loop, deep on the table. It's hard to block aggressively, and can set up your second shot.

Challenge Forehand Loopers 1 If an opponent keeps stepping around their backhand to loop your serve with their forehand, try a more extreme serve. (You could just serve short, but we're looking at other options here, to keep the advantages of a deep serve – forcing an opponent off the table, giving you more time to react, a predictable deep return, etc.) You are probably serving conventional serves into the backhand – medium depth, into the middle of the backhand area. Try serving deep and very wide into the backhand, with breaking sidespin so it breaks into their backhand. This will be much more difficult to loop. Then mix in a few fast down-the-line serves to the forehand.

Challenge Forehand Loopers 2 Last week we discussed how to serve deep to a forehand looper. But you might have the same problem with an opponent who loops your pushes. You are probably pushing middle depth into the middle of the backhand. Instead, try pushing quick off the bounce, and very deep and wide into the backhand. With practice, you'll be able to master this shot, and maybe even push wide outside the corner. Then mix in some quick, deep pushes to the wide forehand.

Go Down the Line from the Wide Forehand When an opponent goes to your wide forehand, they give you an extreme angle into their wide forehand. As you move to the ball, they automatically move to cover this angle. What do most players do? They play the ball right where the opponent is moving to – the wide forehand. You'll rarely get them there.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't go there – it's the long angle, and so the safest place to go. Also, most returns will come right back to your forehand. However – if you have a good forehand, if you attack it hard right down the line, it usually won't come back. In fact, you'll be surprised at how often the opponent doesn't even touch it.

Note on what to do if it does come back – expect a soft return (at least until the opponent proves otherwise). Be ready to hit your backhand, or if you are caught way out of position, perhaps chop it, or a soft, controlling backhand. Remember that your opponent is probably now in a backhand position, and so isn't going to use their forehand too often if you angle to their backhand.

Placement of Backhand Attack: Attack the Forehand and Middle More

Many players automatically attack with their backhand crosscourt. When attacking with the forehand, these same players don't hesitate to move their attacks around – probably because they figure they have more power on the forehand, and so can get away with attacking an opponent's normally stronger forehand side.

These players forget that their backhand attacks are usually quicker than their forehand attacks –and that this very quickness gives opponent's trouble counter-attacking with their forehands. Even when backhand looping, the swing on the backhand is normally shorter, and so harder to read where it is going.

When a player attacks with his backhand to an opponent's backhand, he is probably using the worst possible placement. An opponent's backhand is the very shot that is probably quick enough to handle a quick backhand attack!

Instead, attack the backhand at the opponent's slower forehand side, or into the opponent's middle (the transition point between forehand backhand). Going down the line to an opponent's forehand means the opponent not only has to react to a quicker backhand, but to the shorter down-the-line distance. Going to the middle means the opponent has to decide whether to use a forehand or backhand while being rushed. Either way puts you in the driver's seat!

PSYCHOLOGY

Getting Up Or Down For a Match When you play a match, do you get nervous or too hyped up, and end up making more mistakes than usual? Or do you have trouble getting psyched up for the match, and so don't play physically enough?

If you are in the first category, then you need to go into a match more relaxed. Before the match sit down quietly somewhere, relax, and think about what you are going to do tactically. Then go out and do it. Don't worry about winning or losing – think only about doing what you set out to do, i.e. tactics.

If you are in the latter category, then you need to get psyched up more. Before the match, perhaps do some vigorous exercise to get the feet going – but only a for a short time as you don't want to go into the match tired. During the match, keep moving your feet around between points, as you'll often see world-class players do. Keep encouraging yourself each point to move and take your shots.

If you fit somewhere between these two cases, then you might want to do a mixture, or even vary from match to match. You might play a match against, say, a chopper or pusher, or even a steady looper where you will be blocking a lot. In these matches, you have plenty of time for your shots, but just need to be steady. Here, you might want to be relaxed, so take category two advice. On the other hand, you might play a quick blocker who moves you around, where you have to be very physical – so you'll need to get up for this match.

How to Win You can win unless you can find tactical match-ups where you are better than your opponent. For example, you might find your block is better than your opponent's loop, or that your varied loop is better than your opponent's blocking or counterattack. The idea behind this is pretty obvious, but few players actually think this way when playing. Get into the habit of learning quickly in a match what tactical match-ups you can do where you are better than your opponent – and then find strategies to force these match-ups.

Look Forward to Lets – They Increase Your Chances of Winning! The title of this tip only applies to those who want to make it happen. Think of all the opponents you've played over the years who got irritated about balls rolling by, causing lets. Every tournament you play someone like this. If your opponent gets irritated at balls rolling by, while you think, "Yes! Another let ball!" each time, guess who's in a better frame of mind to play the next point?

Similarly, when an opponent gets a net or edge, don't get irritated. Think, "My opponent needs nets and edges to win – I don't!" Then win – or at least play your best..

Don't Let Up! One of the most common upsets occurs when a player wins the first game very easily – and then loses the match. There is such a thing as "second game blues," where you win the first so easily you have difficulty playing all-out in the second game. If you win the first game very easily, and the opponent is at all competitive, beware! It's the recipe for a sudden turn-around and upset, if you aren't careful. The best remedy? Assume the second is really the first, and start over exactly as you did in the first game – where you won easily. Above all, never change a winning game.

The Pre-Match Calm-Down To play table tennis effectively, you need to have a calm, clear mind. How often have you actually played a tournament where you entered every match with a calm, clear mind?

"Calm" and "clear" are two different things, and some can do one, but not the other. How can you do both?

Shortly before your match starts, simply go off somewhere where it's quiet. Close your eyes. Blank out your mind. Totally relax. Do this for 30-60 seconds (or more), and you're ready to play. (There are more advanced techniques for doing this, but for most of us, this is sufficient.) Corollary: when you're at the table, and the warm-up is over, and the match is about to begin, take 5-10 seconds to do the above again.

What to Think About During a Match Too often players worry about their stroke techniques while playing a match. The end result is they try to consciously control their shots. The more they try to do this, the worse the shot gets; and the worse the shot gets, the more they try to consciously control the shot. The end result is disaster!

Instead, think of only two things in a match. First, think about tactics – how you will use your shots. The shots themselves will take care of themselves – or at least will do better on their own if you let them go then if you try to consciously control them and make too many "fixes" in mid-match. Second, if a shot feels wrong, then the way to fix it during a match isn't to try to over-analyze it. Instead, think about the feel of the shot, and try to get the right feel. Save the stroke analysis for after the match – it rarely helps during a match.

Imagine the Score To Help Your Mental Game Is there a certain score where you play best? When leading? Behind? Leading 10-6? Down 10-6? Then either 1) Imagine the score is always that score; or 2) learn to match that psychology no matter the score. If you are good when you are behind, when you are up 10-8, imagine, you are down 10-8 – and vice versa if you are better when you are ahead.

Patient Decisiveness Some players are too patient – they mostly just keep the ball in play, missing opportunities to score. Others are too decisive – they jump on every ball with little patience or judgment. Develop a sense of "patient decisiveness" – in other words, pick your shots carefully, but once you've made a decision, be decisive about it. Don't be afraid to take a shot, but don't be afraid not to take a shot when it's not there. Be decisive about whatever shot you choose.

EQUIPMENT

Straight vs. Flared Handles If anyone knows of any actual studies of the advantages of straight vs. flared handles, please make them public. However, here is what is known: a straight handle tends to give you a better backhand; a flared handle tends to give a better forehand. This is most likely because with a straight handle, players tend to grip the handle more, giving more power on the backhand from the wrist snap. However, a tighter grip on the handle tightens the muscles in the forearm, taking away forearm snap and costing power on the forehand.

Should You Use a Super-Fast Racket? Many beginning and intermediate players want a blazing fast racket, not realizing how much this is hurting their games. There are three problems with using a very fast racket. First, it is simply too fast for most players to control. Second, since the ball flies off so fast, you get little spin – greatly hurting your loop. And third, since the ball shoots off so fast, players tend to stroke less, and end up developing poor stroking habits.

An advanced player who plays a fast, up-at-the-table game (especially with short pips) is usually the only type of player who should use a very fast racket. Instead, try one in the medium to fast range, but lay off the super fast ones.

On the other hand, if you are addicted to speed, and are willing to lose a few matches in return for this exhilarating speed – then go for it, and have fun!

Shoe Grippiness – "El Dente" If your shoes aren't grippy enough, you slide when you play, and so can't move properly. If your shoes are too grippy, you can't slide them across the floor when you move – meaning you have to physically lift them up each time you want to move. What you want are shoes that grip, but also slide – the "el dente" of shoes. Unfortunately, floors are different, and what is "el dente" on one floor may be "el slippery" on another, or "el glue" on another. Some players adjust to this by having two pairs of shoes, one very grippy (for slippery floors), and one not as grippy (for more normal floors).

Bring Proper Equipment! You've practiced, you've worked with a coach, you've done physical training, you've done mental training... you're ready for the tournament. What could go wrong? Let's see... the floor's slippery, so you can't move... it's humid, so the ball is sliding off the racket... and the only thing around to eat for lunch were hot dogs, and now you're feeling sick... AAAAAAAHHH!!!

Okay, let's calm down and make sure these things don't happen again.

• Slippery floors. Have two pairs of shoes. Most table tennis shoes are designed with a normal floor in mind, and that's where they should be used. Some of the Chinese table tennis shoes are almost too grippy on these same floors, making it hard to move with them (look for shoes with "suction cup" soles). However, these are perfect for those slippery floors. Bring both types of shoes, and you won't be the one ice skating during your match. Second solution: put a slightly wet paper towel on the floor, and step on it between rallies. This will make your shoes extra grippy, but only for a minute or so. It's a hassle, and since the friction between your shoes and the floor isn't a constant, it can be tricky to move. That's why I recommend using two pairs of shoes. (Few top players have to deal with this problem because they rarely play on slippery floors. Many of you have probably seen the special red floors used for the championships events at the U.S. Open, U.S. Nationals, U.S. Open Teams, and many 4-star tournaments. Top internationals from Europe and Asia, of course, play only in top conditions.)

• Humidity. Use two towels, one for you, one for the ball and racket only. The towel you use for yourself will get damp rapidly, and will be useless in drying off your racket or the ball. Have extra towels to replace these when/if they get damp. Related tip: if your racket is dirty (and thereby loses some of its grippiness), wash it off quickly during a match by simply blowing on the surface to slightly dampen it, then wiping it with a towel.

• Food & Drinks. Bring fruit, light sandwiches, and other food items that are high in carbohydrates, but not too high in sugar. Eat small amounts throughout the tournament rather than periodic large meals, although you should have a relatively large, high-carbohydrate breakfast. Drinks such as Gatorade are ideal. Make sure to drink fluids from the start of the tournament, not just when you are thirsty Ð by then, you are already dehydrated, and slightly weakened.

New Equipment? Early in your playing career, experiment with lots of rackets and sponge. Borrow as rackets from other players to try out. You need to learn what's available, and find out what feels right for you. But once you find a combination that you like, stick with it until you have a very good reason for switching. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try out new types of equipment – testing is OK, just don't get stuck in a cycle of constantly switching your equipment, and never getting really comfortable with anything.

The two worse things you can do are 1) never to experiment much, and so never know what the possibilities are, and 2) over-experiment after you've found equipment that works for you.

Bring a Wet Towel in Case the Floor is Slippery Many of you have had the experience of playing on a slippery floor. It isn't fun. But if you do get stuck playing on such a floor, there's a solution. Bring a small towel with you (or use paper towels), and wet it so it is not dripping wet, but not just damp. Put it next to the table. Then step on it every five points (when the serve changes) and whenever there is a break in play. Try it out, and you'll see how much more grippy your shoes will be – but only for a few points.

There is no rule against doing this other than stalling – which is a judgment call. (It is not considered toweling off, for example, which is only allowed every five points, when the serve changes.) If you do it too often, it could be considered stalling. If you do it only when the serve changes, then most umpires and/or opponents won't mind.

Carry Equipment With You When Flying When flying to a tournament, carry your "irreplaceable" equipment with you – especially your racket and shoes, and perhaps your playing clothes. There are many horror stories of luggage coming in late, and not being delivered in time for your match or warm-up.

GENERAL

Never, Ever, EVER!!!… …do that thing you did in your last tournament that cost you a match, and that you promised yourself that you would never do again.

Use It or Lose It! When a player finds a part of his game is not working as well as he'd like (either because he is getting older or slower, or because it simply wasn't a strong shot to start with), the tendency is to use the shot less and less. Result? The shot gets even weaker!

The classic case is an aging player who finds his footwork is not as fast as before, or his loop not as strong. He begins to play a more passive game, with less footwork and less looping, and thinks it will help his game. However, all this does is start a downward spiral. By moving and looping less, the player's footwork and loop get worse – and so the player uses them even less! And so the player's level spirals downward. (Side problem: the game becomes less physical, and so the player gets less of a physical workout, and so the game is less a health benefit.)

The moral is: Use It or Lose It!

Tournament Experience vs. Practice Many players practice for many months, not playing in any tournaments until they feel they are completely ready. They then enter a tournament … and flop. They don't understand it, so they go right back to practicing for many months, avoiding tournaments again. When they again feel ready, they enter a tournament again … and flop again. And the cycle continues. Others both practice and play lots of tournaments, get lots of feedback on what works and what doesn't in tournament competition, practices it, gets more feedback at tournaments, and their playing level spirals upward. Which are you?

Play Both Weaker and Stronger Players Many players who want to improve make the mistake of trying to play mostly stronger players. The result is the opponent controls play, and all the player can do is react to the stronger player's shots, or go for wild shots. A player may develop some shots this way, but it'll be hard to develop new shots or to learn how to use them in a game situation.

If you are trying to improve you need to both try out new shots that you are developing and to try out new combinations and strategies. If you do this against a stronger player, you probably won't do so well, and you'll probably stop doing it. You won't have any way of knowing if the new shot, combination or strategy may work since the stronger player may win the point simply by being a stronger player against something you are just trying out and are not yet comfortable with.

Instead, try out new things against players who are weaker than you. Develop them against these players, in an environment where you can control play a little more (since you are the stronger player), and where you can see if the new things might work. Don't worry about winning or losing – this is practice – as you will undoubtedly lose sometimes when trying out something new, even against a weaker player. (Imagine how bad you'd lose in this case against a stronger player!) When your new techniques begin to work against a weaker player, then it's time to try them out against your peers and stronger players.

Example: suppose you want to develop your loop against backspin. The best way to do this is to serve backspin, and loop the pushed return. A stronger player may flip the serve, push short, quick push to a corner, or push extremely heavy – and you won't be able to develop the shot very well. A weaker player would be more likely to give you a ball that you can loop, which is what you need until the shot is more developed. You need to both develop the shot and your instincts on when to use it, how to follow it up, etc. When you can do it against a weaker player, then it's time to try it out against tougher competition.

Make Sure the Background Isn't Distracting Before beginning a match, check out the background. For example, many barriers have lettering only on one side, and often it has orange or yellow lettering, which is easy to lose a ball in. So turn the barrier around. Similarly, move anything in the background that is moveable that could be distracting. There are many cases of top players asking a spectator wearing white or orange garments to move out of their line of vision!

Nets and Edges Are Not Bad Luck – They Are "Unfortunate" We've all had matches where the opponent got nets and edges over and over. They were "lucky" – right? Not according to USA Men's Coach Dan Seemiller. He has a different outlook on it. When someone gets a lot of nets and edges, or gets one at a key time, it's "unfortunate," but not bad luck. Just as some players will make more loop kills then others – and so when they pull them off, it's not "luck" – some styles of play will get more nets and edges – and so when they get them, it's not luck … just "unfortunate" (for you!).

Just for the record – players with dead surfaces and hitters will tend to get more nets, since they hit the ball lower to the net. Angling blockers will get more side edges. Aggressive hitters and blockers will get more end line edges. Pure loopers tend to get the least amount of nets and edges– so perhaps they need speed glue to make up for this!

The Difference Between Practice and Warm-up What is the difference?

Practice is to improve, maintain or calibrate a technique. Few players improve unless they do lots of this. However, the focus of this tip is on warming up.

Warm-up is to groove your shots immediately before a match (or practice session, but that could be thought of as part of the practice session), whether it be a tournament match or a match at a club. Few players get adequate warm-up before either. How can you improve your warm-up?

Whether for a tournament or a club night, arrange in advance to warm up with someone you are used to practicing with. The partner you choose should be a relatively steady player – you can't groove your shots against someone who hits each shot erratically. Your partner should also be reliable – it doesn't help if he doesn't show up, or shows up late when all the tables are taken.

You might say why bother – you'll get warmed up as the night goes on. But do you really want to waste half the night in the often wishful hope that you'll get your shots grooved in matches against opponents who presumably are trying not to let you get grooved?

Watch Top Players to Raise Your Own Level of Play One of the best ways to improve your shots is get a good visual image of what your shots should look like just before playing. So one of the best ways to get these shots really going is to watch a top player executing these shots just before you play. You can do this live (if players are available) or watch a videotape. Alternatively, you might get a tape of yourself playing at your best (you might have to do a number of tapes to get this!), and watch that just before playing. You'll be surprised at how much it might help. (Many players learn to do this without a tape, by mental visualization.)

Use Practice Matches to Practice Exactly as the heading says – this is the time to try out new things, develop new techniques, and generally improve your game. If a player has trouble looping, for example, many players fall back on more successful shots in practice – and so continue to have trouble looping. Instead, use those very shots that need to be developed in practice matches so that they will eventually be developed enough to use in more important matches.

Length of Drills If you want to improve at table tennis, you should do practice drills. This allows you to focus on specific parts of your game. How long should each drill be for?

It depends partly on your level and fitness, but even more on the drill itself.

If you do a footwork drill for a long time, you'll get in shape. However, you won't be able to do the drill as fast as you would if you did it for a shorter period of time. So you'd end up practicing footwork at a slower pace than you would want to do in a match. So instead of trying to do footwork for ten minutes straight, why not do it for five minutes at a faster pace, let your practice partner do a five-minute drill, then do it for five more minutes?

You may want to do other drills that don't involve such repetitive physical movements for a longer period of time. For example, if you do a serve and attack drill, the rallies will be much shorter (and so less tiring) than if you did a typical footwork drill – and so less tiring. For these drills, you should go the full ten minutes. If you only went five minutes, you might feel like you barely got the shots warmed up, and then it's your partner's turn.

Examine Your Opponent's Racket, But Don't Complain About It! Before a match starts, you are allowed to examine your opponent's racket. Some of your opponents will use surfaces that you might not be used to playing, such as long or short pips, or antispin. Many players immediately begin grumbling about it, either out loud or in their minds. Either way, you've just brought your game down a notch. Examine and think about the opponent's racket only tactically, and stay positive. If you aren't used to a surface, the worst thing you want to do is lower your confidence even more by going negative! Just think about what you have to do against that surface. Play into the surface early on and try to get used to it. Remember, if the surface truly were an advantage, the majority of players would be using it – and if they are not, that means there is a built-in disadvantage to the surface. Find it and exploit it.

Rote vs. Random Drills A rote drill is a drill where you do the same repetitive movement over and over. An example of this is forehand to forehand, or a side-to-side footwork drill.

A random drill is a drill where there is some uncertainty about what the next shot in the drill is going to be. An example of this is a serve and attack drill, where your partner pushes your serve to any part of the table. Another would be your partner putting balls to all parts of your forehand court, and you returning them all with your forehand.

So which type of drills should you do? At the beginning, you should do more rote drills. It's the best way to really hone those shots. But as you improve, you should gradually work more and more random drills into your practice. If you don't, you'll end up becoming more or less a robotic player – one who is good against simple, predictable shots, but falls apart as soon as the opponent begins to change speeds, spins or placements.

Do You Grip Your Racket Too Tightly? Many players grip the racket too tightly when they play. Many think this gives them added stability. Actually, all it does is tighten the muscles up and match opposing muscles against each other – instead of working together. Here's a test. Imagine someone sneaking up behind you and grabbing your racket from your hand. It should come right out. If it doesn't, you're holding it too tightly. Conversely, it shouldn't be so loose as to wobble about in your hand, but that's rarely a problem.

Examining the Shakehand Grip: Backhand, Forehand and Neutral Variations

Let's examine three possible shakehand grips: neutral grip, backhand grip, and forehand grip. The difference is rather simple. If the racket lines up with the thinnest part of the wrist, it is a neutral grip. If you rotate the top of the racket away from you, you have a backhand grip. If you rotate the top of the racket toward you, you have a forehand grip.

With a backhand grip, you tend to have a better backhand block, backhand loop, and forehand smash.

With a forehand grip, you tend to have a better backhand smash and forehand loop.

With a neutral grip, you have a better balance of all of the above shots.

Are You a Mobile Table Tennis Player, or Do You Just Stand There and Play Ping-Pong? Table Tennis players aren't always fast, but they move their feet to the ball. Ping Pong players may be fast, but they just stand there and reach for the ball … and usually lose. Which are you? What do you want to be?

Shadow Practice with a Weighted Racket. Many players find they play better if they shadow practice with a weighted paddle before play. (Shadow practicing means practicing the stroke away from the table, without a ball.) This makes their regular racket feel lighter, and their strokes faster. You can make your own weighted paddle by gluing something to a regular paddle, or by swinging two rackets together. However, don't try rallying with the weighted paddle – that'll throw your timing off.

Learn Something New Each Time You Play. One of the interesting things one learns when talking to top players is that they say they are still learning. Some even make it a goal to learn something new each time they play. Do you learn something new each time you play?

Shadow Practice! Spend a few minutes each day shadow practicing. Using a regular racket, a weighted racket, or just an imaginary one, shadow practice your drives, loops and footwork especially. Yes, you may look silly (close your office door!), but your opponent will look even sillier that night when you show up with looser muscles and in better shape, with grooved strokes.

Playing With Everyday Objects What could be more impressive than beating your non-table tennis friends and relatives very badly in table tennis? Beating them with ordinary household objects?

Rather than have to carry your $100 weapon of choice around with everywhere you go, just in case, you might find it fun (and impressive to others!) to learn to play with just about anything. Yes, it's showing off, but what fun! There are two things to think about: what to use, and how to use it.

What To Use: Basically, any household object with a hard, flat surface should be adequate for your purposes. If you're an average USATT member, you can learn to return far more balls than the average "basement" champion. Surprisingly, you probably have your best success if you go for a very slick surface for reasons described below. Some strong possibilities include plates, ashtrays, clipboards, shoes, computer disks, hardcover books, pots & pans, large spatulas, a clock or calculator (smashing may break them!), or a box of Kleenex. For more advanced players: ID cards, staplers, rulers, bottles, brushes, or (it's been done!) an ice cube.

How To Use It: With a relatively slick and hard surface, you can just chop or block everything back. You don't have to be much of a chopper to do this – you won't be facing any loops or smashes. With a slick surface, you don't have to worry too much about an opponent's wacky basement shots. Just get everything back, and collect your winnings at the end. You might also go for some kills, but you'll probably have trouble smashing consistently at full speed. Smash at ½ speed – it'll still be a winner – and mostly against balls that land short and high. If your opponent puts any topspin on the ball, don't counter-attack – just keep it in play until he misses or gives you an easy ball to pounce on, if you do feel comfortable attacking.