Tip of the Week

A Tip of the Week will go up every Monday by noon.

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

Have a question about a Tip of the Week? Ask on the Forum!!!

(Want more tips? Here are 171 more, done for the USATT website from 1999-2003, by Larry Hodges as "Dr. Ping Pong." Want even more? Here's the complete USATT archive, with the 171 by Larry as well as ones by Carl Danner from 2003-2007.)

December 9, 2019 - Six Ways to Learn Tactics

Monday, December 9, 2019
by: Larry Hodges
  1. Constantly think about it. What works for you, and against what types players? What works for others against you, and how can you adjust to it? You should constantly experiment and learn from it.
  2. Study others. What do your opponents do against you? What do they do against others? Watch top players on video and see what they do. Learn from it all.
  3. Coach others in matches. One of the best ways to learn tactical thinking is to coach others. It forces you to really observe what's going on in a match - the two-way back and forth between two opponents - and think about what your player can and should do to win the match. This carries over into your own matches, where you might not be in the habit of really observing what's going on and thinking about what you should do to win the match. Plus it exposes you to tactics by other players that you may adapt for yourself.
  4. Receive coaching in matches. A coach or top player can likely pinpoint what you need to do to win a given match. Learn from them.
  5. Listen in when coaches coach others. You might need to ask permission first, but you can learn a treasure trove of tactical skills by listening to a top coach as he talks to a player during a match, where you aren't "distracted" by being in the middle of a match yourself. It's a quick way to learn what's most important as an experienced coach will zero in on that.
  6. Read about it. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my book, Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!

December 2, 2019 - What to Watch During a Point

Monday, December 2, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

If you watched the movie Forrest Gump, you were told to "Never, ever take your eye off the ball." And some really do this. But is this what you really want to do?

Some find that watching the ball constantly helps them focus. And in the short term, perhaps that's best for some players. But you are handicapping yourself if you constantly watch the ball throughout every rally. Here's a breakdown of what you really should be watching during a point. Note that even if you are watching the ball, you can still be somewhat aware of your opponent through your peripheral vision.

  • As the opponent is serving. Watch his racket right up until contact. This allows you to see how the racket is moving just before contact, so you can better read the spin. If he does a high-toss serve you might glance up to see how high it goes so as to better know when contact will be made. 
  • As the ball is coming to you. Watch the ball closely from the time the opponent contacts the ball, including on the serve. On most shots you should watch the incoming ball right until contact. (Technically, you can't do this with most backhand shots since the racket is between your eyes and the ball, but you can watch the ball almost until contact.) Against a fast, incoming ball, you can't really make any last-second changes, so there's no point in watching the ball right until contact - it's better to get a very good look at it as it approaches. This is especially true when blocking against a hard-hit shot. 
  • After you've hit the ball. (This includes when you serve.) After you hit the ball, there's no point in watching the ball travel away from you. It's far more important to watch the opponent to see what he's going to do. For example, on the forehand side you can often see where he's going to hit the ball by his shoulder rotation. In any case you should be able to see what he's going to do during his forward swing before he contacts the ball. Some players telegraph their shots early; others only at the last second. Adjust to both. If you only watch the ball, then you can't really react to the opponent until after contact, which puts you at a disadvantage.

Now go back and watch Forrest Gump and you'll notice something interesting - he not only watches the ball constantly, but he never even blinks during rallies. That's taking "never, ever take your eye off the ball" to an extreme! We can learn a lot from Forrest's basic humanity, but we probably shouldn't be taking our table tennis cues from him - for one thing, he has awful strokes. He's not actually rallying - he's just going through the motions, with the ball added afterwards by computer. A USATT coach was supposed to be on set to help him use good technique, but I'm told the coach walked off the set, thinking they were making a mockery of the sport, and so Tom Hanks had to improvise. Here's the video (2:55) on how they put together the ping-pong scenes.

November 25, 2019 - Serving from the Forehand Side

Monday, November 25, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

If you watch the top players serve, one thing you'll notice is that the vast majority of them serve various types of forehand pendulum serves mostly from the backhand side. There's a reason for this - it puts them in a better position for the next shot, especially if they want to favor the forehand if they get a weak return. It also allows them to get used to a limited number of returns - if they serve from the forehand side, they have to get used to returns that come at them differently. But players do this so mind-numbingly often that receivers are used to this type of serving. (Some top players do use tomahawk or even backhand serves from the forehand side, but these are relatively rare.)

A few years ago Baltimore Orioles star shortstop J.J. Hardy visited the Maryland Table Tennis Center. He was probably the best table tennis player in non-table tennis professional sports, at least in the U.S. - about 1850-1900 level. He had strong shots from both wings, but had one very unorthodox thing - his best serve was a forehand pendulum serve from the forehand side. Against MDTTC players, over and over they struggled with this serve since they had literally never seen it coming at them from this angle before! The ultimate test was when J.J. played against a 2400 player - and he struggled with the serve as well. As he put it, "I've never seen anyone serve that serve from the forehand side."

There are a number of advantages of serving from the forehand side. Here's a listing. (For this, I'm assuming both players are righties or both lefties.)

  1. It forces the receiver to adjust to a serve he rarely sees.
  2. It gives an angle into the short forehand, so that you can serve there and force an opponent with a good backhand flip to receive forehand. If you serve short to the forehand from the backhand side, there's no angle, and so the receiver can just reach over and flip with the backhand. If a receiver tries to "cheat" and move over to receive backhand, you can serve quick down the line and catch him out of position.
  3. Against players below the top levels, many players can't receive effectively down the line against a serve short to the forehand. And so you can serve from the forehand side short to the forehand and then just camp out on that side, following your serve up with a big forehand.
  4. If you are a strong two-winged player, the serve leaves you in perfect position to follow the serve up from both wings, depending on the return.
  5. A tomahawk serve from the forehand side that breaks wide to the receiver's forehand, but goes off the side of the table so that the table is in the way of the receiver, is an extremely effective serve. It's very hard to loop, since the table is in the way. Lefties do this all the time to righties, serving forehand pendulum serves from their backhands that break outside the righties forehand side, with the table in the way. The serve can be effective even if done very deep. Because it breaks away from the receiver, he tends to reach for the ball, causing two problems - first, he loses control as he lunges for the ball, and second, he tends to lower his racket as he reaches, and so lifts the ball off the end.

So why not take a couple steps over and experiment with these serves? And if they work for you, then that's one more tool in your tactical toolbox.

November 18, 2019 - "Proper Way" is What Works for You

Monday, November 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Kids are almost always taught the "proper way" to play by coaches. But older players sometimes already have bad habits or have developed an unconventional playing style. Should they also be taught the "proper way" to play?

The answer is . . . it depends. Some older players may simply want to play like the top players. An older player who is a good physical athlete might also want to learn to play like the top players, i.e. the "proper way," since they have the athleticism to do so, even if they are learning it late. In general, if you want to become a good player, it's usually best to learn the "proper way," and focus on learning the tried and true techniques that are used by top players.

And yet . . . this isn't true for everyone. If you've spent years trying to develop a strong forehand and failed, but have developed a really good backhand and a nice blocking game, perhaps you should forget much of the "proper way" and focus on dominating with your backhand and blocking game. This doesn't mean you should stop trying to develop your forehand - the better it gets, the better you'll be - but perhaps, at this point, it's best to focus on having a forehand that doesn't lose for you, and then you can win with your backhand and blocking. Or pushing. Or whatever else you actually do well.

Similarly, if there's a technical flaw in one of your strokes, but you've done this shot that way so long that it's ingrained, it might be better to just go with that shot, and learn the rest of your game the "proper way."

There's nothing wrong with having something unique in your game that isn't the "proper way" - in fact, it'll win you matches since opponents aren't used to it. However, it's best not to go overboard. Surround these unorthodox strokes or tactics with an otherwise solid game i.e. the "proper way" - and you may reach a higher level than if you just mindlessly try to play the way the top players play.

November 11, 2019 - Three Spots or Two?

Monday, November 11, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When a coach refers to "playing the three spots," he's referring to playing both wide angles, and the middle. (The middle is not the middle of the table; it's the mid-point between the opponent's forehand and backhand, usually around his playing elbow.)

In any match, you should be playing all three of these spots. The only question is how often to go to each spot, and what types of shots to each. For example, a weak ball to the middle makes it easy for the opponent to set up his best shot (such as a big forehand or backhand loop), and so going to the middle is mostly effective when you attack it. Against a player with a big forehand, you'd only go to the forehand when the opponent is out of position or to draw him out of position. And so on.

But many players are what I call "two-spot" players - players where you mostly want to focus on two spots. For example, against a player with a big forehand but a weaker backhand, you might want to pin them down on the backhand by attacking that side. But if you only go to one spot, then the opponent's weaker side might just get warmed up and won't be so weak. So it'd be better to go to the backhand and middle (perhaps a touch to the backhand side, to avoid that big forehand), and force the opponent to move side to side with his weaker backhand.

If you play a player with the Seemiller grip or convention penhold - these players use only one side of their racket - they often have less middle weakness, and so you might focus on going to the wide corners. (This is almost always true against a Seemiller player. Some conventional penholders can be weak in the middle.)

Against a player with a strong backhand but less powerful forehand, you might focus on moving him around on the forehand side, and so focus on going to the wide forehand and middle (perhaps slightly to the forehand side).

So try to find out in matches what type of an opponent you are facing, one where you want to go regularly to all three spots, or focus on two.