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.)




October 15, 2012 - How to Handle the First Loop Off Backspin

Monday, October 15, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

A loop against backspin comes at you differently than one against block or topspin. At the lower levels, the loop against backspin is often the only loop they see, but as players reach the intermediate level and beyond, more and more they face loops against just about any deep ball.

And yet most players practice mostly against loops off block or (at the higher levels) counterlooping. Much of the reason for this is how easy it is to do drills where one player loops, the other blocks. You can do a continuous drill in this way, facing a loop something like every second, and rapidly become proficient at blocking (or at higher levels, counterlooping) such loops.

And then someone loops against your backspin in a match (usually off a push or a long backspin serve), and you miss. Why?

Three things that make a loop against backspin different
First, a loop against backspin usually has more topspin than other loops. This is because the looper is adding to the spin that's already there, i.e. using your backspin. The spinniest loops are those against the spinniest backspins.

Second, a loop against backspin is usually (not always) done closer to the table than a loop against a block or topspin. Most blocks and topspins force the opponent off the table, both in games and in drills. So you both have less time to react, and your opponent has more angle against you.

Third, since the loop against backspin is usually both spinier and done closer to the table than other loops, the trajectory of the ball is different. A slow, spinny loop against backspin often has more arc than other loops, which can throw off your timing. It also means you have to adjust your contact point. Against a more driving loop (i.e. less arc), you can just stick your racket out and let the ball come to you. Against a more arcing loop, you need to get your racket closer to where the ball hits the table or it'll bounce up, forcing you to lift your racket to react - and probably lifting the ball off the end.

How do you handle such a loop differently?
When blocking, take it quick off the bounce, with a slight jabbing motion at contact. You need to block somewhat aggressively or the ball's spin will jump off your racket. The harder you hit it, the less the spin will take. However, the harder you hit it, the less control you'll have, so you have to find a balance. You can also block less aggressively with a more closed racket (to compensate for how the ball will jump off your racket), relying on the softness of your shot to give the ball more time to drop as well as to throw off an opponent's timing, if he's used to more aggressive blocks, but if you do this too often opponent's will jump all over them.

When smashing or counterlooping against a loop against backspin, take the ball at the top of the bounce or even on the rise. This is where many players face problems as they are better doing this when the opponent loops from farther off the table, giving them more time. With less time, they are often late smashing or counterlooping. So the key here is not to hesitate. If you hesitate even slightly when attacking a slow, spinny loop, you will probably miss.

When counterlooping, make sure to loop nearly the very top of the ball. Any major lifting motion will send the ball off the end. You lift more when from off the table because the ball has more distance to travel, and so more time for the topspin and gravity to pull it down. Not so when looping against slow, spinny loop against backspin.

In general, against a loop that lands short, block aggressively, or smash or counterloop. Against a loop that lands deep, still play aggressive, but focus on control.

How to practice against a loop against backspin
Too often players only face loops against backspin in a game, and so they might get to practice it once every few minutes. If they do drill against it, it's a drill where one player starts off the drill with a loop against backspin and then they continue the drill (or free play), and again you only limited practice against this type of loop. What would be more valuable is a systematic way of practicing against this type of loop where you could do so over and over, like a multiball drill. Except a coach can't feed the type of topspin you see in a spinny loop against backspin.

Or can he? Here's an improvised multiball drill where you can face a loop against backspin over and over, and practice blocking, smashing, or counterlooping it, depending on your playing style and level.

First, get a box of balls, and set them on a chair or other stand near the table. The first player grabs a ball and serves backspin. The second player pushes it back to a pre-set spot. The first players loops. While the second player practices against this loop against backspin, the first player is already reaching for another ball from the box. DO NOT PLAY THE POINT OUT. Instead, the first player only serve and loops, and then grabs a new ball to do it again. The second player alternates pushing and practicing against the loop against backspin.

The result is one player gets lots of rapid-fire practice looping against backspin, while the other gets lots of rapid-fire practice against loops against backspin, with the added bonus of practicing his push. (Take that part seriously and your push will also improve.)

There are four variations of this drill.

  1. Variation One: the first player always loops to the second player's forehand.
  2. Variation Two: the first player always loops to the second player's backhand.
  3. Variation Three: the first player loops randomly either to the second player's forehand or backhand.
  4. Variation Four: the first player loops randomly to all parts of the table.

The first two variations allow you to focus on developing your technique against loops against backspin. The third one is your stepping stone toward doing it in a match situation, where it's simplified to just two possibilities. Ultimately, you need to get to the fourth variation, as that lets you rapid-fire practice what you'll face in a match - but if you can't do that consistently yet, then focus on the first three variations until you are ready for number four. So pick out the variation where you need the most work, and go practice!






October 9, 2012 - Training Cycles

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Training Cycles

So you have a big upcoming tournament a few months away, and want to prepare yourself to be at your best? Welcome to the world of training cycles.

Some players train the same way all year, and as a result they show steady improvement. However, that improvement comes about because of the sheer amount of training. Often these players lose at big tournaments to those who don't necessarily train more, but train smarter.

So how can you best prepare yourself for a big tournament coming a few months away? The first step is to assess where you are now, and where you want to be. Be honest with yourself: where is your game right now? Where do you want it to be for the big tournament? What parts of your game need improvement?

Break your game down into five parts: physical fitness, serves, receives, strokes & footwork (these go together), and sports psychology. Divide each of these into strengths (or potential strengths) and weaknesses. If it's borderline, perhaps think of it as a potential strength. (I'm talking more about the first four items; see info below on sports psychology.)

You need to put equal emphasis both on improving your weaknesses and on turning your strengths into overpowering ones. How do you turn a strength into an overpowering strength? Both by practicing the strength and by practicing the techniques that will get it into play. (Having a great loop isn't nearly as valuable if you don't have serves and receives that set it up, for example.)

Decide where each of these items isnow, and where each needs to be for the big tournament. Once you've made that assessment, you are ready to begin. It's always good to know where you are going before you begin.

You will now start a gradual progression where you start out by focusing on practicing the raw ingredients of your game (fitness, serve, receive, strokes & footwork), and gradually transition to match-type play. Here's a rough breakdown.

Fitness: What's your current fitness level, and where does it need to be for the big tournament? Do you need to work on general conditioning, weight training, stretching? Start out by doing longer but easier workouts, and gradually transition to more intense ones. For general conditioning, you can do running, cycling, or similar exercises, or you can focus on combining it with your table tennis by doing extensive footwork drills. (This saves time.) Weight training and stretching are musts for truly serious players, and are especially important as you get older.

Serves: How effective are your serves now, and where do they need to be for the big tournament? Do they consistently put pressure on your opponent while setting you up for your best shots? Start out by working on many varied serves. Get a box of balls and practice! Experiment, trying out different variations and copying others you have seen. Test them out in matches. As the big tournament approaches start to simplify by focusing on the ones you think will be most effective for you. (You might be developing other serves that won't be ready for the big tournament; put them aside, and go back to developing them afterwards.) Make sure you have lots of variations ready for different opponents with different receiving strengths and weaknesses.

Receives: How effective is your return of serve now, and where does it need to be for the big tournament? Can you consistently make good receives that stop the opponent from doing what he wants to do while setting you up to do what you want to do? Just as with serves, experiment with many varied receives and test them out in matches. As the big tournament approaches start to simplify by focusing on the ones you think will be most effective for you. Use matches to get feedback on what you need to develop. Ideally practice your receives in drills with a partner with good serves, who just serves over and over so you can practice your receive. (Playing out the point or keeping score is optional.) Otherwise you'll have to develop them in actual matches.

Strokes & Footwork: How strong are your strokes and footwork now, and where do they need to be for the big tournament? The two go together because you have to move to stroke; you can't have one without the other. The bulk of your practice will likely involve both. Early on focus on the basics, with lots of rote drills, i.e. drills where you know where the ball is going, such as side-to-side footwork. Make sure to use the same strokes you plan to use in the big tournament - if you are a looper, then do footwork drills where you loop; if you are a hitter, do footwork drills where you hit, etc.

As the big tournament, approaches the emphasis should gradually change to more random drills and match-type drills. Random drills are ones where you don't know where the next ball is going. For example, your partner might put the ball randomly to your forehand or backhand, and you have to react. Or he might put the ball randomly all over your forehand side, and you have to react and move to loop or hit your forehand. Match-type drills mimic match conditions, and generally start out with a serve and receive. (So they combine everything you are working on.) For example you might serve short backspin, your partner pushes long to your backhand, you loop to his backhand, he blocks to your forehand, and then it's free play. There are countless variations; examine what type of patterns you use in your game, and develop drills that match. You might also consider playing in some smaller tournaments as the big tournament approaches so you can be "tournament tough" for that one. 

Here is an article Six-Step Training Progression which covers the transition from basic strokes and footwork drills to more advanced ones.

Sports Psychology: All the training in the world won't help you if you show up too nervous to play or in some other way not ready to mentally compete at your best. Here are some resources on sports psychology.

Putting It All Together: As the big tournament approaches, it's time to put it all together. Now is the time to focus on lots of matches where you use what you've been practicing. The matches not only fine-tune your game, but also provide feedback as to what needs more work and what tactics you will be using in the big tournament.

The Gradual Transition: I want to emphasize that you don't only do basic rote drills at the start or only random and match-type drills at the end. You should be doing all of these drills in your training. It's a matter of degree as well as level. (Higher-level players will do more random and match-type drills early on, while beginners need more rote drills.) As the big tournament approaches, you increase the amount of random and match-type drills. You should also increase the intensity of the drills, often by doing more drills but for less time each.

The Big Tournament: The day finally arrives. You've prepared for this for months. Now is where the training pays off. To maximize your success here's a Ten-Point Plan to Tournament Success. Good luck!






October 1, 2012 - Short Serves to the Forehand from Backhand Side

Monday, October 1, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most under-utilized serves is the short serve to the forehand from the backhand side. Most players serve from the backhand side since this puts them in position to follow their serve with a forehand if there's a weak return. However, far too often players do this serve over and over crosscourt to the opponent's backhand. This makes it easier for the receiver to get into a rhythm and make effective returns. Instead, try serving short to the forehand. There are numerous advantages to this serve and only a few disadvantages.

The most common serves from the backhand side that go short to the forehand are the forehand pendulum and reverse pendulum serves, the backhand serve, and the forehand tomahawk serve. Pendulum serves are forehand serves with the racket tip down. Normally the racket goes right to left for a righty (with contact on the left side of the ball), but for a reverse pendulum serve it goes left to right (contact on the right side of the ball), which is awkward for many players starting out. Forehand tomahawk serves are done with the racket tip up, with racket going from left to right (contact on the right side of the ball). Some players do reverse tomahawk serves, with the racket moving right to left (and contact on the left side of the ball), and hitting the ball with the backhand side of the racket. Backhand serves are usually done with the racket moving left to right (with contact on the right side of the ball). Backhand serves are easier to keep low and short, but often have less variety than pendulum serves, where it's easier to go either direction at contact and to do subtle changes to vary the spin. Tomahawk serves are relatively easy to keep short, but are more difficult to serve with heavy backspin, and so are often predictably sidespin and topspin variations.

Left-to-right sidespins (i.e. backhand serves, tomahawk serves, and reverse pendulum serves) are often more effective since the sidespin requires the receiver to aim down the line, which is awkward to do when receiving a short ball with the forehand. When a receiver reaches in with the forehand it's easier to aim crosscourt, which is the direction you want to aim to compensate for a forehand pendulum serve.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of serving short to the forehand. (We're assuming two righties for this, but most applies to lefties as well.)

Advantages

  1. It's a variation that throws the receiver off from the more common serves into the backhand.
  2. Most players find receiving short balls to the forehand somewhat awkward with their forehand. In fact, many will try to receive this with their backhand. If so, then angle it even more to the forehand side (if necessary, serve more from the middle of the table, or even from the forehand side), or throw in deep serves to the backhand to keep them in position.
  3. Many receivers cannot forehand receive down the line against a ball short to their forehand, and you get a predictable return to your forehand.
  4. It draws the receiver in over the table, giving the server the opportunity to jam him on the next shot, either to the wide angles or middle.
  5. Against a player with a strong forehand but weaker backhand, a short serve to the forehand draws him in over the table, leaving him vulnerable on the backhand on the next shot.
  6. It's a shorter distance to the opponent's side than going crosscourt, and so rushes the opponent.
  7. You are closer to the net when serving down the line, and so it's easier to serve low, since your target is closer.
  8. You can throw in short serves to the middle as a variation. If the receiver has been receiving short balls with his forehand, he may find this change awkward if he's already looking to receive with the forehand.

Disadvantages

  1. It gives the receiver an angle into the server's wide forehand. This can leave the server vulnerable into two ways, to a wide-angled return to the forehand, or if the server moves over to cover the wide forehand, he may leave himself open on the backhand. (But see #3 above.)
  2. It's tricky keeping this serve short since you have less table than if you go crosscourt, and if it goes long, it's often an easy ball for the receiver to forehand loop.
  3. Since you usually don't want to serve long to the receiver's forehand (an easy ball to loop for most players), serves to the forehand tend to be short, while you can get away with long serves to the backhand more often (since most players don't backhand loop as well). This cuts down on the variety of serves you can do to the forehand. 





September 24, 2012 - Care of Equipment

Monday, September 24, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Care of Equipment

Here are some tips of proper care of your equipment. I'm amazed at how lazy players often are on these things!

  • Racket Covering: One of the simplest ways to keep your racket surface clean while playing is to lightly blow on it every few points and then wipe it off with a cloth. The blowing puts a very light moisture on the blade, which allows you to wipe off the surface so it's clean and dry. (Watch top players and you'll see many of them do this regularly.) When you are done playing, wipe it off with a damp towel, and after it dries (you can wipe it off lightly to hasten the process), cover it in a racket case or in plastic. This protects it from oxidizing with the air, and I can verify that sponges left out in the open deteriorate much faster than those covered. You might also cover the surface with plastic protective sheet, which will make it last even longer, especially if you only play occasionally. Occasionally use a rubber cleaner to wipe off grease. When the sponge begins to lose its bounciness, or an inverted sheet begins to lose its tackiness, or a pips-out surface has broken pips (or the surface of the pips are worn down), it's time to change. Keep the racket out of extreme heat and cold. If you are driving in the cold to play, keep the racket inside the car with you, not in the trunk where it's cold. (Otherwise the racket will be rather slow and dead until it warms up.)
  • Racket: Consider putting edge tape on the racket, if it's not already there. This is mostly cosmetic to protect it if you accidentally hit the table with your racket, as sometimes happens during play.
  • Shoes: Generally don't wear them except at the playing hall. They are not meant for walking, and don't give as much support as normal shoes. If you do wear them outside the playing hall, be careful not to get the soles dirty. If you do, wash them off. Otherwise, not only will you lose traction when you play, you'll track dirt into the player area. Don't. If you are playing on floors that aren't grippy, wash the soles of your shoes off to add traction. (Another good way to add traction is to step lightly on a wet towel every few points. You'll see top players do this all the time when they play on cement or wood floors; try it and you'll see.)
  • Shirt: Other than wearing something that's both comfortable and legal (see USATT rules 3.22 and 3.25, but primarily neat, not the same color as the ball, and without huge advertisements), what do I have to say here? If you have a nice table tennis shirt with a nice design on it, that design will slowly wear away with washing. To slow that down, turn the shirt inside-out when you wash it. That way the water in the washing cycle will hit against the inside of the shirt rather than directly on the design, which wears it away much faster. 


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September 17, 2012 - Why Table Tennis Really Is Chess at Light Speed

Monday, September 17, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

We often say table tennis is chess at light speed. It has all the tactics of chess except you don't have time to think things over - there's no time clock, just a ball coming at you, often at dizzying speeds. But table tennis is more like chess in other ways as well.

Most chess openings involve pushing pawns as players maneuver to control the center of the board and attack with their stronger pieces. Most table tennis rallies start with pushing as players maneuver to control the table and attack with their stronger shots.

Chess players try to control the board early on with their bishops and knights, which set up their more powerful pieces, the rooks and queen. Table tennis players try to take control of the rally early on with their opening loops and drives, which set up their more powerful shots, their smashes and loop kills.

Chess players often lose when they bring out their queen too early, before their other pieces are in position to support it. Table tennis players often lose when they try to smash or loop kill too early in the rally, before they've set up the shot.

In chess, if you lose your queen without taking the opponent's queen, you almost always lose. In table tennis, if you can't get your best shot into play while your opponent can, you almost always lose.

In chess you can start off by pushing your pawn one or two squares. In table tennis you can start off by pushing short or long.

Chess players all have a weakness - their king, which they must guard at all times. Table tennis players all have weaknesses, and they must guard those weaknesses at all times.

When a chess player is losing he often tries for a stalemate in desperation. When a table tennis player is losing a point he often lobs in desperation.

In chess the pawns are the weakest piece, but used properly, they can win by supporting stronger pieces, by smothering an opponent, or by getting "queened." In table tennis the push is often the weakest shot, but you can win with it by using it to set up stronger shots, by smothering an opponent with well-placed pushes, or by turning it into a powerful weapon with quickness, placement, heavy backspin, or keeping it short.

When a chess player doesn't know how to react to an opponent's opening, he studies and learns the proper moves. When a table tennis player can't return an opponent's serve, he practices and learns the proper receives.

In chess, you have a lot of time to think and plan before each move. In table tennis you have a lot of time to think and plan before each match.

In speed chess, you have little time to think and plan before each move. In table tennis you have little time to think and plan before the next point.

In chess, you run into time trouble if you can't quickly and instinctively see the right move in most circumstances. In table tennis you run into trouble if you can't quickly and instinctively see the right shot in most circumstances.

So yes, table tennis is just chess at lightning speed. Which means, of course, that chess is simply table tennis at a glacial pace!



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