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-Larry Hodges, Director, TableTennisCoaching.com

Member, USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame & USATT Certified National Coach
Professional Coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center

Recent TableTennisCoaching.com blog posts

Pips-Out and Other Styles

John Olsen emailed me to point out that two members of the French women's team are shakehanders with short pips on the forehand - Laura Gasnier (age 21, world #144) and Audrey Zarif (age 16, world #148). Here's video of Gasnier - she's the one in the pink shirt. Here's video of Zarif, also wearing pink. I guess pips goes with pink. Is this a sign of this style emerging, perhaps in response to the upcoming plastic balls, which apparently don't spin as well?

Okay, probably not; these players were undoubtedly developing their games long before the announcement that the world was going to non-celluloid balls. And there have always been a sprinkling of shakehanders with short pips on the forehand. In the 1980s and into the 90s Teng Yi was a mainstay on the Chinese National Team (with inverted on the backhand), and Johnny Huang was in the top ten in the world around the late 1990s, with short pips on both sides. Li Jiawei of Singapore was #3 in the world in 2005. And there are a number of others. (Readers, feel free to comment on others below.) So what has happened to this style?

Like most non-looping styles, short pips on the forehand has faced the onslaught of looping reality. The two-winged looping style, and to a lesser degree the one-winged looping style (including chopper/loopers) has pretty much dominated the game for the last decade or more. The reality is this: Why would a coach teach a new player an "inferior" style? And by "inferior," I'm mean a style that might be, say, 1% worse.

Butterfly and My Personal Equipment

Here's some news on the equipment front. First, I'm sponsored by Butterfly again. (They haven't put me up yet in their sponsored list - that'll come later.) I was sponsored by them for something like two decades, but was a casualty of the 2008 financial crisis. I had two great years sponsored by Paddle Palace, but they are moving in a different direction, which freed me to reapply with Butterfly. My club, MDTTC, has been sponsored by Butterfly for many years.

I've used a Butterfly Timo Boll ALC flared blade the last few years. I believe it's the most popular high-end racket right now. I discovered it almost by accident. I was coaching Tong Tong Gong about 3-4 years ago while he was on the USA National Cadet Team (and about to try out to make it again) and sponsored by Butterfly. I needed to warm him up, but my racket was in my bag a distance away, so I borrowed his spare blade. After I hit one ball my eyes shot up - it just felt right. Tong Tong later made the National Cadet team for a second straight year, and as a reward for my coaching him at the Trials they gave me his spare racket, which I'd come to really like. (Butterfly had given him a new backup.) I've been using that blade ever since. You can still see where Tong Tong had etched his name into it!

For the last few years I've been using Tenergy 05 FX 2.1 black on my forehand and Roundell 2.1 red on my backhand. Tenergy is the most popular high-end sponge, but it comes in so many types it's hard to keep track - 05, 25, 64, 80, and all in regular and FX, which means a softer version. You can read about each at the Butterfly site.

Shoulder Rotation

One of the most common problems with beginners is they don't rotate their shoulders on the forehand. Several players have this problem in beginning/intermediate class I teach on Monday nights. Even when they learn to rotate the shoulders when hitting forehand to forehand or in multiball they tend to fall back on arm only (i.e. no shoulder rotation) when doing footwork.

The solution I've found is to emphasize the rod-through-the-head coaching technique. When you hit or loop a forehand, imagine a vertical rod going through the top of your head, and rotate around the rod. In reality, the head normally moves a little forward doing the stroke from the back-to-front leg weight transfer, but often very little is needed since most of power comes from torque, as the body rotates in a circle. So for beginners especially it's important for them to focus on this idea of rotating their shoulders around this rod through their head. This gives them the right feel of the shot, and something to focus on to fix the shoulder rotation problem - and when they do footwork drills, it tends to stick with them and they continue to rotate the shoulders properly.

If you watch most world-class players, you'll find that much of the secret to their ability to produce great power and recover almost instantly for the next shot is this idea of rotating in a circle, so they end up balanced and ready for the next shot. The head does move forward or sideways some (and often up), and does so even more when rushed after stepping around the backhand corner to play forehand, but in general most of the movement is circular, creating torque while staying balanced. (Two keys to balance: keep weight between your feet, and use your non-playing arm as a counter-balance to your playing arm.)

Tip of the Week

Develop the Fundamentals: Strokes & Footwork.

The Six-Inch Toss Rule

I had a question on the six-inch toss rule, so I decided to submit it to USATT's Stump the Ump, where umpire questions are answered by Paul Kovac, an international umpire and certified referee. (He's also a regular at my club, MDTTC, and referees the MDTTC tournaments.) The question was seemingly simple, but as you'll see, may not be as obvious as you'd think. Here's my question:  

Here’s a question that keeps coming up, and I’d like to see an online answer that we can refer to. When serving, does the ball have to go six inches up from the exact point where it leaves the hand, or does it actually require six inches of clearance between the hand and the ball? I thought I knew the answer to this, but when I asked six umpires/referees for their ruling at the Nationals, three said the first, three said the latter.

Here is the answer Paul gave, which is now published at Stump the Ump.

This should not be a topic for discussion because the rule is very clear about it:

2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm (6") after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.

The important part is:

"...so that it rises at least 16cm (6") after leaving the palm...."

Fan Zhendong vs. Cho Eonrae

Here's a great video (14:32, with time between points removed) between China's Fan Zhendong (world #3) and South Korea's Cho Eonrae (world #20) in the 8ths of the Qatar Open on Feb. 18-23. Spoiler Alert! Cho wins deuce in the seventh, -12,10,7,7,-9,-8,10. Here is my analysis of the first five points. Fan is in red, Cho in black. Not all points are shown; for example, the second point shown is actually at 3-1. (FH = forehand, BH = backhand. Alas, the direct links to the start of the points make you go through the short ad at the start each time.)

POINT 1: Fan does reverse pendulum sidespin serve short to FH. Cho comes in with FH as if receiving down the line, freezing Fan (who has to cover for the down-the-line shot), and then drops it short the other way, to Fan's FH. Fan steps in, threatening to go very wide to Cho's FH, instead flips down the line to Cho's BH.  Since Fan is leading over table, Cho attacks very wide to Fan's BH. Fan has to move quickly, and does a safe backhand topspin to Cho's wide BH. Cho spins off bounce to Fan's wide BH. Both players are trying to avoid the other's FH, and since these aren't highly aggressive shots, they are going wide to the BH rather than the middle, where many attacks go. After his previous backhand loop, Fan is moving back to ready position and is caught slightly when Cho goes right back to the wide backhand. As Fan moves to do an awkward backhand loop, Cho steps around to counterloop with his FH, but Fan BH loops off. Point to Cho.

Wednesday Coaching

I had four sessions yesterday (and sort of a fifth), plus I picked up two kids from school to take to our afterschool TT program.

Session #1: This was with a 7-year-old, where we continued to work on the basics. He gets impatient pretty quickly and asks how much time is left about every sixty seconds. (And so my standard answer is, "One minute after the last time you asked.) He's more into videogames than table tennis, alas. However, he is improving. Yesterday he hit 30 backhands in a row, and I told him his backhand was better than Han Xiao's. (Former U.S. Team Member and four-time Men's Doubles Champion and Singles Finalist Han was practicing on the next table.)

Session #2: This was with a 12-year-old. Last week's session didn't go so well - he wasn't playing well and wasn't happy about it - but this time it was a great session as he played about the best he's ever played. He's about 1600 but could be 1800 this year. His forehand keeps getting better, and this time his backhand was pretty good as well. He's in that in between stage where he's both hitting and looping backhands. We played two games at the end, and he shocked me by taking a 6-2 lead the first one. This sort of woke me up, and I came back to win both games. The first step to beating a stronger player is to force them to play their best. The second step is consistently battle with them. The third step is to beat them. He's passed step one.

Beginning/Intermediate Class, Racket Surfaces, and Herb Horton

In the class on Monday night I introduced the class to non-inverted surfaces by bringing out the huge racket case where I keep six rackets: hardbat; short pips/inverted; pips-out penhold; anti/inverted; long pips no sponge/inverted (for blocking); and long pips thin sponge/inverted (for chopping). My plan was to talk about the characteristics of each for perhaps 15 minutes, and then introduce them to doubles. However, there was so much interest that, after a brief discussion and unanimous vote, we instead adjourned to the tables so they could all experiment playing with and against the various surfaces. (This is an adult class, with most of them ranging from about 25 to 60, plus one 13-year-old. Playing level ranges from about 800 to 1500.) 

The long pips without sponge was the biggest hit as the players lined up to play me as I stood at the table and just blocked everything back, covering the whole table with my backhand, "chicken wing" style. At the start they all had difficulty with my "heavy" backspin serves with the long pips, which they all popped up since there was actually no spin. Similarly, when they served backspin and I pushed it back vigorously, they all went off the end, thinking there was backspin when it was light topspin. They found this amazing, but all of them eventually learned to react properly. However, once we got into a rally and they gave me a topspin, and I blocked it back, over and over they went into the net. They just couldn't react to the backspin, which they didn't see coming since they had never seen a block with heavy backspin. 

Genetics and Table Tennis

The question sometimes comes up whether some people have a genetic advantage in table tennis. A troll raised this question in the mytabletennis.com forum, and while he was likely just trolling (you should see his postings in other threads!), it is an interesting question. (The thread has since been closed.) 

The troll argued that the Chinese have a genetic advantage that gives them faster reflexes, and that's why the Chinese dominate. It's nonsense. One could just as easily claim the Swedes have a genetic advantage since their country of nine million people dominated or played even with the Chinese (over one billion people) for many years. But anyone with a knowledge of the game understands the reality.

The Chinese are the best in the world right now because they have more players, more top coaches, and train harder than any other country in the world. It is a national sport there, and taken more seriously there than anywhere else in the world. Most European players train six days a week, with much of summer off. The Chinese often train seven days a week, and train all summer.

Tip of the Week

Every Battle Is Won Before the Battle Begins.

Note from 1979 - Starving in NC

I was going through my files last week, and found this note from May 26, 1979. It brought back some serious memories. I was 19 and had just moved to North Carolina a few months before to train for table tennis at the Butterfly Table Tennis Center in Wilson. I had thought I had a job at McDonalds, but that fell through. And so I found myself jobless and running out of money. On this date I sat down and listed all my assets and deficits. It wasn't pretty. I would use up most of the food listed in the next few days. I would use the last $5.03 I had to buy cheap loaves of bread (which I'd eat with just jelly) and corn flakes (which I'd eat straight, since I quickly ran out of milk). During this time I pretty much ran out of real food, and went from being skinny to probably skeletal. I'm guessing I lost 20 pounds. (I was too stubborn to call my parents.) 

The Next USATT CEO

I'm somewhat surprised that there still isn't any "help wanted" note from USA Table Tennis for the next CEO. Previous CEO Mike Cavanaugh announced his resignation on March 26. Presumably someone is working on this.  

I just hope the USATT Board doesn't fall into the same ongoing trap we've been ensnared in since our beginning in 1933, and try to sell a "broken" product. I put "broken" in quotes because there's really nothing wrong with the sport (which is why it is so successful overseas in Europe and Asia), but with the way it is developed and promoted in the USA. And I should put "developed" in quotes as well since there's no serious effort to develop the sport from USATT.

There's this belief that the solution to our problems is to raise money. That's like saying the solution to being rich is to be rich, which sounds great except it doesn't explain how to get rich. Raising large sums of money for USATT is an extremely difficult job at the moment (and in our past) because we are a status quo organization. Sponsors want to get in on the ground floor of a growing sport, not the attic of a small one that's satisfied with the status quo. (And when I say satisfied, I'm referring to actions, not words.) Raising money has been a priority of nearly all our past CEO's, it just isn't publicized much because none were successful at doing it.