Butterfly Online

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.)

October 24, 2016 - Winning Cheap Points

Monday, October 24, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Cheap points are when you do something seemingly simple, often subtle, and force the opponent into an error. For example, you might push a serve back extra heavy, and the opponent loops into the net. Or, after serving short several times in a row, you serve fast at the receiver's middle, catching him off guard, and again get an easy point. Or a last second-change of direction. Or a suddenly well-placed dead block. There are many possibilities.

The problem is that most players are so focused on either ripping winners or keeping the ball in play that they don't develop the instincts to win these cheap points. Most of what they do is predictable, and while they may rip lots of winners and keep the ball in play, so does the opponent.

How do you learn to win such cheap points? Experiment, observe the result, and learn. This doesn't mean playing all sorts of weird shots; it means trying out different things and seeing what works - a last-second change of direction, an unexpected change of spin, a change-of-pace block, and so on. These are the type of things that win cheap points for you by your opponent missing or making a weak shot. You can also win cheap points on your serve by throwing in an occasional "trick" serve.

Here are some of my favorite ways to win a cheap point:

  1. Sudden fast serves, either breaking into wide backhand, no-spin to the middle (receiver's playing elbow), or quick down the line.
  2. After several backspin serves, a side-top or no-spin serve, but with a big downward follow through.
  3. Quick blocks and other attacks to the opponent's middle.
  4. Set up to loop crosscourt from forehand, at the last second rotate the shoulders back and go down the line.
  5. Set up to loop crosscourt from the backhand, at the last second whip the shoulders around and go down the line.
  6. Backhand loops that go down the line or at the elbow instead of the normal crosscourt ones.
  7. Aim a backhand crosscourt, then at the last second bring the wrist back and go down the line.
  8. Against short backspin, sudden very aggressive and angled pushes.
  9. Aim a push to the right, at the last second drop the racket tip and push to the left. Can be done short or long.
  10. Take a shot right off the bounce, throwing opponent's timing off. This can be done against serves or other shots, with quick drives, blocks, or pushes.
  11. Dead blocks that mess up opponent's timing. They can be no-spin, or chop blocks and sidespin blocks.
  12. Suddenly aggressive dead block, especially if you pin them down on the backhand.
  13. Slow spinny loops that drop short, near the net. Opponents often mistime them if they hesitate.
  14. No-spin "Dummy" loops. Exaggerate the normal looping motion but use no wrist.
  15. When fishing and lobbing, vary the height, placement, and spin of the shots.
  16. Place your weak shots. If you have to make a weak return, at least make the opponent move! Perhaps aim one way then go the other to catch the opponent off guard. 

October 17, 2016 - Play Both Weaker and Stronger Players

Monday, October 17, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Many players who want to improve make the mistake of trying to play mostly stronger players. The result is the opponent controls play, and all the player can do is react to the stronger player's shots, or go for wild shots. A player may develop some shots this way, but it'll be hard to develop new shots or to learn how to use them in a game situation.

If you are trying to improve you need to both try out new shots that you are developing and to try out new combinations and strategies. If you do this against a stronger player, you probably won't do so well, and you'll probably stop doing it. You won't have any way of knowing if the new shot, combination or strategy may work since the stronger player may win the point simply by being a stronger player against something you are just trying out and are not yet comfortable with.

Instead, try out new things against players who are weaker than you. Develop them against these players, in an environment where you can control play a little more (since you are the stronger player), and where you can see if the new things might work. Don't worry about winning or losing – this is practice – as you will undoubtedly lose sometimes when trying out something new, even against a weaker player. (Imagine how bad you'd lose in this case against a stronger player!) When your new techniques begin to work against a weaker player, then it's time to try them out against your peers and stronger players.

Example: suppose you want to develop your loop against backspin. The best way to do this is to serve backspin, and loop the pushed return. A stronger player may flip the serve, push short, quick push to a corner, or push extremely heavy – and you won't be able to develop the shot very well. A weaker player would be more likely to give you a ball that you can loop, which is what you need until the shot is more developed. You need to both develop the shot and your instincts on when to use it, how to follow it up, etc. When you can do it against a weaker player, then it's time to try it out against tougher competition.

Everyone wants to play against stronger players, and you do need to play stronger players so they can push you to play at a higher level. But often it helps to play weaker players so you can develop the weapons you'll want to use against those stronger players. 

October 11, 2016 - Taking the Shot Versus Letting it Happen

Tuesday, October 11, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

A common thinking problem when playing is thinking of an attacking shot as "going for a shot." This is a mistake – it leads to a deep-held belief that you are going for something risky and therefore inconsistent, which leaves you with a lack of confidence in the shot, which makes you hesitant, which leads to inconsistency.

Instead, think of any attacking shot as just another shot, no different than a push. You aren't "going for a shot," you are simply letting it happen by doing something you've probably done thousands of times before. If you haven't, then doing it a thousand times is your next assignment – it's called practice. Ideally, practice the shot with multiball training until it is so second nature that when it's time to do so in a real rally, it will still be second nature. Then do it in practice sessions with a partner, then practice games, and finally in real matches in tournaments or leagues.

Even if the shot is not yet second nature, you should still believe you will make it every time if you want to maximize your consistency. Know that you can make any shot that you reasonably might try. Don't force a shot; just let the shots that you've practiced happen, and they will happen far more consistently than if you force them or think that you are "going for a shot."

There's a simple test of whether you have the right mentality when attacking. You should be surprised when you miss, because you should be so sure you can make the shot that any other outcome doesn't enter you mind, leading to that surprise if you miss.

All of this is true whether you are attacking consistently or trying to end the point. You aren't "going for a shot." You are simply doing what you trained to do, what you know you can do, and what you expect to do. And if you do happen to miss, just shake your head in disbelief, make the needed adjustment, and know that you'll never miss again. 

October 3, 2016 - Returning Smashes: Reacting and Racket Angles

Monday, October 3, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

How often have you given up on a ball that your opponent is about to smash or loop-kill? And how many times have you gotten your racket on the ball against an opponent’s smash or hard-hit ball, only to put it off the end, further re-enforcing the futility of trying to win such points? It happens all the time. And it’s a crime.

Some will no doubt argue they don’t have the fast reflexes of a pro to return smashes. That’s a myth. You have fast enough reflexes, just not the proper reactions. A pro doesn’t see an incoming smash and react with incredible reflexes; he sees an opponent’s forward swing coming toward the ball, and reacts well before contact to where he sees the ball must be going. It’s that big head start he gets that makes him seem to have supernatural reflexes. He’s both moving into position and setting up for his return before the opponent even hits the ball. How do you learn to do this? By observing opponents and trying to read where their shots will go from their forward swing. If you do this regularly, it becomes a natural habit, and you’ll start reacting faster and faster. Most top players are barely aware of doing this since they’ve been doing it for so long, often since they were little kids, and so it’s all subconscious reactions.

But once you’ve reacted to the ball, you still have to return it. Here’s something you should live by when facing a smash or loop-kill: If you can get your racket on the ball, you should get it back. Unlike a loop, a smash doesn’t have much spin, and so the racket angle needed for returning a smash is easy to anticipate. All you have to do is practice getting the right angle, and lo and behold, if you touch it, it’ll go back. The same is actually true against a loop-kill as well – the racket angle needed to return one is almost the same for all, so once you get that angle, you can return them. (It’s often the topspin jump off the table that gives many players first against a strong loop.)

How do you practice all of this? That sort of answers itself; you practice it by having an opponent practice his smash (or loop-kill) while you block, counter, or fish. (No lobbing for this exercise.) At first have them go to one spot so you can practice getting the right racket angle until it’s second nature. Then have them move the smash about, and you watch their swing and try to see where their smash is going. Keep your shots deep; if you put the ball high and short, you have little time to react and they’ll have extreme angles. Soon you’ll be returning these “put-aways” like a pro – at least some of the time. 

September 26, 2016 - How to Play Against a Player with a Coach

Monday, September 26, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Imagine playing a tournament match. It’s you versus your opponent in this gladiatorial combat, with both players alone out there, on their own. Except . . . that’s not what happen when your opponent has a coach. It’s no longer you versus your opponent, it’s two against one, and you are the one. How can you best handle this? Here are some tips. (Note that at the time I’m writing this, USATT had just rejected, at least for the moment, the ITTF’s new coaching rule, whereby coaching is allowed at any time between points. If played under ITTF rules, where an opponent can receive coaching between points, some of the tactics change, especially #5 below.)

  1. Ignore the coach. If you let it get into your head and bother you, that will likely hurt you more than any golden words of advice the coach might say.
  2. Get your own coach. It evens the playing field, both tactically and psychologically. Often all you need is a sounding board between games, and even the appearance of having a coach can affect the opponent.
  3. Take advantage of it psychologically. You are thinking for yourself, while your opponent isn’t. This should give you confidence. Remember that the coach only gets to talk to the player between games and once for a timeout (assuming they are not playing under the ITTF’s coaching rule where coaches can coach between points), and so the rest of the time your opponent is out there alone, just like you. While he’s thinking, “What did my coach tell me to do?”, you are thinking, “What should I do tactically?” You have the superior thinking pattern here as you are thinking for yourself, and better able to adjust to changes in the game.
  4. Watch what your opponent does at the start of a new game and adjust. You figured out what your opponent is doing on your own; will your opponent be able to adjust to you without his coach?
  5. Play differently at the start of a new game. If you do this, your opponent, often a kid (or adult) who's just been told how to play against what you did in the previous game, will likely fall apart in frustration, since the tactics he was just given no longer work. You can literally alternate tactics each game. It's one of the reasons it's important to have a "B" game. This is probably the most important tactic when playing a player with a coach. Here’s an actual example of how I used this in a tournament match.

    In the first game, I mostly served backspin and looped his pushes. On his serve, I mostly forced rallies, often backhand-to-backhand, and out-steadied him. I won the game, but it was relatively close – the opponent was rated lower than me, but was competitive. I knew his coach would tell him to quick-push my serves to wide corners to stop my forehand attack, and to attack my middle in rallies. So in the second game I switched to serving mostly short side-top and no-spin serves (all disguised as backspin) that he proceeded to quick-push ten feet off the table. In rallies I went on the forehand attack and feasted on his balls to my middle. He got very frustrated and I won the second easily. In the third I went back to my first-game tactics and won all the points at the start. The coach called a timeout, but when they returned I switched to my second-game tactics, and went up 10-0. (I played a lobbing point there and sort of gave him a point, and then won 11-1.) After the match the poor kid threw a tantrum, blaming his coach for the loss.

So next time you play a match against someone with a coach, take advantage of the situation!