Larry Hodges' daily blog will go up Mon-Fri by noon USA Eastern time (usually by 10 AM, a little later on Mondays when he does a Tip of the Week).
Larry is a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, a USATT Certified National Coach, a professional coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (USA), and author of seven books and over 1400 articles on table tennis. Here is his bio.
More Service Tribulations
At a tournament last fall, the cadet player I was coaching was using a backhand serve with a toss that was almost exactly six inches. He'd practiced it so he could minimize the toss, since on the backhand serve a shorter toss on that serve makes it both easier to control and harder for the opponent to react to.
An opponent complained that his toss was borderline high enough, and called an umpire. The umpire verified the toss was high enough, and all was well; even the opponent didn't complain again. The player in question not only has never been faulted for a serve, he's never even had a warning, and this was the first and only opponent ever to complain about it.
After the match, one of the club officials pulled me aside and vehemently argued that I should instruct the player to toss the ball higher on his serve so that it would not just be legal, but obviously so. I pointed out that this would decrease the effectiveness of the serve, and since the serve was legal, why should he change it? But the official was very insistent, claiming I wasn't doing my job as a coach if I didn't make sure my students serve so there would be no question about the legality. I pointed out that just because one opponent out of hundreds complained doesn't make the serve illegal or justify making the serve less effective to make him happy. But the official wouldn't back down, and got pretty angry about it.
There are a number of serves that increase in effectiveness if you "push the envelope." For example, many players leave their free arm out as long as the umpire or opponent will allow, hoping to obscure the receiver's view of contact. Or players serve from as close the endline as possible, or even over it if the umpire or opponent allows it. Or they toss the ball backwards, which gives a better angle for certain serves, as well as making it possible to hide contact, if the umpire or opponent allows it.
How legal are your serves? Do you "push the envelope?"
On Saturday morning (Jan. 22) at 3:15 AM, I took an Amtrak train from Union Station in Washington DC to Penn Station in New York City. I went up for a writer's convention, where I attended workshops and pitched both a proposed new table tennis book and my completed SF novel to agents.
We left the station on time. However, 15 minutes into the trip, they announced that they were having engine trouble and had to return to the station. So the train back up back to Union Station and we sat around for about half an hour as they attached a new engine. Then we left again, about 45 minutes behind.
Sometime later, as we approached Philadelphia, they had another announcement. It seems a different Amtrak train going in the opposite direction had broken down. And so we again back up for about 30 minutes so that we could pick up those passengers. It took forever for them to load them on our train, and then we started up again, another hour or so behind. We dropped the new passengers off in Philadelphia so they could catch another train south, and continued on our way. For a time.
Perhaps an hour afterwards, the train stopped again - more mechanical problems! After about an hour we left again. We reached a station in New Jersey, and we spent close to another hour there as they checked the engine out again. Finally we continued our trip.
We were scheduled to reach Penn Station at 6:40 AM. We go there at 10:15 AM. I missed the morning workshops, but made it for the "Agent Pitch" sessions.
The good news? One agent was very interested in my proposed new table tennis book, and we'll be working together to create a proposal for a large publisher. (Can't give any more details right now - sorry!) Two other agents were interested in my SF novel, and so I'll be sending them sample chapters and an outline shortly.
USATT Strategic Plan
Go to the USATT home page; click on Organization; under Plans click on Strategic Plan (2009). What comes up is the USATT Strategic Planning Summary. It's undated, but comes from the Strategic Meeting in September, 2009, 16 months ago, which I attended. I'm finding it high on slogans (13 total), and a bit short on implementable plans, something I pointed out, with increasingly loudness, over and over during the meeting. What do you think?
Starting in February, the New Jersey Table Tennis Club will be hosting a 10-week training program for advanced players. This highly competitive program is specially designed for motivated, advanced-level players that want to move up to the elite level. The minimum program entry requirement is a USATT rating of 2000. A maximum of 12 students will be accepted. Six-time U.S. National Champion David Zhuang will serve as the Head Coach. He will be assisted by Henry (Zongqi) Zhong, a professional athlete from Beijing Sports University. The first class will be on Saturday, Feb 12, 2011. Training sessions will run from 1:00-4:00pm on Saturday afternoons, except for the first 2 sessions (Feb 12 and Feb 26), which will be held at 10:30am -1:30pm. If you are interested, please register by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or see the flyer.
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Service Without a Smile?
I've had a problem with illegal serves while coaching at recent tournaments. Probably the worst was at the USA Nationals in December, where an opponent was serving illegally against a player I coached. You are supposed to pull the free arm back immediately after tossing the ball up, but this player kept the arm out until the last second. Then, as the ball was about to disappear behind the arm, he'd pull it back, giving the illusion that the ball wasn't hidden. But in pulling the arm back, he'd thrust his shoulder out, and contact was hidden by the shoulder, not the arm. The result is the player I was coaching never saw contact, and missed the serve over and over. From my vantage point behind my player, it was obviously illegal - I never saw contact either. Several others in the stands behind me also verified that contact was hidden. I complained to the umpire, but he didn't think the serve was illegal, and wouldn't even warn the opponent to pull the free arm out of the way more quickly. And so a match that might have been close became an easy 3-0 win for the opponent.
This is similar to what happened in Men's Singles at the U.S. Open, where Sharath Kamal of India used a serve where he'd toss the ball high over his head, and it would come down behind his head. He'd then contact the ball behind his chin, thereby illegally hiding contact. From behind the receiver, it was obviously illegal, but the umpires on the side claimed they couldn't tell from their vantage point. I disagree. While they can say they aren't sure if contact can be seen, the rule says it is the player's responsibility to make sure the umpire can see that the serve is legal. The umpires have to be able to see that it is close, and so should give a warning. In the semifinals, Chen Hao of China complained, but when the umpires wouldn't call it, he responded by hiding contact behind his back - and again, the umpires allowed it. So the whole serving rule became a charade. Here's a video of the Final - and I think Keinath is also hiding contact.
Here's a video of Kamal at the 2010 Grand Tour Finals playing Ryu Seung Min, the 2004 Olympic Men's Singles Gold Medalist. Both players are hiding contact with their head. Note how Ryu thrusts his head out at the last second, hiding contact with his chin? This whole match is an illegal serve festival.
So here's my question for you. Illegal serves are being allowed, and these serves are huge advantages. It's a copout to tell junior players to just learn to deal with them while not serving illegal back - you might as well say, "Kid, don't serve illegal just because your opponent is doing so, even though he's probably going to win because of it, and all those thousands of hours you've trained over half your lifetime are now wasted."
On the other hand, I don't want to start teaching kids to serve illegally. But if umpires are going to allow serves that give one player a huge advantage, then the only possible answers seem to be:
What do you think?
Larger trophies at Nationals this year!
Anyone notice the much larger and high-quality trophy cups given out at the Nationals? Look at the size of them!!! These were given out for just about every event. They weigh a ton.
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What's Your Table Tennis Bucket List?
A "bucket list" is a list of all the things you want to do in your life before you, well, kick the bucket. I've got my own list, but this is a table tennis blog - so let's apply this to table tennis. In table tennis, coaches often tell players to set short-, intermediate-, and long-term goals. (I suggest starting with the long-term goals, and work backwards.)
So what are your short-, intermediate-, and long-term goals? (Of course, if you just play for fun, then maybe this doesn't apply to you. Or rather, it does, with all three goals to have fun at table tennis.) Below are mine (as a player). Note that my "long-term" goals are both for this year. For others, those might be intermediate goals, with long-term goals possibly years away, i.e. making a team, winning a title, or reaching a certain level or rating.
(Note - I'm normally a sponge player, but I seem to win a lot more titles in hardbat events. With sponge, I'm mostly a practice partner/coach for the junior players at our club.)
Now let's move back to the bucket list I mentioned. Other than improvement, winning titles, etc., what do you want to do in table tennis? These are similar to your long-term goals, but are things you know you can do if you decide to do it, or to work at it. (In contrast to my long-term goal of winning Hardbat titles, where my opponents may have something to say about my winning.) So what's your Table Tennis Bucket List? Develop a specific shot? Attend a major tournament? Compete overseas? Set up and run a club or league? Coach a junior program? Develop a top junior player? Pull off an off-the-bounce backhand counterloop against a net ball? The possibilities are endless.
I've already achieved many of the items that would have been on my table tennis bucket list. A bucket list is things you want to do, and most of the things I'd put on my list don't qualify, such as seeing USATT membership skyrocket from a nationwide league (with a 500,000 or more members, like in Germany and England, with lots of prize money for the top players), or the systematic recruitment and training of professional coaches. Hello, USATT?
But I have to choose, don't I? Okay, how's this for an item on my table tennis bucket list? I'd like to help arrange and coach at an annual training camp for top USATT junior & cadet players. I've coached at over 100 table tennis camps, and spent decades working with many of the top juniors in the U.S., so why not up the ante, and turn it into a nationwide thing? But I wouldn't be the head coach, oh no. First choice for that is Stellan Bengtsson. (There are other possibilities, however.) There's something about getting all our top juniors together in one camp to train as a team.
Since this is my blog, I'll go off on a tangent now, and give you my actual bucket list, which I wrote years ago. Not my table tennis one, my actual one, including non-table tennis. If you only want table tennis, stop reading now!!! (But there is some table tennis.)
The Larry Hodges Bucket List
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Closing Out a Match
I had an interesting discussion recently (via Facebook chat) with Gabriel Skolnick, a 2200 player from Pennsylvania who had been serving up 10-8 match point on Marcus Jackson (a 2450 player) this past weekend at the 11th Annual Holiday Classic Team Tournament in Pennsylvania. (We won't talk about the edges at the end, Marcus you lucky devil!) What type of serves should a player use to close out a close match?
Before we get to the serve itself, let's look at the mental aspect. A good serve probably won't help you if you are a nervous wreck. (Not unless you can get an outright miss or a ball so easy even a nervous wreck can't miss.) So first thing to do is learn to play relaxed at the end of a close match. That's sports psychology - you might want to check out the articles in the Sports Psychology section in the Articles page. (See the link to Dora Kurimay's website, which is devoted to sports psychology for table tennis players.)
As to the serves themselves, you have two basic choices. Should you go for a serve where you're pretty sure you'll get a ball you can attack, or get into the type of rally you want to get into? Or do you want to go for a "surprise" serve, and perhaps get an easy point? Let's look at surprise serves first.
The advantage of a surprise serve is it's basically a free point. It's supposed to force an outright miss or an easy pop-up. The down side is that surprise serves are generally all or nothing - either you get the easy point, or the opponent takes the initiative off it, usually attacking it. For example, a fast, deep serve can often force a miss, but it can also be looped. A short side-topspin serve can be popped up, but it can also be flipped aggressively.
There is a place for surprise serves, and you are handicapping yourself if you don't use them. But use them sparingly; overuse allows an opponent to get used to them. At the higher levels, surprise serves become less and less effective as stronger opponents are less often "surprised."
So what about your other serves? A major task for you during a match is to find out what serves you can use effectively against the opponent. If you like to loop pushes, and your opponent pushes your backspin serves long, then at the end, when it's close, guess what? Serve backspin and loop! If you like to serve and hit, perhaps serve topspin or sidespin. Others like to serve short, low no-spin serves, which are surprisingly difficult to flip or push effectively. Everyone's different; find out what serves work for you in general, and what serves work in the match you are playing. Develop confidence in following up these serves, and soon you'll not only be closing out those close matches, but you'll be winning easily where before you had close matches.
So closing out a match is a combination of sports psychology (playing relaxed and loose at the end) and knowing what tactics to use and having confidence in those tactics.
The Carrot & Celery Diet
On Dec. 26, 2010 - 24 days ago - I weighted 196 pounds. This morning I hit 186. My "secret"? I'm on the carrot and celery diet. I tend to snack a lot, often on foods that are high in calories. Now I'm snacking on carrots and celery. When I get sick of carrots, I eat celery; when I get sick of celery, I eat carrots. When I'm sick of both . . . I close my eyes and eat both. I'm also drinking water instead of Nestea. I'm going for 180 pounds. (I'm also exercising, though not as much as I should. I play table tennis 3-4 times a week, and shadow practice my shots about five minutes each day to get the blood going. I've also taken to doing 20 pushups each morning. I should do situps and other exercises as well, but I'm too lazy.
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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Table Tennis Players
I've been thinking a lot recently about the seven habits of highly effective table tennis players. Why? Because I recently browsed a book I'd read long ago, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." The book lists these as the "7 Habits": 1) Be proactive; 2) Begin with the End in Mind; 3) Put First Things First; 4) Think Win/Win; 5) Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood; 6) Synergize; and 7) Sharpen the Saw. (Google the book if you want more info on any of these seven.)
There is a correlation between some of these and the habits of "highly effective table tennis players." For example, you don't get to be a top player without being proactive, i.e. striving to do what it takes to improve. However, I'm not going to try to create a one-to-one correlation between the seven habits listed and ones used by top table tennis players. Instead, I'm going to list my own list of seven habits of "highly effective table tennis players. Here's my list:
One item I tried to work in but couldn't find room: "Respects opponent's game even while looking to dominate them." So . . . what's your list?
The Backhand No-Spin Serve From the Forehand Court
Over the weekend I played one of our local 2250 cadet players. He's used to all my serves - mostly forehand pendulum high-toss serves, with lots of variations, and yet was so used to them that he handled them easily. Then I tried something desperate - a backhand no-spin serve from my forehand court! I'd tried no-spin serves already to no avail, but now that it was coming at him from a different angle, with a different motion, he completely fell apart against them. I came back and won that game and the next. He finally figured it out in the third game, and came back to win in five - but only after I missed a couple easy balls from up 9-8 in the fourth. (And let's face it, he's twice as fast as I am now, one month short of 51, with me still trying to play all-out forehand attack.) The simple serve worked, but I probably went to the well too many times, and at the end he was quick pushing it to the corners effectively.
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Let the ticker-tape parades begin - TableTennisCoaching.com is here!
So here it is, TableTennisCoaching.com. What exactly is it? Someone wrote on the home page that it is "Your Worldwide Center for Table Tennis Coaching." Um, I wrote that, so I better explain.
TableTennisCoaching.com is both a table tennis coaching site and a developing table tennis community. It's a place where players and coaches get together. A place to find coaching articles, books, and videos. A place to find other coaching sites and training camps. A place to discuss all aspects of table tennis, both on the forum, and in comments to my blog and the Tip of the Week. Plus, starting soon, the weekly chats with "celebrity" coaches and players.
So here's my question to you: How can TableTennisCoaching.com best help you? The comment section is below - comment away! My ears are already burning. (And because I notice that the "preview" portion of the blog ends here, let me point out that there's more - if it seems to end here, click on the "Read more" button!)
The blog will cover all aspects of table tennis, focusing mostly on the coaching side. I know I'm going to blog on the doings (and non-doings) of USA Table Tennis, and those could easily become heated discussions - but let's keep the temperature down and the reasonableness and courtesy up.
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