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 11, 2019 - Three Spots or Two?

Monday, November 11, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When a coach refers to "playing the three spots," he's referring to playing both wide angles, and the middle. (The middle is not the middle of the table; it's the mid-point between the opponent's forehand and backhand, usually around his playing elbow.)

In any match, you should be playing all three of these spots. The only question is how often to go to each spot, and what types of shots to each. For example, a weak ball to the middle makes it easy for the opponent to set up his best shot (such as a big forehand or backhand loop), and so going to the middle is mostly effective when you attack it. Against a player with a big forehand, you'd only go to the forehand when the opponent is out of position or to draw him out of position. And so on.

But many players are what I call "two-spot" players - players where you mostly want to focus on two spots. For example, against a player with a big forehand but a weaker backhand, you might want to pin them down on the backhand by attacking that side. But if you only go to one spot, then the opponent's weaker side might just get warmed up and won't be so weak. So it'd be better to go to the backhand and middle (perhaps a touch to the backhand side, to avoid that big forehand), and force the opponent to move side to side with his weaker backhand.

If you play a player with the Seemiller grip or convention penhold - these players use only one side of their racket - they often have less middle weakness, and so you might focus on going to the wide corners. (This is almost always true against a Seemiller player. Some conventional penholders can be weak in the middle.)

Against a player with a strong backhand but less powerful forehand, you might focus on moving him around on the forehand side, and so focus on going to the wide forehand and middle (perhaps slightly to the forehand side).

So try to find out in matches what type of an opponent you are facing, one where you want to go regularly to all three spots, or focus on two.

November 4, 2019 - How to Push Extremely Heavy

Monday, November 4, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

A heavy push can cause havoc when done at the right time, and sometimes is all that's needed to take away an opponent's effective attack. How do you do this shot?

First, keep in mind that it's not enough to just have lots of backspin. It also needs to be low, deep (unless you are pushing short, a different type of push that usually isn't as heavy), well-placed (usually to a wide corner, sometimes to the middle against a two-winged looper), deceptive (sometimes aim one way then go the other), and somewhat quick to rush the opponent (either off the bounce, with some pace, or both).

To get that extra bite on your heavy push, here are some tips.

  1. Use wrist. Bring the wrist back before contact and then use both wrist and forearm to smoothly accelerate the racket.
  2. Accelerate through contact. You want the racket accelerating right through contact.
  3. Graze the ball with a relatively open racket. The more you graze the ball, the more spin you'll get. In fact, if you graze it enough, you'll have to put extra energy into the shot to make it go deep, since most of that energy is going into spin.
  4. Grippy rubber. You simply get more spin with a spinny rubber.

How do you develop this shot? Practice! You can do this both with regular practice and in games. One mistake many make is having two players both practicing their heavy push at the same time. Result? You develop a really nice heavy push against an incoming heavy push - and then, in games, you pop the ball up against serves and pushes that aren't equally loaded. The best way to develop your heavy push might be to have someone practice their serves, where they vary from heavy backspin, side-backspin, and no-spin, and you learn to push heavy against all of them. (Chop down against no-spin to keep it low. You can even push against short topspin/sidespin serves by chopping down at contact.)

Then, as the ultimate practice, try to win practice matches with your newly-developing heavy push. Find someone who likes to serve short and then loop, and see if you can win by loading up your receives with heavy backspin - but remember to push deep, well-placed, deceptive, and quick & fast!

October 28, 2019 - A Lightbulb in Your Head: Mindless Swinging or Tactical Shot-making?

Monday, October 28, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When you see a top player go for - and usually make - a big shot, is it mindless swinging or tactical shot-making? Actually, it's both.

There are two times when a top player normally goes for a big shot. First, of course, is against a weak ball. From years of training, they are mindlessly efficient at putting anything weak away - and that's not only high balls, but also balls that don't put any type of pressure on the player - from speed, spin, placement, depth, deception, or even extreme lowness.

But sometimes a top player will also rip a winner off a seemingly difficult ball. Is this a mindless, perhaps brainless lucky shot? Sometimes yes, but other times it's because, despite the seeming difficulty of the shot, the player instinctively reads the ball perfectly and is in perfect position, and so is not only able to make the shot, but knows he can make the shot. Two examples might be an opponent who smashes or loop kills the ball right into the player's middle forehand, allowing a relatively "easy" countersmash or counterloop; or perhaps a low, heavy, deep, and angled push - but the player simply reads it perfectly and is in perfect position for the shot, and instinctively realizes this, and so he takes (and usually makes) the shot. It's as if a lightbulb has gone off in his head telling him to take the shot.

And so these seemingly mindless shots are actually high-percentage tactical shots, but only because of years and years of practice and training. And yet . . . they are also mindless. Why? Because, as with all table tennis shots, it is the trained subconscious that guides these shots. The conscious mind just gets in the way. And so while it might be years of training that allows the player to do these shots, the shots themselves are essentially done mindlessly.

How does this apply to non-top players (or top player wannabes)? You too should be training to make these shots. This doesn't mean you should constantly be looking to rip winners (except off weak balls - though even there it's best to only go at maybe 80% and rely just as much on placement), but that you should jump on balls that, after enough training, you realize you have read and are in position for, and then make strong shots. As you get better, your shots will get stronger and stronger . . . until, one day, you might be that "top player" making those "mindless shots."

I often undergo this "lightbulb going off" in my head that tells me that I've read a ball perfectly and am in perfect position for it (as well as when I get a "weak" ball), and when I do, I take the shot - and it usually hits. You too can develop this "lightbulb" instinct. Alas, for most non-top players who often go for big shots, there is no lightbulb going off, and it is just mindless swinging, with little distinguishing between whether they've really read the ball or are in position for the shot - and so their shots are erratic and low-percentage. How to overcome this? Slow down your attacks except when you really see a weak ball or are certain you've read the ball perfectly and are in position for the shot, and soon distinguishing these type of shots will become subconscious habit - and that lightbulb will start to go off in your head.

October 21, 2019 - How to Stop the Short Receive

Monday, October 21, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most effective ways to return a short serve is to push it back short and low, making it hard for the server to attack. This is very common at the higher levels, but even at lower levels there are players who do this. How can a server overcome this? Here are six ways.

  1. Serve long. This makes the serve easier to attack (mostly by looping), but not all players can attack deeps serves effectively, especially if the long serves are mixed in occasionally. Just the threat of a long serve keeps the receiver from stepping in too soon against short serves, which makes their short receive more erratic.
  2. Aggressive half-long serves. A half-long serve is a serve that, given the chance, the second bounce would bounce near the end of the table. This is the deepest serve you can do and still keep it short. This makes it very difficult for the receiver to loop, and as difficult as possible to push short. This is the most common serve at the higher levels. Ideally, serve it aggressively, so it comes at the receiver somewhat fast and low, yet still bounces twice.
  3. Backspin/No-Spin. A short, low backspin serve is difficult to attack but is the easiest serve to push short. But if you mix in no-spin serves, the receiver will often misread it and push the serve back high. The key to a no-spin serve is to serve just like a backspin, but instead of grazing the ball near the racket tip, contact it near the handle, where the racket is moving slowly. Even if you graze it there, it'll have little spin, but it'll look like regular backspin. This is often the most common serving tactic at the higher levels.
  4. Short Side-Top. With practice, you can learn to serve short sidespin/topspin serves that land short (usually half-long). But because it goes short, many receivers will read them as backspin and try to push them, and so they pop up. Even if they read the serve and chop down to keep it from popping up, the ball will usually come out deep.
  5. Make them Receive Forehand. Many players have far more touch with their backhand push than their forehand push. So try serving short to the forehand. If they reach over and push with their backhand, try serving from the middle or forehand side of the table, so you have an angle into their short forehand. If they still reach over and receive backhand, develop a deep serve to the backhand that you can do with the same motion, so the receiver has to watch for that, forcing them to receive forehand against short serves to the forehand.
  6. Develop a Really Good Flip. If the receiver is going to push your serves back short, then learn to reach in and attack it! Punish them if the short push goes the least bit high - and many do - and use quickness and placement when attacking the others.

October 14, 2019 - React to Opponent's Forward Swing

Monday, October 14, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

When you watch a top player, they seem to have almost supernatural reflexes. The other guy will crush the ball, and whether he gets it back or not, he always seems to react instantly. How does he do this?

The secret is he's not reacting to the incoming ball; he's reacting to the opponent's forward swing. If you wait until the opponent hits the ball before you react, you will have human reflexes. If you instead constantly watch opponents and try to react to where they are going from their forward swing, you will develop supernatural reflexes - or seem to.

You don't have to do this with every shot, only when the opponent is attacking strongly, or when you are trying to cover most of the table with your stronger side (such as the forehand). In both of these cases it's important to react and move quickly, before the opponent actually hits the ball.

Some opponents do last-second changes of direction, so you have to learn at what point the opponent is committed to a shot and direction. Usually if an opponent tries to be deceptive about this he has to slow down his shots, so you don't have to react as quickly anyway, and so can wait longer. But at some point in every player's forward swing he has to commit to a direction, and so it is your job to figure out when that is, and learn to reflexively react to that.