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.)

May 31, 2016 - How to Cover a Short Ball to the Forehand

Tuesday, May 31, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

These days many players try to receive these with their backhands, often using a backhand banana flip. And there's nothing wrong with doing that. However, you'll run into problems if you can't also flip return these with your forehand – an opponent might use the same motion and either serve short to the forehand or long to the backhand, and unless you have world-class feet, you aren't going to be covering both with your backhand. So learn to return these shots with your forehand as well, with flips and pushes.

The key is stepping in properly. For right-handers, that means stepping in with the right foot as far in as needed. Balance is key, so keep your left arm out in the opposite direction, like a fencer doing an "en garde."

But you can't really learn this just by doing it when it's needed; you need to systematically practice it. This means:

  • Shadow practicing the shot until it's second nature. Perhaps even put a mark on the floor under the table where the right foot should go, and another where it should be in your regular stance, and then move back and forth, while also shadow-stroking a flip or push when you step in.
  • Practicing it with a partner or coach. Have him serve short to your forehand, or you serve short and he drops it short there, and then you can step in to practice the shot. Even better, do it with multiball, where the coach/practice partner alternates one ball short to the forehand (usually backspin or no-spin), another somewhere else (either random, or perhaps long to the backhand).
  • Then do it in game situations. Perhaps play games where both players have to serve short to the forehand, so both get practice on this.

Once you have confidence in receiving short balls with the forehand, you can do so either forehand or backhand, depending on the situation. And if you have a good forehand, you'll find that you might even want to receive with the forehand sometimes against short balls to the middle or even backhand, as it puts you in perfect position to follow with a big forehand!

Comments so far:: 4

May 23, 2016 - Contact Point on the Forehand

Monday, May 23, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Many players lose power on their forehand because they contact the ball too much in front of the body. This means they aren't really rotating into the ball with maximum efficiency – instead, as they are about to contact the ball, they are using mostly arm, which is moving forward while the body lags behind.

Instead, try contacting the ball more to the side of the body, by your right leg (for righties). Imagine there's a rod going through the top of your head, and circle the rod, as Ma Long does in this 48-sec video. By doing this you'll naturally rotate into the shot, getting maximum power and efficiency. This is true for both looping and regular drives.

Note that the goal here isn't just to get lots of power; it also leads to better control since you'll be getting the same amount of power (speed and spin) but with less effort. The more effort you have to put into a shot, the less control, so develop efficient shots where you minimize effort while maximizing power.

Here are the forehand contact points for these players – or choose your favorite player and Google that player's name along with forehand loop pictures.

May 16, 2016 - Depth Control on Serves with CBS

Monday, May 16, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

When trying to serve shorter, many players slow down their swing, and when trying to serve long they speed up their swing. Both are mistakes – that's not how you control depth or even ball speed.

"Serving is a violent motion," said two-time (and soon to be five-time) U.S. Men's Champion and future long-time U.S. Men's Team Coach Dan Seemiller at a training camp in the late 1970s – and those words have always stuck with me. If you want to maximize the spin, you maximize the racket speed. (You do this with smooth acceleration, but that's another topic.) If you want to maximize the speed, you also maximize the racket speed (at least as fast as you can make it and keep it on the table).

So how do you adjust the depth? Not by changing the racket speed, which should always reach a maximum around contact, but by three things: the grazing contact; where the ball bounces on your side of the table; and the spin.

If you barely graze the ball, you get two things: more spin and less speed. This means a shorter serve (i.e. one that would likely bounce two or more times on the far side if given the chance). As you sink the ball a bit more into the sponge, you get more speed and so the ball goes deeper. You also lose a little spin – though not as much as you'd think. More of your energy now goes into speed and so you lose some spin, but you also gain some spin from the rebounding of the sponge, since you've sunk the ball slightly into it at an angle.

And so you can control the depth primarily by how much you graze the ball. Want it to go short? Graze it finely (and get more spin as well), and the ball will travel slower, and so land shorter. Want it to go longer? Sink it a bit more into the sponge.

You also control depth by where it bounces on your side of the table. If the first bounce is near the net, you'll tend to get a shorter serve. If it's nearer your own end-line, then the ball has a long way to go to get to the net – 4.5 feet – and so will likely bounce deeper. Most top players like to serve the ball so the first bounce is as close to their own end-line as possible while still barely going short (with the second bounce on the far side, given the chance, right on the end-line or sometimes just a touch past it).

You also control depth with spin – backspin will make it bounce shorter, topspin longer. A good sidespin serve can also make the ball go shorter as it curves the ball sideways, keeping it over the table rather than bouncing out.

You also can keep the ball shorter by serving it low over the net – but that's a given. Always serve low to the net. You also can get a "shorter" serve by serving crosscourt, where you have more table, instead of down the line. 

So learn to serve with that "violent" motion, and vary the depth with your contact, first bounce, and spin. It's easy to remember – Contact, Bounce, Spin = CBS! (After practicing your serves, you have my permission to go watch TV.) 

May 9, 2016 - Move In to Cut Off the Angles with Quick Blocks

Monday, May 9, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

A common problem when blocking (both forehand and backhand) is to cover the wide angles by stepping (or worse, reaching) sideways, and letting the ball come to you. While you do, of course, have to move sideways to cover these shots, a key part is moving in, and catching the ball off quick off the bounce. By moving both sideways and in, you can do the following:

  • Catch the ball before it has a chance to move even wider, which would force you to cover even more court;
  • Make a more aggressive block, which is easier to do when moving in than when moving sideways;
  • Stay in position since you don't have to move as much sideways, so you will be more ready for the next shot;
  • Rush the opponent by taking the ball quicker;
  • Angle the opponent right back. And since you have the potential for this wide angle, if your opponent over-reacts to cover it, you can go the other way, forcing your opponent to cover a lot of ground.

How do you do all this? By stepping in and sideways with the near foot. On blocks to your left (the backhand for a righty), step sideways and in with your left foot. On blocks to the right, step in and sideways with the right foot. In both cases recover quickly by stepping back.

So when your opponent is attacking at wide angles, learn to cut off those angles by stepping in, and turn a potential weakness into a strength as you turn the tables on the opponent with your own aggressive, quick-angled blocks. 

Comments so far:: 1

May 2, 2016 - React to Opponent's Swing

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

When a player hits the ball very hard at a top player, often the top player often effortlessly returns these shots as if he has reflexes far beyond those of normal people. This isn't really true. In fact, in non-table tennis things, where he hasn't trained for many years, he might have only average reflexes. And yet he seems to react instantly to these smashes and loop kills. How does he do this?

From years of training, a top player develops fast reactions to things they train for. You could argue they have faster reflexes in table tennis and be correct, but only for those things they have trained for.

But there's a second thing going on here. Most players barely react to an opponent's shot until the ball is coming toward them, or at most at the last second as the opponent hits the ball. But the reality is that the huge majority of the time you can judge where the ball is going and how fast almost the instant the opponent starts his forward swing. If you watch top players react to smashes and loop kills, watch how they begin to move into position as the opponent begins that forward swing – it's almost as if they know where the ball is going to be hit – because they do. (Not consciously, of course; it's all trained subconscious, i.e. muscle memory.)

How can you do this? It's all about observing the opponent, and learning to react to his movements. Just as you learn to subconsciously react to an opponent's spin based on his movements, you should learn to make the connection between an opponent's swing and the direction the ball will go, as well as its speed, spin, trajectory, etc., so that reacting to it becomes second-nature. You may have to observe this consciously at first, but soon it becomes a subconscious habit.

For example, you can read much about the direction an opponent is about go by watching his shoulders. So be aware of the opponent's shoulders, and you will develop the proper reactions to his shots, reacting faster and faster. It's not about having faster reflexes; it's about developing proper reactions that just make you appear to have fast reflexes.