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 13, 2012 - Those Dizzying No-Spin Serves

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

A low, heavy backspin serve is difficult to attack, especially if you serve it short or to the opponent's weaker side. For that reason it is often the serve of choice for many attacking players who are looking for a passive return to attack. However, there are several problems you face with this serve. If you serve with heavy backspin, it's easy for an opponent to dig into it and push it back low and heavy - your own backspin rebounds off their open racket with backspin. If you serve it long, it's easy to loop with heavy topspin, converting your own backspin into topspin. If you serve it short, it's easy to push back short and low, making it difficult to attack. How do you overcome these problems?

The answer is to develop other serves as variations, such as a good sidepin or topspin serve - and you should develop these. However, there's an easier way that most top players use, and that's to mix in no-spin serves.

A key to getting heavy spin on the serve is to contact the ball near the racket tip, which is the fastest moving part of the racket when you snap your wrist into a serve for heavy spin. Suppose you use the same motion, but contact the ball near the handle, where the racket is moving much more slowly. You get an almost spinless ball. If you really exaggerate the spin motion but serve with no spin, it's a "heavy no-spin serve."

Now it's more difficult for an opponent to push it back heavy as they can't use your spin against you, plus they are probably expecting backspin, and so their push pops up. If the serve goes long and they attack it, they'll likely misread it as backspin, and go off the end. If they try to push it back short, it'll likely pop up as well as go long.

It's extremely important to serve no-spin very low to the net. There's no spin to directly mess up an opponent, and if it goes high, it's easy to attack. If you serve it low, it's surprisingly difficult to flip aggressively - if an opponent does attack it easily, you are probably not serving low to the net.

At the higher levels, no-spin serves are the most common serve in doubles, often with backspin serves mixed in as the main variation. Since your opponent knows which court you are serving to in doubles, he is camped out ready to make a return from his stronger side. At these higher levels, deep serves are looped, short sidespin and topspin serves are flipped aggressively, and short backspin serves are dropped short and low. Since the opponent can use your own spin against you, the no-spin serve is often more effective than the spinny one. A short no-spin serve may not force as many outright mistakes, but there's no one easy way to return it effectively.

So develop a no-spin serve as a variation to your spin serves, and learn to really load up the ball with so much no-spin that no opponent can possibly overcome that dizzying lack of spin you throw at them.

February 6, 2012 - Sidespin Loops

Monday, February 6, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

The hooking sidespin loop had its heyday in the early 1970s, with the rise of Hungary's Istvan Jonyer, the 1975 World Men's Singles Champion. Jonyer looped with a straight arm, and would often contact the ball on the far side, hooking the ball to the left (he's a righty) with incredible sidespin. Often his racket tip would point straight down at contact, giving him essentially 100% sidespin. When players went to his forehand side, often he would loop around the net, with the ball barely rising above table level, and mostly rolling when it hit the far side - nearly unreturnable. Primarily because of Jonyer, the rules were changed, requiring the net to project six inches outwards. This makes around-the-net loops rare, though top players still do this shot sometimes from the very wide forehand.

However, while we may never see the sidespin dominance of a player like Jonyer again, most loops do have sidespin on them. According to former U.S. Men's Coach Dan Seemiller, your typical forehand loop should be about 15% sidespin. This is the most natural loop - for most players, it would be tricky going for 100% topspin, as the racket naturally tips downward from the shoulder, and contact point is usually below the shoulder.

Yet some players like to go for extreme sidespins on some of their loops, especially on the forehand side. It's a great way to mess up an opponent and set up your own shots. How and when do you do it? This is one of those shots where if you see a top player do it, it's easy to copy.

The basic key for a hooking loop is contact the ball on the far side, by dropping the wrist so that the racket tip slightly down. It's generally easier doing it from the wide forehand, though you can do it from anywhere on the court. When someone blocks to your wide forehand, and you have to stretch for the ball even a little bit, it's best to get your racket outside the ball and hook it back with sidespin as well as topspin. If you do it to the opponent's wide forehand, it jumps away from him, and the sidespin will both make his timing tricky and make it difficult for him to return it to your now open backhand side, and so you'll usually get another forehand shot.

The opposite of a hooking sidespin loop is a slicing one (also called an inside-out loop), which is often done with the forehand from the backhand side to the opponent's backhand side (so that it jumps away from the opponent), but it can be done from anywhere on the court. Instead of dropping the racket tip to hook the outside of the ball, you now raise your wrist so that the tip goes up, and contact the ball on your side of the ball so that it slices to the right (for a righty). This is usually a bit more difficult to learn, but once learned, it gives you a devastating one-two combo of hooking and slicing loops. Just as with a hooking loop, the slicing loop messes up the opponent's timing, and usually forces a return toward your backhand.

Here's a video from PingSkills that demonstrates and explains hooking and slicing (he calls them fading) loops (3:08). 

Tired of throwing the usual topspins and backspins at your opponent? Have a little sidespin fun! 

January 30, 2012 - Quick and Variable Blocks

Monday, January 30, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Someone recently asked me why it was important to block loops quick off the bounce. He thought that taking the ball quick off the bounce made it harder for the blocker to react, and made the shot more predictable for the opponent. However, it's actually easier and more consistent to block a loop off the bounce, and the lack of variation from this only happens if the blocker doesn't vary his block.

You do want to block loops off the bounce. If you take it late, you have more ground to cover (often with little time to react, depending on the speed of the loop), as well as having to predict the ball's fast and low bounce off the table. Even more important, blocking quick off the bounce allows you to both rush and angle an opponent. If you take the ball late, your opponent has time to react to your shot, and the block loses its effectiveness.

So how do you make your block more effective by varying it? First of all, while variation is important, consistency is most important. Your block needs to be a steady, quick over-the-table shot - think of yourself as a wall. But you can be steady and still mess up your opponent by varying your blocks.

So, how can you vary your block to mess up an opponent? Here's a rundown.

Steadiness: Sheer consistency, combined with quickness, will wear down an opponent. If you combine steadiness with at least one other variation, such as placement or change of pace, your block will be even more effective.

Three placements: Your blocks should almost always go to one of the three main placements - wide forehand, wide backhand, and middle. By blocking quick off the bounce, your opponent has little time to react to these, and they all force him out of position. 

Deceptive placement: You can aim one way, and at the last second change directions. For example, suppose you aim your backhand block to the opponent's wide backhand (for two righties). At the last second, just bring your wrist back and block down the line to the forehand. Deceptive placement is perhaps the most under-used tactic in blocking at the intermediate level - far too often players telegraph where they are blocking early in the shot.

Tactical placement: Sometimes you should hammer an opponent's weak side over and over. Or you might want to go after the opponent's middle over and over. Against others, you might want to go quick to their strong side to draw the opponent out of position, and then come back to the weak side, making them move and hit their weaker shot.

Speed: Not all blocks are passive. A jab block is an aggressive block, and if placed well - see three placements above - is particularly effective. You can especially jab block against a loop that lands short. Slow, spinny loops that land short are easy to miss if you take them late, but if you take them off the bounce decisively, they are easy to jab block or even smash. To smash them, shorten your backswing. 

Dead block: These are great to vary the pace and throw off an opponent's timing, and are especially effective when combined with a jab block, or against an opponent who tends to back off the table. Just hold the racket loosely and let the ball rebound out slowly.

Chop block: If you chop down on the ball at contact, you can dead block with backspin. This is more easily done on the backhand.

Sidespin block: At contact, move the racket sideways to create sidespin. You can do this in either direction. This is another way to dead block. This is more easily done on the backhand.

Topspin block: You can topspin the ball right off the bounce, both backhand or forehand, sort of a mini-loop. (Some call this the "kiss of topspin.") At the world-class level this is the most common type of block.

Use block to set up attack: Blocking by itself will only take you so far. If you use your block to mess up an opponent so that you can then attack yourself, you put even more pressure on your opponent. Any time you sense your opponent will have trouble with your block, get ready to take the attack.

Many or most of the above may be tricky to do at first, but that's because you haven't been doing them. Decide which variations above best fit your game. Then find time to practice them in drills, use them in practice matches, and soon they'll become second nature. 

January 23, 2012 - Forcing an Opponent Out of Position

Monday, January 23, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

There are a number of ways to effectively force an opponent out of position. You can do this by either moving him side to side or in and out or some combination of this. In practical terms, here are ways to do so.

Corners - You play one ball wide to either the forehand or backhand. As the opponent moves wide to return the shot, he either leaves the other wide corner open, or he moves to cover that side so quickly that he leaves the other corner open. (This is really two tactics, since you can start by going wide to either the forehand or backhand.)

Middle - You go to the opponent's middle (playing elbow), usually aggressively so as not to set him up for an easy shot from his stronger side. If he moves to cover it with his forehand, he leaves his forehand side open, and if he moves to cover it with his backhand, he leaves his backhand side open. You either play to the open side, or if the opponent moves to cover that side too quickly, you go the other way.

Short to forehand, deep to backhand - You serve or drop a ball short to the forehand, bringing the opponent in over the table. Then he's jammed over the table and vulnerable to a deep ball to the backhand. Sometimes the opponent moves so quickly to cover the wide backhand that he's vulnerable to another short ball to the forehand, or to deep to the wide forehand.

Short to backhand, deep to forehand - You serve or drop a ball short to the backhand, bringing the opponent in over the table. Then he's jammed over the table and vulnerable to a deep ball to the forehand. Sometimes the opponent moves so quickly to cover the wide forehand that he's vulnerable to another short ball to the backhand, or to deep to the wide backhand.

Deep to backhand against a forehand player - Against a forehand-oriented player, you play the ball deep to the backhand over and over, often by pushing, until the opponent steps around to attack with his forehand. You quick-block the ball to his wide forehand, or if he moves too quickly to cover that, come right back at his backhand again.

In the scenarios given above, I've given two places to place the ball after forcing the opponent out of position. In each case there is a third option - if the opponent is hustling to cover the corners, you can go after his middle. It's hard to cover the middle when you are moving to get back into position. (This is why it is rarely a good idea to be moving back into position when the opponent is hitting the ball. It's better to be in a ready position but slightly out of position than in position but in motion.)

How to apply the above? Study your opponent, and focus on using your serve and receive to set up the above, as well as doing so in rallies, and turn your opponent into a puppet - and you hold the strings!

January 16, 2012 - Larry's Six-Month Law

Monday, January 16, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

Here's Larry's Six-Month Law. If you work hard and improve, and are finally playing at a higher level in practice, you'll generally need to do this for about six months of tournament and practice matches before you'll be able to consistently win at this level in tournaments. During those six months, you'll probably battle closely with players who were much stronger than you until your recent improvement, and occasionally you'll beat one, but mostly you'll lose close matches that, afterwards, you'll swear you should have won - often with good reason.

What's actually happening? The problem you face is that your opponents have played at that level for a much longer period of time, and so are both psychologically and tactically better prepared to win key points than you are, since you are new to that level. You and your opponent may play the same level, but when it's close, the experienced opponent who has been doing this much longer is more confident and knows exactly what to do tactically. He knows what serve to throw at you at the end of each game, how to return your serve, where to place the ball, and he's confident that he can execute the shots needed to win. You don't have this experience, and probably aren't as sure about what to do at the end of each game. Guess who wins most of those key points?

The key thing to understand is that the only thing that now separates you from your opponent is mental. When you miss a shot at a key time, and it's often the same shot you made over and over earlier, it wasn't the physical aspect that messed up, but the mental. Either you weren't confident and so messed up, or you were crossed up tactically and so were fooled into messing up. Learn from your mistakes in these close matches, pay your dues during those six months or so, and it's inevitable you'll start winning. And perhaps, just maybe, you'll be one of those players who doesn't take six months to start winning at your new level.

To reiterate: The key thing to understand is that it's mostly mental. You might as well tell yourself it's all mental, since that's pretty much true. (Here's Dora Kurimay's Table Tennis Sports Psychology page.)