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.)

July 17, 2017 - Sports Psychology

Monday, July 17, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Sports psychology, along with return of serve, are the two things in table tennis that nearly everyone has trouble with and yet few do anything about. How often have you lamented that you don’t play as well in tournaments as you do in practice matches? Found yourself nervous and unable to play your best? Been on the verge of winning a match and then got nervous and blew it?

Stroking and footwork drills aren’t going to solve these problems. You need to address what’s really going on. In the Sports Psychology section of TableTennisCoaching.com there are numerous links that should help. They include links to lots of articles and to five books that I recommend. (All five books are relatively short, quick reads.)



July 10, 2017 - Learn Control First on Receive

Tuesday, July 11, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

In this age of the banana flip, where no serve is so low or spinny that it can't be attacked, players often neglect to learn the most important part about receive - ball control. This means the ability to read the serve and return it consistently anywhere on the table without trying to kill it.

Instead, many players blindly attack every serve, often erratically. This is generally the right thing to do against deep serves as long as the attacks are consistent and well-placed loops (or for some, drives), not just loop kills. But against short serves, where you can both rush, angle, and short-ball your opponent, many players jump right to the banana flip, attacking everything like the world-class players often do. (Though world-class players don't attack every short serve - they still push short and even long as a variation.) Attacking the serve may seem the "cool" thing to do, but doing it every time makes you predictable as well as erratic, since you do it even against serves that are difficult to attack, but easy to return effectively in other ways.

For example, if a server mixes his serves up very well, and occasionally throws a very heavy, very low short backspin serve, it can be difficult to flip since you have to adjust to so many different spins. Why not perhaps half the time or more just push it short, or perhaps an aggressive deep push? If you aren't comfortable doing that, that's the whole point - you haven't developed the ball control part of your game, which includes both pushing short and long, and controlling the next shot if the opponent attacks.

Against short serves, the most important thing to learn is ball control. Learn to flip, yes, but also learn to push short or long (against backspin or no-spin). If you flip every time, the opponent knows it's coming and can just wait for it. Why make it so easy and predictable for him? The primary goal of the receive isn't to win the point; it's to neutralize the serve. If you do that, and force neutral rallies that way and win half the points, then you should be able to win the match on your own serve. Especially if your opponent is erratically and predictably trying to flip all your short serves! 

June 26, 2017 - One Point at a Time

Monday, June 26, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players think in terms of the score of the current game, or the game score of the current match. This puts tremendous unneeded pressure on the player. Instead, learn to focus on one point at a time, no matter the score. Jan-Ove Waldner, often called the greatest player of all time, once said that it was his ability to ignore everything except the next point that allowed him to play so well under pressure. Tactically, there are times when you may think ahead, such as deciding what two serves used in succession might best mess up an opponent. But other than that, only play and think one point at a time. Once that point is done, continue the same way with the next point – and you may be surprised how much easier and more relaxing this is!

June 19, 2017 - Importance of Routine

Monday, June 19, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Watch almost any top player a number of times just before he serves and you’ll notice something interesting – they go through the same routine each time. It’s part of mental rehearsal, which is what primes the brain (read – subconscious) for what’s about to happen. It’s almost like the famous Pavlov dog experiments, where they’d ring a bell just before feeding the dogs, and eventually the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. If you have a set routine for something, it similarly primes you for what you are about to do.

Let’s look at the top two players in the world, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, who recently played in the Men’s Final at the 2017 Worlds, with Ma Long winning, deuce in the seventh. We often watch truncated versions, where time between points is taken out, so never see what happens just before. Here’s the link to the start of the full match, 2:50 into the video.

Fan is serving at 0-0 in game one. What does he do here before this first serve, and repeatedly throughout the match when he serves? In rapid succession, he bounces the ball twice on the table, stops, bounces it two more times, stops, then bounces it two more times, and then he’s primed to play. I didn’t watch every point for this, only about ten, and he did this every time. (One time he bounced it three times, stopped as if realizing his error, and then did the six-bounce routine.)

Now watch when Ma Long serves. It’s a bit more subtle, but watch as he sets up to serve. He stretches out, holding the ball just over the middle line – and comes to a stop, holding the ball with his hand upside-down. You can see him focusing, and then he turns his hand over so the ball rests freely on the palm, and he’s primed to play.

In both cases, at some point they come to a stop, and while still, they are visualizing the serve they are about to do.

I have my own routine, which I’ve been doing before I serve for nearly 40 years. I give my right sleeve a tug with my left arm, then step to the table. As I step in, I drop my playing arm and pull it back and then forward, like a pendulum. I finish in my serving position, bounce the ball on the table one time, and I’m primed to play (and especially to serve!). I’ve found that in serve demonstrations, if I don’t go through this routine, I lose control of my serves.

On receive, players also have routines, but they are usually more subtle, involving swaying back and forth between the legs (watch Ma Long) as they get into their receive position, or just getting into their ready positions. This primes them physically, plus it clears their minds so they are ready to react to anything.

But routine isn’t important just before serving or receiving. It’s also good to have a pre-match routine. Some listen to music. Some meditate. Some shadow-practice. The purpose, once again, is to prime you for the match, which often means preparing the mind (often clearing it, and then thinking of a few tactical things), and the body physically.

So create your own routines – or steal one from someone! – and soon you will be primed for each match.  

June 12 - Great Serves are the Best Way to Avoid Upsets and Compete with Strong Players

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Of all the techniques in table tennis, serving is the one where playing level plays no part. What does that mean? It means that a high-level player doesn’t have any advantage over an intermediate player in developing great serves. When you serve, the ball’s not randomly moving or spinning – you just toss it in the air and hit it with your paddle. Anybody can practice that, and anybody can have great serves. It does take coaching to learn how to do it properly (with spin, deception, and control), and lots of practice time – but given those two, which is often what separates the elite from the non-elite, anyone can dominate with their serves.

And great serves are the best way to avoiding upsets, as well as the best way to put you in a position to compete with strong players. Great serves primarily do two things. First, they win you lots of points outright, either when the opponent misses them or pops them up, giving you an easy put-away. (This is especially true against weaker players.) Second, they set you up to attack in whatever way you do best. (This is especially important when playing stronger players, who won’t miss against your tricky serves as much.)

To use a personal example, last night I discussed this very topic with a student, who was about 1700 in level (making him a good intermediate player). Then we played points, where I’d serve, and all he had to do was get the ball back without popping it up. I threw every trick serve I had at him – fast no-spin at the elbow; reverse pendulum short to the forehand (breaking away from him); big breaking sidespin serves to the wide backhand (where I’d often fake a reverse pendulum serve, switching at the last second); side-top serves that looked like backspin (with my racket tip going down vigorously at contact, but the actual contact near the handle, where the racket was moving up); and others. He outright missed the first nine in a row before finally weakly popping one of them back. He’s now working on developing some of these serves.

But it’s not just trick serves. One of my regular “challenges” I do with students is where we play games where I serve every time, and have only one shot to win the point – serve and put-away. For these games, I mostly use straight third-ball serves, where I mix in very low backspin, sidespin, and no-spin serves, usually short to the middle (where second bounce, given the chance, would be near the receiver’s end-line, i.e. “half-long”), along with some of the trick serves above. Since I’ve been doing these serve and attacks for 41 years (I’ve played a long time), even at my relatively advanced age I get ball after ball that I can attack easily, and I’m primarily a forehand attacker. I don’t advice you develop a game where you have to put the ball away on the first shot after your serve, but you should develop serves that often let you do so, and regularly put you in a position to attack effectively.

Great serves also help you develop the rest of your game. They raise your overall level of play directly, and so you get to compete with stronger players, which pushes you to an even higher level of play. Plus they give you lots of practice following them up with attacks, which improves your attack and makes you even better. Develop your serves, and your whole game will spiral upwards!

As I often proclaim to students, the primary purpose of the serve is to set up your attack. This is even true for defensive players, who, if they develop good serves, should look to attack after their serve when they can, and fall back on defense if the shot isn’t there. This doesn’t mean serve and rip; it means following up the serve with a consistent attack, and putting the ball away only against weak returns.

The result of developing great serves? Using a mixture of “trick serves” and “third-ball serves,” you can play pretty poorly and still lock up weaker players, thereby avoiding bad losses that would normally be attributed to playing poorly. Good serves will also keep you in the game even against strong players, as you’ll at minimum get a few free points and get to start off half the rallies at an advantage. The rest of your game may have a bad day, but if you develop great serves and regularly practice them, you will never have a bad serving day – and with dominant serves, you’ll rarely have those bad losses from playing poorly.

So how do you develop these great serves? The same way you develop any technique – learn from coaches and top players with great serves, and practice, Practice, PRACTICE!