Blogs

Larry Hodges' daily blog will go up Mon-Fri by noon USA Eastern time (usually by 10 AM, more like noon on Mondays when he does a Tip of the Week and has three days to cover). 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 eight books and over 1500 articles on table tennis. Here is his bio.
NOTE - Larry is on the USATT Board of Directors and chairs the USATT Coaching Committee, but the views he shares in his blog are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of USA Table Tennis.

Make sure to order your copy of Larry's best-selling book, Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!
Finally, a tactics book on this most tactical of sports!!!
Also out - Table Tennis Tips and More Table Tennis Tips, which cover, in logical progression, his Tips of the Week from 2011-2013 and 2014-2016, with 150 Tips in each!

Or, for a combination of Tales of our sport and Technique articles, try Table Tennis Tales & Techniques
If you are in the mood for inspirational fiction, The Spirit of Pong is also out - a fantasy story about an American who goes to China to learn the secrets of table tennis, trains with the spirits of past champions, and faces betrayal and great peril as he battles for glory but faces utter defeat. Read the First Two Chapters for free!

June 9, 2011

Table tennis for concentration & benefit*

*Rhymes with fun & profit - get it?

I had an interesting session last night with a 9-year-old kid, who we'll call "Sammy." He was having trouble with both consistency and concentration. The two go together. Like most relatively new players, he had developed decent stroking technique, but had trouble repeating the stroke over and over - and as all coaches know, if you can't repeat it over and over in practice, it's going to fall apart in games. (See my comments at the end on how this relates to table tennis players in general.)

Like I tell many students, I told him you don't really have a forehand or backhand until you can hit 100. That seemed way too many for him, so he said how about going for 30? We compromised on 50, and I told him that if he got 50 forehands, I'd say he had a "halfway good forehand" - but he'd need 100 before I would say it was a "good forehand." I also told him that something like 3/4 of new players go right from 50 in a row to 100, since once you get the stroke down - and more importantly, the ability to concentrate - there's little difference between 50 or 100 in a row.

After several attempts in a row where he kept missing at around 30 or so, including a disheartening miss at 45, he wanted to quit. I convinced him to keep at it, that it would click.

It clicked. In what might have been our last attempt for that session - we did need to work on his backhand and other stuff - he hit 178 in a row. I wrote on the ball, signing my name:

178 FH
June 8, 2011
Larry Hodges

The ball is now on his trophy shelf. (I also challenged him to hit 50 backhands in a row; he got I think 82. He'd never come close to either of these numbers.)

What can you learn from this? The key to consistency is both good technique and good concentration. The latter is actually more important - you absolutely cannot be consistent without concentration. Learn to simply watch the ball, relax the muscles, and let the mind otherwise go blank; think of yourself as just an observer. Let your instincts and natural reactions take over - that's why you practice, so the shots become second nature. (You have to relax the muscles to allow this to happen.) If you have to think about the shots or try to consciously control them, you will never be consistent.

Slo-Mo Table Tennis

Tilden Table Tennis put together these two slo-mo videos of some of the best players in the world. As I've mentioned in the past, you can't always learn much by just watching the top players at normal speed - everything happens too fast. In slow motion, you can actually see it - and here you can also replay anything. I strongly urge you to watch tapes like these, and especially study how they serve and receive, which are often the most subtle parts of table tennis. Transcending Table Tennis 1 features (5:50) features Ma Lin, Wang Hao, Vladimir Samsonov, and Joo Se Hyuk. Transcending Table Tennis 2 (4:37) features the Chinese team (Wang Liqin, Ma Lin and Chen Qi) against the French team at I believe the 2010 Worlds.

Adam Bobrow's Asian Invasion

Stand-up comedian and table tennis player Adam Bobrow (rated 2086) put together this humorous video of his recent trip to Taiwan and Seoul (8:49), full of interesting commentary on the trip. It's not exactly a table tennis video, but table tennis does show up three times. You can see tables in the background for a few seconds at 1:32; there's about ten seconds of real table tennis action at 3:21; and about 30 seconds of table tennis at 7:26. (Adam appears to have joined in a junior group session, where he's either taught the kids how to have fun or totally disrupted the training program, I'm not sure which.) If you want to see more table tennis, then see Adam's "Freestyle table tennis" video (1:48), where he and others play table tennis on various makeshift tables they find - restaurant and cafeteria tables, cars, off walls, and outdoor picnic tables. Or see the infamous "Excessive Celebration" video (1:11), and make sure to watch this to the end! (Adam has something like 72 online videos.)

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June 8, 2011

Ready position

I've been thinking about ready positions recently. Conventionally, you aim your racket tip at the opponent, with the racket held midway between forehand and backhand. In theory, that's all you have to do. In reality, some players tend to hold their arm out to the side too much, and so are more ready for forehands than backhands. Try holding the racket more in front of you, even if it means bringing the playing elbow more out in front.

However, there's another problem. Conventionally, the backhand is hit quicker off the bounce than the forehand. This means you have less time to hit the backhand. In many cases, this doesn't matter since the stroke is shorter. However, for some--including me--I find the backhand rushed and awkward when starting from a neutral position, while the forehand, where you have plenty of time to get the paddle into position as you turn sideways, is much easier.

So years ago I adjusted my ready position so that the racket is in a slight backhand position, i.e. the backhand side of the blade partly faces the opponent. This gives me a head start on backhands, while I still have plenty of time to move the racket over for the forehand. I wonder if others have tried this out? I don't normally coach this, but I have advised some players who feel rushed on the backhand to experiment with this.

ITTF certified coaches from my seminar

In April, I ran an ITTF Coaching Seminar in Maryland, the first such seminar in the U.S. run by a U.S. coach. Fourteen coaches participated. After the seminar, to qualify for ITTF Coaching Certification, all coaches were required to do thirty hours of coaching (at least half group coaching), including five hours of "supervised" coaching with an ITTF coach or other approved coach. At this point, nine of them have now qualified: Carmencita "Camy" Alexandrescu, Changping Duan, Charlene Liu, Juan Ly, Dan Notestein, John Olsen, Jef Savage, Jeff Smart, and Vahid Mosaferi.

You can see the listing for ITTF coaches here. If you set country to USA, then you can see the 26 ITTF coaches from the U.S. Congrats to all of them! Here's the article on the seminar by Jef Savage, including a group picture with names.

Non-Table Tennis: Museums

I took most of yesterday off to visit museums and memorials in downtown Washington DC. (I live in Germantown, about 15 miles north.) I took the subway down, and during that 45 minutes or so was able to get a lot of proofing done of a new science fiction story I was writing that features President John Tyler, the tenth U.S. president. (I'm a full-time table tennis coach, but I write SF on the side.)

First stop, at 10 AM (opening time) was the National History Museum, which I'd last visited in the 1990s. I was there until noon, enough time to walk through most of it. I spent over half the time in the President's exhibit, since presidential history is another hobby of mine, hence the story featuring John Tyler. (Ask me at a tournament, and I'll recite all 44 presidents and their terms of office, along with trivia - careful what you ask for!)

After lunch (barbecued chicken sandwich and baked beans at the Stars and Stripes Café), I was off for the Holocaust Museum for the first time. The amount of security to get into the building was incredible, understandably far more than the other museums. When they saw I had a water bottle in my carry bag, they made me drink from it to make sure it was water. (I wonder if there are clear and edible liquid explosives?)

I'm not much of a sentimental writer, but let's just say the Holocaust Museum was a sobering experience. I was there for two and a half hours on the self-guided chronological tour that roughly takes you from 1933 to 1945. At the start, all visitors were given an "Identification Card," which was a short pamphlet about an actual Holocaust survivor or victim. Mine was of a kid named Shulim Saleschutz, born March 7, 1930 in Poland. It gives a picture of him and a short history of his life up to his getting sent to the Belzec camp in July of 1942. It ends with the words, "There, Shulim was gassed with his mother, brother and sister. He was 12 years old." Here's a scan I did of the pamphlet.

From roughly 3-4 PM I walked over to the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. (The latter is huge, far larger than it appears in pictures.) It was in the mid-90s and sunny, so I wore my white 2005 Shanghai World Table Tennis Championships cap. At the Lincoln Memorial, I sat on the floor against the wall for twenty minutes, looking up at Lincoln as crowds came and went. I couldn't help but think that he and I both faced similar problems - how best to serve, lots of killing, etc. Okay, his problems were a bit bigger. At the end, I thought about that John Tyler story I was writing, and suddenly the perfect way to open the story popped into my head. Thanks Abe! Here's a picture of Lincoln I took while sitting on the floor.

From 4 to closing time at 5:30 PM, I visited the National History Museum - or rather, revisited, since I practically grew up there. Both of my parents had offices there when I grew up, and I remember doing homework while sitting on the floor against the wall under the huge blue whale. (Alas, it's gone, replaced by I think a humpback whale - it just isn't the same.) I spent most of the time in the Ascent of Man exhibit, also walked through the dinosaur hall (of course!), mammals, and marine life. Then I stopped by the insect zoo - thirty years ago I was a volunteer for them. My dad's office used to be almost next door (he's an entomologist), but the entomology department had moved, and where my dad's desk used to be was now a ticket desk for the live Butterfly exhibit. Here's a picture.

Alas, it was time to go home. Did I mention that by this time my back was killing me? I'm probably going to regret all this walking about when I next coach (tonight), but I guess my problems are rather minor compared to Shulim's.

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June 7, 2011

Reader comments

We're getting about 200 readers per day on this blog, but strangely few comments. Feel free to comment! That's why I always have the "comments on" option turned on. Don't worry, if you say something I disagree with I won't bite your head off. I might hunt you down at tournaments and coach your opponents. :)

USATT CEO Report

In case you missed it, here's USATT CEO Mike Cavanaugh's Report in the May/June USATT Magazine. He talks about Ping-Pong Diplomacy's 40th Anniversary, Milwaukee (site of the 2011 U.S. Open), new USATT co-webmaster and media specialist Sean O'Neill, and upcoming events.

Never miss an opportunity

At the club this weekend I watched a top cadet player play against a weaker player. As he admitted afterwards, he wasn't really into the match even though he won the match easily. (He's had an earlier loss that was bothering him.) The opponent was a lefty, and it so happens that the cadet's been having some trouble with lefties - and here he lost an opportunity to practice against one. Never miss an opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity. Just about any opponent has something you can get practice against. (If I did a second lecture here, it'd be about shaking off losses and playing your best in the next match. Okay, okay . . . </End lecture mode>.)

Doing the Journey

Here's a test of your ability to create and control sidespin on your serve. I call it "Doing the Journey." It's something I challenge many of my students to do. I'm going to describe this for a right-handed player with a forehand pendulum serve. Those with other types of serves and lefties should adjust.

Stand on your wide forehand side. Put a box or other container down the line from you, on the far right. Now serve so the first bounce is on your backhand side. The ball should cross the net, hit the far left side, then bounce sideways and end up in the box on the far right. See if you can do this consistently, then you can create and control sidespin. Congrats!

My next BIG project

Should I write a new book, "Table Tennis Tactics and Playing Styles," or set up the "Larry Hodges Coaching Academy" (or do I need a better, less personalized name?) to recruit and train professional coaches? I've outlined the book; the hard part was figuring out the best way to present it, other than a comprehensive "this style versus that style" listing. (I found a good way to present it, but will not divulge that. I also have a number of introductory essays planned on tactical thinking.) The Academy would focus 50% on the professional side of coaching, i.e. setting up the business, recruiting and retaining students, etc., and 50% on actual coaching techniques. I'm leaning toward writing the book first. Or maybe I should just go visit a museum.

Off to the Museums!

I have some editing/proofing work to do. So what better way to do that then spend the day at the Smithsonian Museums, with a two-hour lunch break to do the paperwork? Shortly after I post this, since I have no coaching scheduled for today or tonight, I plan on visiting the National Museum of Natural History (I practically grew up there - my parents both had offices there), the National Museum of American History (haven't seen the relatively new exhibit on the American Presidency, and I'm an amateur presidential historian), and the Holocaust Museum (never been there). I'll probably stop by the Lincoln Memorial as well. It's always good for inspiration.

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June 6, 2011

Tip of the Week - Practice Matches

This week's Tip of the Week is about what to do in practice matches. Remember, a practice match is just that - a practice match. The problem is that many only get the second part - "match" - and forget about that first part - "practice."

2011 Pan American Games Team Leader Position Opening

There's an opening - here's your chance to travel with the U.S. Team to the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico! See USATT news item.

Marty Reisman on Obama's Personality

Last week I mentioned in my blog how Marty analyzed President Obama's table tennis game. Now, based on that, he's also analyzed his personality! I assume everyone reading this knows about the charismatic and two-time U.S. Men's Champion Marty Reisman?

USATT Coaching Newsletter

For those who missed my past mention of it, here it is again!

Historical time spent helping historical writer

This morning USA Table Tennis Historian Tim Boggan called in a panic. For some reason, whenever he typed an apostrophe or quote mark on a Word document (Chapter 6 of Volume 12 of his History of U.S. Table Tennis, to be exact), Word was inputting two spaces. Now I knew what was causing this, and if this were a Word or computer blog, I'd go over what was happening.

The problem was explaining this 30-second fix over the phone to Tim, an admitted computer-phobe. Sure, he can type on a computer, and he can email, but anything beyond that is, well, witchcraft. (I did get his permission to blog on this!) Anyway, it took over an hour. Here's an example of what we went through. Because I wanted to check what version of Word he had, I wanted him to go to "Help" and release on "About Microsoft Word." Unfortunately, for reasons I don't quite understand, he was having trouble finding this.

Then he remembered that someone had told him to hit F1 and he'd get Word help. Impressed with his advanced technical knowledge, I told him to do so. He reported that nothing had happened. I tried it on my computer, no problem. It's a standard command. Determined to solve this problem, we went through numerous iterations of this. Finally, Tim asked, "Larry, should I be hitting "F" and "1" at the same time? He'd been typing the letter "f" and the number "1" all this time.

Rest assured, we fixed the problem. And although I punched holes in the walls of my house seven times, I'm told that the house's structural integrity is not challenged, and that it will survive many more holes from future computer dialogues with Tim. 

Okay, I'm overexposed.

Let's give a quick listing:

  • The first article of a three-part table tennis series on "Creating Spin" I co-wrote with Coach Jack Huang is up at Butterflyonline. Part 1, which went up Friday, is Creating Spin: The Serve. Part 2 (next Fri) is The Loop; Part 3 (following Fri) is Backspin.
  • I did a blog entry a few days ago in the USA Table Tennis USOC web page, on Develop the Basics: Strokes & Footwork. This is actually a reprint of an article I did a few years back as part of the USATT series "How to Be a Champion."
  • I just received the 2011 May/June USATT Magazine. Okay, I'm definitely overexposed here! Going page by page:
    • Page 26: There's a full-page article by Jef Savage on the ITTF Coaching Seminar I ran at the Maryland Table Tennis Center on April 16-17, 23-24. It's also online. The article includes a group picture, and a picture of me lecturing the class, trusty pointer in hand.
    • Page 31: Here's my article, "Changing Bad Technique." It includes two pictures of me, including one feeding multiball.
    • Page 38: Here I give the stats on the "Youngest To Reach 2500."
    • Page 43: Tim Boggan writes about a page on me winning Hardbat Singles at the Cary Cup Open. No wonder I spend so much time solving his computer problems. (I normally play sponge, but at major tournaments like Cary I often play hardbat and coach.)
    • Page 55: Full-page ad for MDTTC summer camps, which includes pictures and short bios of the coaches - me, Cheng Yinghua, and Jack Huang.
    • Page 69: In the full-page ad for Tim Boggan's History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. XI, I'm quoted saying, "How can any serious table tennis player not buy these books?" So, if you are a serious table tennis player, go to TimBogganTableTennis.com and buy the book! (If you are wondering how computer-phobe Tim keeps a web page, well, I created and maintain it for him.)
  • Unfortunately, it's not just table tennis. As I've mentioned here in the past, I write science fiction on the side. And just yesterday the Spring 2011 issue of Space and Time Magazine came out! My story, "The Awakening," is the cover story, with my name on the cover. I was also in Escape Pod last month for my story "Tom the Universe" - you can either read it or play it aloud. (Escape Pod is the largest audio science fiction market.) I've sold 48 short stories - including several that involve table tennis. (Perhaps I'll post my story "Ping-Pong Ambition" sometime.)

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June 3, 2011

How do you want to follow up your serve?

Have you thought about this recently? Really thought about it? What's your best shot - hopefully an aggressive shot - and how can you serve to set it up? Or do you mostly serve and push? Conventionally, you should serve & loop the return if at all possible; do you? At the higher levels, the most common strategy is to serve short (but usually not too short - second bounce near the endline), usually with backspin or no-spin (disguised so opponent can't always tell which), and follow with a loop. Or do you have an alternate plan? For example, if you have really tricky serves (relative to your level), you might serve over and over to win the point outright (or at least get an easy pop-up). If you have a nice backhand, you might serve topspin to get right into a backhand-to-backhand contest.

Team USA Table Tennis Page

The USATT's sister web page with the USOC is rapidly growing. (Sean O'Neill is in charge of it.) Make sure to check out the coaching page.  At some point I think they need to decide which is USATT's main web page, the USOC page or the regular USATT web page, which isn't updated nearly as frequently, but has the more obvious and more easily remembered web address (usatt.org vs. tabletennis.teamusa.org). The two have a lot of overlap. At some point, probably at the Open next month, I'm going to ask about what the future plans for the two sites are - it's not yet clear to me, and it does seem redundant to have both. But perhaps they already have plans for the future.  

2011 CCY Open Table Tennis Tournament

I'll be coaching tomorrow (Saturday) at the CCY Open Table Tennis Tournament in Alexandria, Virginia. (I'm coaching Tong Tong Gong in singles, and in U3400 Doubles with Allison Wu.) It's a Korean-run tournament; the web page is in Korean, but it's open to anyone. However, I have an English-version entry form. The strange thing about it is that the biggest event is not just the Open (1st $600, 2nd $300, 3rd $200, 4th $100), but Under 3400 Doubles (1st Air Ticket to Korea, 2nd $500, 3rd $200, 4th $100). They also offer (with good prize money, including for the semifinals in all except U1050) six other events: U2100, U1850, U1650, U1450, U1250, and U1050. One team in U3400 Doubles told me that if they reach the final, they plan on dumping so they can get the $500, since they don't want a ticket to Korea. Not sure if that prize is transferable or if they can get the cash equivalent instead.

Back and knee woes

It's tough being a table tennis coach when you have to do a roll call each day to see what's injured. My back has been killing me for over a month, and in the last few days my right knee has started complaining. For now, the left knee and right shoulder and arm are on good behavior, but that could change at any time. (Yes, I stretch before each playing session.) The summer "rush" is coming, and with school out, there'll be a lot more coaching hours, plus five 5-day training camps I help run at MDTTC. Cross your fingers for me.

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June 2, 2011

Table tennis robots

In the Beginning, God (I mean Sitco, I think they were first) created table tennis robots. They had many problems. They either hit to one spot on the table over and over, or they sprayed the ball about randomly, so you couldn't really do many table tennis drills with them. They were either set to heavy topspin or heavy backspin; there was no in between. And the ball was shot at you by spinning disks instead of coming off a paddle, like in a real game, so you didn't learn to read the ball off a racket. (There were other problems early on, such as catching the balls, recycling them, consistency, etc., but these problems were all worked out long ago.) Fixing these problems were, to me, the three holy grails of table tennis robots.

Many of the modern robots are now programmable so you can actually do real drills with them - in fact, just about any drill you can do with a partner, you can do with these robots. Plus you now have more control over the degree of spin. So they are starting to look like more than glorified toys with nets that could catch the ball for you when you practiced serves, which was my primary use for them for many years. (They were also good for group training with beginners, who were fascinated by them, and allowed you to put 1-3 players rotating on the robot while they worked on basic shots.)

So robots are now much, Much, MUCH better than before, and you can actually get a great workout with them. They are good training for players, especially the ones that have built-in and programmable drills you can choose from. I keep waiting for them to break out among the general public as fitness devices, since anyone can do footwork drills on them, moving side to side and getting in shape, even if you miss many of the shots at first.

But there is still one holy grail left. When will they come up with a commercially successful robot that does all of the above, and also hits the ball at you with an actually ping-pong paddle, so you can learn to react to a ball coming off a racket? This is far more important than in tennis, where ball machines also don't use a racket to hit the ball at you; in tennis, you have a lot more time to react to the ball, since it's hit at you from much farther away.

If interested in a table tennis robot, just go to any major table tennis dealer, and you'll see a selection.

USATT and USOC Blogs

Several top players, coaches, and officials are now blogging for USATT on their USOC site. I did one yesterday on "Develop the Basics: Strokes and Footwork." This was a reprint of one of the articles I did for the 11-article "How to Be a Champion" series for USATT. This morning my blog made the USOC front page! Have fun reading all these blogs; there's some interesting stuff there.

Table tennis camps

Ready to make a serious commitment to develop your game? Want to spend some time with others of like mind training together under a top coach? I've updated the Clinics section; now you can find training camps all over the U.S. (and two overseas), by location, coach, or date. I'm running five camps as well this summer (along with co-coaches Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and Zeng "Jeffrey" Xun) at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, which are primarily for junior players but are open to all ages; see the listing if interested.

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June 1, 2011

Contact point on the block

At the Easterns, while blocking to warm up Tong Tong Gong's loop, something clicked. It's one of those things I've always known and coached, but it helps when it works in your own game. I'd been holding my racket too high on blocks (both forehand and backhand), and that's why it hadn't been particularly comfortable in recent times. By starting with the racket lower to the table, I can actually raise the racket slightly as the ball bounces on the table, allowing the center of the racket to "follow" the ball. This leads to a quicker block, better timing, contact in the center of the racket, a bit of topspin on the block, and overall, a more consistent block. If you hold the racket slightly higher, you have to wait for the ball to come up to it, and then try to catch it in the center, which is trickier.

Holding it higher does give a flatter block, which is effective against some, but the price is less control. But you can do this while holding the racket low by taking the ball right off the bounce and stroking straight forward. This is how many penholders block, and is why they so often give such flat blocks.

Celebrities playing table tennis

On Monday I updated the Celebrities Playing Table Tennis page, which now has 1192 pictures of exactly 700 celebrities playing table tennis. Also, the site now has its own domain - yes, CelebritiesPlayingTableTennis.com. Make sure to bookmark it! There are now so many famous celebrities pictured that any short listing would shortchange the site, and any more comprehensive listing would take up more space than there are ping-pong balls in the universe, give or take a few. It's divided into ten sections: Politicians/Leaders, Athletes, Talk Show Hosts, Writers, Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Cartoon Characters, and Other.

Here's a fun one that just went up, of actor Jack Oakie, circa 1933, playing table tennis in a suit of shining armor. He acted in lots of movies around that time, so I have no idea what movie this takes place in. Anyone know? Here's his acting record.

Rating stats galore!

You can now look up your rating stats, head-to-head record, and other stats at the Table Tennis Spin site!

Marty Reisman Analyzes President Obama's Table Tennis Play

Dang, he beat me to it! (I actually meant to post this last Friday, but had so much other stuff I left it off. Then it got left out on Monday somehow, and then my computer crashed yesterday and so it got left off again. But for those who missed it....) Here's Marty's analysis, which includes a link to the video. (I blogged about this on Thursday, May 26.)  Here's an opening quote from Marty: "Not being certain that either president Obama or I may be able to take the necessary time away from our other respective responsibilities for a lesson in the flesh, as an alternative, here is my Presidential Ping Pong 11 Point Internet Lesson that should ensure our national image will never be tarnished in the event our president should ever be challenged to play a competitive match against a leader of any nation having opposing political views."

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May 31, 2011

Computer crash

This morning my desktop computer crashed. (I'm writing this on my netbook computer.) I had all sorts of stuff ready to write for my blog; I'd written half of it last night. But now I can't access it, and I'll probably spend much of the day trying to work out the computer problems. I've already contacted my friendly neighborhood computer expert (J-O, where are you? No, not Waldner), and hopefully all will end well. But rather than leave the multitudes without anything whatsoever to do or read today, here's an exercise.

Developing your game

Are you ready to take your game to the next level and beyond? Let's do an exercise that'll help you do that. If you are a coach, this is also a great exercise for your students - work with them on this.

First, write down what your long-term goal is, in terms of level. Be realistic, but at the same time don't be overly conservative. Give a general timeline to reach this goal.

Second, write down your strengths and potential strengths. If you have a big forehand loop but it misses too much, it might not be a strength, but it might be a potential strength. (Make sure to focus at least 50% or more on serve & receive techniques.)  These are the things that your game will develop around. You cannot reach a specific level unless you have something that threatens players at that level.

Third, write down your weaknesses. This doesn't necessily mean whatever table tennis techniques you don't do well, but the ones where opponents give you trouble in actual matches. For example, if you forehand counterloop loops very well, then not having a good forehand block isn't really a weakness. (Make sure to focus at least 50% or more on serve & receive techniques.)  These are the things that will hold you back from reaching your long-term level goal.

Fourth, write down what you need to do in terms of developing technique to go from your current level to your long-term level goal. Be specific.

Fifth, write down how you are going to develop each of these techniques. It won't happen by itself; you need to practice these techniques, and perhaps work with a coach. You might have to adjust the timeline you set in #1 above.

Sixth, reread #5 above, and put together a plan to actually make it happen. Then make it happen!

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May 30, 2011

Every point is a match.

That's the piece of advice I've been giving players in tournaments a lot this year. Most competitive matches are won by just a few points. Give away two points a game, and half the games you would have won in a competitive match are lost. Give away even one point a game, and you lose all those deuce games you won, and half those 11-9 games you won. So treasure every point. Stop before serving and receiving and make sure you really are ready. If serving, think tactically about what's the best serve to use. If receiving, consider how you can mess up the opponent with your receive. If you play like every point is a match, you'll win a lot of matches.

Easterns

From a purely won-loss perspective, it wasn't the most successful tournament I've coached at. Players I coached this past weekend at the Eastern Open in New Jersey developed a nasty tendency to not play well, and for some reason there's a correlation between not playing well and not winning. Three times players I coached were at 9-all in the fifth, and all three times they lost 11-9. (That's the stuff that makes nightmares.) But many Marylanders did well.

Nine-year-old Crystal Wang, rated 2009, upset players rated 2321, 2182, 2145, and 2038, winning Under 22 Women and making the semifinals of Under 2250. Ten-year-old Derek Nie, rated 1866, upset players rated 2202, 2083, and 2022, making the semifinals of Under 16 Boys (as did his brother, George, with both losing in the opposite sides in the semis). Xiyao "Pamela" Song won Under 18 Girls and was second in Under 22 Women. And let's not forget Jeff Smart, the Over 50 winner! (He attended the recent ITTF Coaching Seminar I ran at MDTTC - see how much he learned?) And of course Xun "Jeffrey" Zeng won the Open! So Maryland brought home a few titles.

Derek Nie was fun to coach. Against the 2202 player he upset, the key was mixing up serves (especially his "tomahawk" serve, though he needs to toss it up more), and a mixture of aggressive attacks and dead blocks to the forehand. In the fifth game, the scores tell a story: he led 6-1, 6-4 (I called a timeout at 6-3), 9-4, 9-8, 11-8.

I spent much of my time coaching 13-year-old Tong Tong Gong (2298, on USA National Cadet Team). He didn't have a good tournament, mostly because his normally extremely good backhand wasn't extremely good. (Lack of confidence in that led to a lack of confidence in other shots. It's a nasty cycle many go through.) We pretty much know the cause of his backhand problems - he's in the transitional stage from mostly hitting backhands in topspin rallies to backhand looping out of the rally (not just against underspin, where he has an excellent backhand loop). He still mostly hits the backhand, but he's doing so much backhand looping against block practice that it's starting to mess up his regular dominant backhand. Before major tournaments, we may have to focus on backhand hitting the last few days. Long-term? We'll see which way he'll eventually go.

Open Singles Winner Xun "Jeffrey" Zeng, 23, joined the MDTTC coaching staff in December, but he's still competing at about a 2600-2650 level. While he has a nice backhand loop, overall he doesn't really dominate with any one shot against his peers, who often look more dominating with their attacks. How does he win? He dominates with his return of serve. Watch and you'll see how uncomfortable he makes his opponents on their own serve, and how often he ends up in a dominant position. (Because I was coaching mostly junior players, I didn't get to see many of the Open matches, alas.) 

Here are complete results of the Easterns. (Make sure to set tournament to "Eastern Open" in box at top.) Isn't it great now North American Table Tennis has created software so we can see the result of every match literally immediately after the results are returned to the desk and typed into the computer?

Liu Guoliang Serving Low

Here's a video (1:38) of former World and Olympic Champion Liu Guoliang of China demonstrating low serves. (Also shown serving are Wang Liqin, Ma Long, and Zhang Chao.) This is something I'm always harping on - most players serve too high, and don't realize it. It's not that opponents will rip these serves - only much stronger players can do that - but that they handle the serve much more effectively. Keep the serve very low, and opponents have to lift up on the ball, causing more mistakes and defensive returns. The dialogue is in Chinese, but you can see what he's doing, serving low under a racket held about two inches over the net. Translated (according to a comment below it), Liu is saying that anyone on the national team can serve that low regularly but when they are asked to doso, their mentalities changes. The pressure causes irregularities in your mind so you aren't able to perform regularly. The point is to just play with a normal mind set.

Memorial Day

Have a Happy Memorial Day - take a moment to think about what the day really means. But if you are a true die-hard Table Tennis Aficionado, you'll then head out to the table for some serve practice, knowing that your rivals are taking the day off. This is your chance to get ahead!

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May 27, 2011

Eastern Open

I'm off to the Eastern Open in New Jersey this afternoon, where I'll be coaching some of the junior players from Maryland. We've got a great crew going, including many of the top seeds in most of the junior events. In the listed ratings, not necessarily the ratings they'll use for seeding, they are follows: Under 22 Men: #2 and #3 seeds; Under 18 Boys: #1 and #3; Under 16 Boys: #1 and #2; Under 13 Boys: #2 and #3; Under 22 Women: #1 and #4 seeds; Under 18 Girls: #1 seed; Under 13 Girls: #1 seed. We also have the #1 and #4 seed in Open Singles, and #3, #4, and #7 seed in Women's Singles.

If you are one of the 247 players competing in the Easterns, have you practiced your serves today? Why not? Unless you are a non-Maryland junior, in which case you should take the day off, eat a few bowls of ice cream, and stay up late. See you at the tournament!!!

Point of the Day

Dimitrij Ovtcharov vs. Seiya Kishikawa at the 2011 World Championships (1:07), care of ITTF. 

Versatility

I mentioned yesterday how important versatility is when playing weaker players. It allows you to play into the weaker player's weaknesses - and by definition, if he's a weaker player, he has weaknesses, at least relative to you. Taken to an extreme, a player can learn to play all styles, and adjust to anyone. But that's probably a bit much; it's better to develop and try to perfect your own style of play, with enough versatility to adjust to varying opponents.

If you are a looper, learn to loop at all speeds to all parts of the table. If you are a blocker, learn to block at all speeds to all parts of the table. And so on. Ideally, even if you are a looper, you should be able to block when needed against a player who isn't consistent, and where all you need to do is block a few balls to win. And so on for other styles. But generally try to dominate with your style, with just minor adjustments, and make the opponent adjust to you.

I'm going to relate two interesting experiences from a number of years ago. As a coach, I've learned to play essentially all styles, and I sometimes use them all in tournaments. At the U.S. Open Teams in Detroit back in the 1990s (before it moved to Baltimore and became the North American Teams), I was in the back of an elevator when two teams we'd played came into the elevator. I was playing on a somewhat weaker team as a player/coach, and had swept both teams, winning all six matches. They didn't notice me in the back - if you remember the Pontchartrain Hotel in Detroit, you'll remember how big the elevators were, and with all the players there, the elevators were often jammed. They were talking about playing me. Roughly speaking, this is how the conversation went.

Player 1: "I lost to Larry Hodges. He was smashing everything."

Player 2: "I lost to Larry, but he was looping everything soft!"

Player 3: "Huh? I lost to Larry, but he's just a blocker!"

Player 4: "What are you guys talking about? He's a chopper!"

Player 5: "I lost to him, but all he did was fish and lob!"

Player 6: "Against me, he serve and ripped everything, and he looped in all my serves!"

I had a hard time not cracking up. The truth was I really had changed styles every match.

To balance things off, I'll relate an eerily similar experience, except this was quite different. Again, it was in the elevators at the Teams in Detroit, this time back in the 1980s when I was having arm problems. Here's the short version: I'd lost all my matches against two teams, all by upset. I'm not going to break it down player by player, but roughly it was like this: "I beat Larry Hodges!" "So did I!" "Me too!" "I also beat him!" "Me two!" "Me three!" (The latter should have been "Me six"?)

To add insult to injury, all these losses blew my rating, and I lost my table tennis sponsorship. So I switched to a new sponsor - and promptly had another poor tournament, losing even more rating points. I told the sponsor they should advertise me by saying, "Larry Hodges lost fewer rating points with us than with any other sponsor."  

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