Tip of the Week

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

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

Have a question about a Tip of the Week? Ask on the Forum!!!

(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 25, 2012 - The Game is All Mental

Monday, June 25, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Okay, let's be up front about this - the game is not all mental. Or is it? At least indirectly, everything comes from the mental side. Even physical training cannot be effective unless you push yourself - and that's mental. Even more specifically, as a member of the USA Mini-Cadet Team recently reminded me, once you are out at the table playing a match, the game is all mental.

To quote Derek Nie (age 11, rated 2146), "You can't improve your skills at a tournament. So at tournaments, the game is all mental." I was his coach at the Eastern Opens a few weeks ago when he said this. He is a wise fifth grader.

In the middle of a big match, you are not going to get stronger, faster, or improve your stamina. You are not going to suddenly learn how to loop if you couldn't do so before. You won't suddenly learn techniques you didn't have before. What you have is what you brought into the match, and how you use them. The former you no longer have control over; the latter you have complete control, if you know how to do so. And it's all mental.

The mental game generally breaks down into two aspects: sports psychology and tactical skills. Sports psychology is your ability to play your best despite the pressure of a match. Tactical skills are your ability to figure out how best to use what weapons you have - and much of that comes from clear thinking that comes from sports psychology. Together, they should be your primary focus in a match. If you are able to play with relative calm and focus, and are able to think clearly and figure out how best to use your various techniques to win, you have a strong mental game. And that is why the game is all mental.

June 18, 2012 - Playing in Different Time Zones

Monday, June 18, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

It can be very tough playing well in tournaments after traveling, especially if you cross several time zones. For example, in the U.S., players on the east and west coast sometimes fly 3000 miles to play in the U.S. Open, USA Nationals, or North American Teams Championships. Often they play poorly, especially on the first day, and are frustrated. Sometimes they come back on day two and play well and conveniently "forget" how poorly they played the first day, and so never really figure out how to avoid it in the future.

Travel messes up your sleeping habits, with jet lag leading to fatigue. (So does dry air and varying air pressure, which can also cause nausea, as well as the general hassle of travel.) West coast players playing in east coast tournaments struggle to play effectively at 9AM, which is 6AM their time - meaning they probably had to get up at 4AM. East coast players have little trouble playing at 9AM in west coast tournaments, which is noon to them - but when they start playing in 7PM matches that go on until 9 or 10 PM, well, that's past midnight for them. Junior players are especially vulnerable to this.

If you travel west to east and don't have morning matches, or if you travel east to west and don't have nighttime matches, then you may consider simply sticking with your own time. If you travel west to east, you might want to get something to cover the windows so bright sunshine doesn't wake you up early and mess up your plans. 

Here are some ways to adjust to changing time zones. (Note - I may add more to this article later on, especially if I get good suggestions from others. One interesting thing I learned while doing some online searching is that some people use over-the-counter melatonin as a way to adjust their circadian rhythms and sleep habits - but I don't really know about this, and there are warnings to consult with a doctor first.)

1) One or two weeks before the tournament start adjusting to the local time of the tournament. Perhaps adjust your schedule by an hour two weeks in advance, another hour a week in advance, and a few days before the tournament you are on tournament local time.

2) Arrive at least two days before your main events begins. In some major tournaments you can get away with arriving the day before if your main event doesn't start on the first day. In this case the first day is more or less your "warm-up" day - but beware, you might not play well at the start if you only got there the day before, and it's sometimes difficult to come back from a bad start. If you go to a really major tournament only once or twice a year, perhaps come out two nights in advance, relax and have a little practice the day before (think of it as a vacation day), and by tournament time you are on top of the world, rested and ready to go.

3) Get extra practice at the tournament site the day before. There's nothing like a good workout to energize the body. Both drills and practice matches are effective. (Don't do this too late the night before or it might affect your sleep.)

4) If you really feel tired, go to the restroom and splash cold water on your face. It's a surprisingly simple yet effective tool. I've both done it and had students do it for years with surprising success.

For players traveling from East to West:

5) When you first arrive, you may feel like going to bed early local time, since what's "early" locally is late in your own time zone. Resist the urge. If you go to bed too early, you'll stay in your own time zone sleeping habits, wake up too early, and if you have matches the following night you may pay the price. Related to this is that many players sleep while traveling to the tournament, making it that much harder to go to sleep at the right time. Unless you are the type who can sleep at any time, avoid too much sleeping while traveling, since it'll make it harder to sleep later on. (This might be difficult for some, since many do sleep while flying to tournaments.) 

6) If you have to play nighttime matches, consider taking an afternoon nap during the tournament. Just a 20-30 minute nap will get you rejuvenated. But make sure to arrange a good practice session afterwards to get the body warmed up again.

7) One surprising solution: bright light a couple hours before the time you would normally go to bed will often change your circadian rhythms, delaying the time you'll go to sleep and get up, and more quickly get you into local time.

For players traveling from West to East:

8) The big problem here are the morning matches. Hopefully you've been going by local time before the tournament, at least to an extent. It's probably more important doing this for west-to-east players, who otherwise will face very difficult early morning matches when their bodies are still half asleep. To help wake up, get some morning exercise. Go out for a jog before breakfast. After breakfast, get to the playing hall early for an exhilarating work-out, with the focus on drills that are physical to get the body thoroughly awake and ready to play. A huge advantage here is multi-ball training, where you can drill very fast without losing control, as often happens when two players try to rally faster than usual. Or play practice matches, which often get a player going more effectively than just drills.

9) When you first get up, expose yourself to bright light. This wakes up the body quickly. To a lesser degree, so does splashing cold water on your face.

10) The temptation will be to stay up late the night before, since the local "late" isn't so late in your time zone. (This is even more tempting if you sleep while traveling to the tournament.) But if you do that, you'll pay the price when you have to get up. On the other hand, many people can't go to bed early; if they try, they'll just lie awake. But try to find a way. Perhaps go to bed early, but read until you are sleepy, and then go to sleep. Avoid things that will keep you awake in the hours before the time you should go to bed - excessive exercise (try to get this done before dinner time), eating too much too late, alcohol, and caffeine.

Just remember what your goal is when you travel to tournaments: to play well. If you prepare yourself so that you are alert and energetic at the start and finish each day, you'll probably play well. 

June 11, 2012 - Dealing with Cheaters and Poor Sportsmanship

Monday, June 11, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

How should one deal with people who cheat or have bad sportsmanship? There is a simple answer which would make this article very short: call for an umpire. However, umpires are not always available (and most of your matches will likely be practice matches anyway, where there are normally no umpires), so sometimes you'll have to deal with this on your own, especially if it's only poor sportsmanship, not outright cheating. Besides, you don't want to call for an umpire every time you think an opponent looks at you funny, so when possible, deal with the problem on your own.

Cheaters cheat because they want to win. There are limits to how you can deal with this short of calling for an umpire. If the opponent simply calls the score wrong, the remedy might be to simply call the score out loud every point, so the score is absolutely clear to you, your opponent, and anyone watching. Cheaters don't like this because it's hard to argue about the score when it's been called out loudly and clearly every point.

But there are other types of cheaters. They may serve illegally; use illegal surfaces; call lets on points that are not lets; claim their shot hit the edge or that your edge ball missed; and many other ways. You might be able to deal with some of these on your own. For example, if an opponent serves illegally (probably the most common form of "cheating"), politely explain why the serve wasn't legal. Ideally, catch the illegal serve and explain why the serve was illegal. If you attempt to return it, then the point counts. But you can still ask the opponent to serve legal between points.

If an opponent refuses to serve legally, and you can't get an umpire, then you are basically stuck, so deal with it. In tournaments you usually can get an umpire for this, but rarely in practice. And surprisingly, many umpires are reluctant to call many illegal serves. So you may have to learn to deal with some illegal serves. (Some illegal serves don't really give much of an advantage to the server, other than the fact that if they have to serve legally, they wouldn't be able to use their normal serves and they'd have difficulty serving effectively. Other illegal serves give a direct advantage to the serve, such as hiding contact, throwing the ball backwards into the racket, or excessively short tosses.)

Illegal surfaces are usually easier to deal with. You are allowed to examine an opponent's racket at the start of the match. If he has an illegal surface, even if there is no umpire you can ask the referee to look at it, and let him handle it. If there is no umpire or referee (i.e. usually a practice or perhaps a league match), then you'll have to deal with it on your own, and ask him to use a legal surface, or (as often happens in practice matches), just deal with it, and decide later whether to avoid playing that person again until he gets a legal surface. Except possibly in practice, you'll rarely have to deal with a player using the same color on both sides, but this can come up. Probably the most common illegal surface is frictionless long pips, which usually comes about when an opponent takes a legal long pips and treats it (usually with heat) to make them frictionless. Unfortunately, this is difficult for umpires or referees to judge.

Other types of cheating are harder to deal with. There's not a whole lot you can do if your opponent claims your edge ball missed or hit the side, or that his shot off the end or into the side hit the edge, or if he calls illegal lets or disagrees with your own rightly-called let. Of course, he may have just not seen what you saw, or perhaps you missed seeing what he saw, so don't be too quick to judge the opponent a cheater. Regardless of who is right, the only way to resolve a dispute like this is to call a let, which favors the one who is either wrong or outright cheating. It's up to you whether to call for an umpire (if available), using your own judgment over whether you think it will happen again.

Now the good news about cheaters: there are surprisingly few of them. Part of this is that repeat offenders get to be known, since not only opponents but people on the sidelines see it happening, and so most who might cheat quickly stop rather than face ridicule. However, there are always a few players, even at tournaments, who are regular cheaters. They are often well known to referees, who often watch these players and are quick to assign an umpire if needed. I've played tournaments where well-known cheaters informally had full-time umpires assigned to their matches.

There's a large overlap between cheating and poor sportsmanship, since cheating is simply a major form of poor sportsmanship. Players with poor sportsmanship outnumber actual cheaters. At tournaments there simply are not enough umpires to deal with every problem, so unless an opponent actually cheats, try to deal with most poor sportsmanship on your own.

There are two types of people who have bad sportsmanship. There are those where poor sportsmanship is simply a bad habit. And there are those who do it intentionally to gain an edge.

Examples of poor sportsmanship are forcing you to wait for them as they show up late; taking excessive time between points; constant complaining; any type of derogatory or belittling talk at an opponent; excessive yelling; or general bad behavior. Sports can bring out both the best and worst in people, and in many cases, it's the worst. One way to deal with most of this, if it doesn't actually break the rules, is to ignore it. Better still, become stronger because of it. If an opponent is constantly complaining or yelling, then he's obviously under great emotional stress. What a huge advantage that is for you if you are calm and relaxed!

The worst type of poor sportsmanship is when it's done intentionally to gain an edge. Suppose you show up for a match, and your opponent intentionally makes you wait for him. You can't really prove he did it on purpose, but the effect is the same: you are stuck out on the court waiting for his grand entrance. Just smile to yourself, knowing the opponent is so worried about the match he feels he needs even this tiny edge - and by doing so, you gain the edge.

The same is true of other types of bad behavior. Some opponents yell a lot between points; ignore it, or perhaps (if it is in your nature) occasionally yell yourself when you win a big point. The key here is that you don't want to feel intimidated by the opponent's yelling. Again, remember he's doing so because he's under emotional stress, and because he's worried about losing. So take it as a compliment, and turn it into your own edge.

It's when an opponent yells directly at you that he goes completely over the line. It's one thing to raise your fist and yell "Yes!" after winning a point. It's another to raise your fist directly at your opponent while looking him in the eye. There's no real rule against this, but it's poor sportsmanship, and some umpires and referees will warn an opponent against this. The worst case I ever saw of this was when a top 13-year-old was up 2-0 in games against a top U.S. player in a best of five. It was looking like a huge upset. In the third game the top player (who was over six feet tall and towered over his opponent, who was small for his age) won the first point, walked over to the 13-year-old's side of the table, put his fist right in the kid's face, and yelled "Yaaaaaah!" I was coaching the 13-year-old, and called for the referee immediately. It turned out the referee had seen this, but rather than default the opponent as I requested, he only warned him. The kid I was coaching was badly shaken and could barely continue. He played on half-heartedly, and lost badly three straight games.

 How can one deal with such a situation? It's very difficult unless you already were playing with a clear mind. Then you can look at it analytically, realize how scared the opponent is of losing, and turn his outburst into your advantage. Confidence usually beats nervous displays of arrogance.

Here are three simple points to remember when dealing with cheaters and poor sportsmanship.

  1. If possible, call an umpire. But be ready to deal with it on your own if necessary.
  2. Calling the score loudly every point will deter most score-changing cheaters as well as those who simply forget the score.
  3. Always remember it is their fear of you that causes them to act this way. Turn that to your advantage with your own confident play.

Last of all, there are those who read the above, and are copiously taking mental notes on how to use cheating and poor sportsmanship to gain an edge. I have one word for you: DON'T!

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.