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.)

March 26, 2018 - Finding Simple Tactics That Work

Monday, March 26, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

I was going to write about this topic when I realized I didn't have to - I already had. Chapter One of my book, "Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers," starts with this:

"Tactics isn't about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work."

What does this mean? Rather than explaining it again here, I'll simply quote from the book - and hopefully you will learn how to win the tactical battle and make the game simple and easy!

Tactics isn't about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work.

In simpler terms, the purpose of tactics is to mess up your opponent.

You do this by messing up his game, and by forcing your game on his. More specifically, tactics is finding ways to get your strengths into play while avoiding your opponent's, and going after the opponent's weaknesses while not letting him go after yours. It's figuring out how you win and lose points.

To do this, you have to know both your game and your opponent's. While you might go into a match not knowing much about your opponent (though ideally you would have scouted him out in advance), you should know all about your game. How well do you know your game?

If you couldn't write a book about your game, either you don't know your game, or you have no game. (We'll get back to this shortly.)

Table tennis is a game of utter complexity and utter simplicity. If you get too caught up in the myriad of complex strategies available, you'll be lost in a sea of uncertainty. Think KISS—"Keep It Simple, Stupid." Most matches are tactically won on at most two or three tactical things, not the zillions that are possible. It's finding those two or three out of the zillions that's key. On the other hand, if your thinking is too simple, you aren't maximizing your play.

There's no conflict here. Much of tactics involves simplifying things so the game becomes simple and easy. If you use tactics that force your opponent into predictable returns that feed into your strengths, you've won the tactical battle and made the game simple and easy.

March 19, 2018 - Your Goal Should Normally Be to Win Playing the Style You Are Developing

Monday, March 19, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

What does this mean? It doesn't mean you should blow big matches because you stubbornly refuse to play a smart tactic that's not how you normally play. What it means is that if you are trying to improve your game, then except in "big matches," you should focus on winning using the playing the style you are striving to develop. In other words, if it's not a big match, then it's somewhat of a practice match, and so you should be practicing your playing style.

What is a big match? It's whatever you define it to be, but you should define it for yourself. For some, it's any tournament match or league match. For others, it's only a championship match. For still others, it's nearly every match they play - and that's a mistake. The large majority of matches you play should not be considered big matches.

This doesn't mean you don't fight hard to win every match - you should. It means that, except in those big matches (where you should tactically do whatever you can to win), you should fight hard to win with the style you are trying to develop. (Note that sometimes, even in non-big matches, you might practice the tactics that win for that match rather than your playing style, but that's to develop tactical flexibility skills. Tactical rigidity is a recipe for poor tactics and poor play.)

As an example, I've seen many players who are loopers who are afraid to loop many deep serves because they miss too often, and they are afraid of losing. So they instead return them passively, and are moderately successful at it at the level they are playing - and since tactically it's the right thing to do at the time to win, they keep doing it. But it's a trap - they are dramatically limiting their looping style and their improvement by not looping these serves. Instead, except for a big match where tactically it might be better (at that time) to return them passively, they should be looping those deep serves. That's how you become better at looping those deep serves, and become a better player in the long run!

Another example are players who do not consistently try to follow up their serve with an attack, unless they get an easy ball. It might make tactical sense at the time, but it's a great hindrance to improvement. The primary purpose of the serve is to get the initiative, which almost always means by following it up with an attack. (If you want to improve, you should almost always follow your serve with an attack, unless the opponent returns your serve in such a way as to take away your attack. How you should attack depends on your playing style.

So what shots should you be developing that you shy away from because you are afraid of losing? How much better will you be later on if you start using those shots, even if you temporarily lose some winnable matches?

March 12, 2018 - "Hot Anger" versus "Cold Anger"

Monday, March 12, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

It's best not to get angry when you play, period. And if you want to be a professional table tennis player, you better learn to control your emotions. (Even John McEnroe had his best tennis matches when he wasn't throwing fits.) However, if you do get angry sometimes in matches, then you should at least learn to channel your inner "rage."

Ever get really mad about something, to the point that you couldn't think straight? That is "Hot Anger." It's pointless and should always be avoided. And yet that's what often happens in competitive matches, where a player gets angry either at himself, his opponent, the playing conditions, the tournament director or referee, or anything else. The result is poor focus, poor execution, and poor play.

On the other hand, sometimes these anger issues can benefit you, if you know how to take advantage of them. If there's something that angers you, don't get "hot angry," get "cold angry." The difference is now you are thinking with ice-cold clarity with a single purpose in mind - overcome whatever it is you are angry at and beat your opponent. With "cold anger," you become single-mindedly focused and determined.

Some top athletes truly thrive on this, even going out of their way to find slights against them to give them incentive to push themselves to the limit - but they do so with "cold anger." If a team is predicted to do poorly by the experts, players can use this as incentive with "cold anger" - but if they truly get angry at this, with "hot anger," then they will likely self-implode - and that often happens. So next time you feel "hot anger" coming on, change it over to "cold anger" and use it to your advantage.

March 5, 2018 - What You Should Be Watching

Sunday, March 4, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

Most of the time you should be watching the ball, but not always. If the ball is moving slowly, you should watch it all the way into your racket. If the ball is moving fast, you can't react at the last second, so there's no point in watching the ball right to contact. In both cases, as soon as watching the ball no longer is beneficial, you should be looking up to watch your opponent. You should generally be aware of the opponent and what he's doing and where with peripheral vision, but actually looking up to watch him is even better. That allows you to quickly prepare for whatever he's doing. You should pick up the ball again just before he hits it, and then watch the ball the rest of the way - until it's time to look up again to see your opponent.

February 26, 2018 - Sound and Feet

Monday, February 26, 2018
by: Larry Hodges

The Chinese know something about table tennis, and there's a stereotype about Chinese coaches that we can learn from. The stereotype is that in a group training session, they often walk around with their heads down as they do two things - listen to the sound of contact and watch your feet. 

They listen to the sound of contact because a good stroke and good timing result in a "good" contact sound. If the sound is wrong, then something else is wrong. By listening to the sound, they can identify there's a problem, and then look to see what the problem is. (So then they do have to look up. You don't want them to look up.)

They watch your feet because the feet are the base of everything else. There's a reason nearly all table tennis drills are footwork drills - many coaches will say all table tennis drills are footwork drills. Get the feet right, and the rest follows somewhat naturally. Get the feet wrong, and all is lost.

So get the sound and feet right, and you won't have to face the fury of all the problems they cause when done improperly. (I'd add one thing to this - if you get both the feet and grip right, often everything in between falls into place. Get either wrong, and everything gets twisted in between.)