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

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Published:

01/30/2023 - 14:29

Author: Larry Hodges

You've spent a lot of time working on a shot, and it's now somewhat ingrained. Suppose, in a match, you make this shot several times . . . and then miss an easy one!!! The shot didn't feel right. A common response would be to try to adjust the shot so you make it the next time.

NO!!!!!

Why would you try to adjust a shot that you've already ingrained? Instead of starting with the missed shot and trying to adjust, remember the feel of the good ones, and simply repeat. The last thing you want to do is spend time thinking about the missed shot, which is a good way to ingrain that bad shot.

Next time you play, whenever you make a good shot, remember the feel, both the stroke and the contact. Do not ever forget that feel. Then, when you miss, just remember the feel of the shot, and it'll come back. You do have to adjust for the incoming ball (such as the spin), but the shot itself should be pretty much the same each time.

In that rare case where you absolutely cannot get it right, and the shot just feels wrong, then and only then would you have to analyze it and figure out what is wrong. Once you figure that out, it'll feel right again, and then you'll have the feel of the right shot again. Don't forget it!!!

Why fix a problem you've already fixed?

Published:

01/23/2023 - 15:12

Author: Larry Hodges

Table tennis is often advertised as a sport that all can play, where size makes no difference. However, it's not necessarily true. While you don't have to be tall to win (1971 World Champion Stellan Bengtsson at 5'5" and three-time World and 2-time Olympic Women's Singles Champion Deng Yaping was 4'11"), or short (four-time US Men's Champion Jim Butler, 6'5", or 1989 World Men's Doubles finalists Zoran Kalinić/Leszek Kucharski, 6'5" and 6'4" respectively), being big or small does make a difference tactically and in choosing a playing style. It's how you use what you have that counts. Current world #1 Fan Zhendong of China isn’t particularly tall at 5'8". Here are some relatively current players:

  • Tomislav Pucar (Croatia), 6'5½", current men’s world #45, and #30 in 2020.
  • Omar Assar (Egypt) 6'5¼" (196 cm), current men’s world #24, and #16 in 2018.
  • Koki Niwa (Japan), 5'4", who retired in Nov., 2022, was men’s #5 in world in 2017 and had 17 monthly rankings in the top ten.
  • Mima Ito (Japan), 5', current women’s world #6, and #2 in 2020.

Taller players generally have an advantage in power and reach. They have extra power primarily because a longer body (and especially playing arm) provide a naturally longer swing. They also create extra power by putting their weight into the shot. The extra reach allows them to more easily reach short balls and balls to the wide corners. However, the extra reach brings out a weakness: the center weakness. The farther apart the forehand and backhand strokes are (with the elbow roughly marking the midpoint), the larger the area that a player has to decide whether to use a forehand or a backhand, and the more the player has to move to cover for it.

The advantage of reach for a tall player can backfire. Shorter players have no choice but to move, and so are often forced to develop good footwork. Taller players aren't forced to move as often, and so they often do not develop good footwork. To compensate, taller players need to really focus on developing their footwork.

Shorter players have an advantage in foot quickness. The lower a player's mass, and the closer to the ground it is, the quicker the start. Taller players can compensate somewhat by bending their knees, using a wide stance, and crouching to lower their center of gravity. However, the larger muscles of a larger player do not fully compensate for their size, although training can. But a shorter player who trains equally will tend to be quicker.

The reason the larger muscles of a larger player don't quite compensate for their extra mass is that mass increases to the cube, while muscle strength goes up to the square. In other words, if you double in height without changing proportions, you become four times as strong, but your mass goes up eight times – so your relative strength is actually half what it was before. That's why insects and birds have such thin legs, while elephants and humans have relative tree-trunks for legs.

A shorter player also has an advantage in hand/arm quickness, both because the arm weighs less and because a shorter limb is easier to move quickly than a longer one, due to leverage.

Size is not the only factor in quickness. Constant practice of a specific motion increases quickness as the nervous system learns to react faster and faster. It's called neuromuscular adaptation and is why an advanced player reacts to a shot faster than a beginner. The type of muscle also makes a difference – "fast-twitch" muscles move quicker than "slow-twitch" muscles, which are primarily for stamina. Everybody is born with a certain percentage of each, but training can change the composition to an extent, as well as the efficiency of the muscles. Great sprinters have mostly fast-twitch muscles, while distance runners have more slow-twitch.

A shorter player also has a slight advantage in reflexes. Nerve impulses travel from the brain to the muscles at about 300 feet per second (205 mph), and so a shorter player reacts slightly faster. If the distance from the brain to the wrist on two players differs by one foot, the shorter player will be able to change his racket angle about 1/300 second faster than the taller player. A 70 mph smash travels about four inches in that time--and table tennis is a game of inches. But the taller player can simply back up maybe four inches or more, and use their longer reach to cover the slightly extra angles that allows the opponent, and use their extra power to make up for the slight loss of quickness.

An extremely tall player has a disadvantage in that the table is only 30 inches high. To compensate, a tall player must learn to stay very low, which can be hard on their legs. However, the tall player has an advantage in hitting lobs, which shorter players may have great difficulty with.

None of the above should be taken as gospel when choosing a playing style. There are very quick players who are tall, and powerful players who are short. (In fact, some short players use their natural quickness and lower center of gravity to throw their entire bodies into the shot even in fast rallies, and so develop great power.) But as a guideline, the above is a short summary to what tall and short players have to deal with and how to do so.

Published:

01/16/2023 - 14:36

Author: Larry Hodges

Many players confuse anticipation with reaction. Reaction is when you see what the opponent is going to do and then respond to it. (You can usually do so before he actually hits the ball, often early in their forward swing. Reaction is almost always more important than anticipation, but both have their place.) Anticipation is when you realize what your opponent is going to do before he gives a direct indication of what he’s going to do, and so can position yourself early for the shot. (A key thing is to know when he’s committed to a shot so you don’t move too soon and get burned if he changes direction.) How can you anticipate an opponent’s shot? Here are a few examples.

  • Patterns. Some players, in fast rallies or when pressed, hit almost everything crosscourt, so you can anticipate that. There are endless possible patterns as everyone’s different, so you should learn to pick up these patterns from different opponents. For example, when players go to my wide forehand, I like to set up like I’m going crosscourt, and at the last second go down the line. If I play it aggressively, most opponents can only react to my shot if they anticipate which direction I’m going—and smart ones learn to expect the down-the-line shot. (Very few do.)
  • Serve Returns. When receiving, many players are cautious, and so return most serves crosscourt. You can anticipate this. For example, if you serve deep to the backhand (especially with a sidespin serve that breaks away from them, such as a forehand pendulum serve), most players automatically return crosscourt. If your serve is good, then it’s tricky to attack it down the line, and so if your forehand is better than your backhand, you can edge over and look to attack with it from the backhand side. 
  • Your Positioning. If you go out of position, you can often anticipate your opponent will go to the “open” court. But since you know this early on, you can move before he actually hits there, and thereby get there in time. This especially happens when you attack with the forehand from the backhand corner, thereby leaving your wide forehand open. Smart players learn to return the ball to both angles, but many do not, and so you don’t have to wait to know where they are going—to the wide forehand.
  • Opponent’s Swing. You can often guess where an opponent is going from his backswing and the start of his forward swing. (This can also go down as reaction.) For example, if you go to an opponent’s wide forehand, and he takes a long backswing, he’s probably going down the line since he won’t have time to get outside the ball and take it crosscourt.
  • Against a Smash. Most players can’t react to a smash unless they can anticipate where it’s going. If so, then at the last second, as the opponent is starting his forward swing and is committed to a direction, you should anticipate the direction. With experience, you’ll learn the patterns for most opponents, and from that and from watching their swing well before contact, you’ll be able to begin anticipating their probable direction.
Published:

01/09/2023 - 15:16

Author: Larry Hodges

“I have slow reflexes!” I’ve heard that so many times in my coaching career and in every case, the player was wrong. Why? Because they don’t understand what gives a person fast reflexes, and how to develop them.

Nerve impulses from the brain to the muscles travel at about the same speed for everyone. It’s more complicated than that, and there are differences, but these differences are minimal compared to the aspects of those reflexes that you can develop. And there are two major things you can do to develop fast reflexes in table tennis. The first is obvious, the second not so obvious. 

First, the more you play, the more you develop these reflexes as just that–a reflex. When a beginner plays, he has to almost consciously react to each shot, and so he’s slow in reacting. Advanced players do so subconsciously, as they have developed fast reflexes to any given situation. This just comes from training. (It’s also somewhat sport-specific. There are studies that show that athletes with fast reflexes in their sport have only average reflexes when tested in other sports that they have not trained in extensively.)

Second, and here’s the one that’s less obvious and often less developed, you can improve your reflexes by learning to react sooner—and the key word is learning. How? By making a habit of studying opponents, both in practice and games, so that you are aware at what point in their stroke you can see where their shot is going. By doing so, it becomes a reflexive and subconscious habit. And so while many don’t even begin to react until they see the ball coming off the opponent’s racket, others are reacting well before contact since you don’t need to wait until the ball hits the racket to see where the ball is going. Every player is different, so you have to make adjustments—some advanced players, for example, can misdirect an opponent by faking one way and changing direction at the last second. But even with those players you can see when they are actually committed to a direction, and soon you’ll be reacting to their shot before they actually hit it. The reality is most players telegraph the direction of their shot by the time they start their forward swing, well before contact. (One key thing to watch is their shoulders, which often give direction away early.)

There are other things that also help you “speed up” your reflexes. If you put the ball deep on the table, you have more time to react. If, immediately after hitting your shot, you look up and watch your opponent, you can see what he’s doing and so react more quickly. If you stay balanced and in a good ready position, you can move more quickly.

The result of the above, and in particular the second method? Suddenly you are reacting much earlier to opponent’s shots, and suddenly those hard drives and even smashes are not so hard to react to. And that’s when you realize that those players with great reflexes only have them because they have trained reflexes. So can you. 

Published:

01/02/2023 - 16:20

Author: Larry Hodges

Like it or not, mind games are a part of all sports. They range from "stare downs" in boxing to starting arguments in any sport to force an opponent to lose his focus. The best way to deal with most of them is two-fold: 1) ignore them and keep your focus, and 2) call for the referee if it goes too far. Here are the most common mind games you might face in table tennis.

  • Intentionally showing up late for a match. This can irritate an opponent, leading to him not playing as well. If an opponent does this, smile to yourself and do your best to stay focused and ready. Do not be afraid to ask for a default if the opponent takes too long - check with the referee on how long you have to wait. (Some players are notorious for this. I'm tempted to name names!)
  • Stalling. This can also irritate an opponent. There's no problem with slowing down to a degree to keep your focus or to rest, but there are limits. If an opponent does this too much, get the referee.
  • Playing overly fast. This can trick the opponent into playing points before he is mentally or even physically ready. This you can easily control, especially on your serve. When the opponent is serving, not only should you not go to the table until you are ready (though you shouldn't stall), but you might consider holding your non-playing hand up as you get into your ready position, signaling you are not yet ready, so the opponent can't quick-serve you.
  • Praising an opponent. This gets an opponent to think about the very shots that he is doing well - and that's the quickest way for the shots to fall apart. The best play is almost mindless (other than tactical thinking between points), as you let the subconscious do what it's been trained to do. In general, other than keeping score and other game-related issues, you shouldn't talk to an opponent during a serious match nor should he talk to you. If he does in a distracting way, either give short, quick answers or just ignore him. If it gets out of hand, call for a referee. (In the final of Men's Singles at the Nationals one year, one player was winning relatively easily. The opponent began chanting the player's name between points, punching his fist into the air in unison, and motioned for the crowd to do so as well, which it did, over and over. The player who was winning fell apart and lost.)
  • Staring. Some players are infamous for just staring at their opponent, especially as they are about to serve. If they take too long doing this, call a referee.
  • Intentional minor infractions. They are done to cause irritate an opponent, thereby hurting his focus. These include toweling off at improper times, talking to people on sidelines (that might be coaching), arguing over the score or who serves, kicking the ball away, or walking around opponent's side of the table. When an opponent is losing, he may decide his best chance of winning is to distract the opponent so that he won't play as well - and it often works if an unwary opponent isn't ready for it. Ignore it, knowing opponent is desperate. If it gets too bad, call for the referee. (The classic case of this was the Men's Final at the 1987 World Championships, when, after coming back to reach deuce in the fourth (up 2-1 in games in a best of five to 21), China's Jiang Jialiang walked around the table, walking between his opponent and the table on the far side, pumping his fist the whole time. This seemed to distract his opponent, Jan-Ove Waldner, who lost the game and match.)
  • Screaming. Sometimes this is done innocently, especially by junior players, as a way to release tension - and most coaches, including me, encourage this, to a degree. Other times it is done to intimidate. Sometimes it is both. Since this is generally allowed, get used to it. In fact, you might consider doing it yourself so that it's not all one-sided and to release your own tension - some of it from the opponent's screaming! (For classic example, go to Youtube and pull any video of Japan's Harimoto Tomokazu.)
  • Outright cheating. Call the referee immediately.