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.)

June 4, 2012 - Serving Short with Spin

Monday, June 4, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Many players face a devastating choice: Should you serve with lots of spin, with the serve going long and allowing the opponent to loop, or should you sacrifice spin, even serving with no spin, so you can keep the serve short? Actually, you can do both. In fact, the spinnier the serve, the easier it is to keep short.

Nearly every coach will tell you to first learn to serve with great spin. Holding back on the spin so you can serve short is a good way to develop a bad habit. When you can get great spin on the ball, then you learn to serve short - but this happens automatically. To get maximum spin, you need to whip the racket into the ball at full speed (using the arm to get the playing hand moving, and snapping the wrist into the ball just before contact) but barely graze the ball. Nearly all of the energy from your arm and wrist goes into spin. When that happens, the ball barely comes off the racket - and so it is easy to keep the ball short. Those who have difficulty serving short with spin are having trouble mostly because they are not grazing the ball finely enough - and so the solution isn't to serve with less spin; it's to serve with more spin by grazing the ball more.

The other reason a spinny serve might go long is the contact point is too high, which also leads to the serve being too high. Once you are grazing the ball very finely, you need to learn to serve it low with a low contact point, and learn where to bounce it on each side of the table for varying depths. If you barely graze the ball, you'll not only maximize the spin but since nearly all your energy is going into spin, you'll find yourself almost struggling to get the ball to reach and go over the net - which is a good thing. It means the serve will be short and spinny.

The ideal spin serve will, if given the chance, bounce twice on the opponent's side of the table, with the second bounce as close to the endline as possible. Sometimes a super-short serve is effective (which might bounce three or more times on the opponent's side, given the chance), as it forces the opponent to reach well over the table, but super-short serves are also easier to flip, push short, or quick-push at an angle. Many players use "tweeny" serves, where the second bounce is right around the endline, and the receiver is never quite sure if it will come off the end or not.

Once you have a true spin serve that you can serve short, that's when I'd recommend adding no-spin serves as a variation, and focusing on keeping this and the spin serves very low, with the second bounce near the endline. Serving no-spin when there's little threat of spin isn't as effective after the first few times. No-spin becomes far more effective when it can be done with a spin motion, when there's a threat of spin. (How do you serve no-spin with a spin motion? Several ways, but primarily by contacting the ball near the handle, where the racket travels slowly even in a vigorous serve.) A no-spin serve with a vigorous motion is called "heavy no-spin." Seriously!

It's easier to serve short backspin or no-spin than to serve short sidespin or topspin, or various combinations of these two. So many players fall into the habit of serving just backspin or no-spin when they want to serve short. This greatly limits their options, and makes things a lot easier for the opponent. Well-disguised backspin and no-spin serves are effective, but they are often even more effective if you can throw sidespin and topspin serves into the mix.

At the beginning/intermediate level, I recommend a player who has difficulty serving short with spin to add a simple short backspin serve, with the focus on keeping the ball low with as much backspin as possible while still keeping the ball short. This simple backspin serve should be a temporary serve, used only so the player doesn't spend all his time serve & blocking. (Also, since most players will push it back long, you get to practice your serve and loop a lot.)  Roughly speaking, by the time a player is 1800, a well-coached player should be able to serve with good spin and keep it short. By the time he's 2000, he should have varied spin serves that go short. By the time he's 2200 he should have varied and deceptive serves that go short. (He should also be able to do all this with long serves.)

But you don't have to wait until you're 1800, or 2000, or 2200 to do these things. There are many examples of players who really worked at their serves early on (both short and long), and were able to compete with "stronger" players because of this - and because of that stronger competition, they improved faster. Why not you?

March 28, 2012 - Make a Game of Your Weaknesses

Tuesday, May 29, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

One of the best ways to improve is to make a game that zeroes in on your weaknesses and forces you to improve them. There's nothing like a little fun competition to bring out your best!

For example, suppose you have a weak backhand counter-drive. Here's a game I've played with students for years, spotting points to make it competitive. I put a box, towel, or other object around the middle of the table so that my opponent has to aim for my backhand to keep the ball in play. Then we play backhand-to-backhand games, where either of us starts the rally by serving straight topspin, then we go at it, backhand-to-backhand. If the ball hits the box or towel, or goes to the other side of it, then they lose the point. If a player plays anything other than a backhand drive, they lose the point. The rallies become fast and furious - and the backhands improve!!!

Need work on your loop or block? Play a game where one player loops everything, the other blocks. You can do this either all crosscourt or all down the line (using a box or towel to block off the target area, as with the backhand-backhand game), so players know where the ball is going and so can focus on developing the loop or block. (At the advanced levels, you can do this where players can loop or block anywhere.) Alternate version - the blocker is allowed to smash or counterloop if he sees a weak loop. Another alternate version - both players battle it out counterlooping.

If you need work on your pushing, then play an all-pushing game with someone. Server serves backspin, and play out the rally, backspin only.

Want to learn to push short and low? Here's a great way to do that. Take turns serving short backspin, with both players pushing short. (Pushes can go anywhere.) If either player thinks the push is going to go long (i.e. wouldn't bounce twice if given the chance), he lets the push go, and if it's long, he wins the point; if it bounces twice, he loses the point. If a player pops a push up, the opponent is allowed to smash or flip kill it, but must win the point on one shot; if the opponent returns it (even by lobbing), then he wins the point. And, of course, if a player misses his push he loses the point.

One of my favorite games is the serve and attack game, which forces you to be very aggressive on your serve. Play a regular game except both players are allowed only two shots after the serve to win the point. There's nothing like the knowledge that you have to follow your serve with an attack to focus your mind on doing so - and thereby learning effective serve and attack patterns. It also developed your receive as you look for ways to stop the opponent's attack on his serve.

So examine your game, decide what weaknesses need work, and invent a game that'll force you to turn this weakness into a strength out of sheer competitiveness. 

March 21, 2012 - Forehand Deception with Shoulder Rotation

Monday, May 21, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Whether you are hitting or looping, you should normally line up your shoulders when you backswing on the forehand so that the shoulders roughly aim in the direction you are hitting towards. This maximizes your hitting zone and allows you to stroke naturally through the ball. If you don't rotate the shoulders back enough, you'll have an abbreviated stroke, costing you control and power. (The reverse is less often a problem, but if you do rotate the shoulders back too much, then the stroke becomes too long and cumbersome to control, as well as taking too long in a fast rally.)

So a top priority in developing the forehand is proper shoulder rotation. But once the shot is developed and the shoulder rotation natural, you can use this very shoulder rotation to deceive an opponent.

Imagine lining up to hit or loop a forehand crosscourt from your forehand side. You line the shoulders up during the backswing, and are about to start the forward swing. Your opponent sees your shoulder rotation, sees that they are lined up to hit crosscourt, and instinctively moves to react to a crosscourt shot since most players hit the ball wherever their shoulders line up to hit. Then, at the last second before starting your forward swing, you rotate the shoulders back a bit more, line them up for a down-the-line shot, and then hit down the line. Instant free point.

The key is that instant of "hesitation" where you have stopped your backswing with the shoulders lined up crosscourt, where you let the opponent react, and then the final extra bit of shoulder rotation before going down the line. The timing is surprisingly easy as long as you focus on lining up the shoulders properly for whatever direction you are going.

The shot can also be done with the forehand from the backhand side, where you aim down the line and at the last second go crosscourt. In both cases you are faking to the left (for a righty), but going to the right.

The alternate version is to line up your shoulders to go down the line from the forehand side, and simply rotate the shoulders forward more during the forward swing so that you hit crosscourt. Or from the backhand side, line up the shoulders to go crosscourt and go down the line. In these two cases, you are faking to the right (for a righty), but hitting to the left.

When doing these deceptive shots, note that some opponents automatically cover the wide crosscourt angle no matter how you line up your shoulders. Against this type of player you should mostly fake crosscourt before going down the line. Some might be so ingrained to cover the crosscourt angle that no deception is needed, just go down the line. But when/if they adjust to that, then you can fake the down the line and go crosscourt.

One consequence of the tendency for some opponents to cover the wide crosscourt angle is that it is sometimes less effective to fake down the line and then go crosscourt, since the opponent might be ready for that. This is especially true when doing a forehand from the backhand side, where even if you fake it down the line many opponents still guard the crosscourt angle. On the other hand, if you rotate your shoulders way back to fake down the line from the forehand side, most opponents tend to react to this down the line fake, leaving the crosscourt angle open. This is because few players over-rotate the shoulders (which is essentially what you are doing here), and so opponents are more likely to fall for this.

There are other ways of misdirecting an with your forehand. For example, you can learn to hit inside-out, where your shoulders aim left (for a righty) but your arm and wrist twist back at the last second and you go to the right, often with sidespin. However, that takes tremendous timing, and while many top players master the shot (especially when looping, where they have extra topspin to pull the shot down if it isn't timed perfectly), the simple last-second shoulder rotation allows you to get almost the same misdirection without developing the difficult timing of that inside-out shot. 

May 14, 2012 - Returning the Tomahawk Serve (or a Lefty Pendulum Serve)

Monday, May 14, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

This is the forehand serve where you serve with the racket tip up, and contact the ball on the right side so it curves to the left, and the spin makes the ball come to your right off the opponent's paddle. (This is for a righty. It's the same breaking spin as a lefty's forehand pendulum serve.) The serve normally has a combination of corkscrewspin and sidespin. 

It's awkward for many to take a ball spinning away from them on the forehand side and aim to their right, especially if the ball is short - try it and you'll see. Until you reach the advanced levels, nearly everyone returns this serve crosscourt toward the opponent's forehand side, and often they miss by going off the side to their left, or they allow the opponent to camp out on the forehand side.

Now think about this. Have you ever missed returning this serve by returning off the right side? Probably not. So just take it down the line, to the backhand, knowing the sidespin will keep you from going off the side. Contact the back of the ball, perhaps slightly on the left side, so that the ball goes to the right, down the line.

Keep the racket relatively high - don't lower it as you chase after it as it bounces and spins away from you, or you'll end up lifting the ball high or off the end. Better still, don't chase after it - anticipate the ball jumping away from you and be waiting for it, like a hunter ambushing his prey. It's often this last-second reaching for the ball that both loses control and forces the receiver to hit the ball on the right side, thereby making down-the-line returns impossible, with many returns going off the side to the left.

When the tomahawk serve is deep, it is often easier to loop down the line because by doing so you don't have to overcome the incoming sidespin so much.   When looping this type of sidespin crosscourt you contact the ball somewhat on the far side (the right side of the ball), going with the incoming spin, and so you have to overpower it. It's almost like looping against a backspin. If you take it down the line, you contact the ball more on the back, and so you are going against the spin, and so it's like looping a topspin. Just as when looping against topspin you don't have to lift the ball much when going down the line, so the table isn't in the way, and you don't have to overcome the incoming spin as you'd do against a backspin.

Because the table is in the way, many players compensate by rolling the ball back softly. If you place it well, you can get away with this. However, another way to handle this is to loop it aggressively, so you don't have to lower the racket below table level, so the table isn't in your way. This especially works if you loop crosscourt, since you may be able to backswing from the right side of the table. If you loop down the line the table may get in the way a bit more. As noted in the previous paragraph, the key when going crosscourt is that you have to overcome the incoming spin with your own topspin.

Finally, if you simply can't do anything aggressive with this serve, use placement and deception. Aim one way, and at the last second return the serve softly (and perhaps quicker off the bounce) the other way. For example, aim to the server's forehand, which is where he expects it, and then at the last second just pat the ball down the line. This pretty much takes the server's forehand out of play. If his backhand is stronger, try the reverse.

Note that the tomahawk serve is rarely used at the higher levels. (Though there are a few who specialize in it.) There's a reason for this; it's generally easier to read the spin off this serve (the wrist motion is more limited) and there's generally less variation than from other serves. Sure, you might have trouble with this serve the first few times an opponent pulls it on you. But after you've seen it a few times, and made adjustments, you should be able to take the initiative off this serve, and force most servers to use other serves.

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May 7, 2012 - How to Play and Practice with Weaker Players

Monday, May 7, 2012
by: Larry Hodges


In some table tennis club in Lake Wobegone, all the players are above average and you never play a weaker player. But the rest of us have to make do playing and practicing with whoever is at our club. And often that means playing and practicing with weaker players.

Some recoil at the idea. It's almost a mantra for many to say, "I want to play stronger players." And it helps tremendously to play stronger players if you want to improve rapidly. But you also need to play matches with weaker players, and you can get good practice with them as well. Here's why.

Stronger players tend to dominate the points, and if you only play them there's a tendency to develop a game that reacts to what the opponent is doing rather than forcing your game on the other. (This can be true for both matches and practice drills.) It's also harder to try new things against a stronger player since new things aren't usually developed yet and so don't work too well against better players. It's against weaker players that you can try out new things before they are ready to try against stronger players. Sure, you can try out new things against stronger players, but since you are new to these new things, you won't be very good at it, and may not get very good feedback since the stronger player will likely dominate against it.

For example, suppose you want to develop your short push against an opponent's short serve. Against weaker players you'll see weaker serves whose spin you can read, and develop control in dropping them short - and soon you'll be ready to try it out against stronger serves. If you start out against stronger serves you'll have more trouble reading the spin, and so rather than focusing on developing your ball control, you'll be forced to do two things at once - read the spin and control the ball. When developing something new, you want to focus on the new thing so you can perfect that aspect.

Or suppose you want to work on your loop. Against weaker players you can focus on good technique. Against a stronger player, any loop that's not strong might get smashed, counterlooped, or jab-blocked for a winner, putting pressure on you to go for stronger loops when you aren't ready to do that yet.

The other thing you can do in a practice game against a weaker player is to pit the weaker aspects of your game against their strengths. Or use simple serves and receives and try to win strictly by rallying or by attacking without the benefit of your better serve & receive. Or play nearly everything to their stronger side. In all these ways you create a stronger, more competitive opponent, and can get better practice.

You can get good drilling practice with weaker players as well. Rather than working on speed, focus on consistency and good technique. Do longer drills at a steady pace as you develop and hone your shots. Do drills that take advantage of the weaker player's strengths. Keep the drills simple so your opponent can focus on a few things and better react to your shots. Many players improved dramatically this way despite drilling mostly with weaker players. I know - long ago I went from 1850 to 2100 in two years practicing regularly with 1800 players, and rarely getting to play anyone stronger. It's a matter of making the most of what you have - and you'll be surprised at how much a practice partner or playing opponent has if you take advantage of their strengths rather than harp on their weaknesses and lower level of play.