Tip of the Week

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

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

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(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.)

January 20, 2020 - Whenever You Miss, Shadow Stroke

Monday, January 20, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

This is a bafflingly simple and short tip. I'm always amazed that when a player misses a shot, he expects it to fix itself. Instead, whenever you miss a shot, make a habit of shadow-practicing the shot as you should have done it. For example, if you loop off the end, shadow-practice how you should have looped it against that incoming ball. Over the decades I've played and coached, I've seen the obvious correlation between developing players who do this, and players who improve the fastest. Guess what? If you do this regularly, then like magic, you'll start doing it right, and you'll improve. It's either magic or the habit of shadow-practicing. Which is it?

January 13, 2020 - Don't Learn to Play Every Style - Learn to Adjust

Monday, January 13, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Many players believe that they need to learn to play every style. Well, according to my calculations, there are as many playing styles as there are players in the world. No, you don't need to learn to play every style.

It's true that it's helpful to understand how to play the major types of styles. Note how I said understand. That's because a tactic that works against one player of a particular style might not work against another of that general style, and if you don't understand the reason for the tactic, you'll have trouble adjusting to many players. For example, most choppers are weak in the middle, around their elbow area where they have to transition from backhand to forehand and vice versa. (Most players are weak there, but choppers more than most.) But some very defensive choppers have learned to cover well over half the table with their backhand chops, and so if you go to their apparent middle, you give them an easy chop. Instead, you'd need to go toward their forehand side, where their true middle is. If you don't understand the reason for going to the middle, then you wouldn't be able to adjust to this chopper, especially on the fly in the middle of a match. (It's after the match that you'd realize what happened and would pound your head in frustration.)

No, you do not need to know how to play every style. What you need to learn to do is adjust to any style. It should take you one or two rallies to have figured out where the true middle of that defensive chopper described above is. But if you blindly played the middle because that's how you are supposed to play choppers, it might have taken you a lot longer to figure it out, if you ever did. I've seen entire matches at relatively high levels where strong players never did figure out such seemingly obvious things because they were blindly going with conventional tactics rather than understanding and adjusting them for a given match.

Your job early in a match - or before the match, if you can scout the player or ask others about him - is to figure out how to play this player. Try forcing your own style on him, but with adjustments for how he plays. If you make this a habit, it becomes easier and easier, until it's basic instinct. And when tactics become almost instinctive, that's when you can most easily let yourself go and play in the zone.

January 6, 2020 - How to Develop a Nasty Forehand Flip

Monday, January 6, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

A nice forehand flip is a valuable weapon, especially if you can also flip with the backhand (which is usually easer than a forehand flip). It means that you can attack any short serve, so opposing servers are in constant danger. (If they serve long, then it's an even easier attack - you loop.) How do you develop one?

First, find a good coach or top player who can teach you proper technique and feed multiball. A few key tips:

  1. Watch videos - go to Youtube and search for "table tennis forehand flip." (It's also called a flick, especially in Europe.)
  2. Step in with your right foot (for righties), with left hand up some for balance.
  3. Keep racket tip low.
  4. Normally contact the ball at the top of the bounce, though some take it on the rise to rush the opponent.
  5. Put topspin on your flips, especially against backspin. Against no-spin or topspin, contact the ball more towards the top of the ball with a more forward stroke. Some players think of flipping as a "mini-loop." (Some players develop a flatter, usually slower flip, as a variation. That can be effective, but it should be a variation, not the primary flip.)
  6. When practicing, immediately step back into a normal ready position. Except perhaps when you are first learning, consider stepping in and back out as part of the stroke. You'll find this in-out footwork among the most physically demanding in table tennis - but remember that it's an Olympic sport!
  7. When flipping crosscourt, you can either flip aggressively to the corner, or go for extreme angles.
  8. To go down the line or to the middle, bring forearm and wrist back.
  9. If you establish an aggressive crosscourt flip (righty vs righty or lefty vs lefty), then just the threat forces the opponent to guard against that angle - and so all you have to do is flip consistently down the line to force a backhand exchange and take away the opponent's serving advantage.
  10. Unless the ball is high, you should rarely flip-kill. Focus on consistency and placement to take control of the rally.

Many players practice and become proficient at certain types of flips, but not others. For example, during my developing years I practiced and developed a very strong forehand flip against short backspin and short side-top serves. But I never really practiced against short no-spin, and the result is that, to this day, I don't flip very well against no-spin balls. (A few rivals figured this out in matches against me, and I lost matches because of it. But I was a terror flipping short serves that had spin!) Others only develop, for example, a crosscourt flip, and so can't disarm an opponent with a simple down-the-line flip, or by going after the middle.

Now it's time to practice. Here's a ten-step progression. (If you can't find someone to feed multiball, then you can improvise and simply have your practice partner serve short. But multiball is the more efficient, quicker way to perfect the shot.)

  1. Have coach feed multiball, short to forehand, with light backspin. You flip crosscourt.
  2. Have coach feed multiball, short to forehand, with heavy backspin. You flip crosscourt.
  3. Have coach feed multiball, short to forehand, with no spin. You flip crosscourt.
  4. Have coach feed multiball, short to forehand, with light backspin. You flip down the line.
  5. Have coach feed multiball, all short to forehand, with light backspin. You flip to where opponent's middle would be. You must step back after each shot into a normal ready position after each flip.
  6. Have coach mix up the spins on the short ball to the forehand. You flip to all parts of the table.
  7. Have coach alternate a short ball to the forehand, and a long ball to the backhand.
  8. Have coach randomly feed short to the forehand or long to the backhand.
  9. Have coach randomly feed short to the forehand or long to the backhand, and follow with two random topspins.
  10. Play games where both servers can only serve short to the forehand, and receiver must flip to anywhere on the table.

After you are comfortable with all ten steps above, play regular games with players who at least sometimes serve short to the forehand, and flip those every chance. Remember - unless the serve is high, the goal of the flip is to take control of the rally, not win it with one shot.

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.