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.)

May 1, 2017 - Strive to Make Every Shot a Memorable One

Monday, May 1, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

How often do you play a careless, nonchalant shot, one that you’d like to quickly forget? Perhaps a soft, just get-the-ball-on-the-table push, or a please-hit-the-table loop, or perhaps a keep-the-ball-in-play backhand?

Now watch a top player, live or on video. (Go to Youtube.com and put in “Table Tennis” and lots will appear.) Watch and see how often they do careless, nonchalant, forgettable shots. Basically, never. They may make mistakes, but rarely do they do something where they aren’t even attempting to do the shot well. They strive to make every shot count . . . because Every Shot Counts. Even when they do something as simple as a push, watch how focused they are on doing it correctly, perfectly . . . memorably. For a top player, every shot is a memorable shot, or it’s a weak shot.

You should have the same attitude. It doesn’t matter whether you are looping and smashing, or just pushing and blocking; like the top players, you should strive to make every one of them a memorable shot. If you push long, make it a memorable push, one that the opponent has to struggle with because you did it so well that the shot would be remembered – if not for the fact that you are striving to make every shot memorable, and so it gets lost in a seas of memorable shots.

Memorable doesn’t mean spectacular. If the goal of the shot is to, say, simply tie up the opponent on his backhand side, a simple block will do. But it should be done correctly – perhaps right off the bounce, deep into the wide backhand, aggressive enough so the opponent can’t do anything with it. It may seem a boring, bland shot, but if you do it exactly as needed, so that it does exactly what it is supposed to do, it is a memorable shot. Maybe not to you, at first, but to the opponent it is memorable as it is the shot that he remembers that (in this example) keeps him tied up on his backhand.

And guess what? When you can string together many such memorable shots, you become the top player on the video players study to see how top players strive to make every shot memorable. 

April 24, 2017 - How Do You Develop Ball Control and a Feel for the Ball?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

We’ve all see those types of players who have this “feel” for the ball, who can adjust to anything and make the ball do anything. Some do it close to the table, with regular blocks at different speeds as well as topspin, chop, and sidespin blocks, or pushes they can put anywhere on the table, short or long. Others do it off the table, with lobbing, fishing, and counterloops. Anything these players can touch they can get back anywhere on the table, with varying spins and speeds. How do they develop these skills?

Like anything else, you develop this through practice. If a player can vary his blocks, it’s because he’s practiced this, either in drills or games. If he has great control of his pushes, he’s been practicing it. If he has great topspin control from off the table, it means he’s practiced it until he’s develop such a feel for the ball that he can topspin anything back, whether he’s counterlooping, fishing, or lobbing.

Suppose you want to develop an off-table topspin defense game. Then have someone practice their attack – whether looping or hitting – while you practice your off-table topspin defense game. It’s as simple as that. Many players complain they don’t have the feel for the ball needed for this, but that’s because they haven’t systematically practiced it, which is how you develop that feel. The same is true if you want to learn to vary your blocks – you have to practice these variations with a practice partner.

Note that when you do such practice, you are not only systematically practicing a specific shot, but you are also systematically practicing adjusting to incoming shots. While adjusting to an incoming shot is central to developing any shot, it’s more extreme with ball control shots – and making this a habit is central to developing a ball control game.

So you develop ball control with the same systematic approach as other shots, except instead of just systematically developing the shot, you also systematically develop the habit of adjustment. That means that if you are close to the table blocking, instead of just blocking the same way every time, try changing the pace, placement, and spin (topspin, sidespin, chop) of your blocks, and have your practice partner give you different shots to work against, until you develop a feel for such adjustments.

If you are more off the table, it’s the same thing, except now you are counterlooping, fishing, or lobbing – but do so with different spins (topspin, sidespin both ways), and with different contact points – sometimes top of the bounce, sometimes a little after that, sometimes (against a hard-hit shot) farther back, thereby developing a feel for these shots from anywhere on the court against any incoming shot.

It’s a different mentality than the more common systematic attacking, counter-attacking, or standard blocking play of most players – but that’s why many players aren’t ball control experts. It also doesn’t fit all parts of everyone’s game – some players are simply better with all-out attacks, rarely backing up (so rarely fishing, lobbing, or counterlooping from far off the table), and there’s nothing wrong with that – but that doesn’t mean they can’t develop ball control with other shots, such as pushing (short and long pushes against short backspin or no-spin serves) or change-of-pace blocks. And by using such ball control shots, they’ll learn when they are effective in setting up the other parts of their games – and maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn to add such ball control shots to their game at times when they are more effective than just blindly attacking or counter-attacking everything. 

April 17, 2017 - Serving to the Backhand Flipper

Monday, April 17, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

What do you do against a player who attacks all of your serves with his backhand, even the short ones? Even if you serve short to the forehand he reaches over and backhand flips. (Or perhaps he does forehand flip – much of this article deals with that as well.) He may be doing this with a regular backhand flip or a banana flip, but the effect is the same – you are on the defensive over and over on your own serve. What should you do? Here are six options.

  • Serve Low. Most players don't really serve low, and get away with it because most opponents don't attack backspin serves, especially if they are short. Become aware of how low your serve is when it crosses the net, and even more importantly, how low it bounces on the far side, and practice so you can serve with the ball barely above the net, with a nice low bounce on the far side. This makes it much harder to attack, and when an opponent does attack it, the attack is usually either softer or more erratic. (Here's my article Serving Low.)
  • Serve Long. If an opponent keeps attacking your shorter serves, throw deep serves at him. Few players are equally good at attacking short and long serves, especially if you mix them up. (Here are my articles Turn Opponents into Puppets with Long Serves and Fifteen Important Deep Serves.)
  • Serve Heavy. If you load up the backspin, many opponents will struggle to attack it. This is true of any spin, but heavy backspin especially will stop many attackers. If they do open their rackets a lot to attack this backspin, throw in a side-top serve and they’ll likely flip it off.
  • Backspin/No-Spin Combos. Mix up the spin, from backspin to no-spin serves. Often players who attack short serves use your spin against you – but when faced with a low, no-spin ball (key word: low!), have great difficulty. So throw no-spin balls at them, and watch them struggle – and then mix in backspin and other serves, including side-top and deep serves. (Here's my article The Power of a Low, Short, No-Spin Serve.)
  • Serve from Middle of Table. The problem with serving short to the forehand with some players is they just step over and receive backhand. What you need is more angle – so serve from the middle of the table. This gives you an angle into the forehand. If you use the same motion and can serve short to the forehand or long to the backhand, your opponent will have to guard against the latter, and so have to receive with their forehand when you serve into the forehand.
  • Counter-Attack. If you know your opponent is going to attack your serve, expect it, and be ready to counter-attack. Since you know it's coming, even against a quicker opponent you should be able to get one good counter-attack in, so make sure it's a good one – and that means place it well, either to the wide corners or (usually most effective on the first attack or counter-attack) the opponent's elbow. If the opponent is over the table attacking your short serve, you can jam him on that first shot. 

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April 10, 2017 - First Step to Blocking Well is Taking That First Step

Monday, April 10, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

We all do it at least sometimes, either out of laziness or bad habit (or more specifically, lack of a good habit). The opponent attacks, and the ball is perhaps foot or two away, or maybe just a few inches, and rather than step to the ball, allowing us to use our honed blocking technique, we instead just reach for the ball, and improvise the blocking stroke. You can get away with it to an extent, but the cost is an erratic block.

In the large majority of cases, it’s not that the player isn’t quick enough to take that step; it’s a matter of not having the habit. It doesn’t matter if the ball is one foot away or one inch, the stroke should start with your stepping into position so you can have a repeatable stroke, rather than an improvised, awkward one. Even against an extremely hard-hit shot you should reflexively be stepping toward the ball even as you reach for it.

You shouldn’t think of it in terms of whether or not you have to step to the ball. You should assume you have to step to the ball, and be flexing your knees slightly as the opponent is hitting as you prep yourself to move. And then, 99% of the time, you step to the ball, even if it’s just a one-inch step. To develop that habit takes practice, but with practice, it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll have a much better block! 

April 3, 2017 - Coaching Tournament Matches

Monday, April 3, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

[This is an excerpt from Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers.]

Many players either give or receive coaching at tournaments at some point. But what magic words of wisdom can a coach say between games that can transform a losing game into inspired victory?

If I had those words, I’d sell them for a lot of money.

Not having those words to give to you, here is the next best thing: what type of things you can say, as a coach, to get the most out of the short time you have between games with your player. It might not transform your player into a member of the National Team (or maybe it will), but it might turn a close loss into a victory, and might even make a lopsided match close.

Start by judging the player’s emotional state. Is he too tense? Too lackadaisical? If the first, your first job is to calm him down. If the latter, you must wake him up.

If you are coaching an overly excitable player, make sure to be calm and relaxed when you speak to him. Speak slowly and clearly. Tell him to take his time and clear his mind. If he is angry with himself, you have to get him to put that aside, maybe even say a joke to get his mind off whatever is bothering him. You have to clear his mind.

If the player seems lackluster, this doesn’t mean you do the reverse and talk fast and excitedly. (An interesting idea!) Tell him to fight! Use your own emotions to psych him up. Perhaps be a little excited. Let him know that his match is important, and perhaps he will start to think so as well. Note that a player often wants to win a match badly, and wants to try hard, but cannot get himself up for the match without help. You are that help.

Now that your player is properly psyched up and/or calm and relaxed, what do you tell him? The basic rule is: Not Too Much.

If you fill your player’s mind with ten intricate tactics for winning, all you’ve accomplished is confusing your player’s mind. He’s not going to remember much of it, if any. It’s best to decide the most important things, and forget the rest. Keep it simple. Remember KISS, which in this case can be for “Keep it Short and Simple.”

Remember the very start of chapter one? “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.” Remember this both when you play and when you coach.

A good breakdown of advice between games would be, at most, two or three things about serving, one or two things about receiving, and one or two things about rallying. But remember that less is often more—you don’t want to come up with the maximum number of items for each of these three areas. Sometimes you might only do perhaps one thing about serve, one about receive, and one about rallying. Or perhaps some other combination of two or three things.

During a rally a player can’t stop and think about each shot. The only time he can do that is when he is serving. Therefore, service tactics are the most useful ones that can be given, and the most easily followed.

Service tactics can be broken down into the same two types as they were in the chapter on Service Tactics: set-up serves and trick serves. Set-up serves are those that the player should use most often, i.e. perhaps serve short backspin to the forehand and follow with a loop, or maybe serve fast and deep and following up by hitting. Trick serves are those that a player can use to get a “free” point, but can only be used occasionally, such as a fast down-the-line serve to the forehand, or a fast no-spin to the middle. A good coach can figure out which of these types of serves will be most effective.

Receive tactics are often very specific. Should the player loop the deep serve? Against short serves, should the player mostly flip, push short, or push long? Should he return serves to the forehand or backhand side? But remember to remind the player to vary the receive. Often a player, in following the coach’s advice, becomes predictable.

Rallying tactics are the hardest for most players to follow—they can’t stop and think over what to do, and usually they’re busy getting back into position, rather than being in a ready position as when receiving. Give simple and more general strategy, such as “Stay close to the table,” or “Look for chances to attack his middle.” Or the generic, “Play aggressive!”

Service tactics should often be combined with how the serve should be followed up, since that’s normally the whole purpose of the serve. For example, you may tell a player to do a certain serve mostly short to the forehand and follow with a loop mostly to the opponent’s elbow.

One thing that often comes up: when coaching kids, don’t talk down to them. Literally. Squat down to their level. Deep down, it’s psychologically intimidating to have to crane your neck to look up at a coach, who is looking down at you while spewing his words of wisdom.

Also be careful about being preachy when coaching. Make it a two-way thing—there’s no crime in asking the player what his tactics are, and then expanding on what he’s already doing. Before a match, before I say anything tactical, I sometimes ask the player I’m coaching, “What’s your game plan?” If he has a good one, then all I do is expand on it.

Stay upbeat and positive. If you’re not happy with what the player is doing, there’s a temptation to be negative or start lecturing in a preachy fashion. This doesn’t help. Instead, stay positive as you coach. Always remember that what may seem simple from the sidelines isn’t always so simple at the table.

Never bring up the opponent’s rating. If the opponent is higher, it might intimidate your player, while if it’s lower, it puts pressure on them to win against this “weaker” opponent. Never mention how important the match is or anything else that might bring unneeded pressure to the match. In fact, do the opposite to remove pressure. I often tell players to imagine it’s just another match at the club.

Make sure you are familiar with a player’s game and skills if you are coaching him. The last thing you want to do is tell him to do something he isn’t able to do at a proficient level, or isn’t comfortable with. You might want to ask the player to let you know if there’s anything you are saying that he’s not comfortable with—otherwise you may never find out, and your coaching may be counter-productive.

Except occasionally at the beginning levels, between games is not the time to talk about technique. It’s too late; techniques have to be ingrained in advance. Occasionally a coach can spot a basic technique flaw that was causing the player to miss, but it’s rare that the player can make an adjustment on the fly in the middle of a match. However, there are exceptions.

Sometimes a coach doesn’t even have to coach much; sometimes all a player needs is someone he can explain his tactics to, to help him clarify his own thinking, though you should speak up if you have something to add. A good coach should be a good listener before and after matches, and even during a match, within the constraints of the short amount of time he has between games and in time-outs (one minute in each case).

A coach might also want to call a time-out at a key point in a match. See the section on this in the chapter on Conventional Tactics. Remember that the final decision on whether to take a time-out is the player’s, so I always tell my players in advance that if I call a time-out, but they feel they are focused and know what to do, they should turn it down and save the time-out for later when they may better need it.

Now for the clincher. If you are a player and don’t have a coach when you play, you can follow the above and coach yourself between games. Break things down as shown above, and pretty soon you’ll be your favorite, most reliable coach.