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.)

March 20, 2017 - Everything You Wanted to Know About Down the Line

Monday, March 20, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players attack mostly crosscourt. There are good reasons for this – you have more table, and doesn’t give the opponent an extreme angle away from you on the return. But many players way overdo this. So let’s examine the facts about down-the-line attacks.

  1. Down-the-line is 9 feet. Crosscourt is about 10 feet 3.5 inches. That’s an extra 15.5 inches, making it a safer attack. But if you overdo it, it’s low percentage, since your opponent will be camped over there expecting it.
  2. Opponents often leave down-the-line open. When they see you attacking, they’ll immediately cover the crosscourt angle. Most players fall for this, since they are afraid that if they attack down the line, they’ll be open to a crosscourt angled return. It’s a legitimate concern – if the opponent is covering that line. At all levels, even among top players, there are many who guard against the crosscourt attack, and so are very good at it, relying on opponents who are afraid to go down the line.
  3. Aim crosscourt, go down-the-line. From the wide forehand, set up and backswing to attack crosscourt – then, at the last second, rotate your shoulders to the right and go down-the-line. The opponent will likely have moved to cover the crosscourt and you have an easy winner. Similarly, when doing a forehand attack from the backhand side, set up and backswing as if going crosscourt – then whip your shoulders around vigorously, taking the ball a little quicker, and go down the line. Again, it will often be an ace.
  4. What to do after a down-the-line attack. Since your opponent has an extreme crosscourt angle to block into, your ready position after your attack should be far enough in that direction that you can cover that angle – but you have to get there quickly. Don’t finish your follow through, and then move into position; you should follow through into that position. When you do a forehand from the wide forehand, you can use the momentum from your swing and from the right-to-left weight shift (for righties, reverse for lefties) to help get back into position quickly. When attacking a forehand from the backhand side, your weight should finish on your left foot (for a righty), and so you can push off that during your follow-through to get back into position.
  5. Practicing down-the-line. It’s great practice to attack down-the-line to a practice partner’s block. If you can attack this way consistently, then crosscourt is easy, plus down-the-line attacks in a match situation becomes natural from practicing that way. 

March 13, 2017 - Warm Up the Shots You’ll Be Using

Monday, March 13, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

One of the strangest things I see repeatedly at tournaments is watching players warm up for a match without warming up the actual shots they’ll be using. Most warmup with forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand, then perhaps looping versus block (and vice versa), perhaps a little footwork. Some will play out points, thereby technically using (and therefore “warming up”) all the shots that they use in game play, at least against that practice partner. But are they really maximizing the benefits of such a warm up?

Examine your game and see what shots you actually use in a match. Warming them up in the free-play of playing out points isn’t the most efficient way to warm each of them up. Instead, you want to systematically get each shot warmed up. That’s why experienced players come in early so they have extra time to get each shot ready.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you serve in a match? Of course, and yet how often do you warm up your serves? Or are your serves so basic that they don’t need a warm up? If so, then you better practice your serves until they are more front-line weapons that need warming up. Any serve you have will be better if you warm it up, which leads to more and varied spin, and better control. Better control means you serve lower to the net, more accurately to the opponent’s side, and with the depth you choose. Warming up deep serves is especially important, since they are most effective if they go very deep on the table – but can you really risk serving that deep without risking serving off if you don’t warm up the serve?

Then there’s the receive. Do you warm this up, or try to do so one receive at a time in an actual tournament match? That’s not every effective, and likely will lead to many early losses. Instead, arrange with your partner to do some receive practice, where you throw common serves at each other. Probably over half of tournament serves are forehand pendulum serves to the backhand, so why would someone play a tournament match without warming up against this serve? Better still, scout out your early-round opponents to see what serves they use, and try to get warmed up against them.

And then we get to the actual shots you use in a match. Forehand to Forehand, backhand to backhand, and looping against block are a good start, but what about looping against a push? Isn’t that what loopers will be doing over and over in a match? And yet many only loop against the block, then try to get this shot going in the heat of a tournament match. Do some serve and loop drills with your practice partner – serve backspin, he pushes, you loop. When it’s your partner’s turn, that’s when you warm up your block against an opening loop against backspin, which is usually spinnier than one against a block that most players warm up against. (And then they wonder why, in the tournament, they block off when the opponent loops against backspin.)

Oh, did you forget about your backhand loop? Yes, everything you warm up on the forehand needs the same treatment on the backhand. Amazingly, many players “forget” to warm up their backhand loop, and wonder why they aren’t comfortable using it in a match, especially early on.

Then there are all the other shots you might use, both forehand and backhand – pushing (both short and long), smashing, flipping, counterlooping, perhaps some off-table defense – chopping, fishing, or lobbing. If it’s something you use in a match, you should warm it up. If you sometimes lob, do you think you’ll lob better in the middle of a match without warming it up or if you do a few in advance to get the feel of the shot?

Lastly, you don’t want your first points you actually play to be in a tournament match. So after your shots are warmed up, play out some points. Some play games; most just play out the points for practice, with whoever has the ball serving. Play real points, with real serves, just as if they were tournament matches. Mentally, play it like it’s your first-round match. Then, when you do play your first match, you’ll feel like you are already into the second round, mentally and physically warmed up and ready to play.

So perhaps put together a checklist of all the things you need to warm up for a match, and bring it to tournaments as a reminder. It doesn’t have to be completely comprehensive; there are dozens of loop variations, for example, and you might not be able to warm them all up in the time allocated. (That running off-the-bounce inside-out sidespin forehand counterloop might not make the list.) Perhaps create two lists: things you must warm up, and things you should warm up.  

March 6, 2017 - Footwork and Strokes: Use ‘Em or Lose ‘Em

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Yes, I'm talking to you, the aging table tennis player reading this article, or the younger but lazier one. You both have the ability to move when you play, but you don't do it enough. Sure, you gradually slow down as you age, and so many older players become more backhand-oriented rather than attacking with their forehand, which takes more footwork. Sure, younger players may find that if they use less footwork and simply stand at the table, they won't get caught out of position. Both of these are defensible positions. But guess what? The loss of footwork begins with a single non-use of your footwork. The more you don't use footwork, the faster you lose it, which gives you more reason not to use it, which accelerates the loss of footwork, which . . . you get the idea.

It's not just footwork. When I was younger, I liked to counterloop off the bounce, or back up way off the table to counterloop. (Strangely, I was better at the two extremes.) Now that I'm older (read: stiffer and slower), these shots are harder to pull off. So it'd be best to stop using them, right? Then they'd become even harder to do from lack of use, making it even more important that I stop using them, accelerating the loss of these shots, which . . . you get the idea.

Let me rephrase what I said above: The loss of any part of your game begins with a single non-use of it. Because you can't stop using it without a first non-use. So keep using it, even if it leads to a few short-term losses.

February 27, 2017 - Forehand Follow-Through Back into Position

Monday, February 27, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

A common mistake when playing a shot from a wide corner is to finish the stroke in a relatively stationary position at that wide corner. This is especially true of forehands from the wide forehand, where players often don't return to a neutral position quickly enough for the next shot, and often have to lunge for the next shot if it's to their wide backhand.

The problem is they are not following through back into position. When you move wide to your forehand, moving back into position for the next shot needs to be part of the follow-through - in fact, the very momentum from the shot should be used to do so. Most often when going to the wide forehand you step wide with the right leg (for a righty). After contact, you should be pushing yourself back into position with that right leg, as well as using the momentum from your swing to do so. This gets you back very quickly, and allows you to come to a stop, in position, so you are ready for the next shot. (If you do a crossover to move extra wide, you can still use the momentum of the swing to get you moving back into position.) 

February 20, 2017 - Hitting Accurate Shots

Tuesday, February 21, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Players are often amazed at how accurate a top player can place his shots. This is an important skill to develop since the large majority of the time there are only three places you want to place your shots - wide forehand, wide backhand, and the opponent's middle (midway between forehand and backhand - see Attacking the Middle, where this is explained). When your shot goes elsewhere (i.e. toward the middle of the forehand or backhand sides) you give your opponent a much easier shot, where he doesn't even have to move much. And yet most players let their shots drift out of these three spots, and lose many matches as a result. So how can you learn to hit these shots accurately?

Obviously you can go out to the table and just practice relentlessly, aiming for these three shots. But there's a shortcut that'll help before you do all this relentless practice. Go to the backhand side of your table, stick your racket out as if you were doing a backhand block, and aim it crosscourt, wide to the opponent's backhand (if you are both righties). Make sure your racket is aimed right at the wide corner, or even slightly outside the corner. Keep holding the racket out there until you have literally memorized the feel of holding the racket in this position, so that in a game situation, you'll go into this position and hit the shot right to that spot.

Now repeat, except now aim it down the line. Again, memorize the feel of holding the racket in that position. Then repeat one more time, this time aiming at where the opponent's middle would be. (Alas, you actually have to do this twice, for a righty and lefty opponent, since the righty's middle will be a bit to the right of the midline, the lefty to the left.)

Once you've memorized the feel of the racket aiming where you want it to go, imagine the ball going to your left, and step there with your left foot, and imagine keeping the racket angle so that it still aims where you want it to go. Now imagine a ball going to your right, and step there with your right foot, and again imagine keeping the racket angle so that it still aims where you want it to go. Moving is no excuse for losing ball control - the ball will still go wherever you aim your racket.

Now repeat all of the above with your forehand!

Here are some complications to be aware of.

  • When blocking, you can keep the racket aimed exactly where you want it to go the entire shot, so aiming should be easy. (Advanced players learn to change the direction of the racket at the last second to throw opponent's off, and you should as well, but in the end you are still aiming the ball where you want it to go, and if you memorize the feel of the racket aiming in each direction, you can do this very quickly.) With longer strokes, the racket may not aim where you want it to go during the backswing, but it should do so well before contact. Learn to time this so that the racket aims where you want the ball to go far enough before contact that you can get the feel of aiming the racket to the three spots. (Four if you count the middle twice, one for righties and one for lefties.)
  • A ball with sidespin will bounce at least slightly sideways off your racket, and a ball coming at you from an angle will also bounce off your racket slightly sideways. However, if you stroke the ball sharply enough, this sideways movement is minimized to the point where you barely have to adjust for it.
  • Unlike playing to the wide forehand and backhand, the opponent's middle is a moving target. His middle is based on where he is standing. As the opponent moves in a rally, his middle will move. Also, some players have both a neutral stance (so middle is about midway between forehand and backhand) and a forehand- or backhand-favoring stance (and so the middle moves more to "weaker" side). The more you play an opponent's middle the more it becomes natural to find this moving target.
  • You won't always be hitting from the same spot. If you hit a backhand from the wide backhand, and another from the middle, you have to adjust where you aim the racket so that it still goes to the three spots. This quickly become second nature.

Once you get into the habit of aiming the racket by learning the feel of it, you'll be able to accurately hit shots to the corners and middle at will, against any incoming shot, and from all parts of the table. This will put tremendous pressure on opponents since you won't be giving them many easy shots - and this relentless ball placement will pay off in many wins!