Tip of the Week

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

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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.)

June 5, 2017 - Rallying Tactics for Blockers

Tuesday, June 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

(This is an excerpt from Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers. The book also has sections on Serving Tactics for Blockers, Receiving Tactics for Blockers, Chop and Sidespin Blocking, and Playing Blockers. Several people have asked about tactics for blockers, so I might as well use what I've already written!)

There are generally three types of blockers: aggressive blockers, steady blockers, and change-of-pace blockers. A blocker should learn all three, but probably favor one of them.

Aggressive blockers should attack the wide corners and opponent’s elbow with nearly every shot. Their goal is to put so much pressure on the opponent that he finally misses or makes a weak return the blocker can put away. Many blockers use their backhand blocking to set up their forehand smash or loop-kill. (A good blocker who can smash effectively from both sides can be rather scary, but there aren’t too many of them.)

Steady blockers are just that. Since their blocks are not as aggressive, blocking to the opponent’s elbow isn’t as effective, so they should focus mostly on wide angles. However, sometimes this can backfire as an angled block can be attacked right back at a wide angle. So a steady blocker might sometimes want to go to the middle to cut off the angled return. This pulls the opponent out of position so he has to move more on the next shot, causing more mistakes. In general, a steady blocker wants to focus on the opponent’s weaker side, and go there over and over. Sometimes this means going to the strong side first, and the rest of the rally going after the weak side.

A change-of-pace blocker wants to throw off the opponent’s rhythm by changing the pace and depth of his blocks by mixing in aggressive and dead blocks. Often a faster block is easier to attack then one that dies more over the table, putting the table partly in the way and throwing off the opponent’s timing. However, too many dead blocks lose their effectiveness, so a change-of-pace blocker needs to complement his dead blocks with aggressive ones. (The exception might be a long pips blocker, but that’ll be covered in the chapter on Non-Inverted Surfaces.)

Some blockers change the pace with sidespin blocks, especially pips-out players and penholders with conventional backhands. It not only changes the pace, but the sidespin gives the opponent difficulty. It’s important for blockers to learn this technique; otherwise, they are missing an important tool in their tactical toolbox. Most often you sidespin block by moving the racket from right to left at contact, most often into the opponent’s wide backhand where it breaks away from him. Some sidespin block the other way by moving the racket from left to right at contact, often blocking this one into the wide forehand, where it breaks away from the opponent.

A blocker who can’t put the ball away effectively has a huge handicap. Imagine blocking someone all over the court, forcing the weak ball, and not being able to hit a winner! Most blockers develop at least an efficient smash for when they do get such a weak ball, but many do not develop a good attack otherwise (a strategic mistake), relying instead on quick, steady blocking to win the point, which limits their tactical options. A hitter/blocker, however, would end the point quickly as soon as he saw a ball to smash. There are also many looper-blockers, especially ones who loop on the forehand but mostly block on the backhand, which can be a pretty successful way to play, such as three-time World Men’s Singles Champion Guo Yuehua (1981, 83, 85), considered by many the greatest player ever, though his one-winged penhold looping style might not match up well these days against modern two-winged loopers.  

Some blockers with good attacks are a master of the “I’ll give you one chance to attack” strategy. This means they are willing to push long to a corner one time, challenging the opponent to go out of position to attack it. The opponent doesn’t get to pick his shot; the blocker only gives him one chance. If the opponent doesn’t attack, and instead pushes it back, the blocker takes the attack.

Conventional attacking players, especially loopers, often do not develop their blocking game even though they use it in matches. This is a handicap; if you are going to block in a game, you need to develop the shot to the fullest, including all of the methods outlined here.

One common weakness of blockers, including other styles who also block, is the lack of a forehand down-the-line block. When players loop to the forehand, it is almost invariably blocked crosscourt, even at the higher levels. This can be effective since you do have a wide angle to the forehand, and about 15.5 more inches going crosscourt than down the line. But going crosscourt is so common that players are used to this—but they are often absolutely frozen by an unexpected down-the-line block. The down-the-line forehand block is not a hard shot to do, it’s just one that few bother learning. This is partly because they warm up crosscourt so much, and because, deep down, they are trying to play it safe, and go where there’s more room and with the more natural block. Instead, learn to tilt the racket tip back so as to angle your forehand block down the line, and watch the awkward returns of your opponent!

Comments so far:: 1

May 29, 2017 - Contact Point on Racket When Serving

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

You can maximize, minimize, and otherwise vary the spin on your serve (for deception) by varying the contact point. How do you do this?

To maximize the spin, contact the ball near the tip, which is the fastest moving part of the racket when you serve, since it’s the farthest part from the wrist, which should be snapping the racket through the ball. If you really want to maximize this, you should normally contact it a little to the side of the tip. For example, for a righty serving a forehand pendulum serve, the wrist is on the right side of the racket, so the farthest part of the racket is the left side of the tip – and so you get the most spin by contacting it there.

However, maximizing spin isn’t the only thing a serve wants to do – he also wants to vary the spin. The simplest way is to simply contact the ball near the throat, which is moving much slower than the tip. The result is very little spin without changing the serving motion. If you are serving backspin, and the receiver doesn’t see the change in the contact point, he’ll think there’s more backspin on the ball then there is, and so will likely pop the ball up or go off the end. If you do serve a no-spin like this, make sure to sell it – a big follow-through!

Another way to vary the spin by varying the contact point is to change the axis of the racket’s rotation. If you serve with only a forearm motion, then the axis of rotation is the elbow. If you snap your wrist into the shot, then the axis of rotation is the wrist. But suppose, as you contact the ball, you change the axis of rotation to around the middle of the racket? Then the tip might be going down while the throat is moving sideways or up. If you contact it with the tip, you might get backspin, but if you contact it near the throat, you get sidespin, topspin, or a combination. But the receiver will see the tip moving down – vigorously! – and so will likely read it as backspin. Result? They pop it up or go off the end. Once again you have varied the spin without changing the serving motion.

These principles follow for all serves, but vary according to the specific serving motion. Start thinking about your motion, perhaps doing it in slow motion (without the ball) so you can practice varying the spin with the same motion. Then get a box of balls and practice it!

May 22, 2017 - Looping to the Forehand, Backhand, and Middle

Monday, May 22, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Looping to the different placements can get very different results. A type of loop to one part of the table might not work so well somewhere else. No two players are alike, so early on in any match you need to find out what type of looping works to the three main locations – wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle (roughly the opponent’s playing elbow). But there are certain types that generally work best – or not – to given locations.

Most players block more quickly and effectively on the backhand. However, because their body is in the way, they may get jammed and have trouble with deep, spinny loops. The downside is that you have the ball control to consistently keep it deep – a spinny loop that goes deep on the table might be highly effective, but the same loop a foot shorter may be killed or blocked aggressively.  

While most players aren’t as quick or effective on the forehand block, the body isn’t in the way. This means they are better against deeper loops than on the backhand, and may especially be good at attacking spinny loops, even if they go deep. But they don’t have as much control as on the backhand, and don’t cover the wide angle as well. Slow, spinny loops that land short to the forehand (where they react too slowly), mixed in with more aggressive ones to the wide forehand, will often throw off their timing. So variation and angle is often more effective here.

If a player has time, they can use their best shot against loops to the middle, often a backhand block or forehand counter-attack. And so when looping to the middle you want to be aggressive, rushing the opponent into mistakes. This doesn’t mean you have to rip the ball, but it needs to be fast enough to rush the opponent. Slow, spinny loops might not be as effective as the opponent has time to react and use his best shot. On the other hand, going to the middle takes away any extreme blocking angles.

To summarize:

  • Looping to backhand: Focus on depth and heavy topspin.
  • Looping to forehand: Focus on variation and angle.
  • Looping to middle: Focus on aggressiveness, but don't overdo it.

May 15, 2017 - Towel for Fast Serve Practice

Monday, May 15, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players, when trying to serve fast and deep, are not really aware of where the first bounce is on their side of the table. Even those who are aware have a hard time seeing it as it happens rather fast. To maximize the speed, you want the ball to bounce as close to your end-line as possible - but most players, when doing this serve, have the first bounce well over the table, usually over a foot in. When asked, they often aren't sure of where the first bounce is, but assume it's close to their end-line, even if it wasn't even close to that. How to solve this problem?

Spread a towel on your side of the table, about six inches from your end-line. Then practice your fast, deep serves. Your first ones will likely hit the towel - instant feedback!!! Try serving so the ball hits in that first six inches. If you have trouble doing it, try hitting the side of the table on your end-line. Eventually you'll become more aware of where your first bounce is, and learn to keep it close to your end-line, maximizing the speed of the serve. Once you've done that, watch how deep your serve goes - now's the time to make sure it hits very deep, or once again you are not maximizing the speed. Once you've learned to serve so the first bounce is near your end-line, and the second bounce near the opponent's end-line, you can work on perfecting the serve, with various topspins, sidespins, and flat versions, to the wide corners and where the opponent’s middle would be. (It turns out Douglas Adams was right about towels!) 

Here are some Tips on deep serves:

May 8, 2017 - Advantage of Passive Receives

Monday, May 8, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most coaches stress the importance of playing aggressive. This is especially true when you are serving, where you should generally follow up your serve with an attack unless the receiver does something to stop it. But many coaches also stress the importance of being aggressive on receive, and many players adopt this, and so are constantly attacking the serve. Against long serves, you should almost always be aggressive, but many are just as aggressive against short serves.

There are many advantages to this. By attacking the serve, the receiver takes control of the point, and the more he does this, the better he gets at it. There is, of course, the downside that if you are aggressive when receiving, you’ll make more mistakes. But that’s part of attacking, and is often offset by the points won by attacking the serve.

But there are also problems that arise with players who habitually attack the serve, especially short serves. Many players make it central to their game to flip nearly every serve, whether forehand or backhand. The first problem that comes out of this is that this type of player is predictable. An aggressive flip of a short serve is more effective when it is unexpected. When the receiver does this over and over, the server can adopt a serving plan specifically for that – focusing on serving very low, with great spin and/or spin variation. They can also position themselves after the serve for the predictable flip coming. Between the missed flips and the server being able to anticipate and prepare for the predictable flip, a smart server will have the advantage here against players his own level. This alone is reason enough for a smart receiver, even an aggressive one, to vary his receive.

But there’s a more hidden long-term problem with being overly aggressive against short serves. Players who habitually push short serves back long, giving the server the attack, learn to handle those attacks. Their games become much more flexible as they are comfortable both attacking and reacting to an opponent’s attack. (Note I didn’t say defending – some handle the opponent’s attack by counter-attacking, usually with aggressive blocking or counterlooping.) Players who attack most short serves often do not always develop this flexibility, and are only comfortable on the attack. This especially happens as a player improves and plays better players, who can counter-attack more effectively against these flipped receives – and so the attacking receiver, who might be used to dominating rallies with their flips, suddenly find themselves dealing with counter-attacks they aren’t used to or able to handle, and so have great difficulty in learning to deal with it – which wouldn’t have been a problem if they’d developed a more rounded receive from the start, with both aggressive and non-aggressive receives.

So it’s important to develop the skill of pushing short serves back long and handling opponent’s attack as at least one aspect of your receive game. Key to this, of course, is pushing long effectively – something you can only learn to do by doing it, just as you can only learn to flip a short serve or push it short by doing it. Practice all three – pushing long or short, and flipping – and you’ll have a much better receiving game and more developed game overall. Sometimes the best way of doing this is to have stages where you focus on one of these three receives until you are comfortable with it, and then focus on another – and eventually use all three interchangeably, depending on the opponent.

Here are some Tips on pushing.