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.)

November 27, 2017 - The Non-Playing Arm

Tuesday, November 28, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Many players do not use their non-playing arm properly. Often the problem is that you can sort of get away with not using the non-playing arm in many drills – either static ones, where you aren’t moving (i.e. working on basics with beginners), and often in moving drills where you know where the ball is going and so don’t have to make sudden unexpected changes in direction. And so players will sometimes get lazy and let their non-playing arm just hang there like a dead snake. (I call it “dead snake syndrome.”)

Often the consequences of a limp non-playing arm aren’t apparent as they affect your ability to recover from a shot – meaning it doesn’t so much affect the shot you are doing as much as it does the next shot. And then, rather than blaming the slow recovery on the lack of balance and fixing the problem, they call out, “I’m too slow!”

There are really three things about the non-playing arm you should focus on.

  • Keep the arm and hand up in your ready position for balance, making it easier to make quick starts, using the arm as a counter-balance.
  • It should be used as a counter-balance to your playing arm while rallying. This is especially true when making big forehand shots, but also true on big backhand shots if you turn sideways. It’s also used as a counter-balance when reaching in for short balls to the forehand.
  • When making big forehand shots, where the body is rotating in roughly a circle, not only is your playing arm side moving forward, but the non-playing arm side should be moving backwards – so you should essentially be pulling back with that arm, adding to your power. 

November 20, 2017 - Three Simple Side-to-Side Drills

Monday, November 20, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most table tennis movement is side-to-side, and so you need to practice this a lot. Here are three drills you should be doing - but only do the second when you are proficient with the first, and only do the third when you are proficient with the second. At all levels you should do all three, even the more basic first one - just do it faster and quicker. All three drills can be done either with a partner, where you return each shot to the same spot (partner's forehand or backhand - most often it's the backhand), or with a partner or coach feeding multiball. 

  • Drill One: Side to Side Forehand and Backhand. Your partner hits the ball side to side, alternating. Your focus is on consistency and strong shots. As you advance, take the ball quicker. 
  • Drill Two: Side to Side Random Forehand and Backhand, Two Spots. Your partner hits the ball randomly either to your forehand or backhand. Your focus is on reacting, not anticipating. Make sure your first move is the right move. Don't rush - you have more time then you think. 
  • Drill Three: Side to Side Random Whole Table. Your partner hits the ball randomly anywhere, focusing on going to the corners and middle (your playing elbow, roughly midway between forehand and backhand). Your focus is on reacting, not anticipating, while also covering shots to the middle. Make sure your first move is the right move. On shots to the middle favor your strongest shot, whether it's forehand or backhand, but make sure to move into position to do so. 

November 13, 2017 - How to Play Doubles with a Much Stronger Player

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

What are the best tactics when playing doubles with a much stronger player? This often happens in rating doubles. Many believe that a more balanced team has an advantage over a more lopsided team, but that's mostly true only if the balanced team is experienced playing together. In general, I have found that a lopsided team that plays smart generally is favored against a more balanced team. This is because they can play tactics that allow the stronger player to make more of the decisive shots. 

Tactically, there are five things the weaker player should focus on when playing. The key thing to remember is that your stronger partner will likely dominate, if given the chance, since he's stronger then the two more evenly matched opponents. So give him every chance to do so. 

  1. Confidence. The weaker player is probably a bit intimidated, since his partner is much stronger, and he's the weakest player at the table. If his team loses, it's mostly because of his mistakes. However, this is the wrong way to look at it. Assuming this is a rated doubles event, then the only reason the strong player is eligible is because he's paired with a weaker player. So the thinking should be, "Without me, you can't even compete!" It's extremely important that the weaker player not be intimidated or he'll play poorly. His goal shouldn't be to outplay his partner or even his opponents, who are stronger players; his goal should be to play his level or better, and to play smart
  2. Serving. If the weaker player's serves are easily attacked, then he put his stronger partner on the defensive right from the start of the point. This is a double-whammy - a lopsided team should be at their absolute best when the weaker player is serving, since this means the stronger player gets to make the first shot. If the weaker player’s serves allow the opponents to take the initiative, then it potentially puts them at their weakest. In the large majority of cases, the single most important thing here for the weaker player is to be able to serve low and short, with either backspin or no-spin. Ideally, he should practice in advance so he can serve short, low serves. If he does this, it stops the opposing team from making strong returns, and allows the stronger partner to dominate the point. This is the single most important thing a weaker player can do in preparation for playing doubles with a stronger player. 
  3. Keep the ball in play with well-placed shots. Don't take your stronger partner out of play by constantly going for (and often missing) risky shots. If you are an attacking player, perhaps tone your attack down some for consistency. If you loop, focus on consistent loops, not trying to rip the ball. In general, try to keep the ball deep so your partner has time to react to the opponent's shots. In general, by keeping the ball in play without giving the opponent easy attacks or put-aways, you allow your stronger partner to dominate. And guess what? When he dominates, you get equal credit for giving him the opportunity to do so.
  4. Don't hesitate to end the point. This may seem contradictory to the idea of keeping the ball in play, but it is not. The stronger player will often force easy balls to put away, and the weaker player shouldn't hesitate to end the point when he gets one of these. The key is that he must focus on keeping the ball in play until he sees an easy put-away - and then unhesitatingly put it away. 
  5. Get your strengths into play. Whatever your best shots are, if you don't use them, your level goes down. Therefore, you should work with your stronger partner to find chances to get your best shots into play. Sometimes this will contradict some of the above, so you have to find a balance.

November 6, 2017 - Become Your Own Feedback

Monday, November 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

You should make it a habit to be aware of how you win and lose points. If you do this, it will become second nature, and you’ll have immediate feedback when you play on what you need to do to improve, both tactically (what you do in a given match) and strategically (how you develop your game).

For example, are you aware of how likely you are to get the shot you are looking for with each of your main serves, and how likely you are to win the point with them? How often you win with each of your receives off of each of the opponent’s serves? How often you win with the various placements of each of your shots? What types of loops, blocks, pushes, and other shots work, and with what placements (including depth), spins, and speed? The questions are seemingly endless, but all you need to be aware of are the main ones in any given match.

This doesn’t mean you rely completely on yourself all the time. You should also make it a habit after a match to sometimes ask opponents for their feedback, and have coaches or experienced players watch you play (or play you) and get feedback from them as well. In these cases, you are essentially getting feedback on your own feedback to see if it is accurate. You may find your own perceptions of what happens do not match what others see, or there might be something important that you are missing, and so you might have to re-evaluate your perceptions.

Ultimately, when you win or lose a match, you should know why – including both what worked and didn’t work in both wins and losses – and know what you need to work on to improve, both tactically and strategically. 

October 30, 2017 - How to Play the Bomber: The Player Who Tries to Blast Every Shot

Monday, October 30, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Have you ever had one of those matches where your opponent clobbered every ball past you, either looping or smashing? Where you spent more time chasing balls than actually hitting? Where you got a bad back just from bending over to pick them up? If you won the match, you probably didn't mind; there's nothing you can do about an opponent who clobbers (and misses) every shot.

Unfortunately, every now and then you meet a player who clobbers ball after ball, and they keep hitting the table! This type of player also goes by the name 'National Champion' or 'U.S. Team Member' or even 'World Champion'. There's not much you can do when you play them. But what if he rips nearly every ball, and when the game is over, he's just barely won by making 51% of his shots? Some players will say, "There's nothing I could do; he just got hot." This response is usually from a player who will lose to this same player over and over because "he just got hot."

Believe it or not, you can beat players like that, even if they get "hot." Here are four tactical ways of beating these players, who I will call from here on "The Bomber." (Note that the first two are generally the best ways.) You can:

I. Keep them from attacking
II. Make them miss their attacking shots
III. Return their shots
Match them, shot for shot

You will have to decide which methods will work best for you, based on what you do best. After all, if you are better at what you do than your opponent is at what he does (blasting the ball), then you should win.

I. Keep them from attacking
There are two ways to keep a player from attacking. The first is to keep the ball short and low. Serve short, push short, and most players won't know what to do. Loopers can't loop short balls, and if you keep the ball low, hitters can't smash. Usually they will push the ball back, go for a wild shot or use a weak attacking shot. Of course, if they do push the ball, you have the option of either attacking or pushing yourself. If you can push, you're right back where you started from. So, whenever you are given the chance, attack!

Which leads us to the second way to keep a player from attacking: attack first! You don't have to blast the ball – just a well-placed attack of any sort will make them do what they most want to avoid: defending. Loop or drive against deep pushes. Flip against short serves and pushes, and our Bomber opponent will get twisted up in knots. 'The "Bomber hates it when his opponent attacks.

Of course, if they are like most all-out attackers, they'll probably go for a wild and crazy shot when you attack. An easy point for you. (Usually!)

II. Make them miss their attacking shots
The second way to beat The Bomber is to make him miss his shots. One way to do this is to attack first, as mentioned above, and force him to go for a difficult shot.

Basically, to make a player miss a shot, you mix up the spins, speeds and placements. Keep the opponent off balance. If he hits in a winner on one shot, make the next shot different. Above all else, do not let The Bomber get into a rhythm! Throw everything at them: slow topspins mixed in with faster ones; angled off shots or hard drives to the middle; heavy backspin pushes with a no spin push suddenly thrown in; medium speed drives and then a faster, quicker one as a surprise; all are effective ways to force The Bomber into a mistake. Use your imagination in finding patterns that force The Bomber to short circuit.

III. Return their shots
The third way to beat The Bomber is to return his shots. Some may stare at these words in amazement: How can you return what you can't see?

The solution is preparation and anticipation. This doesn't mean guessing where the opponent is going to hit the ball and waiting there. Even a dumb Bomber will then hit to another spot. It means watching your opponent, trying to tell where he is going on the next shot, and then the instant he is committed to the shot, moving to it.

The key is moving neither too soon nor too late. Study players and learn when they are committed to a specific shot. That is when to move. Any earlier and the opponent will change directions. Any later and you won't have the maximum time to react to the shot.

You may also be able to tell where a player is going with his shot even before he is committed. If a player has hit his put-away shot cross-court the last seventy three times, guess where the seventy-fourth is going to go? Don't move too soon and alert him to your intentions; just be ready to pounce on the ball when it goes where you expect it to go. Don't anticipate in advance except against a put-away shot, where you couldn't possibly react to it otherwise, and even then, don't move until the last possible instant. (Of course, top players can often react even to "put-away" shots, and so should anticipate even less.)

If all else fails, and you still cannot react to the opponent's shot, try moving away from the table. It is best to stay near the table when possible but it is better to back up than give up the point. Lob, chop, make diving returns – whatever it takes to keep the ball in play. You'll be surprised how many easy shots The Bomber will miss. He's not used to having his shots returned, and one or two miraculous returns (but not so miraculous due to anticipation) will usually win the point.

IV. Match them, shot for shot – but Smarter
The final way to beat The Bomber is to match him shot for shot. This is not recommended for the fainthearted. This means that you yourself are a Bomber merely looking for a better way to bomb. Well, there is nothing wrong with being a Bomber. It's like being a football player. The stereotype is that of being a dumb jock, but this isn't true, at least in your case. (Or you wouldn't be able to read this!) And there are few things scarier than a Smart Bomber.

Basically, a Smart Bomber knows that the winner between two Bombers is the one who bombs the most and the best. So he will be looking for as many shots to put away as possible, while not giving any to his opponent. This gets us back to the part covered earlier on attacking first. It really all comes down to serve and receive.

The Smart Bomber serves mostly short and either pushes serves back short or places his flips and long push receives. The Dumb Bomber often does serve short but rarely returns serves short and so is constantly handicapped. The result is the Smart Bomber attacks first and, when the match is over, he is victorious. Of course, he still can't win, since all the spectators saw was a bunch of wild attackers, being Dumb Spectators. And so the Smart Bomber wins the tournament but contributes to the stereotypes of the Dumb Bomber. Oh well.