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.)

June 19, 2017 - Importance of Routine

Monday, June 19, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Watch almost any top player a number of times just before he serves and you’ll notice something interesting – they go through the same routine each time. It’s part of mental rehearsal, which is what primes the brain (read – subconscious) for what’s about to happen. It’s almost like the famous Pavlov dog experiments, where they’d ring a bell just before feeding the dogs, and eventually the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. If you have a set routine for something, it similarly primes you for what you are about to do.

Let’s look at the top two players in the world, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, who recently played in the Men’s Final at the 2017 Worlds, with Ma Long winning, deuce in the seventh. We often watch truncated versions, where time between points is taken out, so never see what happens just before. Here’s the link to the start of the full match, 2:50 into the video.

Fan is serving at 0-0 in game one. What does he do here before this first serve, and repeatedly throughout the match when he serves? In rapid succession, he bounces the ball twice on the table, stops, bounces it two more times, stops, then bounces it two more times, and then he’s primed to play. I didn’t watch every point for this, only about ten, and he did this every time. (One time he bounced it three times, stopped as if realizing his error, and then did the six-bounce routine.)

Now watch when Ma Long serves. It’s a bit more subtle, but watch as he sets up to serve. He stretches out, holding the ball just over the middle line – and comes to a stop, holding the ball with his hand upside-down. You can see him focusing, and then he turns his hand over so the ball rests freely on the palm, and he’s primed to play.

In both cases, at some point they come to a stop, and while still, they are visualizing the serve they are about to do.

I have my own routine, which I’ve been doing before I serve for nearly 40 years. I give my right sleeve a tug with my left arm, then step to the table. As I step in, I drop my playing arm and pull it back and then forward, like a pendulum. I finish in my serving position, bounce the ball on the table one time, and I’m primed to play (and especially to serve!). I’ve found that in serve demonstrations, if I don’t go through this routine, I lose control of my serves.

On receive, players also have routines, but they are usually more subtle, involving swaying back and forth between the legs (watch Ma Long) as they get into their receive position, or just getting into their ready positions. This primes them physically, plus it clears their minds so they are ready to react to anything.

But routine isn’t important just before serving or receiving. It’s also good to have a pre-match routine. Some listen to music. Some meditate. Some shadow-practice. The purpose, once again, is to prime you for the match, which often means preparing the mind (often clearing it, and then thinking of a few tactical things), and the body physically.

So create your own routines – or steal one from someone! – and soon you will be primed for each match.  

June 12 - Great Serves are the Best Way to Avoid Upsets and Compete with Strong Players

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Of all the techniques in table tennis, serving is the one where playing level plays no part. What does that mean? It means that a high-level player doesn’t have any advantage over an intermediate player in developing great serves. When you serve, the ball’s not randomly moving or spinning – you just toss it in the air and hit it with your paddle. Anybody can practice that, and anybody can have great serves. It does take coaching to learn how to do it properly (with spin, deception, and control), and lots of practice time – but given those two, which is often what separates the elite from the non-elite, anyone can dominate with their serves.

And great serves are the best way to avoiding upsets, as well as the best way to put you in a position to compete with strong players. Great serves primarily do two things. First, they win you lots of points outright, either when the opponent misses them or pops them up, giving you an easy put-away. (This is especially true against weaker players.) Second, they set you up to attack in whatever way you do best. (This is especially important when playing stronger players, who won’t miss against your tricky serves as much.)

To use a personal example, last night I discussed this very topic with a student, who was about 1700 in level (making him a good intermediate player). Then we played points, where I’d serve, and all he had to do was get the ball back without popping it up. I threw every trick serve I had at him – fast no-spin at the elbow; reverse pendulum short to the forehand (breaking away from him); big breaking sidespin serves to the wide backhand (where I’d often fake a reverse pendulum serve, switching at the last second); side-top serves that looked like backspin (with my racket tip going down vigorously at contact, but the actual contact near the handle, where the racket was moving up); and others. He outright missed the first nine in a row before finally weakly popping one of them back. He’s now working on developing some of these serves.

But it’s not just trick serves. One of my regular “challenges” I do with students is where we play games where I serve every time, and have only one shot to win the point – serve and put-away. For these games, I mostly use straight third-ball serves, where I mix in very low backspin, sidespin, and no-spin serves, usually short to the middle (where second bounce, given the chance, would be near the receiver’s end-line, i.e. “half-long”), along with some of the trick serves above. Since I’ve been doing these serve and attacks for 41 years (I’ve played a long time), even at my relatively advanced age I get ball after ball that I can attack easily, and I’m primarily a forehand attacker. I don’t advice you develop a game where you have to put the ball away on the first shot after your serve, but you should develop serves that often let you do so, and regularly put you in a position to attack effectively.

Great serves also help you develop the rest of your game. They raise your overall level of play directly, and so you get to compete with stronger players, which pushes you to an even higher level of play. Plus they give you lots of practice following them up with attacks, which improves your attack and makes you even better. Develop your serves, and your whole game will spiral upwards!

As I often proclaim to students, the primary purpose of the serve is to set up your attack. This is even true for defensive players, who, if they develop good serves, should look to attack after their serve when they can, and fall back on defense if the shot isn’t there. This doesn’t mean serve and rip; it means following up the serve with a consistent attack, and putting the ball away only against weak returns.

The result of developing great serves? Using a mixture of “trick serves” and “third-ball serves,” you can play pretty poorly and still lock up weaker players, thereby avoiding bad losses that would normally be attributed to playing poorly. Good serves will also keep you in the game even against strong players, as you’ll at minimum get a few free points and get to start off half the rallies at an advantage. The rest of your game may have a bad day, but if you develop great serves and regularly practice them, you will never have a bad serving day – and with dominant serves, you’ll rarely have those bad losses from playing poorly.

So how do you develop these great serves? The same way you develop any technique – learn from coaches and top players with great serves, and practice, Practice, PRACTICE!

June 5, 2017 - Rallying Tactics for Blockers

Tuesday, June 6, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

(This is an excerpt from Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers. The book also has sections on Serving Tactics for Blockers, Receiving Tactics for Blockers, Chop and Sidespin Blocking, and Playing Blockers. Several people have asked about tactics for blockers, so I might as well use what I've already written!)

There are generally three types of blockers: aggressive blockers, steady blockers, and change-of-pace blockers. A blocker should learn all three, but probably favor one of them.

Aggressive blockers should attack the wide corners and opponent’s elbow with nearly every shot. Their goal is to put so much pressure on the opponent that he finally misses or makes a weak return the blocker can put away. Many blockers use their backhand blocking to set up their forehand smash or loop-kill. (A good blocker who can smash effectively from both sides can be rather scary, but there aren’t too many of them.)

Steady blockers are just that. Since their blocks are not as aggressive, blocking to the opponent’s elbow isn’t as effective, so they should focus mostly on wide angles. However, sometimes this can backfire as an angled block can be attacked right back at a wide angle. So a steady blocker might sometimes want to go to the middle to cut off the angled return. This pulls the opponent out of position so he has to move more on the next shot, causing more mistakes. In general, a steady blocker wants to focus on the opponent’s weaker side, and go there over and over. Sometimes this means going to the strong side first, and the rest of the rally going after the weak side.

A change-of-pace blocker wants to throw off the opponent’s rhythm by changing the pace and depth of his blocks by mixing in aggressive and dead blocks. Often a faster block is easier to attack then one that dies more over the table, putting the table partly in the way and throwing off the opponent’s timing. However, too many dead blocks lose their effectiveness, so a change-of-pace blocker needs to complement his dead blocks with aggressive ones. (The exception might be a long pips blocker, but that’ll be covered in the chapter on Non-Inverted Surfaces.)

Some blockers change the pace with sidespin blocks, especially pips-out players and penholders with conventional backhands. It not only changes the pace, but the sidespin gives the opponent difficulty. It’s important for blockers to learn this technique; otherwise, they are missing an important tool in their tactical toolbox. Most often you sidespin block by moving the racket from right to left at contact, most often into the opponent’s wide backhand where it breaks away from him. Some sidespin block the other way by moving the racket from left to right at contact, often blocking this one into the wide forehand, where it breaks away from the opponent.

A blocker who can’t put the ball away effectively has a huge handicap. Imagine blocking someone all over the court, forcing the weak ball, and not being able to hit a winner! Most blockers develop at least an efficient smash for when they do get such a weak ball, but many do not develop a good attack otherwise (a strategic mistake), relying instead on quick, steady blocking to win the point, which limits their tactical options. A hitter/blocker, however, would end the point quickly as soon as he saw a ball to smash. There are also many looper-blockers, especially ones who loop on the forehand but mostly block on the backhand, which can be a pretty successful way to play, such as three-time World Men’s Singles Champion Guo Yuehua (1981, 83, 85), considered by many the greatest player ever, though his one-winged penhold looping style might not match up well these days against modern two-winged loopers.  

Some blockers with good attacks are a master of the “I’ll give you one chance to attack” strategy. This means they are willing to push long to a corner one time, challenging the opponent to go out of position to attack it. The opponent doesn’t get to pick his shot; the blocker only gives him one chance. If the opponent doesn’t attack, and instead pushes it back, the blocker takes the attack.

Conventional attacking players, especially loopers, often do not develop their blocking game even though they use it in matches. This is a handicap; if you are going to block in a game, you need to develop the shot to the fullest, including all of the methods outlined here.

One common weakness of blockers, including other styles who also block, is the lack of a forehand down-the-line block. When players loop to the forehand, it is almost invariably blocked crosscourt, even at the higher levels. This can be effective since you do have a wide angle to the forehand, and about 15.5 more inches going crosscourt than down the line. But going crosscourt is so common that players are used to this—but they are often absolutely frozen by an unexpected down-the-line block. The down-the-line forehand block is not a hard shot to do, it’s just one that few bother learning. This is partly because they warm up crosscourt so much, and because, deep down, they are trying to play it safe, and go where there’s more room and with the more natural block. Instead, learn to tilt the racket tip back so as to angle your forehand block down the line, and watch the awkward returns of your opponent!

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May 29, 2017 - Contact Point on Racket When Serving

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

You can maximize, minimize, and otherwise vary the spin on your serve (for deception) by varying the contact point. How do you do this?

To maximize the spin, contact the ball near the tip, which is the fastest moving part of the racket when you serve, since it’s the farthest part from the wrist, which should be snapping the racket through the ball. If you really want to maximize this, you should normally contact it a little to the side of the tip. For example, for a righty serving a forehand pendulum serve, the wrist is on the right side of the racket, so the farthest part of the racket is the left side of the tip – and so you get the most spin by contacting it there.

However, maximizing spin isn’t the only thing a serve wants to do – he also wants to vary the spin. The simplest way is to simply contact the ball near the throat, which is moving much slower than the tip. The result is very little spin without changing the serving motion. If you are serving backspin, and the receiver doesn’t see the change in the contact point, he’ll think there’s more backspin on the ball then there is, and so will likely pop the ball up or go off the end. If you do serve a no-spin like this, make sure to sell it – a big follow-through!

Another way to vary the spin by varying the contact point is to change the axis of the racket’s rotation. If you serve with only a forearm motion, then the axis of rotation is the elbow. If you snap your wrist into the shot, then the axis of rotation is the wrist. But suppose, as you contact the ball, you change the axis of rotation to around the middle of the racket? Then the tip might be going down while the throat is moving sideways or up. If you contact it with the tip, you might get backspin, but if you contact it near the throat, you get sidespin, topspin, or a combination. But the receiver will see the tip moving down – vigorously! – and so will likely read it as backspin. Result? They pop it up or go off the end. Once again you have varied the spin without changing the serving motion.

These principles follow for all serves, but vary according to the specific serving motion. Start thinking about your motion, perhaps doing it in slow motion (without the ball) so you can practice varying the spin with the same motion. Then get a box of balls and practice it!

May 22, 2017 - Looping to the Forehand, Backhand, and Middle

Monday, May 22, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Looping to the different placements can get very different results. A type of loop to one part of the table might not work so well somewhere else. No two players are alike, so early on in any match you need to find out what type of looping works to the three main locations – wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle (roughly the opponent’s playing elbow). But there are certain types that generally work best – or not – to given locations.

Most players block more quickly and effectively on the backhand. However, because their body is in the way, they may get jammed and have trouble with deep, spinny loops. The downside is that you have the ball control to consistently keep it deep – a spinny loop that goes deep on the table might be highly effective, but the same loop a foot shorter may be killed or blocked aggressively.  

While most players aren’t as quick or effective on the forehand block, the body isn’t in the way. This means they are better against deeper loops than on the backhand, and may especially be good at attacking spinny loops, even if they go deep. But they don’t have as much control as on the backhand, and don’t cover the wide angle as well. Slow, spinny loops that land short to the forehand (where they react too slowly), mixed in with more aggressive ones to the wide forehand, will often throw off their timing. So variation and angle is often more effective here.

If a player has time, they can use their best shot against loops to the middle, often a backhand block or forehand counter-attack. And so when looping to the middle you want to be aggressive, rushing the opponent into mistakes. This doesn’t mean you have to rip the ball, but it needs to be fast enough to rush the opponent. Slow, spinny loops might not be as effective as the opponent has time to react and use his best shot. On the other hand, going to the middle takes away any extreme blocking angles.

To summarize:

  • Looping to backhand: Focus on depth and heavy topspin.
  • Looping to forehand: Focus on variation and angle.
  • Looping to middle: Focus on aggressiveness, but don't overdo it.