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.)

April 30, 2012 - Chalk Up Wins with Chop Blocks

Monday, April 30, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

What is a chop block? It is a block with backspin. Since long pips and (usually) hardbat automatically returns topspin as backspin, it is the norm for those surfaces. But with inverted (as well as short pips to a lesser degree), a topspin ball is normally catapulted back with some topspin.

But what if the inverted blocker were to chop down on the ball at contact, thereby returning the incoming topspin as backspin? That is a chop block, and it can cause havoc with an opponent's timing.

Many players thrive in fast topspin rallies, using your own fast topspin balls to loop, counter-hit, or block back everything aggressively.  A sudden chop block against a topspin ball can completely throw off their timing. Instead of a fast ball jumping out into their hitting zone, the ball dies in front of them, and there's no topspin for them to counter against. The shot is especially effective against loopers who back up from the table a lot, since they are often uncomfortable looping closer to the table, and this brings them out of their comfort zone.

To do a chop block, simply chop down lightly as you block the incoming topspin (usually against a loop), holding the racket loosely. Your shot should go out low and soft, almost like a push. Place the ball to the corners to force the opponent to use his weaker (or more awkward against a soft ball) stroke, or to the middle to cut off angles. The shot is usually done on the backhand side, but can be done on the forehand as well. (One reason most chop blocks are done on the backhand is it is assumed you can do more effective counter-attacks on the forehand, but that's mostly true at the higher levels.)

A variation is to sidespin block, where the racket moves sideways (or sideways and down) to create a sidespin or sidespin-backspin block. This is usually done on the backhand, with the racket moving right to left (for a righty), but can be done in both directions and on the forehand as well.

One word of caution - you should rarely chop block twice in a row. The first one throws off an opponent's timing and catches him out of position (too far off table). The second one doesn't change the timing and the previous one already brought the opponent in. So normally follow up your chop blocks with aggressive blocks or counter-attacks. Players with long pips and hardbat often chop block over and over, but their surfaces are deader than inverted, and so they can really deaden the ball and keep it short. With inverted, it's tougher to do this over and over, and so it's usually best to use it as a variation, not the normal block. 

April 23, 2012 - Reverse Forehand Pendulum Serve

Monday, April 23, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

The most popular serve in table tennis is the forehand pendulum serve. (Here's a 55-second promo video from PingSkills that show both the regular and reverse pendulum serve.) With this serve, the racket tip is down as you contact the ball with a right-to-left motion (for righties). And it's a great serve - but it can be even more effective if you can vary it with the reverse pendulum serve variation.

The most under-used serve in table tennis is the forehand reverse pendulum serve. This is the reverse of the normal forehand pendulum serve, with the racket moving left-to-right at contact. It seems awkward at first, but is surprisingly easy to learn.

The big advantage of this serve is that your opponent doesn't know which type of sidespin you will be serving when you set up. For most players, if they set up to do a forehand serve, it's going to be one sidespin; if they set up to serve backhand, it's the reverse sidespin. Now your opponent doesn't know until just before contact which way you are going. This is a huge advantage. As they develop the serve, advanced players learn to hide which version they are going to use later and later in the serve, giving opponents more and more trouble.

When you develop the serve, start with straight sidespin - it's easier. Vigorously rotate the body into the shot, and then snap the wrist just before contact. Then learn to do side-backspin and side-top, and even no-spin (which, if you have a big motion, looks spinny, causing just as many mistakes as actual spin). The serve is often most effective short to the forehand, but vary it all over the table and see what works against different opponents.

Here are three tutorials on the Reverse Forehand Pendulum serve.

April 16, 2012 - Where to Place Your Spin Serves

Monday, April 16, 2012
by: Larry Hodges


While you should vary your spin serves to all parts of the table - at least until you find out what gives your opponent trouble and what doesn't - there are certain spin serves that are generally more effective when done to specific parts of the table. 

The main principle to remember is that, in general, opponents will have more trouble returning a serve that spins away from them than one that spins into them. For example, when a righty serves a forehand pendulum serve to another righty (so that the ball breaks to the server's right, the receiver's left), if the ball is served to the wide backhand, the ball spins away from the receiver, and is usually harder to receive than the same serve to the forehand, where it breaks into the receiver. Similarly, a backhand or tomahawk serve to the forehand is generally more difficult to receive than one to the backhand, since it also breaks away from the receiver (to the server's left, the receiver's right). There are three reasons for this.

First, a receiver has to move or reach for a serve that breaks away. This makes it trickier to control as he may be hitting on the move.

Second, while the receiver may set up with his racket at the right height to receive the serve, when the ball breaks away and he moves or reaches for it there is a tendency to lower the racket. This means he will likely lift the ball too much, and either go off the end or receive soft and high.

Third, to counter the incoming spin the receiver has to aim to the left to receive a ball breaking away on the backhand side, and to the right to receive a ball breaking away on the forehand side. In both cases it's more natural to aim the other way, especially on the forehand side. So countering a sidespin that breaks away is usually more awkward.

Here's a simple way of visualizing this third reason. Imagine a forehand pendulum serve short to your forehand. To counteract the spin, you have to aim to the left, i.e. a normal crosscourt forehand, which is not difficult for most players. In fact, if you wanted to place this ball crosscourt you would want to aim to the left of the table, which isn't that difficult with a little practice. Now imagine a backhand or tomahawk serve short to your forehand side, so the ball is breaking away from you. To counteract the spin, you have to aim to the right, down the line - see how awkward that can be? If you wanted to take it down the line, you'd have to aim to the right of the table, even more awkward. Even advanced players often have trouble with this.

There are always exceptions. Some players are good against balls that break away, and are awful against ones that break into them. Or perhaps you simply are better at one type of sidespin serve, and the opponent will have trouble with it on both sides (especially if you vary the placement), while having little trouble when you use your other, less effective sidespin serve. So experiment - but do so with the knowledge that sidespin serves are usually more effective when placed properly. (And if you haven't yet developed these spin serves, there's no time like now to start learning them!)

April 9, 2012 - 3-2-1 Placement Rule

Monday, April 9, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Where do most players block best? On the backhand. Where do most players attack the most? To the opponent's backhand. This never made sense to me.

When attacking there are three places you should normally go for: the wide forehand, the middle (the opponent’s crossover point between forehand and backhand, usually around the elbow), and the wide backhand. Most beginning and intermediate players probably attack to the backhand twice as often as to the forehand, and almost never to the middle. We’ll call it the 0-1-2 rule, i.e. they proportionately go zero times to the middle, once to the forehand, and twice to the backhand. 

Instead, try the 3-2-1 rule, where you proportionately go three times to the middle, twice to the forehand, and once to the backhand.  (This assumes your opponent isn't able to counter-attack with his forehand consistently, as they often do at the higher levels. If they do, change your attack placement accordingly, though it also might mean your opening attack is too soft, too short, or predictable.) Few players block on the forehand as well as on the backhand, and everyone's vulnerable at the middle. So why not go where the opponent is vulnerable? 

There are exceptions to this rule. If you are going for a particularly difficult attacking shot from a wide corner, go crosscourt, where you have more table. (The table is 9 feet long, but about 10.3 feet crosscourt, about 15.5 inches longer, almost seven more inches on the far side.) Also, you have to take into consideration your own positioning. For example, if you are attacking with your forehand from the wide backhand corner, if you attack down the line you are vulnerable to a crosscourt block to your forehand (unless you are fast on your feet), so you might go to the middle or backhand. And, of course, if the opponent is able to consistently counter-attack with his forehand you might want to attack there less often. 

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April 2, 2012 - Grip and Stance

Monday, April 2, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Let's do a thought experiment. Hold a piece of paper so you hold the top with one hand, the bottom with the other. Now twist the top. Notice how the entire piece of paper twists? Now twist the bottom. Same thing. How does this relate to table tennis?

Now imagine holding a table tennis player in your hands. (You are either very strong or the player is very small.) Hold his playing hand in one hand and his feet with the other. Twist his playing hand and his entire body twists. The same if you twist his feet.

This is what happens when you have a bad grip or foot positioning. It twists your entire body out of proper alignment, and are the most common cause of technique problems. Most often they are not recognized as even many experienced coaches often treat the symptoms of these problems rather than recognizing the cause.

This is why I strongly recommend that players should use a neutral grip (along with a proper stance) during their formative years, and usually well beyond that. (For shakehand players, a neutral grip means the thinnest part of the wrist lines up with the racket. If the top is tilted away from you when you hold the racket in front of you, it's a backhand grip. If the top is tilted toward you, it's a forehand grip.) A neutral grip means your racket will aim in the same direction as your body is stroking the ball. A non-neutral grip forces you to adjust your stroke in often awkward ways since the racket is aiming one way while your wrist, arm, shoulder, etc., are aiming another direction. This can lead to many problems.

For example, a forehand grip often leads to an overly wristy forehand loop, which makes it difficult to learn to control the ball, and also makes counterlooping and looping in general against fast incoming balls tricky. It can force the back shoulder down in an awkward attempt to adjust for the naturally overly closed racket angle for this grip on the forehand, which throws the timing off for many shots. It can make the backhand too wristy as well, also making it difficult to learn to control the ball.

A backhand grip may make forehand looping awkward as it tends to tighten the arm up on forehand shots as well as making it more difficult to close the racket against an incoming topspin, or to loop anywhere except crosscourt. It can force the back shoulder to hunch up in an awkward attempt to adjust for the naturally overly open racket angle for this grip on the forehand, which throws the timing off for many shots.  It can also make hitting aggressive backhands awkward since the arm's natural stroke path and the wrist no longer are aiming in the same direction. These are just a few of the problems a bad grip may cause, and there are just as many problems caused by poor foot positioning and playing stance.

At the advanced levels some players do adjust their grips, taking on usually slight forehand or backhand grips. (I generally use a slight forehand grip, but only after I'd been playing ten years.) There are some technical advantages to this, but only after you have ingrained proper stroking technique.

Similarly, make sure you are in at least a slight forehand stance when hitting forehands (i.e. right foot slightly back for righties, making it easier to rotate your shoulders back as you backswing), and a neutral stance when hitting backhands (feet roughly parallel to the table). Advanced players sometimes adjust their stance based on their playing style, and may play forehands from a nearly neutral stance or backhands from a forehand or backhand stance, but again, I recommend against this until you have ingrained proper stroking technique. For example, if you keep your feet parallel when hitting forehands when developing your strokes you'll likely end up with a short, jerky forehand (whether hitting or looping) that uses only the front part of your forehand hitting zone.

Also make sure the feet aren't too close together as this leads to balance problems when looping or hitting with power. The feet should also be at least slightly angled away from each other, with the front of the right foot angled to the right, the front of the left to the left. If the feet are parallel, then it will be difficult to make quick body rotations when you backswing, especially on the forehand side, as well as balance problems on power shots.

Even at the advanced levels players often have trouble with a specific stroke because of their grip or stance. Because they've played this way so long they don't even recognize the cause of their problem, and most often they are destined to an eternity of stroking like a crinkled piece of paper. In a few cases they realize what the cause is, and fix the problem, which often simply means going back to a more neutral grip or adjusting the foot positioning.

Like a piece of paper, if you get the top and bottom parts right, the rest falls into place. 

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