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.)

April 4, 2011 - What is the Goal of the Receiver?

Monday, April 4, 2011
by: Larry Hodges


What Is the Goal of the Receiver?
By Larry Hodges

Returning serve is the most difficult part of the game to master. There are more variations to prepare for than at just about any other time--reading spin off a fast motion, topspin or backspin, sidespin either way, corkscrewspin, no-spin, long or short, fast or slow, to wide angles or the middle--there are infinite possibilities. And yet, most players don't practice their receive much, except in games, and there they are looking to win, not try something new that might cost them a match. Instead, find someone with decent serves and practice returning them. (And do the same for him.)

But you also need to know what to do with the serve. There are two possibilities.

1) Aggressive receive that takes the initiative. Here the receiver should play aggressive, take the initiative (or even go for a winner), and try to dominate the point. Examples include a short serve that pops up slightly, a serve that goes long that the receiver is ready for (and should usually loop), and serves where the receiver reads the serve well early on and is comfortable attacking. A player should always be looking for such serves and be ready to pounce on them.

The goal isn't to win the point on one shot; the goal is to take the initiative and put the receiver in an uncomfortable position. Key to this is placing the shot, either to a wide angle or to the opponent's middle (opponent's transition point between forehand and backhand, usually the elbow). When flipping very aggressively, you might consider mostly flipping crosscourt at a wide angle, as this gives you more table to aim for.

The down side to an aggressive receive is that you will also lose some points from missing. It's a tradeoff.

Some players are afraid to attack serves, and return almost all serves passively. This makes things easy for the server, since he can serve knowing that he's going to get a ball he can attack. You need at least the threat of an attack to make a controlled receive more effective.

2) Controlled receive that neutralizes the serve. The goal is to force the opponent into a mistake or a weak attack, or to catch them so off guard they can't attack at all. These receives are the most misunderstood. Against a short serve, don't just push the serve back mindlessly--do something with the return to put pressure on the server. Push quick off the bounce, deep, at a wide angle, low, and with good backspin. Change directions at the last second. Drop it short. Push with sidespin. Push with no-spin, but with a vigorous wrist motion just after contact to fake backspin. Do a steady, well-placed flip. (You should flip most short serves that don't have backspin.) Constantly vary your receive so your opponent never knows what you're going to do next.

Against a long serve, mostly loop, but go for consistency, spin, placement, and depth.

Some players feel they have to attack every serve. They aren’t confident that they can handle the opponent’s first attack if they use a controlled receive, even if the opponent's attack isn’t very strong. The problem here isn’t the receive—it’s the defense. If you can’t block an opponent’s loop (or consistently handle it in some other way that fits your game), then you need to work on your defense.

Which of the two receives should you use? You should generally favor controlled receives until you have mastered that, and are comfortable against the opponent's attack off that receive. When you can do that, you'll have enough control to be more aggressive off the serve, and then you should do either, depending on your opponent and your playing style. 

March 28, 2011 - Seven Placements and the Wide Angles

Monday, March 28, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

There are basically seven different directional placements in table tennis, though only five or six are available at any time. They are:

  1. Outside forehand corner
  2. Forehand corner
  3. Middle forehand
  4. Middle (opponent's elbow)
  5. Middle backhand
  6. Backhand corner
  7. Outside backhand corner

Generally, you never want to put a ball to the middle forehand or middle backhand, where your opponent is just standing there, ready to hit a forehand or backhand. Most often you should be going to the wide corners or the opponent's elbow. The other options are outside the corners, but these can be tricky to play into - you have less table, and so it's easy to go long (or more specifically, off the side). Here are your options for going outside the wide corners:

  • Off a short ball in the middle of the table, you can play either wide angle.
  • Off a deep ball toward the middle of the table, it's difficult to play either, though with good topspin you can. You can also sidespin loop at a wide angle.
  • Off a deep ball from one of your corners you can play diagonally outside the corner, especially if you can sidespin loop. This gives you the most extreme angles, and should become a staple of every player.
  • When serving you can serve from a corner and, with a breaking sidespin, serve at extremely wide angles.

When you can play into those wide angles outside the corners, your opponent will have great difficulty as you greatly increase the amount of table he has to cover. So add these angles to your repertoire and turn table tennis into a truly full-court sport.

March 21, 2011 - Shadow Practice Your Shots

Monday, March 21, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

If you spent five-ten minutes each day shadow practicing your strokes and footwork, you'll be surprised at the improvement, not to mention the health benefits. Make it part of your fitness regimen. For example, every day do 50-100 forehands, backhands, forehand loops, backhand loops, and side-to-side footwork, alternating forehands and backhands or just doing all forehand, side to side. Adjust to your own style of play, i.e. if you mostly loop the forehand, do lots of forehand looping shadow practice. If you are a chopper, do lots of chopping. Vary the routine to include other moves you use regularly, such as shadow practice stepping in and flipping a short ball to the forehand, or a forehand loop against backspin followed by a smash or loop against topspin. When no one's watching (if you're shy), play out points as if they were real!

March 14, 2011 - Why You MUST Attack the Deep Serve

Monday, March 14, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Against a short serve, you can take the ball quick and rush the opponent, you can go for angles, and you can drop the ball short. So have a number of ways to mess up an opponent without actually attacking the serve. This is where you can get really creative.

Against a deep serve, you don't have these options. You can't rush the opponent with a quick shot, go for extreme angles, and you can't return it short. If you return the deep serve passively, you are giving your opponent lots of time to set up his best shot. So don't.

Instead, get in the habit of attacking deep serves. Ideally you should loop them. If you make mistakes at first (you will), then that's the best reason to keep attacking them - to learn to attack them. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it, and your level will go up.

The key is to practice attacking them, generally by looping, both in games and in practice. I've seen many players lose a match because they couldn't return serves effectively - and later they'd be off practicing their strokes rather than practicing return of serve. If you have trouble attacking a deep serve (or any other serve return), find someone who can do the serves that give you trouble, and practice against them, either in a practice session or matches.

There will always be exceptions to the "rule" of attacking deep serves. For example, some players have trouble against backspin, and against them you might want to push deep backspin serves. Or you might want to roll back a serve with soft, defensive topspin if the opponent has trouble with that. But these are generally tactics for lower-level play, and if your goal is to win at a lower level, then by all means continue to return deep serves passively.

At higher levels, there are players who do return deep serves defensively, such as choppers, who may return a deep serve with a defensive backspin, but even here the backspin returns may be fairly aggressive, i.e. heavy, deep, and angled. And there are high-level players who are not good against backspin, and so relatively passive backspin returns might be effective, especially as a changeup. And if you are attacking most serves, then an occasional defensive return is a good changeup against some players.

But these are the exceptions. A player may get away with passive returns of a deep serve, but the key here is they are getting away with a weakness when they could be better players if they returned the serve by being aggressive. Rather than cover for a weakness, why not make attacking deep serves a strength?

March 7, 2011 - Do You Hit to the Three Spots?

Monday, March 7, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Table tennis is chess at lightning speed. Imagine that split second as you are about to hit the ball. Do you hit wherever, or do you pick the placement like choosing a move in chess? There are three main spots to choose from (plus a huge number of other variables, i.e. speed, spin, depth, which stroke to use, etc.). Pick the best move! When attacking, most opponents don't have all three spots well covered - wide forehand, wide backhand, middle (playing elbow). Most have the backhand covered, at least at the start of the rally, and maybe one of the other spots. Most players just go to the backhand, the place the opponent almost always has covered. Pick your spot, don't telegraph it, and perhaps fake one way and go another at the last second.