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.)

February 5, 2018 - Speed and Power are Easy with Good Technique, but Good Technique is Difficult

Monday, February 5, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

The above should be on a banner at every playing hall in the world. Players almost always try to drill at speeds or with power they can't control, thinking that by drilling that way, they'll learn to play at that pace. Superficially, it makes sense. But in reality, trying to play at a pace you can't control leads to sloppy, rushed technique, and poor balance, and so you are just reinforcing bad habits.

Instead, drill at a pace that you can control, both with consistency and where you can keep the ball roughly where you are aiming, while staying balanced throughout. Focus on developing good technique, which is the difficult part to master. By going at a slower pace, you can reinforce and perfect that good technique until you can practically do it in your sleep, which should be your focus. Because if you develop good technique, you will be able to play with speed and power - see the title of this article.

What you can and should do, when you are practicing at a pace you can control with at least decent technique and balance, is occasionally smash or rip a loop, just to test the shot. You'll find that with good technique, this is easy, as long as it isn't forced, i.e. you don't try to rush it when you are not ready for the shot. You can also work on playing at a faster pace in multiball or on a robot, where every ball comes out the same, and so you can increase your speed and power and still have control and consistency.

Where did I learn this lesson? It comes from many decades of coaching experience, but it originally came from a specific incident back in my first year of play. At some big tournament I saw U.S. Men #1 Danny Seemiller (soon to be 5-time U.S. Men's Singles Champion) warming up by doing simple side-to-side forehand footwork at a nice, consistent pace with his practice partner and brother, Ricky Seemiller. I remember thinking to myself, "I can do that faster than he's doing it, and he's the best in the country?"

Then I practiced it with someone, and of course I did do it faster than Danny - except I would hit maybe three raggedly rushed shots and miss, my shots were spraying all over the table to my partner's chagrin, and we couldn't have a good rally. Then I slowed down to a pace about the same as Danny and Ricky were doing, and suddenly I was consistent - everything came together, and my shots were fluid and consistent. I was hitting like Danny Seemiller!

From there on I always did footwork and other drills only at a pace I could do consistently and comfortably, with good technique. This doesn't mean you don't push yourself, it means you push yourself at a pace you can do consistently. 

January 29, 2018 - Playing the Crafty Veteran

Monday, January 29, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Suppose you have your opponent outgunned - you simply are the better player, shot for shot. And yet, somehow he's rated about the same as you. How is this possible and how do you beat him?

Most likely he's a lot more experienced than you are, and almost by definition, he knows exactly what he does to play at your level, even with a weaker game. But that takes experience. So how to you beat the Crafty Veteran? Here are five tips.

  1. Don't let the Crafty Veteran do what he wants to do. Figure out what it is as early as possible, then do whatever you can to make sure he can't do it. If he likes to give you loaded pushes, perhaps serve topspin. (Or learn to spin those heavy pushes consistently.) If he likes to give you slow, spinny forehand loops, put the ball to his wide backhand. (Or learn how to counter-attack them.) If he wants to block you out of position, stay in position. 
  2. Take your time and pick your shots. If you play too aggressively or try to force your shots, the Crafty Veteran will know when you are going to attack and will be able to choose what shots you get to attack. Instead, attack softer than usual until you have an easy put-away, and focusing on consistency and placement, since his goal is to make you inconsistent. 
  3. Be flexible with your tactics. If you start winning, the Crafty Veteran will likely change tactics, and you have to as well. 
  4. Stay focused. If you outplay the Crafty Veteran most of the time, but have one bad streak now and then, that's all he needs to win. If you win 60% of the points, but lose focus one time and lose three in a row, instead of leading 9-6, it's 9-all. 
  5. Dominate with your game. If you have the better game, and follow the tips above, then you should be able to tactically force your game on the Crafty Veteran. Ultimately, this is the most important part, but you have to do the items above in order to do this. If you truly have the better game, you have winning tactical options, so figure them out. 

Finally, if you do lose to a Crafty Veteran, don't get angry; get even. You may have the better game, and yet somehow he won. Give him credit for finding a way to win, but make sure you know how he won, and make sure it doesn't happen again. 

January 22, 2018 - Doubles Signals and Why You Should Use Them

Monday, January 22, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

When you serve in singles, you know what serve you are about to do, and so can be ready for the possible returns off that serve. Imagine playing where you had no idea what serve you did, and so couldn't prepare for the follow-up. Pretty awkward, right?

That's what happens when you don't signal your serve to your partner in doubles. He has no idea if you are serving short backspin - and so must be ready for a push or flip; topspin, and so should be ready for a drive; or deep, and so must be ready for a loop.

Sometimes the server's partner signals the serve. After all, he's the one who has to follow up, so many top doubles teams do that. Or if one of the players is more experienced than the other, then he might signal all the serves, whether he's serving or not.

Sometimes you don't have to signal the serve; you can just discuss it quietly with your partner. But that can lead to stalling, so you have to limit that. Which is why you should have signals.

Make sure to use serves that match your partner's game, not yours. If you aren't sure what types of serves he wants, ask him. The most common serving pattern in doubles is mixing in short backspin and no-spin serves (very low to the net), often toward the middle of the table to cut off the wide angle to the forehand. At lower levels, topspin serves and deep serves may work, but at higher levels they usually get attacked.

There are different signaling systems, but here's the simplest, which I've used for over forty years. You do the signals under the table, so your partner can see it, but not your opponents.

  • Backspin: point down with index finger.
  • Topspin: point up with thumb or index finger.
  • Sidespin: point sideways in the direction of the sidespin.
  • Combinations, such as sidespin-backspin: point in both directions.
  • No-spin: make a fist.
  • Long serves: It's assumed in doubles that you will serve short, so the opponent can't loop, but if you are serving deep, point at the opponents.

Some doubles teams even signal the direction of their receive (pointing under the table), so their partner can be ready. I don't normally do this as I often change the direction of my receive as I see the opponent's move, but I've had partners who do this, and it greatly helps me, especially since I'm always looking to attack with my forehand, and it makes it a lot easier to do so when you know where your partner's receive is going to be. 

January 15, 2018 - Best Way to Learn – Watch, Mimic, Practice

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Often the best way to learn table tennis is to watch a top player and mimic what you see. Pick out someone whose game or strokes you like (or ask a coach to suggest someone to watch), and just watch how they do their shots. Then copy them by shadow-practicing (practicing your stroke without the ball) until you can the shot as well as that player . . . at least without the ball. Then find a coach or practice partner and practice the shot until you CAN do it as well as the player you were copying.

Feel free to ask the player if you have any questions on how he does it. Most players are glad to help out – and since many top players spend many hours every day thinking about their game, they may be just dying to talk about it! You should also have a coach see how you are doing to really hone the technique. 

Try watching a top player just before you play a match. You'll be amazed at how much better you can do the shot in a game if you first watch someone else doing it really well. In table tennis, it's often monkey see, monkey do!

January 8, 2018 - Systematically Practice Against What You Have Trouble With

Thursday, January 11, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Often a player has trouble with something very specific, and yet only practices against it in actual games, where he only sees it now and then. This allows little chance of any type of systematic practice to develop the proper technique. The same player probably did lots of systematic practice to develop his main strokes – forehands, backhands, looping, serves, and so on. And yet, he doesn’t apply this to other aspects of his game.

For example, if you have trouble with a specific serve, it should be your quest to find someone – a coach, top player, or practice partner – to do that serve against you over and Over and OVER until you are so proficient against it you never have trouble with it again.

If you have trouble attacking heavy backspin, the same applies. Perhaps have someone feed heavy backspin in multiball so you can systematically work on your technique. Or do a drill where you serve backspin, partner pushes back heavy, and you attack. You’d want to do both of these, the multiball ball for more systematic practice, the latter because it’s more game-like.

If you have trouble blocking spinny loops, such as the ones you get when you push with heavy backspin, then have someone serve and loop against your push as a systematic drill. In fact, to maximize practice, get a box of balls and don’t even play the point out – partner serves backspin, you push, partner loops, you block, and as you do so your partner is already grabbing the next ball.

If you have a specific weakness against something, work out a drill so you can systematically practice against it until it is no longer a weakness. Or just play games, have fun, and spend the rest of your table tennis career with a fixable weakness that you’ve chosen not to fix.