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 16, 2018 - If You Miss a Practice Session, You Will Know

Wednesday, April 18, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

The great writer Ray Bradbury wrote, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, "Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know."

This quote applies to most pursuits where you might want to reach a high level, including table tennis. However, it only applies if you understand what Bradbury was actually saying. To some, he was merely making a factual observation. However, if that's your interpretation, I believe you are missing the point.

To one who wishes to reach a high level in something - anything - it is the thinking involved that Bradbury was referring to. While it might be true that after two days of not practicing, the critics would know, and after three days, the audiences would know, what's key is that first day - that if he did not practice for one day, he would know.

Why is this important? Because a champion has high standards or he would not be a champion, and so must set those standards himself, and not rely on what the critics or audiences think. He knows that to reach and maintain those standards, he must practice every day, excluding rest days (generally once a week). And after those rest days, when he knows he's missed a day, if he's a champion (or wants to be a champion), he'll be raring to go, to make up for that missed practice day.

Not everyone has time to practice every day, and you don't have to strive to be a champion in every endeavor. But you too should set a standard for how often you need to practice to reach your particular goals, and when you miss a session, you will know, and will strive to make sure it doesn't happen again. Hopefully, you won't miss so many that the critics and audience will know!!!

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April 9, 2018 - How to Return Nets and Edges

Monday, April 9, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

There are two main problems with returning nets and edges. First, they catch you off guard because they come out unexpectedly in unpredictable ways. And second, there's no way to practice against them systematically.

Except . . . neither of these statements are correct. Why is that?

It is true that you never know when the opponent is going to get a net or edge, so it's unexpected, and it's true that they will come out in unpredictable ways, depending on how they hit the net or edge. But they should not catch you off guard - you should always be ready for anything. This means being in a ready position ready to react to anything, and that includes "unexpected" nets and edges that come out in "unpredictable" ways. Yes, they usually lower your chance of making a good return and winning the point, but that's no different than if the opponent faked a smash and instead did a short drop shot. You just have to react and do the best you can.

It's also true that you can't systematically practice directly against nets and edges. Note the word "directly" that I stuck in there, because you can indirectly practice against nets and edges. How? By always training to be as light on your feet as possible, in a good ready position, ready to react and move in any direction needed. This allows you to quickly react to "unexpected" and "unpredictable" shots, including nets and edges.

Now let's suppose you've trained to always be ready to react to anything, and so you managed to get to that net or edge and are about to make a return. What do you do with it? In most cases, you should focus on controlling the ball back deep on the table, ideally with topspin or backspin. You should also place the ball. For example, against a strong forehand player who likes to play forehands from the backhand side, you might fake toward the backhand side, and then just roll, push, or chop the ball to the wide forehand, catching him going the wrong way. Or if he's s slower player with a strong forehand, perhaps fake to the forehand, then return deep to the backhand. The key is depth (which makes it harder for the opponent to rip the ball, or to attack at wide angles, plus giving you more time to react to the his shot), and doing something to mess him up, whether by putting spin on the ball, placing the shot, or faking one way and going another.

And there's one other key thing to returning nets and edges: Don't Panic!!! Often players get flustered by such shots. Stay cool and react as best you can, and you'll be surprised how many points you can win off these shots. Don't worry about the unreturnable nets and edges - you have no control over them - and instead focus on the ones you do have control over, and try to win those points.

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April 2, 2018 - Arrange Practice Partners in Advance

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Think of all the times you've gotten a great warm-up, and then played great. Now think of all the times where you showed up at a tournament, a league, or just to play matches are your club, and never felt warmed up, never really got started, and so played poorly. Why did that happen? A key here is that part about not feeling warmed up. Do you think you have a better chance of playing well if you warm up with someone you feel comfortable warming up with, or by randomly doing so with whoever just happens to be available when you arrive?

So why not take control of the situation and make sure you always get a good warm-up? It's simple - arrange in advance with someone to meet at a specific time, and then you assure yourself a good warm-up, and maximize your chances of playing well. Doing this for tournament and important league matches should be no-brainers - of course you should do so for those matches! But why not do it for practice nights as well? Then, after getting that great warm-up, you'll be ready to face anyone at the club, and play your best. 

March 26, 2018 - Finding Simple Tactics That Work

Monday, March 26, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

I was going to write about this topic when I realized I didn't have to - I already had. Chapter One of my book, "Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers," starts with this:

"Tactics isn't about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work."

What does this mean? Rather than explaining it again here, I'll simply quote from the book - and hopefully you will learn how to win the tactical battle and make the game simple and easy!

Tactics isn't about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work.

In simpler terms, the purpose of tactics is to mess up your opponent.

You do this by messing up his game, and by forcing your game on his. More specifically, tactics is finding ways to get your strengths into play while avoiding your opponent's, and going after the opponent's weaknesses while not letting him go after yours. It's figuring out how you win and lose points.

To do this, you have to know both your game and your opponent's. While you might go into a match not knowing much about your opponent (though ideally you would have scouted him out in advance), you should know all about your game. How well do you know your game?

If you couldn't write a book about your game, either you don't know your game, or you have no game. (We'll get back to this shortly.)

Table tennis is a game of utter complexity and utter simplicity. If you get too caught up in the myriad of complex strategies available, you'll be lost in a sea of uncertainty. Think KISS—"Keep It Simple, Stupid." Most matches are tactically won on at most two or three tactical things, not the zillions that are possible. It's finding those two or three out of the zillions that's key. On the other hand, if your thinking is too simple, you aren't maximizing your play.

There's no conflict here. Much of tactics involves simplifying things so the game becomes simple and easy. If you use tactics that force your opponent into predictable returns that feed into your strengths, you've won the tactical battle and made the game simple and easy.

March 19, 2018 - Your Goal Should Normally Be to Win Playing the Style You Are Developing

Monday, March 19, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

What does this mean? It doesn't mean you should blow big matches because you stubbornly refuse to play a smart tactic that's not how you normally play. What it means is that if you are trying to improve your game, then except in "big matches," you should focus on winning using the playing the style you are striving to develop. In other words, if it's not a big match, then it's somewhat of a practice match, and so you should be practicing your playing style.

What is a big match? It's whatever you define it to be, but you should define it for yourself. For some, it's any tournament match or league match. For others, it's only a championship match. For still others, it's nearly every match they play - and that's a mistake. The large majority of matches you play should not be considered big matches.

This doesn't mean you don't fight hard to win every match - you should. It means that, except in those big matches (where you should tactically do whatever you can to win), you should fight hard to win with the style you are trying to develop. (Note that sometimes, even in non-big matches, you might practice the tactics that win for that match rather than your playing style, but that's to develop tactical flexibility skills. Tactical rigidity is a recipe for poor tactics and poor play.)

As an example, I've seen many players who are loopers who are afraid to loop many deep serves because they miss too often, and they are afraid of losing. So they instead return them passively, and are moderately successful at it at the level they are playing - and since tactically it's the right thing to do at the time to win, they keep doing it. But it's a trap - they are dramatically limiting their looping style and their improvement by not looping these serves. Instead, except for a big match where tactically it might be better (at that time) to return them passively, they should be looping those deep serves. That's how you become better at looping those deep serves, and become a better player in the long run!

Another example are players who do not consistently try to follow up their serve with an attack, unless they get an easy ball. It might make tactical sense at the time, but it's a great hindrance to improvement. The primary purpose of the serve is to get the initiative, which almost always means by following it up with an attack. (If you want to improve, you should almost always follow your serve with an attack, unless the opponent returns your serve in such a way as to take away your attack. How you should attack depends on your playing style.

So what shots should you be developing that you shy away from because you are afraid of losing? How much better will you be later on if you start using those shots, even if you temporarily lose some winnable matches?