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.)

October 17, 2016 - Play Both Weaker and Stronger Players

Monday, October 17, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Many players who want to improve make the mistake of trying to play mostly stronger players. The result is the opponent controls play, and all the player can do is react to the stronger player's shots, or go for wild shots. A player may develop some shots this way, but it'll be hard to develop new shots or to learn how to use them in a game situation.

If you are trying to improve you need to both try out new shots that you are developing and to try out new combinations and strategies. If you do this against a stronger player, you probably won't do so well, and you'll probably stop doing it. You won't have any way of knowing if the new shot, combination or strategy may work since the stronger player may win the point simply by being a stronger player against something you are just trying out and are not yet comfortable with.

Instead, try out new things against players who are weaker than you. Develop them against these players, in an environment where you can control play a little more (since you are the stronger player), and where you can see if the new things might work. Don't worry about winning or losing – this is practice – as you will undoubtedly lose sometimes when trying out something new, even against a weaker player. (Imagine how bad you'd lose in this case against a stronger player!) When your new techniques begin to work against a weaker player, then it's time to try them out against your peers and stronger players.

Example: suppose you want to develop your loop against backspin. The best way to do this is to serve backspin, and loop the pushed return. A stronger player may flip the serve, push short, quick push to a corner, or push extremely heavy – and you won't be able to develop the shot very well. A weaker player would be more likely to give you a ball that you can loop, which is what you need until the shot is more developed. You need to both develop the shot and your instincts on when to use it, how to follow it up, etc. When you can do it against a weaker player, then it's time to try it out against tougher competition.

Everyone wants to play against stronger players, and you do need to play stronger players so they can push you to play at a higher level. But often it helps to play weaker players so you can develop the weapons you'll want to use against those stronger players. 

October 11, 2016 - Taking the Shot Versus Letting it Happen

Tuesday, October 11, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

A common thinking problem when playing is thinking of an attacking shot as "going for a shot." This is a mistake – it leads to a deep-held belief that you are going for something risky and therefore inconsistent, which leaves you with a lack of confidence in the shot, which makes you hesitant, which leads to inconsistency.

Instead, think of any attacking shot as just another shot, no different than a push. You aren't "going for a shot," you are simply letting it happen by doing something you've probably done thousands of times before. If you haven't, then doing it a thousand times is your next assignment – it's called practice. Ideally, practice the shot with multiball training until it is so second nature that when it's time to do so in a real rally, it will still be second nature. Then do it in practice sessions with a partner, then practice games, and finally in real matches in tournaments or leagues.

Even if the shot is not yet second nature, you should still believe you will make it every time if you want to maximize your consistency. Know that you can make any shot that you reasonably might try. Don't force a shot; just let the shots that you've practiced happen, and they will happen far more consistently than if you force them or think that you are "going for a shot."

There's a simple test of whether you have the right mentality when attacking. You should be surprised when you miss, because you should be so sure you can make the shot that any other outcome doesn't enter you mind, leading to that surprise if you miss.

All of this is true whether you are attacking consistently or trying to end the point. You aren't "going for a shot." You are simply doing what you trained to do, what you know you can do, and what you expect to do. And if you do happen to miss, just shake your head in disbelief, make the needed adjustment, and know that you'll never miss again. 

October 3, 2016 - Returning Smashes: Reacting and Racket Angles

Monday, October 3, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

How often have you given up on a ball that your opponent is about to smash or loop-kill? And how many times have you gotten your racket on the ball against an opponent’s smash or hard-hit ball, only to put it off the end, further re-enforcing the futility of trying to win such points? It happens all the time. And it’s a crime.

Some will no doubt argue they don’t have the fast reflexes of a pro to return smashes. That’s a myth. You have fast enough reflexes, just not the proper reactions. A pro doesn’t see an incoming smash and react with incredible reflexes; he sees an opponent’s forward swing coming toward the ball, and reacts well before contact to where he sees the ball must be going. It’s that big head start he gets that makes him seem to have supernatural reflexes. He’s both moving into position and setting up for his return before the opponent even hits the ball. How do you learn to do this? By observing opponents and trying to read where their shots will go from their forward swing. If you do this regularly, it becomes a natural habit, and you’ll start reacting faster and faster. Most top players are barely aware of doing this since they’ve been doing it for so long, often since they were little kids, and so it’s all subconscious reactions.

But once you’ve reacted to the ball, you still have to return it. Here’s something you should live by when facing a smash or loop-kill: If you can get your racket on the ball, you should get it back. Unlike a loop, a smash doesn’t have much spin, and so the racket angle needed for returning a smash is easy to anticipate. All you have to do is practice getting the right angle, and lo and behold, if you touch it, it’ll go back. The same is actually true against a loop-kill as well – the racket angle needed to return one is almost the same for all, so once you get that angle, you can return them. (It’s often the topspin jump off the table that gives many players first against a strong loop.)

How do you practice all of this? That sort of answers itself; you practice it by having an opponent practice his smash (or loop-kill) while you block, counter, or fish. (No lobbing for this exercise.) At first have them go to one spot so you can practice getting the right racket angle until it’s second nature. Then have them move the smash about, and you watch their swing and try to see where their smash is going. Keep your shots deep; if you put the ball high and short, you have little time to react and they’ll have extreme angles. Soon you’ll be returning these “put-aways” like a pro – at least some of the time. 

September 26, 2016 - How to Play Against a Player with a Coach

Monday, September 26, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Imagine playing a tournament match. It’s you versus your opponent in this gladiatorial combat, with both players alone out there, on their own. Except . . . that’s not what happen when your opponent has a coach. It’s no longer you versus your opponent, it’s two against one, and you are the one. How can you best handle this? Here are some tips. (Note that at the time I’m writing this, USATT had just rejected, at least for the moment, the ITTF’s new coaching rule, whereby coaching is allowed at any time between points. If played under ITTF rules, where an opponent can receive coaching between points, some of the tactics change, especially #5 below.)

  1. Ignore the coach. If you let it get into your head and bother you, that will likely hurt you more than any golden words of advice the coach might say.
  2. Get your own coach. It evens the playing field, both tactically and psychologically. Often all you need is a sounding board between games, and even the appearance of having a coach can affect the opponent.
  3. Take advantage of it psychologically. You are thinking for yourself, while your opponent isn’t. This should give you confidence. Remember that the coach only gets to talk to the player between games and once for a timeout (assuming they are not playing under the ITTF’s coaching rule where coaches can coach between points), and so the rest of the time your opponent is out there alone, just like you. While he’s thinking, “What did my coach tell me to do?”, you are thinking, “What should I do tactically?” You have the superior thinking pattern here as you are thinking for yourself, and better able to adjust to changes in the game.
  4. Watch what your opponent does at the start of a new game and adjust. You figured out what your opponent is doing on your own; will your opponent be able to adjust to you without his coach?
  5. Play differently at the start of a new game. If you do this, your opponent, often a kid (or adult) who's just been told how to play against what you did in the previous game, will likely fall apart in frustration, since the tactics he was just given no longer work. You can literally alternate tactics each game. It's one of the reasons it's important to have a "B" game. This is probably the most important tactic when playing a player with a coach. Here’s an actual example of how I used this in a tournament match.

    In the first game, I mostly served backspin and looped his pushes. On his serve, I mostly forced rallies, often backhand-to-backhand, and out-steadied him. I won the game, but it was relatively close – the opponent was rated lower than me, but was competitive. I knew his coach would tell him to quick-push my serves to wide corners to stop my forehand attack, and to attack my middle in rallies. So in the second game I switched to serving mostly short side-top and no-spin serves (all disguised as backspin) that he proceeded to quick-push ten feet off the table. In rallies I went on the forehand attack and feasted on his balls to my middle. He got very frustrated and I won the second easily. In the third I went back to my first-game tactics and won all the points at the start. The coach called a timeout, but when they returned I switched to my second-game tactics, and went up 10-0. (I played a lobbing point there and sort of gave him a point, and then won 11-1.) After the match the poor kid threw a tantrum, blaming his coach for the loss.

So next time you play a match against someone with a coach, take advantage of the situation!

September 19, 2016 - Five Serves That EVERYONE Should Master

Tuesday, September 20, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Here are five serves that any serious player should have. Some you might use regularly; others you might use sparingly for a few free points each game. Many long-time players, even top ones, continually handicap themselves by not having the needed variations that would finish off an opponent – and often they don’t even realize it, and so give away a few points every game that could be “freebies.” Since there are three long serves (#1 below), and backspin/no-spin is two serves (#2 below), there are really eight serves everyone should have. But I like to group the deep serves together as “The Three Primary Long Serves” players will remember them when practicing serves, and when playing a match.

  1. The Three Primary Long Serves, served from the backhand corner, often forehand pendulum serves.
    1. Deep crosscourt breaking sidespin serve that breaks away from the receiver (to the wide backhand if a righty serving to a righty). These serves throw off a receiver’s timing and often leave them lunging for the ball. (This doesn’t mean you should only do deep sidespin serves that break away from the receiver, but they are generally trickier to receive than ones that break into the receiver.) At the intermediate levels, a serve into the forehand that breaks away from the receiver can cause great difficulty, especially if not over-used. At the more advanced levels, that’s not effective and so breaking serves are mostly into the wide backhand.
    2. Fast no-spin at the elbow. This serve is put in the net so often it’s a mystery every player doesn’t develop this serve. It’s the single most effective “trick” serve up to about 2200 level (which is pretty advanced) – almost a guaranteed point or two every game if done properly. Against players who cover the middle with their forehand the serve might be more effective into the wide backhand, or down-the-line if a righty serving to a lefty (or vice versa).
    3. Fast down-the-line (to a righty’s forehand). Also effective crosscourt if served righty to lefty or vice versa. Many receivers try to cover more of the table with their forehand against deep serves, and so are vulnerable to sudden fast serves to the forehand. It also draws them out of position for the next shot. For righty vs. lefty or vice versa, there’s a big angle into the forehand, so it can be even more effective unless the receiver shades over to cover that wide forehand – in which case they may be vulnerable to a fast down-the-line serve.
  2. Short backspin/no-spin to the middle. By going to the middle, receivers have no extreme angles, and the server has less ground to cover on the follow-up. By mixing in backspin and no-spin, receivers often put the backspin in the net, and pop the no-spin up. It’s important that these serves be very low to the net, and bounce twice on the far side if given the chance. If serving no-spin, use a vigorous motion as if serving with spin – you must sell it as if it’s a backspin. If serving backspin, use less arm and more wrist so receiver will see less motion and think it’s no-spin.
  3. Backhand-type sidespin from the middle, served short to forehand or long to backhand. Many players are more comfortable receive short serves with their backhands, and have even more trouble with backhand-type sidespin short to the forehand, which breaks away from them, and can be awkward to receive since to compensate for the sidespin they have to aim down the line, which is trickier with the forehand on a short ball. By serving from the middle of the table, it gives the server an angle into the short forehand that cause even more trouble, while putting the server in perfect position for the follow-up shot, which usually comes to the forehand. Receivers often “cheat” and move in to cover this serve, even receiving it with their backhand – so be ready to use the same motion and suddenly serve out to the backhand, catching them off guard.
  4. Sidespin-topspin serve that looks like backspin. This is the serve many top players use to serve weaker players off the table. Their racket tip is moving down at contact, so the serve looks like backspin, but the racket is rotating about its center, and so the bottom is moving sideways and up – and so the serve is side-top. Receivers often push it, and it pops up or goes off the end. Against stronger players, if you over use this serve they can attack it – so don’t over use it, unless you are a counter-driving player. Use it sparingly, and it’s free points.
  5. Both types of sidespin. Some receivers are good against one type, not the other. Many players can only serve one type of sidespin effectively. Not only should you be able to do both, you should have motions where the receiver doesn’t know which you are doing until you start your forward swing. The most common method is forehand pendulum and reverse pendulum serves. But you can also do backhand regular and reverse serves and forehand tomahawk and reverse tomahawk serves.