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, 2011 - The Myth of Thinking Too Much

Monday, September 12, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Some players are accused of "thinking too much." There's no such thing as thinking too much. The problem is knowing when to do the thinking.

The rule is simple. You think between games and between points. When the point is about to start, you stop thinking. You blank your mind out and just let go. It is thinking during the point that causes a person to freeze up with uncertainty, often labeled as choking. Once the point begins, the conscious you is not controlling play; it is your subconscious that takes over.

Some players can't stop thinking when play begins, and try to consciously control their shots. That rare;u ends well. Others are able to let go and let the subconscious take over, but don't think between points either. That rarely ends well tactically.

Think about what actually happens when you play. Suppose your opponent gives you a backspin. Do you consciously say to yourself, "Ah, the ball has backspin, I must aim up this much to return it." Hopefully not! Instead, after facing backspins for a while--and probably messing up at the start, and telling yourself you need to aim up against backspin--your subconscious gets the message, learns just how much to hit up against varying degrees of backspin, and it becomes habit. The same is true of tactics.

How can you play tactics during the point if you aren't thinking during the point? The answer is if you spend enough time thinking about tactics, it too will get absorbed by your subconscious. If you decide you need to loop a deep serve to the opponent's wide forehand, you don't wait until you see a deep serve, and tell yourself, "Ah, a deep serve. I should loop it to the wide forehand." Instead, if you remind yourself regularly what you need to do, the subconscious will learn to get the message, and you'll do it automatically. 

September 5, 2011 - Short serves to the middle

Monday, September 5, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

If you like to follow your serve up with your forehand, you probably want to serve short (so the opponent can't attack your serve with a loop) and most often to the middle. Why?

If you serve short to the backhand, the opponent has a wide angle into your backhand. You'll likely have to follow your serve up with your backhand.

If you serve short to the forehand, the opponent has a wide angle into your forehand. To cover this, you have to leave your backhand side open to a down-the-line return, and if your opponent does this, you'll have to follow up your serve with your backhand.

If you serve short to the middle, you don't have to guard against any extreme angles - their return options are limited. The amount of potential table to cover is less than a short serve to the corners. (There's also the added advantage that the opponent has to make a decision between forehand and backhand. And since most players favor their backhand against short serves, this may leave them vulnerable to deep serves, if the receiver is already committed to a backhand receive.) So perhaps make serving short to the middle central to your serve and follow game.

August 29, 2011 - Suggested equipment for beginning and intermediate players

Monday, August 29, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

I'm not an EJ - Equipment Junky - and I long ago gave up trying to keep track of the seven trillion different rubbers and rackets. When I started out in 1976, the choice was basically Mark V, Sriver, or D-13, and then it was an earth-shattering event when Butterfly came out with Tackiness. So I'm not going to give specific recommendations on exactly what equipment you should get.

Good technique (from coaching and training) can take a beginner rated 500 to 2500 and beyond. Better equipment may take an 1800 player to 1825, perhaps 1850, i.e. he'll be a little better against his peers. (I'm assuming you at least have something reasonable to start with.) However, having the right equipment is important, and here are my recommendations.

1) Beginners and others not that familiar with what's out there need to go through a period where they try out the various rubber and rackets just so they know what the choices are.

2) Once you find something that fits your game, generally stick with it unless your game changes or there's a major equipment breakthrough. (Equipment breakthroughs generally take place about once every five years or so, though you'll see headlines on "new" breakthroughs every six months.) This doesn't mean you shouldn't try out the equipment of others, and occasionally change if you find something you like. But don't get into the habit of constantly changing or you'll never really get comfortable with any equipment. Most breakthroughs are for the most advanced sponges designed for advanced players, and so won't apply to you unless you are at least an advanced intermediate player.

3) Most players use rackets that are too fast. I recommend a medium speed blade for beginners, a medium to fast blades for more advanced players. Few should use the ultra-fast blades that are on the market as few can control them. (I can't.) The other key is it should simply feel right when you hit with it.

4) Most players used a flared grip. Some use a straight grip, which generally seems to help the backhand. A few use others, such as anatomic. Try them out and see what feels right.

5) If you are playing regularly, and your racket isn't too fast, then you can use modern sponges. I don't recommend sponges with built-in glue effects for beginners, but you do want something modern and relatively fast. Later you can try out the bouncier stuff, which is mostly for looping. Start out with something in the 1.5 to 1.9mm range. 

August 22, 2011 - Strategic Versus Tactical Thinking

Monday, August 22, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

What's the difference? Strategic thinking is how you develop your game. Tactical thinking is how you use what you have to win. For example, if you have a good loop, a strategic thinker would think about what types of serves will set up your loop, and develop those serves in practice sessions. A tactical thinker would think about what serves will set up your loop in a match against a given opponent. Strategic thinking takes place during the developmental stage of your game--which never ends as long as you are still practicing. Tactical thinking takes place while preparing for and playing a specific match. You need both.

Suppose you have a weak forehand attack against backspin. When an opponent pushes heavy to your forehand, you have to tactically choose whether to use your weak forehand attack (perhaps using good ball placement to make up for the weakness of the attack), or whether to just push it back. Tactically, these are probably your only options. Strategically, you should note this weakness in your game, and go practice it so next time you aren't so limited tactically.

Are you developing your game strategically, i.e. giving yourself the weapons you need tactically? Are you developing your game tactically, i.e. learning to use the weapons you have developed strategically?

August 15, 2011 - The Book on Your Game

Monday, August 15, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The Book on Your Game

If you can't write a book on your game, either you don't know your game or you don't have a game. It's as simple as that.

Most likely, if you are reading this tip and are at least a semi-serious player, you do have a game. So what is your game? What are your strengths, weaknesses, and in-between ones? How do you serve, return serves, and rally to get your strengths into play and dominate, while avoiding using your weaknesses? When do you use your other shots (shots that are neither strengths nor weaknesses, but something in between)? While you don't want to tie yourself down on what you'd do in any given situation, you should have a specific repertoire of shots you favor in any given situation, and be able to pick and choose from among those shots in any given situation, based on your opponent's game. Above all else, how do you dominate a match?

Not everyone's a writer, and few of you are actually going to write a book on your game. But you should be able to at least outline the book on your game, and have the entire book in your head. If you can't, then perhaps you need to think about your game and get to know it. Or, if you are new to the sport, develop your game, and get to know it as it is developed.