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.)




July 11, 2011 - Where to Place Your Putaways

Tuesday, July 12, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Where should you put your putaway shots? Whether they are smashes or loop kills, there are basically three options.

Option One: The easiest spot. This usually would be the longest diagonal. This gives the most table to aim for, and so is the safest and most consistent. The down side - it's also the spot most opponents will expect you to aim for, and so is the most likely to be returned. At the beginning/intermediate level, you should aim most putaways to the safest spot since it's probably not coming back.

Option Two: Aim one way, go the other. Most often this means aiming for the longest diagonal, and then, as the opponent moves to cover that spot, going the other way, usually down the line. This is riskier as you both have less table to go for and you are setting up to go one way, then have to change at the last second, but it's also going to make it very difficult for the opponent to return this shot. It's only at the higher levels that opponents can react and cover both corners.

Option Three: The opponent's middle. This is the transition spot between forehand and backhand. At all levels this is probably the most difficult spot to react to. There are players who can almost relentlessly return shot after shot at the corners, but go at their middle and they fall apart. This is the most common spot top players aim at. The down side - it means you don't get the long diagonal to aim for, plus it's a moving target, depending on where the opponent is. Also, a forehand-oriented player may counter-attack that ball with his forehand - but if he does, he's probably moving early, and leaving his wide forehand open, which is where you would go in this case. 



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July 4, 2011 - Coaching Against Yourself

Monday, July 4, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Imagine coaching someone to play against you. What would you tell them? Now imagine coaching yourself to fix up the very weaknesses that you would coach an opponent to play into against you. The top authority on a player's game should be that player, so listen to yourself; you are a wise and knowledgeable coach!  






June 27, 2011 - Complex Versus Simple Tactics

Monday, June 27, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

There's a myth that top players use complicated tactics to defeat opponents. Perhaps as they are about to serve they are planning out their first three or four shots? After all, chess players plan things out many moves ahead, and table tennis has been called chess at light speed.

That's not what happens in table tennis. Top tactical players don't work out complicated tactical schemes; they look at all the complexities and find simple patterns to disarm an opponent. There are just too many variables to plan too much. It's better to focus on a few simple tactics that will tend to favor what you want to do. The key is choosing those few simple tactics. That's your primary goal in the first game of a match, equal in importance to actually winning that game. Some tactics are for setting up your own strengths. For example, if you have a powerful loop against backspin, you might serve backspin so you get a lot of push returns. If the receiver pushes at wide angles, you might serve backspin low to the middle, thereby taking away some of the angle. If you have trouble with heavy backspin, you might serve no-spin, which is more difficult to push heavy. (If you fake backspin and serve it low, it'll usually get pushed.) If you have a good smash, you might serve varying sidespin and topspin serves, with varying speeds and depths. If you are quicker than an opponent, you might serve topspin so you can get right into a topspin rally.

Other tactics are to take away an opponent's strength. For example, if an opponent has a powerful forehand, a simple remedy would be to serve short to the forehand, and then attack out to the backhand, thereby taking the forehand out of the equation. If an opponent has a strong push that is difficult to attack, then serve topspin. If an opponent has strong side-top serves and a good follow-up, then focus on returning the ball deep. If an opponent has a strong forehand and backhand, perhaps go after his middle, the changeover spot between forehand and backhand. And so on.

Similarly, you can use tactics to play into an opponent's weakness or to avoid exposing your own weaknesses. See if you can come up with your own list of tactics of this type. Ideally you'll learn to play your strengths against an opponent's weaknesses. But sometimes you'll play your medium shots to the opponent's weaknesses, or your strengths to the opponent's medium shots.

Most top players focus on just a few tactics - perhaps two or three serve tactics, one or two receive tactics, and one or two rally tactics. This doesn't mean they don't use other tactics as the situation comes up, but they are standard tactics that are ingrained from years of playing and thinking about the sport. The specific tactics against a specific player are far more limited, and yet, if chosen properly, will pay off dividends. 






June 20, 2011 - Are You a Tree or a Squirrel?

Monday, June 20, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Squirrels run circles around trees, and there's a lesson there. If you are a tree, you just stand there, rooted to the ground, waiting on each shot to see if you have to move. By the time you realize you have to move - how often does your opponent happen to hit the ball right into your forehand or backhand pocket so it'll hit right in the middle of your paddle? - it's too late, and so you can only awkwardly reach for the ball. There are no proud redwoods in table tennis, only weeping willows.

If you are a squirrel, then you are constantly in motion. You expect to move, and so between shots you flex your knees, perhaps do a small bounce, and instead of deciding whether to move, decide where to move. And then you lightly scamper after every shot, or perhaps lumber if you're an out-of-shape squirrel, but at least you are moving, allowing you to make strong shots.

A good way to practice this is with a random drill. Have a partner block or feed multiball randomly all over the table. Your job is to be ready to move instantly as soon as you see where the ball's going, while at the same time not anticipating, just reacting. Make sure your first move is always the right move. With practice, you'll become proficient, and that'll show up in your match results. 






June 13, 2011 - Playing the Fisher

Monday, June 13, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The fisherman (or fisherwoman?) . . . the scourge of many. The player who backs up and softly and defensively topspins everything back a few feet over the net. His shots are not quite lobbing, not quite looping, and not quite counter-hitting. It can take a lot of work to race around the table attacking his shots with your forehand - not easy when the fisher puts the ball side to side, deep on the table, with both topspin and sidespin so the balls jumps as it hits your side of the table. How does one play this style?

First off, you have to decide how physical you can play. If you have the foot speed, stamina, and a strong enough forehand (looping or smashing) to attack each of these shots with your forehand, then by all means do so, though (as explained below) the occasional change-of-pace may be important, depending on how steady the fisher is. The key is how you attack them.

If you don't have the foot speed, stamina, or a strong enough forehand to keep attacking, then you will have to mix in blocks, especially with your backhand. (Of course, if you have a far more powerful backhand than forehand - rare, but sometimes the case - then attack with the backhand.) Don't feel as if this is a major weakness - more players lose to fishers by over-attacking than by ones who change the pace by mixing in blocks along with their attacks. 

The arc of a ball from a fisher is longer, and the topspin makes the ball bounce out, so the top of the bounce is about a half step farther off the table than you might expect. Unless you have great reflexes and timing and can take the ball off the bounce, you'll need to take a half step back to smash or loop at the top of the bounce. Otherwise you'll get jammed. 

Here are the keys to playing a fisher.

Placement: Never attack the middle forehand or middle backhand - those are the easiest shots for the fisher to return. Instead, focus on the wide backhand and middle (elbow area), and the wide forehand when you think you have a clean winner (or if the fisher happens to be weak on that side, though usually that's the strong side). Since a fisher needs to anticipate where your attacks are going in order to react to them, if you can aim one way and go another, he'll struggle.

  • On the forehand side, the fisher has a bigger hitting zone, more range, can more easily create both topspin and sidespin, and can more easily counter-attack, usually with a counterloop. Usually avoid this side until you see a clean winner.
  • On the backhand side, the fisher is more cramped, and normally has less range, less spin, and less potential for a counter-attack. Go after this side with a vengeance, along with attacks to the middle.  Most attacks to the wide backhand side will come back to your backhand side, allowing you to continue your attack into the wide backhand, where you have more table than if you go down the line or to the middle. The catch is to do so, you have to step all the way around your backhand side if you want to use your forehand.
  • In the middle, the fisher has to make a split-second decision on whether to go forehand or backhand, plus it's usually easier to run a ball down in the corners then to get out of the way of a ball in the middle. Focus on attacking the middle slightly on the backhand side to force an awkward backhand return. This is often a good spot to end the point on. However, there's more table when you go after the corners, so if you attack the middle over and over you are more liable to make a mistake. Some fishers seem to get every ball back on the backhand side, but that's because all the attacks are going right to the backhand side; mix in attack to the middle, and the fisher will begin to crumble.

Change of Pace: Once a good fisher gets his timing down, he can often seemingly return shot after shot even as you smash or power-loop over and over. How do you break out of this pattern? Try changing the pace. Attack one ball softer than normal, or perhaps block one. The fisher is consistent off your strong attacks only because he is anticipating them, and so his timing and positioning are set for strong attacks. Change the pace, and you may mess up his timing and positioning. You might even try looping soft and spinny as a changeup, and watch the fisher struggle to adjust without missing or giving you an easy ball to put away.

Loop or Smash? You can do either against a fisher, or (often even more effectively) do both. Do whichever you are more comfortable with. If you have a powerful loop, the extra topspin of your loop will make it easier to keep your attacks on the table; at the higher levels, top players pretty much kill-loop over and over against a fisher. But if you have a good smash, use that, especially if you can be deceptive with it.

The Short Ball: As long as he keeps the ball deep on the table, a good fisher can run down almost anything you attack. The goal shouldn't be to end the point with each shot; the goal should be to put pressure on the fisher until he returns a ball that lands short. (Of course, in trying to force this, you'll force plenty of outright misses as well.) When you get that short ball, that's when you end the point. You can now attack the ball much closer to the table, at wide angles, and your opponent has less time to react. As long as you don't telegraph your shot, you should be able to rip this ball at a wide angle so that the opponent simply can't run it down, or to the middle where the opponent simply can't react.

Special thanks to Deriderj, who raised this question on the forum