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.)

September 12, 2016 - The More Two Players Drill Together the Better They Drill Together

Monday, September 12, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

One of the keys to improving is getting a good practice partner. Usually these are two players who are roughly the same level. But it's more important that they both want to improve, are willing to work together, and are regular to train on a regular basis. The more they train together the more used to each other they get, and the better each plays in these drills. This leads to both players' levels escalating up – an upward spiral to excellence! (Here's my article on How to Play and Practice with Weaker Players.)

I want to emphasize how much better you play when you drill with someone regularly – you get used to their shots, and your own shots become more and more natural and consistent, as well as more powerful. Some might think this is artificial, since you are playing against the same player and shots, which isn't what happens in tournaments or leagues. But the key is how much this type of drilling develops your foundation. (This doesn’t mean you only practice with one player, but if you are able to practice with multiple players, the more you hit with them the better you’ll drill with them.)

Players still need to practice with and play others with different styles, especially matches – that's imperative - but drilling with a good partner (or partners) develops the foundation that's so important to developing your game.

Once you find someone to train with regularly, take turns with the drills. But remember that in any drill, both players are doing the drill. If one player is doing a footwork drill to the other's block, then the other is doing a blocking drill. Players not only need to learn to move and attack, but also to control an opponent's shots. And remember even blocking is a footwork drill – you need to step to the ball, not just reach.

Don't forget to get a box of balls and do some multiball training! (Here's my article on Multiball Training.) Multiball training makes up about 1/3 of the training of world-class players. 

September 5, 2016 - Looping Slightly Long Balls

Tuesday, September 6, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Many players have great difficulty looping slightly-long balls, especially with the forehand. These are usually serves or pushes that go only a little bit off the table. Most players push them back – and since the ball is relatively deep, they can’t get a good angle nor can they rush the opponent with a quick push, and so their return is ineffective. The solution, of course, is to loop these balls. (And the nice thing here is that when you read these balls right, they are easy to loop very aggressively.) How do you learn to do that?

Here are three tips for learning to forehand loop against slightly-long balls. (Tips 2 and 3 apply to the backhand loop as well.)

  1. You need to be very close to the table, with your head directly over the end-line. This allows you to look down on the ball, making it much easier to see if the ball is long, as well as easier to time it.
  2. Realize that you can loop a ball even if it is actually slightly short, i.e. the second bounce would be on the end-line or even an inch or so inside. You simply stroke aggressively over the table with a slightly upward stroke. Once you realize this, you’ll see that balls that seemed unloopable are actually very loopable. (You can go over the table even more with the backhand loop, by using more wrist. In fact, a backhand banana flip is essentially a loop done over the table.) Some worry that they’ll hit their hand on the table, but if you are aware of where the table is, you just stroke slightly behind or above it. If you can contact a small, moving ball, how hard is it to avoid hitting a large stationary object? (In 40 years of play, I don’t recall ever hitting my hand on the table while looping.)
  3. Practice! How do you do this? Have someone feed you multiball backspin where the ball is only slightly long, or do it live where you serve and your partner pushes the ball back slightly long. You’ll have to adjust to each shot as some will be longer, some shorter, including some too short to forehand loop. Get your head over the ball (see #1 above), recognize that you can loop balls that you didn’t think you could before (#2 above), and loop those that are loopable. At first, if you think the ball is unloopable, let it go. You’ll be tempted to adjust and either push or flip, but letting it go is the only way to get true feedback. Watch it and ask yourself, “Could I have looped that ball?” Often the answer will be yes. Eventually, with practice, you’ll be able to judge this, and then you can stop letting the ball go, and practice either looping the loopable ones, and pushing or flipping the shorter ones. 

August 29, 2016 - Keep a Notebook

Monday, August 29, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Do you keep a table tennis notebook? I did for years, and I recommend you do as well. I used a steno notebook. From front to back, I would take notes on my own game - what I was working on, what drills I was doing, what worked and didn't work in matches, etc. On the other side - back to front - I kept tactical notes on opponents. When the side on me was filled up (it usually went first), I'd get a new notebook for my game and start fresh. At tournaments, I'd bring past notebooks (with the ever-growing notes on opponents), and would be ready against any opponent I'd ever played against.

After doing this for perhaps a decade, I realized that I'd been doing it so long that notes about opponents I’d played were all in my head, and that I no longer needed to consult my notes to remember them – but the very act of writing them down made it easier to remember. I eventually retired my notebook in regard to tactical notes against opponents – though I sometimes would write down the notes as a memory aid, and then put them aside – but for years afterwards I kept notes on my own development and what I needed to do to improve.

These days you might use a smart phone for such notes, or go old school with a steno notebook. It still works!

While I no longer have a notebook for my game, I still keep notes on regular opponents of players I coach, which I jot down at tournaments and later type up in my coaching files on my computer. When I show up at major tournaments I bring these top secret printouts. 

August 22, 2016 - Shorten Stroke When Receiving

Monday, August 22, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Returning serves is all about ball control. In a rally, the incoming shot is usually more predictable than a serve, which normally has a much wider range of variation – topspin, sidespin, backspin, at all speeds and placements. To return serves, where the incoming ball is far less predictable, it helps to shorten the stroke to maximize control. This cuts down on power, but the shorter backswing gives you more control. (Just as with other strokes, the backswing and follow-through should still be about the same length.) The exception here is against a deep serve where you read the ball well, and so may use a normal loop stroke.

Watch the top players, especially against short serves. Do they rip the ball when receiving? Only occasionally, and when they do it’s because of their extremely high level of play, or because the opponent made an error with their serve (a slightly long or slightly high short serve, or a “surprise” deep serve that doesn’t catch the receiver off guard). Whether they are pushing (short or long) or flipping, it’s all about consistency, control, variation, and deception. And for that, they shorten their swing and gain in all four categories. 

August 15, 2016 - How to Deal with Nervousness and Play Your Best: Magic, Best Match, Tactics

Monday, August 15, 2016
by: Larry Hodges

Recently a player asked me how to deal with nervousness in a match. I’ve written articles on the topic, and there are a number of techniques for dealing with this – as I pointed out to the players, different methods work for different players. The player asked me, “What do you do?” And so here are my methods for dealing with nervousness – and it has a 100% success rate. I may not play well in a match, but I haven’t had a problem with nervousness in many decades. Plus when I follow these three simple things, I almost always play my best. Here’s my personal three-part technique.

  1. I pretend my racket is a magic wand and I’m a magician. When I’m out there, I can do magic and make the ball do what I want it to do. I’ll think of myself as Jan-Ove Waldner, who’s often been called a magician at the table, and so have complete faith I can do the same, whether I’m serving, receiving, or rallying.
  2. I remember my best matches. Often I’ll think back to perhaps the best match I ever played, when I beat Rey Domingo (2500 player), where the ball seemed to move in slow motion and everything I did worked – looping, smashing, blocking, receive, etc. – and I won easily. There was magic in that match, so all I have to do is recapture that magic and remember what it felt like.
  3. I think about tactics. Your mind can’t think about two things at the same time, so if I’m focused on tactics, I can’t be nervous. Tactics is how you apply the magic from the two items above.

So, are you a magician? Have you had matches where you played great, the ball seemed to move in slow motion, and there was magic in the air? Are you focused on tactics when you play? This is what works for me.