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.)

September 10, 2012 - If You Can See It, You Can Loop It

Monday, September 10, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

This Tip is for those who wish to reach a high level of play, and who either play a looping style (like the large majority of top players) or are developing their style of play and aren't sure what direction to go. The modern game at the higher levels is an incredibly athletic, fast, and spinny sport. What were considered incredible shots in the past are now routine as the looping game has developed to the current level. Part of this comes from training, part of it comes with the realization that these shots are possible, and part of it comes from modern sponges, which are far superior for looping than the ones from the past. (If I had some of these modern inverted surfaces back in the 70s and 80s. . . oh boy!)

The down side is that we've lost much of the hitter versus looper battles of yesteryear. Hitters dominated the 1960s, 70s, and much of the 80s, but by the 1990s loopers dominated, and now there are essentially zero hitters at the highest levels. What this means is that if you want to reach the highest levels, or even to reach a relatively high level, you probably should be looping as well. This doesn't mean other styles can't compete below world-class level, just that they are at a disadvantage. So unless you have a very good reason not to, you should develop your game as a looper. (There are also some world-class choppers, but they are not so much choppers as chopper/loopers, who primarily chop on the backhand, usually with long pips, and chop, loop, and counterloop on the forehand.)

What exactly does this mean? At its most basic level, it means if the ball comes long and you can see it, you should train to loop it. Period. (My definition here of "seeing it" is any ball that's not coming at you so fast that you can't really do anything other than reflex block or back up well off the table so you have more time.)

This doesn't mean you can't smash balls that are high, though many top players loop those as well. What it means is you don't have time to make that split-second decision on whether to loop or do something else; that wastes time. Instead, assume you are going to loop it until proven otherwise, and react by immediately setting up to loop. If the ball comes at you so fast you simply can't react in time to loop, then by all means do a reflex block or counter, or back up and fish and lob. But in general, as the ball comes out to you, you should be reflexively setting up to loop.

There is one other complication - should you loop on both sides or just on the forehand? These days I'd say both sides. There are still many players who reach high levels looping their forehand but mostly hitting their backhands, but even that can be a disadvantage at the higher levels, where these backhand hitters are turned into blockers. And yet a good, hard backhand hit or strong blocking game combined with a good forehand loop can take you pretty far. But looping from both sides can take you even farther - just watch the very best players and see how nearly all of them loop nearly everything from both sides.

So to expand on what all this means at its most basic level, here is some advice I tell up-and-coming juniors from the intermediate level up - and remember my definition above of "seeing it.": On the forehand, if you can see it, loop it. If you can't see it, back off and loop it. On the backhand, if you can see it, loop it. If you can't see it, either block or back off and loop or fish. 

September 4, 2012 - Multiball Training

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Multiball Training

Most rallies at the intermediate level start out with backspin, often with the server looking to serve and loop. If he doesn't loop, then the receiver looks for a chance to loop. Whoever can open with a strong loop against backspin has a huge advantage. But many players practice looping against the block over and over, or occasionally do serve and loop drills where they get only one loop in the rally. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to practice looping against backspin systematically, over and over? (Well, that's easy - play a chopper. But there aren't that many choppers around these days. So what can you do if you don't have a chopper handy?)

And wouldn't it be great if there were a way to push yourself with stroking and footwork drills at a pace faster then you or your practice partner can rally consistently? Or to simulate game situations that you need work on?

The answer is multiball training. In multiball training, a coach or practice partner stands to the side of the table with a box of balls (on the left side if he's a righty), and feeds the ball to you. He does this by tossing the ball back, usually (though not always) letting it bounce on the table, and then hitting it to you with his paddle. In this way he can feed different spins and speeds to all parts of the table, either in systematic patterns or randomly. Essentially all of the best players in the world regularly use multiball training; the top Chinese players use multiball for about one-third of their practice sessions. (To see examples of this, go to Youtube.com and search for "table tennis multiball training.")

By having your partner feed you backspin over and over, you can practice looping against backspin, and get far more practice shots per minute (up to one per second or so) than if you just do serve and loop practice. Or the feeder can vary it, giving you a backspin and then a topspin, as it would be in a real rally (if opponent blocked your first loop back), and do so in rapid succession. Or he can feed topspin side to side or in other patterns so you can practice stroking and footwork. Or he can feed the ball randomly to all parts of the table (or to designated segments), simulating a real game.

All multiball drills are either rote drills, where you know where the ball is going, or random drills, where you do not, or some combination of the two. An example of a combination would be one ball to the middle that you attack with your forehand, followed by a random ball to either corner that you attack with forehand or backhand.

To do multiball training, you'll need a box of balls. You can do it with a few dozen balls, but most coaches start with a gross (144) or so of training balls. (Training balls are cheaper than tournament balls, i.e. 3-stars, and you can buy them a gross at a time rather inexpensively.) If you and a practice partner are doing this, start off by actually practicing your multiball. (When I first began coaching many years ago one of the first things I did was go off to a table and practice multiball feeding for about an hour.)

While most multiball training is fed from the side of the table, there are variations where the feeder feeds from the far side of the table, either by the end-line or from farther back, to simulate shots from those positions. And while most coaches bounce the ball on the table before feeding it, some speed things up by hitting the balls right out of the air without bouncing them.

There are an infinite number of multiball drills you can do; use your imagination. You can either isolate a specific shot that needs work (such as forehand or backhand loop or smash against backspin), the types of footwork drills you use in a match (such as side to side), or other match simulations. For example, when I played tournaments I liked to dominate the table with my forehand, so players would often serve short backspin to my forehand, then quick-push to my backhand to take my forehand out of play and force me to play my weaker backhand. So I did multiball drills where the feeder gave me a short backspin ball to my forehand, then a deep backspin to my backhand. I'd push the short ball, then step around and loop the second with my forehand. (For most players, I'd recommend looping the second ball with your backhand, unless you have very fast feet, so develop your backhand attack.)

Here are a few drills you can try, including ones mentioned above (so you don't have to keep consulting the text). Use your imagination; many top players and coaches make up drills on the spot to address a particular issue.

  • Looping against backspin from both wings from all parts of the table, either to one spot or to multiple or random spots. Examples include backspin alternating to wide forehand and middle, and you loop both with forehand; or backspin alternating from wide forehand to wide backhand, and you alternate looping forehand and backhand.
  • Backspin/topspin combinations. For example, backspin to the middle, followed by topspin to the wide forehand; you loop both with your forehand. Or a longer pattern such as four feeds alternating between backhand and forehand, where perhaps the first is backspin, the next three are topspin, all in quick succession as in a match, and you have to attack all four shots.
  • 2-1 drill, also called the backhand-forehand-forehand or Falkenberg drill (for the Falkenberg club in Sweden, where it was popularized by 1971 World Men's Singles Champion Stellan Bengtsson), where you play three shots: a backhand from the backhand side, a forehand from the backhand side, and then a forehand from the forehand side. This is a favorite among top players since you practice the three most common moves: covering the wide forehand, covering the wide backhand, step around forehand.
  • Random topspin, either to two spots, the wide forehand and wide backhand, or to all parts of the table. You can also combine random drills with rote drills, such as having a ball to the middle you attack with your forehand, followed by a random ball to either corner that you attack with forehand or backhand.
  • Short ball (often with backspin) followed by a deep ball. You push or flip the short ball, and loop the deep ball.

August 27, 2012 - Movement in Doubles

Monday, August 27, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

There are two standard ways to move in doubles. At the advanced levels, if you have two righties and they train regularly for doubles, they usually learn circling footwork, where after each shot the player steps backwards and circles clockwise to the left so they can approach the table from their backhand side and go into a neutral or forehand-favoring ready position. (A righty's normal ready stance would be toward the left, with his playing elbow near the center of the table, or more to the left to favor the forehand, or more to the right to favor the backhand.) Two lefties would do the same, except they move counter-clockwise to the right. However, learning to do circling footwork takes a lot of practice, usually under the supervision of a coach. You also need two mobile players.

There are four movements made with this circling footwork. Assuming two righties, they are:

  1. After making your shot, step backward.
  2. As your partner is moving to and making his shot, you move to the left.
  3. As your partner steps back (or to the right and then back if his shot was from the backhand side), you move in to the table from the left side, allowing you to start the rally off in a neutral or forehand-favoring ready stance.
  4. Move to where the ball is being hit and make your shot. Then repeat from #1 above.

For most players (and for lefty-righty combos, which is an advantage in doubles), it's easier to use in-out footwork. Basically this means that after each shot, a player steps backwards to allow his partner to move in, and the two take turns, moving in and out. (You don't want to move too much to the side or 1) you'll be out of position on the next shot; 2) if the opponents hit an angled shot toward you you'll likely block your partner, and 3) if you don't block your partner against an angled shot, he'll likely block you from getting back after that shot.)

The disadvantage of in-out footwork is that if there are two righties or two lefties, one of them will usually approach the table from the forehand side, and so won't be in a natural ready position.  This is fine if one of the players is stronger on the backhand than the forehand. So you should normally position the stronger forehand player on the left, the stronger backhand player on the right. (Reverse for two lefties.)  If you have a left and a righty, then in-out footwork is natural, with the lefty trying to stay on the right side, the righty on the left side.

There are four movements made with this in-out footwork.

  1. After making your shot, step backward.
  2. Watch where your partner is moving to make his shot, and move to the opposite side.
  3. As your partner steps back, you step in.
  4. Move to where the ball is being hit and make your shot. Then repeat from #1 above.

You can also do a hybrid of these two styles of footwork, where you generally use in-out movements, but when you see the opportunity, you circle around to the left (for two righties) behind your partner so you can approach the table from the backhand side and so get into a neutral or forehand-favoring ready stance for the next shot. With lefty-righty combos (or if you have one player much stronger on the forehand, one much stronger on the backhand), you would favor in-out footwork, but perhaps switch to circling footwork when the two players are stuck on the wrong side so they can get back to their better positioning. 

August 20, 2012: Covering the Middle

Monday, August 20, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Players so often hear coaches tell them to attack the opponent's middle. (The middle is not the middle of the table; it's the midpoint between your forehand and backhand, where your playing elbow is.) But it is equally important to be able to cover the middle when the opponent goes there. How do you do that?

First, remember the "Middle Rule." In general, if the ball comes to your middle and you are rushed or close to the table, favor your backhand; if you have time or are not too close to the table, favor your forehand. You can vary this rule based on your own individual skills and playing style, but in general it's a pretty good rule to go by.

However, there is more you can do against those middle balls. Don't think of them as a problem; think of them as an opportunity. If you react properly and in time, you have several advantages.

If you are using your backhand close to the table, you can do a quick attack to both wide angles, as well as the opponent's middle. Often it's the perfect time to go quick to the opponent's forehand, drawing them out of position. If they see that coming, they may move to cover their forehand - in which case they may be open on the wide backhand.

If you are using your forehand, here's your chance to dominate the table. First, just like with the backhand, you now have an angle into both wide corners, as well as into the middle. Second, the shot will leave you in perfect forehand position for the next shot, so if you are strong on the forehand, you probably will get two forehands in a row.

Whether you use your forehand or backhand, you always have the option of going right back at the opponent's middle, and if your shot there is stronger than their shot to your middle, you should have the initiative.

So learn to cover your middle and turn this normal weakness into a strength. Practice this with random drills where your partner puts the ball to all parts of the table - both wide angles and your middle - and you practice making strong returns against them. Another good drill is to have your practice partner alternate hitting one randomly to one of the wide angles, then to your middle. You respond to the random wide angle shots with the appropriate shot, and then move to cover the middle shot with your forehand so that you learn how to dominate the table with the forehand from the middle. (You can also do both of these drills, and many others, multiball style.) Or make up your own drills to learn to cover the middle - there are many possibilities. Go to it. 

August 13, 2012 - Racket Tip Angle on the Backhand

Monday, August 13, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Where should the tip of your racket be when you hit a backhand drive? The answer has changed over the years. Historically, players could choose to keep the racket tip down (so that a line between the tip and the handle would parallel the ground), or with the tip pointed up to 45 degrees upward, or somewhere in between. At the higher levels, however, this has changed.

When the tip is more down, you get more pure power, as well as the potential for more topspin. It's almost like having a second forehand, as demonstrated by such past stars as Jorgen Persson and Jim Butler. However, it's generally not as quick, it's generally not as consistent unless you back up more, and it's harder to cover the middle.  

When the tip is more up, the shot becomes quicker and flatter, generally more consistent, and you cover the middle better, but you lose the potential for extra topspin. You can still hit the ball pretty hard, but it basically becomes an aggressive blocking backhand. A good example from the past would be 1971 World Men's Singles Champion Stellan Bengtsson, who hit his backhand with the tip somewhat up.

At the beginning level, it's probably easier to hit the backhand with the tip at least somewhat up. It's also easier for kids, since it's awkward hitting with the tip down until you are tall enough that your elbow hangs naturally well over the table. (Otherwise you have to lift the elbow up to do this.) At the intermediate level there's probably no major advantage to either way - both ways work, with the tip down players more powerful, the tip up players quicker.

At the higher levels, however, with modern souped-up sponges, the regular backhand has been mostly replaced by either the backhand loop or a very topspinny backhand. (The definitions aren't clear on this as the distinction between the two isn't as clear as it used to be.) To create topspin, you need to drop the tip down so you can accelerate it through the ball. And so nearly all top players play with the tip more down, creating extra topspin in their shots.

So which should you use? If you aspire to reach a high level, then unless you naturally play a quick-blocking style backhand, I'd recommend keeping the tip a bit more down, and develop it as a serious weapon, with both speed and topspin, perhaps as strong as your forehand. Some players attack with the tip down, but raise the tip some when blocking; experiment and see what works for you. If you do decide to develop your backhand into a topspinny shot that dominates like a forehand, look into using sponges that are designed for this. Trying to do a modern topspin shot with equipment designed for the game as it was played in the past is like racing in the Indianapolis 500 with a Model T. (For help with that, ask your dealer, or a coach or top player.) 

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