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.)

April 20, 2020 - Sometimes Challenge an Opponent's Strength

Monday, April 20, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Sometimes it's a good tactic to go after an opponent's strength. After all, his game is probably based on getting that shot into play, and so you are probably going to have to face it - so rather than have the opponent choose when he'll use it, why don't you pick choose those times?

For example, suppose your opponent has a very nice forehand loop. He's going to use the shot; there's no stopping that. You could play into his backhand, but then he could step around to use the forehand, and he gets to choose which shot he wants to do it off of. So why not simply attack his forehand side yourself, and force him to use his strength off a difficult ball, and then come right back to his backhand side, where he now has to play his weaker shot while moving?

Or suppose your opponent is a very good blocker. You keep getting stuck in rallies where he's quick-blocking the ball around the table, rushing you and forcing you into mistakes. Since he's going to block anyway, why not throw a slow, deep, spinny loop at him? That's often the most difficult ball for a blocker to quick-block - he has no speed to play off, it's deep so he can't really rush you, and the spin makes it tricky to block. And so rather than getting quick-blocked all over the table by his blocking strength, you'll get a weaker block that you can really attack. You've turned your opponent's strength into a weakness.

If a player has a good loop against deep serves to the backhand - whether forehand or backhand - you might be able to turn this into a weakness. If you serve very short to his forehand, he might have to stay closer to the table when receiving then he'd like - and now he gets jammed when you do give him that deep serve to the backhand.

Similarly, you can find ways to negate an opponent's strength and turn it into a weakness. When you do so, it's a double-whammy - you've both taken away his strength AND found a weakness!

April 13, 2020 - The Grinding Mentality - How to Play It and Against It

Monday, April 13, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Here is how I would describe the "grinding" mentality. It means a willingness to play as many shots as needed, never missing, while refusing to make a single weak return, whether pushing, chopping, or counter-hitting, with a focus on returning anything that's not smashed or loop-killed, and relying on your reflexes to return some of those. It's primarily a defensive mindset, though grinders will often attack when given the chance. Some counter-hitters can play with this mindset and be pretty aggressive. Some fisher-lobbers styles play this way as well, with the underlying assumption that, to them, when fishing and lobbing they aren't making weak returns, since they are confident they can return the opponent's smashes as long as they keep their balls deep on the table.

How do you play against such a style? The keys are patience and decisiveness. If you play a grinder the same way you'd play an attacker, then you'll likely make too many mistakes, which means you are playing right into their game. Instead, you should take your time on your shots and focus on consistency until you get the right shot. After all, unlike when playing an attacker, you aren't fighting for the attack. But when the shot's there, you have to instantly change your mentality and end the point decisively. The difficulty in playing this style is finding that balance between consistency and decisiveness. 

There are two great ways to learn to play against this type of mindset. The first is obvious - play against this type of player until you are comfortable. The other is to experiment with playing that way yourself, so you can see it from their point of view, and see how vulnerable they actually are, since they are basically letting the opponent dictate much of the play. Not only will you learn to play against that type of style, it'll improve your own consistency and ability to avoid weak returns, which will likely help your own game. So . . . happy grinding!

April 6, 2020 - Analyze an Unorthodox Style from the Opponent's Point of View

Monday, April 6, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Many players fear playing unorthodox styles because they both aren't used to and don't know how to play them. Often they spend so much of their mental energy trying to figure out what they should do that they don't consider it from the opponent's point of view. Doing so is a shortcut to finding out what you should do.

Here's an example. Suppose you are playing someone with a wristy forehand loop. It's spinny, and the amount of spin and direction are difficult to read. Every time he uses it you have trouble with it. You try to find tactics to avoid letting him use that shot, but this puts you at a disadvantage - you are adjusting your tactics to avoid your opponent's unorthodox shot, which, by definition, should be a weakness - otherwise it would be the norm, an orthodox shot!

So you look at it from the opponent's point of view, and realize that all that wristiness in the shot may give lots of spin and deception, but there's a reason most don't do the shot that way - it's hard to control! Perhaps not against a slow-moving shot, but against a fast incoming one. And then a flashbulb goes off in your head as you realize that your opponent can't really do this shot consistently or effectively if you attack that side, or just play quick shots there, or even serve fast. And so that's what you do!

Similarly, whenever you play an unorthodox player, look at it from his point of view. Does he have long pips that give back all your spin? From his point of view, that means he wants you to give him spin to return, but he can't do that with a no-spin ball - so that's what you give him. And so on with all other unorthodox styles. Always remember that if a style is unorthodox, there's a reason for that, and if you look at it from the unorthodox player's point of view, you'll likely find what exactly he doesn't want you to do.

March 30, 2020 - Tactics at the End of a Close Game

Monday, March 30, 2020
by: Larry Hodges

Many think that, at the end of a close game, they should change their tactics because of the score. I remember one player assuring me that, "When it's close, everyone knows you should play safe." When I asked him why that would be the right tactic, he said, "If you play safe, you won't mess up." I pointed out that if that were true, it would be true regardless of the score. He argued back that when it's close, you'll make more mistakes, so it's best to play safe. I asked him whether, under pressure, a player would be more nervous going for a consistent attack - where he is in control of what he's doing - or having to react to the opponent's attack, where he's not in control, and so is facing the unknown. He didn't have an answer for that, and didn't seem to get the idea that if you play safe, the opponent gets to play aggressive, and in the modern game of table tennis, the aggressor usually wins - and even more so under pressure!

So what should you do differently when it is close? Say the score is deuce in the fifth. There are only two things that change here.

First is psychological. If you are nervous, then you are likely to make more mistakes than usual. That sort of plays into the myth of "Play safe when it's close," except it doesn't take into account that: 1) the opponent might be even more nervous; 2) a nervous player likely makes more mistakes reacting to an opponent's shot (i.e. his attack) then attacking himself; and 3) the best way to overcome nervousness when it's close is to play your game, whether attacking or not, and so get used to playing under pressure. So in general, when it's close, it's best to take the initiative, using whatever part of your game you do best - and that usually means playing aggressively. (The attacker is taking the "risk" of taking the first shot, where if he misses the opponent doesn't even have to react to his shot, but this is usually more than offset by the factors given above. The exception, of course, is for a defensive player, who might want to focus on his defense and let the other guy make a mistake.)

Second is tactical, as in "No hold back." It's time now to use whatever worked before. If you have a serve that's worked well throughout the match, which you've been holding back on some so the opponent won't get used to it, now is the time to bring it out. Some players hesitate to do so, thinking the opponent will be expecting it, and that's occasionally true. However, the great majority of the time he won't be sure, and if he had trouble before, he'll probably have trouble again. If you don't use it, the likely scenario is that, after the match, he'll wonder why you didn't use that serve at the end, and if you lose, you'll be kicking yourself over not using it - and rightfully so. If a certain serve, stroke, or placement gave the opponent trouble, now's the time to use it! In general, with experience you get a feel for what tactics to bring back at the end of a close game.

Ultimately, the best tactic at the end of a close game is more long-term strategic - play lots of matches so you are often playing close games, maybe even play improvised games where you start each game at deuce. Then you will become comfortable and experienced in what to do in a close game, and the tactics will come naturally.

March 23, 2020 - Ten Table Tennis Truisms: Larry's Laws

Monday, March 23, 2020
by: Larry Hodges
  1. If you can't do it in your sleep, you can't do it consistently in a match.
  2. Practice everything in your game, but focus on your strengths and weaknesses. Remove the weaknesses and turn the strengths into overpowering ones.
  3. At the higher levels, if you can see it, loop it; if you can't see it, either reflex block or back up so you have time to loop it.
  4. Most players block better on the backhand. So focus on attacking the forehand and middle.
  5. If you push quick, heavy, low, wide, and deep, and can hide or change directions at the last second, and you do all of these things pretty well, you have a great push. If you do most of these things great but aren't good at one or two of them, you have a weak push.
  6. There are only three things in table tennis: move to the ball, get the right racket angle, and stroke. Do these well and you're the best in the world.
  7. If you improve your game, and start challenging better players, for about six months you will lose most close games in big matches to them because the other guy has more experience at that level. Keep at it and you'll start winning those close games.
  8. If players spent as much time practicing serves as they did complaining about having trouble with the other guy's serve, then the other guy would be the one complaining about having trouble with your serve.
  9. After every match ask yourself what you did to win and lose points. Then practice to do more of one and less of the other.
  10. There is no such thing as a weird style, just weak styles that you aren't used to.