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.)




June 6, 2011 - Practice Matches

Monday, June 6, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

A practice match is just that - a practice match. The problem is that many only get the second part - "match" - and forget about that first part - "practice."

This doesn't mean you don't take a practice match seriously or don't give it 100%. It's not a goof-off match; it's a practice match. But how should you approach a practice match differently than a tournament match?

To start with, you should treat most practice matches almost the same as a tournament match. That means playing to win. But there are differences. Winning may no longer be top priority. On the other hand, playing well should always be a priority in practice - even if you don't win.

In practice matches, if the goal is to improve, then this is your chance to practice whatever it is you need to improve. For example, if you're a blocker who is trying to develop his loop, practice matches are an opportunity to do that. Decide how you want to play in the future, and strive to play that way in practice. Your goal is to play well and to improve.

But not all opponents are the same. Some are weaker; some are about your own level, and some are stronger. How should you approach these matches?

Playing weaker players is a blessing. Now you can really practice your shots! Here's the chance for a blocker to work on his serve & loop; the looper to work on his blocking; and so on. Pick out something you need to work on, and go for it. Need to develop a counterloop? Let your opponent loop first and try to counterloop. Have trouble looping a heavy backspin? The weaker player might not have a good attack, but if he can push heavy, you have your practice. And so on. Against weaker players, practice your weaknesses, practice against their strengths, or go all the way and pit your weaknesses against their strengths. Or perhaps practice your own strengths, and see if you can completely dominate the match, if that's what needs work.

Against players your own level, find a balance. Here's where you incorporate the things you developed playing against weaker players. When there are no tournaments or other important matches coming up, try to improve and add on to your game. If there are important matches coming up, focus more on playing to win, while picking and choosing what new techniques you can now use. Use the match to practice your normal game. 

Against stronger players, here's your chance to push your own strengths to a higher level. Improving isn't just about working on your weaknesses; it's also about making your strengths dominating. Do you have a good loop? Now's your chance to see if you can dominate a stronger player with it. Do you play fast? Now's your chance to see if you can play at the pace of the stronger player. And so on.

Let's suppose one of these "practice" matches is close, and it's near the end of a game. What do you do? You could try winning with the shot or shots you are working on. Better still, this is your chance to practice learning how to win. So instead, play to win using whatever tactics are best. Practice isn't always about practicing a shot; it's also about practicing tactics. Learning to win, and what tactics to use to win, are huge practice.

Let me re-emphasize that you should give 100% in practice matches; otherwise, you aren't being fair to your partner, and you are wasting your own time. But use the time intelligently, and optimize the development of your game. Play to win, but play to win using the shots you want to use for winning. 



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May 30, 2011 - Play Into the Weird Stuff

Monday, May 30, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

 

Suppose your opponent has something that gives you problems. It could be a weird shot, like an inside-out or a sidespinning loop, or an extra-flat backhand, or a playing surface that gives you trouble. Should you avoid it? That's probably the first inclination, and if it's something you truly can avoid, then that might be the best strategy. But won't your opponent be trying to get whatever gives you trouble into play? You are probably going to have to deal with it. And the last thing you want to do is to still be having trouble with it near the end of the match, and lose because of it.

Instead, find chances to play into it when you are ready for it, and get comfortable against it. When you can do that, then you can play tactics to avoid it, knowing you'll be ready for it when necessary.

Here's one tip that may solve most of your problems with "weird" surfaces and strokes. Keep the ball deep on the table, and you'll have a lot more time to react and your opponent won't be able to angle you much. It's those short balls that come back quick and angled that cause most of the problems. 






May 23, 2011 - Pushing: Five out of Six Doesn't Cut It

Monday, May 23, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

 

When you push long, you must do six things. If you do four or five, your push might give intermediate players trouble. Most players do several of these things well, and never understand that if they did them all, even advanced players would have difficulty attacking their pushes. The six things that top players do when pushing deep to make their pushes effective?

  • Quick off the bounce
  • Deep
  • Low
  • Heavy
  • Angled
  • Disguised placement

If you do most of these, you'll give intermediate players trouble. If you do all of them, you'll give advanced players trouble.

A few notes on this. Angled placement doesn’t mean you never push quick to the middle—some players have trouble with that as they have to decide whether to use forehand or backhand—but most pushes should be angled to the corners. Disguised placement means not telegraphing where you are pushing, i.e. able to push to the wide forehand or backhand at the last second.

The first time I really thought about this as a set of six attributes was while playing a practice match with 13-year-old future USA team member Han Xiao. I liked to serve short backspin and loop with my forehand, but I was struggling to loop his pushes. After losing the match (he was already about 2400!), I mentioned how I couldn't serve and loop with any power and consistency. He said that's because Coach Cheng Yinghua (former Chinese team member and four-time USA Men's Singles Champion) had told him that if he did these things with his push, my loop would fall apart. It did. 






May 16, 2011 - A Levels Approach to Tactics

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

 

I like to divide tactics into five levels. First, think of your game and your opponent's game as a combination of strengths, average aspects, and weaknesses. Then there are nine possible combinations, divided into the five tactical levels.

Level 2 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's weaknesses

Level 1 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's average
  • Your average against opponent's weaknesses

Level 0 tactics

  • Your strengths against opponent's strengths
  • Your average against opponent's average
  • Your weaknesses against opponent's weaknesses

Level -1 tactics

  • Your average against opponent's strengths
  • Your weaknesses against opponent's average

Level -2 tactics

  • Your weaknesses against opponent's strengths

Next time you play a practice match, why not analyze your game and your opponents, and the tactics you use, and see what level tactics you are using? Are your tactics positive, or are you falling into negative territory?






May 9, 2011 - A Journey of Nine Feet Begins at Contact

Monday, May 9, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

When you serve, do you just serve? Or do you stop and visualize the serve first? And when you visualize the serve, do you visualize all of it, or just part of it? You should visualize the entire journey the serve takes, all nine feet of it (or 10.3 feet, if you serve crosscourt).

Contact point: How high from the table? Most players contact the ball too high, and so the ball bounces too high. Also, how far behind the endline? For spin serves, contact the ball just behind the endline - any further back simply gives the receiver more time to react, plus it's harder to control the depth from farther back, especially if you want to serve short. For fast & deep serves, contact is farther back so that the first bounce can be near your endline. Finally, where on the racket is the contact? For maximum spin, generally on the point on the racket furthest from the handle (the fastest moving spot). Or near the handle if you want to fake spin but serve no-spin. Visualize the contact.

Spin: How much and what type of spin? You should visualize this very clearly before serving. Also visualize any extra motion you use for deception, such as a changing follow-through to deceive the receiver.

Speed: How fast is the serve going out? If it's a spin serve, you don't want it going out too fast, as that would mean much of your energy went into speed instead of spin. However, even for a short serve, you might want it to have some pace to rush the opponent and to make it harder for him to control the return. Visualize the speed of the ball.

First bounce: Where on the table? Generally, for short serves, the first bounce is nearer the net. However, the farther the bounce is from the net, the lower you'll be able to serve as the ball will have a lower trajectory as it passes the net. You should clearly visualize where the ball is going to bounce, as well as how it will bounce out from there. (On the first bounce, spin doesn't take nearly as much as the second bounce, but it does affect the bounce some.) This is probably the most overlooked part of serving.

Curve in the air: How does the ball curve through the air? If a backspin, it should float; if a topspin, it should sink; if a sidespin, it should be breaking sideways. Visualize!

Height over net: You want the serve as low as possible. Visualize this! If it is bouncing too high, then either your contact point was too high, or you are serving downward too much.

Bounces on far side: Where is the first bounce? How does the ball break from the bounce? How high is the bounce? If too high, perhaps try serving so the first bounce on your side of the table is farther from the net, so the ball can cross the net with a lower trajectory. Given the chance, will there be a second bounce, and where would that be? Visualize it.

Putting it all together - the serve as a whole: Once you've visualized all of the above, you should think of it as one continuous thing, not a series of discrete parts. Visualize the contact, spin, speed, bounces, and path of the ball as a whole. Then serve a winner!