Larry Hodges' Blog and Tip of the Week will go up on Mondays by noon USA Eastern time. 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. (Larry was awarded the USATT Lifetime Achievement Award in July, 2018.)
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!

January 31, 2011

Grip Experimentation

I spent much of my playing time this weekend experimenting with my grip. The problem I run into is that my forehand loop is at its best when I use a forehand grip, i.e. rotate the top of the racket a little bit left. This messes up my backhand. My backhand is at its best when I either use a slight backhand grip and put my thumb more on the racket (better for blocking and punching), or grip it mostly by the handle (allowing more power). But what helps the backhand hurts the forehand.

Over the years I've generally favored a slight forehand grip, but gripping it more by the handle to help the backhand. But when I play someone who loops a lot, forcing me to block more, I sometimes use a slight backhand grip, which doesn't affect my forehand blocking or smashing, but does hamper the forehand loop.

For beginners, it's almost always best to start out with a neutral grip, with the thinnest part of the wrist lined up with the racket. This greatly helps the development of the strokes. Using a forehand or backhand grip can really mess up the strokes if used too early, before the strokes are mostly ingrained. However, at the more advanced level, a lot of players adjust their grip to enhance their shots.

How about you?

USA Table Tennis Plans

For years, USATT has had online links to their "plans," except the plans were all circa early 2000s. They were like a huge banner that said "USATT is way, Way, WAY out of date." Now they've finally put up new ones, linked here, as well as some reports. Include are the following:


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January 28, 2011

Backhand Looping Extraordinaires

Most players in the U.S. don't seem to know or appreciate that the U.S. has three of the best backhand loopers from the past. Cheng Yinghua (52, rated 2634, #5 in U.S., coaching in Maryland), Ilija Lupulesku (43, rated 2751, #1 in U.S., coaching in Chicago), and Fan Yiyong (42, rated 2722, #2 in U.S., coaching in Seattle) all had, during their peak years, among the best backhand loops in the world. Cheng, during his eleven years on the Chinese National Team (1977-87), was the first of the great Chinese backhand loopers, and many considered him the steadiest backhand looper in the world. Lupulesku, the 1988 Olympic Silver Medalist in Men's Doubles, was more off the table and softer, but could spin back anything. And Fan, who was the Chinese Junior Champion, may have had the most powerful backhand loop in Chinese history. Many of you have seen them in recent years; how many of you saw them at their peak, when they could challenge the best players in the world? I did, and believe me, it was a sight to see.

While none of these three still have the world-class backhand loops they once had, there is one active player who still has world-class skills. David Zhuang (47, rated 2657, #3 in U.S., coaching in New Jersey) still has among the best backhand blocks and return of short serves in the world. On the Women's side, Gao Jun (42, rated 2656, #1 in U.S., 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist in Women's Doubles, coaching in the LA area) still has one of the best backhand blocks in the world.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I practiced my serves regularly, I considered my fast, down-the-line serve "world class." This was based on a combination of actual expertise with the serve and self-delusion (we'll leave it to your imagination what the proportions were). What shots do you do at a "world-class" level, either in reality, or at least partially so in your mind?

More on the Nationals in Virginia Beach

USATT Executive Director Mike Cavanaugh explains in his "CEO Blog" why the Nationals this December will be in Virginia Beach.

Table Tennis Is the No. 1 Brain Sport, Scientists Say

The article is from last week, but in case you missed it . . . see the headline! Plus there's more from Susan Sarandon in the article.

And here's the Sport & Art Educational Foundation's Alzheimer's and Dementia Table Tennis Therapy Program (1:26 video).

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January 27, 2011

Visit to Spin TTC

On Saturday I visited the full-time Spin Table Tennis Club in New York City. (I was there for a writer's conference, but managed to get away for a few hours.) You may have heard of it - Susan Sarandon is one of the owners! When I got there a little before 6PM, Coaches Paul David, Ben Nisbet, and Tahl Leibovitz were all there. Paul had just finished coaching, while Tahl was with a student. When Tahl finished, we played some games - with sandpaper! Tahl's getting ready for the $100,000 "World Championships of Ping-Pong" (Feb. 7-8), where everyone will use sandpaper, and Tahl will represent Israel. Tahl's been practicing, and I hadn't, and so you can guess who won. (I think most others at the club were using regular sponge rackets.)

There were 17 tables, but it wasn't your normal table tennis club, even ignoring that Sarandon comes by to play several times a week. The lighting was poor, there was little room behind the tables (except for one "feature" table), there were no barriers, and there was loud music playing that made it hard to hear the ball hit the table. And yet, the place was jammed. You had to reserve a table in advance - none of this drop-in play like at other clubs, and yet many of the tables had parties going on, with 5-10 players on a table. (There was a bench next to the tables.) As to lack of barriers, each table had a large jar that probably held 100 balls. A full-time bellboy - a high school student - picked up balls full-time with a net, so there was little chasing of balls; you just grabbed another from the jar. There was also a bar next to the playing area where you could get drinks or sandwiches.

Your average table tennis aficionado would have been horrified by the playing conditions, and I had some trouble playing with the loud music, but you know what? This might be a good model for table tennis in large cities. I don't think it would work out in the suburbs or most smaller cities, but in a densely populated area like New York City or in a wealthy area where people can afford to pay extra, I think it might work. They have similar Spin Clubs now in Hollywood and Milwaukee, and presumably they use the same model.

New Videos

I've put up five coaching videos by Coach Tao Li of Table Tennis University. The first three went up last week; the last two just went up.

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January 26, 2011

What, no mention of table tennis in the State of the Union Address??? Looks like we'll have to develop our sport on our own.

ITTF Coaching Development

USA Table Tennis is gradually incorporating the ITTF Coaching Certification Process. In September, they held the first ITTF Certification Seminar in the U.S., run by Glenn Tepper. Great thanks goes to Glenn and to USATT Coaching Chair Richard McAfee for putting that together, and for advancing coaching worldwide and in the U.S. Here are three articles about it - and I'm sort of featured in the last one!

One aspect of the ITTF certification process is that everyone has to do it, including USATT national coaches. So even though I'm certified as a national coach by USA Table Tennis (the highest level), I needed to take the ITTF course to get certified as an ITTF coach, as did other national coaches who attended. Besides getting certified as an ITTF coach, I also qualified as a course conductor. I plan on running the second ITTF Coaching Seminar in the U.S. - the first run by a USA coach - sometime in April. Tentative dates are April 16, 17, 23, 24, and 30 (all weekends). It'll be six hours/day, with the last session an optional one on coaching Paralympic table tennis (i.e. wheelchair and standing disabled). I also plan on adding an extra two-hour session at night on "Setting Up and Running a Junior Training Program."

Now we get to the good stuff. Sometimes what happens behind the scenes is more interesting than the public side. Here's where you learn the truth - how I messed up! Not once, not twice, but three times! Or was it four?

Early in the seminar, Glenn was lecturing about how to return a serve that breaks wide to the forehand. Now you get to learn a secret of mine: my hearing isn't as good as it used to be. When there's background noise, I have great difficulty making out words. As Glenn lectured, I thought he'd left something important out, and so I raised my hand. I was sitting on the left, and there was some sort of industrial noise coming out of the wall, probably central air conditioning. It suddenly got louder, and I missed the last thirty seconds or so of what Glenn said. Then he finished, and called on me. I explained what I thought he'd missed. There was a moment of silence, and then someone pointed out that he'd just said exactly what I'd said - in those last thirty seconds that I'd missed! Oops. Highly embarrassing.

During the section on footwork, Glenn was demonstrating crossover footwork. Unfortunately, this is something that the Chinese historically didn't do, in contrast to European players. Early in my playing career, I had a lot of Chinese coaching, and crossover footwork was pretty much drilled out of my game in favor of always using "two-step" footwork. (Unfortunately, these days the trend is toward one-step footwork and crossovers - I'll write about that some other time.) When I was called upon to demonstrate crossover footwork, I thought I'd have no trouble as I knew how it was done, and had done it earlier in my career . . . circa late 1970s. Unfortunately, when I tried to demonstrate, instincts took over, and I simply couldn't do it right, and my feet kept doing two-step footwork. Again, oops. I've since practiced it, and can demonstrate it, but I don't think I'll ever work it back into my regular game.

During the segment on long pips, he called for volunteers. My ears perked up as I've always been very good against long pips. I volunteered. That's when I discovered the difference between a long pipped chopper at 5000 feet elevation, as opposed to sea level. The chops were much heavier, and I kept making mistakes. I'm sure I'd have adjusted with time, but not in the few rallies where I "demonstrated."

It got worse when a group of us went to play horseshoes. I swear my muscles locked up, and I couldn't throw straight. I think I almost hit Glenn one time. I tried every sports psychology method I knew of to focus and throw the stupid horseshoes, but nothing worked. I took solace in the idea that if I'm that poorly coordinated, then I must be a really, Really, REALLY smart player to reach a relatively high level in table tennis! (Actually, my problem isn't so much lack of coordination as it is very tight muscles. I'm almost incapable of doing a nice, relaxed toss of a horseshoe.)

Now that I've got the embarrassing parts out, I did have my moments. I have a tendency to talk too fast, and that's not good when lecturing. Many years ago I took a class in public speaking to help with my group lessons. From there, I learned a much slower, clearer lecturing voice. During the ITTF seminar, we were all required to do two presentations, and I think I surprised the heck out of everyone when my voice switched from my normal voice to my much better lecturing voice. Later, I got some good laughs when I pointed out I'd learned to do public speaking by lecturing (I'm not making this up) my dog and the clothes dryer! (When practicing public speaking, it's always better to lecture to something that actually moves about like these, rather than something that just sits there motionless.)  Since I've been doing table tennis presentations for thirty years, my presentations came off pretty well.

Pingpong therapy brings net gains to Alzheimer’s patients

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"In the study, through tests that measured their reasoning skills, communication and memory, a sample of 3,000 elderly table-tennis players were shown to have increased frontal lobe function after two minutes of play. An additional sample of 113 patients with brain diseases and dementia who were put on a pingpong-based rehabilitation program showed physical, mental and emotional improvement after a 10-month period. The number of patients dependent on a wheelchair dropped from 42 to 15, and those able to walk without any assistance rose from 41 to 66. The number of patients suffering from acute depression was halved. More than 70 patients had their dementia rating downgraded after the study period, 25 of them testing 'normal' when their pingpong regimen was completed."

And about 86-year-old Fryda Dvorak, living with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease:

"She doesn't remember what she had for breakfast or lunch, but she knows she hit the ball 64 times during her lesson, and that Irina lost three times."

My poor, poor back... killing me. On Friday, I played great, but my back was bothering me at the end of the session. On Saturday, I was on a train to NYC, and spent the day sitting in meetings, then took Amtrak back. I think that stiffened my back. On Sunday, I coached or practice partnered for four hours, and my back was killing me. It's killing me even as I sit in my chair. I've got four days of non-stop table tennis on Fri-Mon. This could get painful. I've grown attached to my tricky high-toss serve, but I'll trade it for a new back.

Send me your own coaching news!

January 25, 2011

Tonight, President Obama gives his State of the Union Address. So here's an actual photo of Obama playing table tennis! The large photo hangs on the wall at the White House. (Here are more pictures of celebrities playing table tennis.)

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Four Major Serves

This was a long one. Later I'll turn this into a regular article for the Articles section.

This weekend on the forum Mark asked, "Could anyone put together a list of the various techniques and a brief comment on what they do well, what they do poorly, which tactics they work well with or against, and any quirks that might make it easier to deal with a server using that motion." This seemed like an excellent idea for a blog entry!

First, it's important to understand the concept that it's generally easier for a receiver to handle a sidespin serve that breaks into him then one that breaks away. There are two main reasons for this. Let's imagine a sidespin serve to the forehand that breaks away from you.

  1. When you hit the ball, it's going to jump to the left. (Lefthanders reverse everything.) To counteract that, you have to aim right. But when reaching for a ball, it's more natural to get outside the ball and aim left than trying to get inside the ball and aim right. Get a racket and experiment, and you'll see this. This is true on both the forehand and backhand side, though probably more so on the forehand side.  
  2. As the ball breaks away from you, a player tends to reach for the ball. But as he does so, his racket naturally drops lower as it goes after the ball, which is spinning away and down. Plus, if you are looping the serve, you lower the racket anyway, and so when you reach for the ball, you lower it further. The result is the racket is lower than it should be, and so you lift the ball off the end.

To counteract both these problems, focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping. You also might find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin when looping.

A second concept to understand is that you should attack spinny sidespin serves, and any serve that goes long. This doesn't mean you have to rip them, but you need to be aggressive. If you return a sidespin serve passively, the spin will take on your racket much more than if you attack it, and will generally both pop up and to the side. Against a long serve, if you don't attack, the opponent has all day to set up their attack, so you must be aggressive. (Obviously, choppers and some blockers can get away with more passive returns, but it's a disadvantage, and even if they push or chop the serve, they should do so aggressively - deep and with heavy backspin.)

A third concept to understand is that receive is all about placement and consistency. See the Tip of the Week that went up yesterday (Monday, Jan. 24, 2011), which is titled, "When Receiving, Emphasize Placement & Consistency."

A fourth concept is that with all serves, you can do spin/no-spin combinations. Most popular are backspin/no-spin serves, where you use the same motion and either serve backspin (or side-backspin), or no-spin. You get the no-spin by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the handle, which isn't moving very fast at contact.

Now let's look at the actual major serves. At tournaments, at nearly all levels right up to world class, there are four service motions that dominate. They are the forehand pendulum, the reverse forehand pendulum, the forehand tomahawk, and the backhand sidespin.There are other service motions, but these four serves cover the overwhelming majority of what you'll face in serious matches. (We're going to focus here on spin serves, not fast serves.)  Let's examine these four serves. (Descriptions are for right-handers; left-handers reverse.)

Forehand Pendulum

Description: You do this serve with the racket tip down, moving from right to left. The sidespin breaks away from the receiver's backhand as the ball breaks left to right. This is by far the most popular serve in the world. One reason for this is that it was the easiest serve to hide contact from the receiver, before that became illegal a few years back, and so there are still generations of players who learned that serve for that reason. Another is that it is the easiest to do right-to-left sidespin (so the ball breaks to the right). You can do left-to-right sidespin (that breaks left) with any of the other three "major" serves, and so those who favor that sidespin are split among those three.

Variations: Many players do this with a high toss. The higher toss means the ball is traveling faster when you contact it, allowing more spin. The disadvantage of a high-toss is it is harder to control. Also, with a lower toss, the ball is traveling more slowly at contact, allowing you more motion at the last second for deception. Also, as noted below, you can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a reverse forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: Because the spin breaks away from receiver's backhand, it's awkward to receive with the backhand. It is especially difficult to attack down the line with the backhand (except at the advanced levels), and so the server can almost give up that line, since most returns will be to the backhand or middle of the table. This is a great serve for those who wish to serve and forehand loop, especially if you like to loop forehands from the backhand side. (This allows you to be in forehand position for the next shot as well.)

You can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Another advantage of this serve is you can set up for this serve, and at the last second do a reverse forehand pendulum serve instead. 

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. (Topspin and backspin serves have an axis that's left to right.) However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin, giving the big break. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: There are two main weaknesses of the serve. First, this type of sidespin is easier to loop with the forehand, and so it might risky serving to the forehand side, or long to the backhand if the receiver can step around and loop a forehand. Second, because it's the most popular serve in the world, everyone is used to it.

How to Return: Ideally, loop it with the forehand. Alas, you can't do that if the serve is short, or if it's to the wide backhand and you don't have super-fast feet.

With the backhand, you need to attack it if it's long, usually with a backhand loop, but a backhand drive will do. Remember the problem of lifting too much when reaching for the ball! So don't drop your racket too much except against heavy underspin. If you can attack this serve down the line, you'll mess up many servers. If you find that difficult, then at least return it deep and very wide to the backhand. And remember to hide your placement until the last second, especially against the many forehand loopers who use this serve. Don't let them know where your return is going or they'll have little trouble using their forehand. They may get their forehand on any of your returns, but they'll make more mistakes and weaker loops if they don't know where you're going, and so have to rush at the last second.

In theory, it should be easier to loop this serve down the line with the backhand. When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin. However, in practice, because of the more limited hitting zone on the backhand side, most players find going down the line more difficult.

Forehand Reverse Pendulum

Description: This is the same as the forehand pendulum serve, except now contact is left to right, and the spin breaks into a receiver's backhand as it curves to the left. This serve isn't seen as often until the advanced intermediate level.

Variations: You can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a regular forehand pendulum serve. It's also often done with a high toss, just as with the regular forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: It's a great variation from the regular forehand pendulum serve, and so many advanced players do both. Since it's seen less often, players often have more trouble with this serve, especially as they first reach the advanced levels, since they haven't spent years facing the serve as most players do against the regular pendulum serve.

The serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since you can create tremendous sidespin that breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

The serve can also be highly effective done fast to the backhand since many players simply aren't used to that spin into the backhand, especially from what looks at first like a regular forehand pendulum serve.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it breaks into a receiver's backhand, once they get used to it, it's generally easier for them to attack it, especially with a backhand loop. It's also generally tougher to serve heavy underspin with this serve. The service motion can be awkward when you are first learning the serve, and many players tend to serve with less than maximum spin as they find it hard to control otherwise. However, at the higher levels, this serve is done with great spin and full variation.

Since pendulum serves are mostly used by forehand attackers, they are done out of the backhand corner. So you have less angle into the forehand with this serve, and so it's trickier doing it so that really breaks away from the receiver. You can experiment by serving it more from the middle or even from the forehand side, but it's often more effective to simply do a tomahawk serve from there. (See below.)

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up.

Backhand Sidespin

Description: Just as the name says, it's a backhand serve with the racket going from left to right. (Despite the name, the serve can be done with pure backspin or - less frequently - pure topspin. The racket still goes from left to right, but you contact it very early or very late in the motion, before or after it is moving sideways.) This is the same spin as a reverse forehand pendulum serve. It's the second most common serve used, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels.

Variations: You can also do a reverse backhand serve, as the great Chinese player Kong Linghui used to do, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a regular backhand sidespin serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it.

Advantages: Like the forehand pendulum serve, you can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations. (You do the no-spin version by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the base of the blade, which isn't moving very fast at contact.)

Like with the reverse pendulum serve, this serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since the spin breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

This serve is often the easiest to control, allowing you to serve lower more easily than with other serves. A key to this is to minimize the toss to as close to six inches as possible.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it's such a common serve, many players are used to it. Since so few master a reverse backhand serve, the sidepin is always the same. It's tricky doing a fast and deep serve with this motion, taking away a major variation.

Since you do the serve with a backhand stance, it leaves you in a backhand position, so it can be harder to follow with a forehand.

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up. (Note that his is the same as returning a reverse forehand pendulum serve.)

Forehand Tomahawk

Description: Done with the forehand, tip up, with a right-to-left motion, creating a spin that breaks to the left.

Variations: You can also do a reverse tomahawk serve, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a tomahawk serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it. (A reverse forehand tomahawk serve is really the same as a reverse backhand serve. In both cases, the tip is up, moves from right to left, and contact is made with the backhand side of the racket.)

Unlike the other major serves, this serve is often done from the forehand side as well as from the backhand side.

Advantages: More than most serves, this serve is done with the intent of winning a point outright on the serve alone. A lot of players, especially at the intermediate level, use this serve from the forehand side into the receiver's wide forehand, causing mayhem as the ball breaks away and the receiver messes up. Done from the forehand side, the motion allows maximum angle that really breaks into the receiver's wide forehand.

Done from the backhand, it's similar to a backhand serve. It's most effective short to the forehand, but a deep one to the backhand can also cause some players difficulty.

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: Starting at the advanced intermediate level, players can loop this serve consistently if it's deep to the forehand. It still might be a good surprise variation, but only if used occasionally.  Against stronger opponents, the serve becomes effective only if done short.

It's a bit harder to get the full range of spins with this serve, and many players find it difficult to serve a truly heavy underspin with this serve. So while the serve creates havoc by going long to the forehand to many intermediate players, against more advanced players the long serve is looped, and the short serve doesn't have as much variety as a simple backhand serve. So this serve is used less and less as you reach the higher levels. But it's still a great variation to throw at many opponents for a few free points.

How to Return: If the serve is short, it's pretty much the same as returning a reverse pendulum or backhand serve. The main difference is it's more often done from the forehand side short to your forehand. This means you can return down the line to take out the opponent's forehand.

The most common difficulty with this serve is how to return it when it's done so it breaks wide and deep into the forehand side. I covered this at the start with the first concept covered, but since this is such a huge problem for so many players returning this serve, I'm going to repeat it here, word for word.

To counteract both these problems [ball jumping to the left when it contacts your racket, and the ball curving away from you], focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping.

You might also find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin.

Learn to Do These Serves

Mark also wrote, "I know the standard answer is 'Go learn how to do the serve and then you will understand how to deal with it.'  That is not going to work for me because at the rate it is taking me to learn one serve I will be dead and buried before I come close to understanding the many variations out there."

Alas, it is true that one of the best ways to learn to return a serve is to learn the serve itself, both so you understand what it does, and because you'll then see how others return the serve against you. I strongly recommend players learn the basics of all these serves. You might not use them in tournaments, but you'll learn a lot about dealing with these serves in the process. Once you've learned one good spin serve, the others are easier to learn since you've already mastered the hard part - putting spin on the ball. Plus, you might end up developing a new tournament serve!

Coaching News

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January 24, 2011

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?"

Amtrak Amblings

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?

Coaching News

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, or see the flyer.

Send me your own coaching news!

January 21, 2011

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:

  1. Do your best, but accept the fact that you will lose to players your level and even weaker ones; or
  2. Serve illegal right back.

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.

New Stuff

  • In the Video page, I've added a link to Coach Li's video on "How to loop a dead ball."


  • Table Tennis, the brain sport, with a touch of Susan Sarandon.
  • I'll be gone all day Saturday at the Writer's Digest Conference in New York City, and probably won't be online much, if at all. Besides some workshops, I'm mostly there to meet with potential agents, where I'm pitching both a possible new table tennis book as well as my recently finalized science fiction novel, "Campaign 2100: Rise of the Moderates." (Yep, I write SF in my free time.) Be nice to each other while I'm gone! (I'm gone much of Sunday as well, as that's my main coaching day. That's why my blog is Mon-Fri - I'm often busy or traveling - often to coach at tournaments - on weekends.)

Send me your own coaching news!

January 20, 2011

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.

  • Short-term: Beat our top cadet players at the club this Friday night and Sat & Sun afternoon. (As a coach, of course, if I do beat them, it's a disappointment. I can't win.)
  • Intermediate: Get my weight under 180 so I can get my old forehand attack back (both with my normal sponge game and also when I play with a hardbat), and win Hardbat Singles at the Cary Cup in March. (I weighed 196 on Dec. 26; I'm now down to 186.)
  • Long-term: Win Over 40 Hardbat Singles and Hardbat Doubles at the U.S. Open and Nationals in July and December. (If I win at least two of the four, including at least one singles, I'll consider it a success.)

(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? smiley

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

  1. Visit all seven continents. Not even close. Because of table tennis, I've been all over North America and Asia, but that's it. Not even Europe. Sigh. But I will.
  2. Tour China. Check!
  3. Tour the ruins of Greece and Rome. Not yet, but I will. I'm a history buff.
  4. Get a college degree. Check! (Bachelors in math, Masters in journalism.)
  5. Publish a book. Check - four of 'em!
  6. Publish a novel. I've written one, and have nearly finalized another. Haven't found a publisher yet.
  7. Qualify for membership in Science Fiction Writers of America with three or more "Pro" sales. Check!
  8. Get published in a science or math journal. Check!
  9. Run a marathon. Check!
  10. Hit a home run over an outfield fence. Sigh. I may take lessons someday and get this done.
  11. Become a table tennis champion. Check!!!
  12. Get certified in table tennis as a national coach. Check!
  13. Coach a National Table Tennis Champion. Check, many times over!
  14. Set up and help coach at an annual training camp for USA Junior & Cadet players. We'll see!

New Articles

  • In the Articles page, in the Sports Psychology section, I've added two articles by Stanley Popovich.
  • Also in the Articles page, in the Equipment Reviews section, I've added a link to the OOAK Forum.


  • The National Collegiate Table Tennis Association January Newsletter is out! College students, your regional championships are coming up fast in February, so don't forget to enter!
  • Tong Tong Gong, who made the USA National Cadet Team at the Nationals in December, wrote an article about his experience for Butterfly. I coached him in his matches, and so was mentioned. In the picture, I think we're discussing what to have on our pizza for lunch. (I want pepperoni; I think he wants watermelon or Chinese fish heads or something.)

Send me your own coaching news!

January 19, 2011

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.

Coaching News

  • Are you on Facebook? Why not friend "ITTF Development"? Lots of interesting news there!

Send me your own coaching news!

January 18, 2011

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:

  1. Loves to practice.
  2. Proactive in finding ways to improve.
  3. A perfectionist in most or all aspects of the game.
  4. Is always thinking about their game, analytically and tactically.
  5. Never gives up, whether in tournaments or practice.
  6. Loves to compete and win.
  7. Is working toward specific goals, both short-, intermediate-, and long-term.

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.

Coaching News

  • Attila Malek (full-time coach in Sacramento, 1979 U.S. Men's Singles Champion) is now the USATT Club Representative Director as well as the Clubs Advisory Committee Chairman. See the USATT News item that lists the updated committee and board positions. (Malek replaced Linda Leaf on the board; that's the only board change.)
  • The USATT Coach of the Year nominations were announced a couple weeks ago. They are: Lily Yip (Coach of the Year), Sean O'Neill (Developmental Coach of the Year), and Daniel Rutenberg (Paralympic Coach of the Year). Congrats to these coaches!!!

Send me your own coaching news!

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