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.)

September 11, 2017 - Make Adjusting a Habit by Playing Different Players

Tuesday, September 12, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players understand that you need to play many different styles to learn how to play against them. Otherwise, when you face them in a match, you will struggle with them. And so smart players make sure to play against a variety of styles, and learn how to play each of the main ones.

However, many players mistake playing different styles with playing different players. Let’s suppose you spend the large bulk of your playing time at your club playing against ten other players, most of them probably around your level. You might be playing against a decent range of playing styles, though probably not all. However, since you are playing mostly against the same players, week after week, month after month, even year after year, while you become very familiar and good against those players, there’s one huge thing you are not doing – and that’s making it a habit to adjust to different players.

It’s not enough to just play against different styles, though that’s a big part of it. If you play mostly the same players all the time, then aren’t regularly adjusting to new players. And so when you do have to adjust to a new player, it’s much more difficult to do then if you were playing different players regularly, in which you are constantly adjusting your game to players you rarely or never play, and so it becomes a habit.

There are really two types of adjusting. One is adjusting your strokes against different players. This is somewhat obvious. If you play in a tournament and your opponent uses long pips in a way you are not used to, or has a loop that’s different from the players you are used to playing against, or hits his shots flatter, or has a weird push, or has a different serve, or something else – everyone has something unique in their game – you have to adjust your strokes to these differences. If you are not used to playing different players regularly, you will likely struggle making the adjustment since adjusting your strokes to new players is not something you are used to doing. And so you struggle. Perhaps you eventually make the adjustment, but it’s also likely that you lose the match, and come off the table still uncomfortable with whatever it was the opponent did differently.

This type of adjustment isn’t subtle, and most players understand that they need to adjust their strokes against different opponents, even if they often go right back to playing the same group of players all the time. They at least understand the problem, and perhaps will make some attempt to fix it by looking to play different players. If they do this enough, they might develop the habit of adjusting their strokes to new opponents.

But as noted above, there is a second type of adjusting – tactical. This is more subtle. If you struggle to adjust your strokes to an opponent, it’s obvious. But if you aren’t used to adjusting your tactics to new opponents – which you develop by playing new opponents regularly – then you likely will not even realize it afterwards. You may have adjusted your strokes perfectly and felt comfortable out there, but still lost because, unknowingly, you aren’t used to adjusting your tactics to different opponents, and so play them as if they were one of the players you are used to playing.

I’m going to use my own game as an example here. During my prime years I had a very steady game – in fact, from my backhand corner to my wide forehand I had a brick wall defense that few could get through. Many opponents would have great rallies with me, but were unable to get through that steadiness. (I was primarily a forehand attacker, but once an opponent attacked I’d fall back on mostly blocking and countering.) What only a few smart opponents figured out was that while I was steady, I struggled with one type of attack – into my wide backhand, outside the corner. Those who played me regularly, and those that were used to adjusting to new opponents, figured out that when attacking against me, the goal was to get a ball that landed a little short, and then attack that ball just outside the corner on my backhand side. But since most tournament opponents did not play me regularly and were not good at adjusting tactically, most didn’t figure this out, and so when they got that slightly short ball, they’d continue to attack the corners and my middle (elbow), and I’d be a brick wall – but only because they failed to adjust by going after that huge hole off to the side of that brick wall.

While I’m on the topic of using my game as an example, I’m still amazed at how many opponents never figured out how strong I was forehand looping against forehand pendulum serves, while I struggled with the opposite type of sidespin (backhand, tomahawk, and reverse pendulum serves) – and so they’d continue to give me a steady diet of forehand pendulum serves to the point where I’d sometimes hold back just to encourage them to keep giving me those serves. (Thank you!) In both cases given here, my opponents usually were not in the habit of adjusting tactically to new players, and so they didn’t adjust tactically.

The root of the problem of not adjusting your strokes and tactics to new players is not regularly playing new players, which is where you develop the habit of making this adjustment. However, the latter – developing the habit of adjusting your tactics to new players – is a bit more subtle and insidious, as while the former pretty much you slaps you in the face if you don’t adjust, the latter does not.

The cure to all of this, of course, is to seek out new players, at your club, at different clubs, in leagues, and in tournaments. If this means playing against weaker players just so you can play someone different, then do so – everyone brings something different to the table that you can practice against. 

September 4, 2017 - Weapons to Allow Opponents to Beat Themselves

Wednesday, September 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players, especially in their developmental years, spend huge amounts of time developing direct weapons for winning – serves, footwork, and of course a big forehand or backhand. Or perhaps something more subtle, like a steady aggressive backhand, quick blocking, or steady looping that wears down an opponent. These are all direct weapons for beating an opponent.

But experienced players also develop weapons that allow an opponent to beat himself. For example, suppose your opponent likes to attack with his forehand from the backhand corner. You could attack yourself, thereby making his attack more difficult and the match might turn into a bashing contest. And most of the time a strong attack does win. However, you should also sometimes do something simple and yet high-percentage to win the point with less risk, especially when the opponent is serving. In the example here, perhaps just aim to his backhand side, and then at the last second – as the opponent begins to step around – change directions and do a simple push or block to the wide forehand.

There are many ways of allowing an opponent to beat himself. If he loops very fast all the time, he has little margin for error, so all you might have to do is vary the amount of spin on your push, and watch him miss as you go from light or no-spin to super-heavy backspin. Or change your contact point, sometimes taking the ball later, other times quicker, to throw off his timing. (A quick push can especially rush an opponent and create “unforced” errors.) If your opponent constantly counter-attacks, then simply vary your own shots dramatically so he can’t get his timing, and watch him beat himself as he misses against your barrage of varied pushes, blocks, and loops.  If he’s strong on both wings, rather than feed those powerful wings you might simple go to at least somewhat aggressively to his middle, and watch his shots struggle, plus put him out of position for the next shot. And, of course, if he’s over-aggressive on receive, give him a barrage of varied serves.

There are many ways of allowing an opponent to beat himself, but you can only learn them by trying different things out and seeing what works. It comes with experience, but only if you experiment. 

August 28, 2017 - Covering the Wide Angles

Monday, August 28, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players have trouble when an opponent attacks at a wide angle, whether it’s to the forehand or backhand. Here are five principles to help you cover them.

  1. Position yourself from the previous shot. That means if you put the ball to, say, the opponent’s wide forehand, he has an angle into your forehand. So you have to position yourself toward that side so you can cover it.
  2. Step to the ball. Many players lean or reach, but this greatly limits your range as well as the ability to make a good shot.
  3. Move in to block. Many players move sideways to cover the wide angles, which allows the ball to move away from you. Instead, move sideways and in and cut the ball off before it can get away from the table.
  4. Angle back. If the opponent angles you, he gives you the same or greater counter-angle. If he moves to cover it too much, you can catch him off guard by going down the line.
  5. Position yourself again. After moving wide to cover an angled shot, you need to get back into position quickly or risk leaving the table open. If you counter-angled back, then you don’t have to move too much as you need to cover his potential angled return – essentially a counter-counter-angle. 

August 21, 2017 - Fourth-Ball Backhand Loop Attack

Monday, August 21, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most valuable times to have a good backhand loop is when receiving – but not necessarily for the receive itself. It can also be a good backhand drive against backspin, especially for some older players and those with non-inverted surfaces, but an ability to attack backspin with the backhand is key to the fourth-ball attack. There are two basic ways of setting this up when receiving against a backspin serve. (Fourth-ball attack means you attack the fourth ball – serve, receive, server’s first shot, receiver’s second shot, which is the fourth ball.)

The first is to aggressively push the serve back - right off the bounce, heavy, low, deep, and angled into the server’s backhand. This will often catch the server off guard, leading to a push return, usually crosscourt right back to your backhand. And you are just standing there, waiting for it, with your backhand loop at the ready! Of course, the server may still attack this push, but it’ll likely be a weak or erratic attack, so be ready for that as well. But against many players, you’ll get to fourth-ball backhand attack.

The second is to push the serve back short. Since the server is likely hanging back, looking to attack a deep return, a short push can catch him off guard. What’s his most likely response? He’ll likely push it back, and often deep. Again, he’ll likely push it to your backhand, and you’ll be waiting with your backhand loop at the ready!

No tactic is perfect. In the first case above, the serve may still make a strong, consistent loop against your push. In the second case, he might push your short push back short, or flip it. If so, you change your tactics. But against many or most players, one of these tactics will often set you up for that backhand attack. If it doesn’t, before changing tactics you need to make sure you are doing it correctly – pushing aggressively in the first case, and pushing short (and low!) in the second.

Plus, none of this works if you can’t attack the push to the backhand, so practice that until you can do it against any long push. Older players often prefer backhand drives, but against a push, it’s surprisingly easy to develop a decent backhand loop at any age, so give it a try. (To be clear, loops are heavy topspin; drives are light topspin.) Make sure to place the backhand attack – players go crosscourt way too often when it’s usually more effective to attack the opponent’s middle (elbow) or wide forehand. 

August 14, 2017 - Attacking the Middle with the Forehand and Backhand

Monday, August 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Many players are effective at attacking an opponent’s middle with their backhands. (The middle is roughly the opponent’s elbow, the mid-point between forehand and backhand, which is usually the most awkward shot to react to.) This is because as they are lining up the shot, the opponent is in clear view. However, on the forehand, you turn sideways, and so lose sight of the opponent.

Top coaches often say that you have to learn to attack the opponent’s elbow early on to make it instinctive. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to develop this as a successful habit. However, I believe this is true more of the forehand than the backhand, and many players do learn to attack the middle with the backhand. So what can one do to learn to do so with the forehand?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is to practice it. The problem is that most players either don’t think about it much when playing games and so don’t develop it, or if they do try it, it’s not often enough to develop it as a habit. And so in game situations, either they simply don’t do go for the middle, or when they do, they miss this moving target, and instead give the opponent an easy forehand or backhand. So to learn to attack the middle with your forehand, you need to do it not just in games, but in drills.

The first step is to simply learn to hit there. Most players drill to the forehand or backhand corners, and so instinctively go there in games. To make a habit of going to the middle, do drills where your opponent literally sets up to play his backhand (or forehand) from where his elbow would normally be. For a righty in a typical ready position, this would normally be just to the left of the middle line.  So do drills where you hit to that spot to make it a habit.

But the middle is a moving target – your opponent isn’t always in the same spot. His ready position should move relative to where you are hitting the ball from. So his middle is in a different location depending on whether you are hitting the ball from the wide backhand, wide forehand, or any area between. So you need to do free-play drills where you focus on going after the middle. For example, do serve and attack drills where you go after the middle relentlessly. If the opponent tries to cover for it, you simply move your target to where his new middle is. If he does to play one-winged, perhaps covering the entire middle area with his forehand or backhand, then you might go to the open corner just to keep things honest, forcing him to go back to a more normal ready position.

If you don’t already attack the opponent’s middle with your backhand, then start developing that habit – it’s relatively easy since you can see your target in front of you, and line up your racket, ball, and the opponent’s middle. But you really need to do this with the forehand as well, so develop that as well with some systematic practice - and turn your forehand into an even more formidable weapon!