Looping Against Backspin and Topspin

Newgy Robo-Pong

Many players would say that you aren’t really playing table tennis until you learn to loop. A loop in table tennis is an offensive stroke with the primary purpose of producing lots of topspin. Table tennis is a game of spin, and the loop is the primary example of using spin during a rally.

Many players (and coaches) feel a player should be able to hit many, many forehands & backhands, and reach a relatively high level of play, before learning to loop. Nothing could be more outdated. By the time a player has reached a relatively high level of play, the player’s strokes and major habits are set. If looping isn’t among those habits, it’ll be more difficult to learn later on. The moral is: it’s rarely too early to learn to loop. (For the purposes of this article, I will be mostly discussing the forehand loop. Against backspin, you may also use a backhand loop. Against topspin, however, the backhand loop is normally learned later on — although some may consider that to be outdated!)

This doesn’t mean that a complete beginner should be looping on his first day. However, once a player can hit a moderately good forehand with moderately good technique, he’s ready to begin the process of learning to loop, even as he continues to develop his other basic strokes. A player shouldn’t think of a loop as an advanced shot; it’s simply another shot, one that should be taught shortly after learning the basic forehand and backhand drive (also known as counter or counter-drive) strokes. The shot also adds excitement and variety to a player’s game, turning a basement player into a dedicated table tennis addict. 

A beginner should start out looping against backspin, for three reasons. First, it’s more natural, as you are simply adding to the spin, rather than trying to change it. Two, the ball is traveling more slowly than a topspin (usually), and so is easier to learn against. Three, any player with sponge should learn to loop at least against backspin (even pips-out players), so this shot will be part of any player’s arsenal eventually. A player should learn to loop both forehand and backhand against backspin. 

A robot gives a player a huge advantage in learning to loop. With a live player, you may be able to loop one ball against backspin, but then most players will block the ball, and the rally becomes a topspin rally. It’s hard to get much repetitive practice against backspin this way. Even if you practice with a chopper (who returns ball after ball with backspin), the various returns will have varying amounts of backspin and will not always come to the same spot, making it difficult to learn to loop. It’s hard enough trying to get the stroke right, the contact right, and keep the ball on the table. The last thing you want when you are learning to loop is for the incoming ball to keep changing its placement and degree of spin!

With a robot, a player can loop against the same backspin ball over and over, developing the stroke. Always remember that Correct Techniques + Constant Repetition = Well-Developed Strokes. 

Once a player can loop against backspin, he’s ready to loop against topspin. This can be done either on a robot or against a living opponent who blocks. However, the robot has two advantages. First, it will give you a consistent ball, coming out at the same speed, direction and spin over and over, enhancing the learning process. Second, it allows a player to switch back and forth between looping against topspin and backspin, so both techniques can be developed together. 

Many players learn to loop well against one type of spin (topspin or backspin), but not the other. This usually has to do with the shoulders. Against backspin, drop the back shoulder (right shoulder for right-handers, left shoulder for left-handers) when forehand looping. Against topspin, shoulder should only drop slightly, if at all. By switching the robot back and forth between these two spins, you can develop proper shoulder placement for both shots. 

What is the difference between forehand looping against backspin versus topspin? Against backspin, the key is lifting the ball up, due to the backspin. You have to get very low by bending your knees, get your racket down, drop your back shoulder, and drive upward. The ball must be contacted on its very back, after letting it drop to about table level or even lower. Your force should go roughly toward the ceiling above your opponent’s head, NOT toward the other side of the table. 

Against topspin, footwork is more important. The ball is coming at you faster, and the ball’s speed and spin make the ball rebound off your racket faster. You still need to get down some, but now your power is mostly forward. The knees bend only slightly, and the back shoulder stays up. The ball should be contacted toward the top, usually just after the top of the bounce, but before the ball has dropped to table level. 

Here are a few drills for developing the loop on a robot. 

Beginners

The priority here is learning the stroke and proper contact. Start off by setting the robot on backspin in one spot, and practice it over and over, preferably with some input from a coach or player. Sometimes practice looping from the forehand side or middle, other times loop the forehand from the backhand side. Make sure to drive upwards, and just graze the ball. The goal is spin, not speed. A beginner should also try backhand looping against backspin.

When you feel comfortable looping against backspin, practice forehand looping against topspin. After all the lifting against backspin, your first few loops will probably go off the end. Try contacting the ball on the very top, drive forward, and keep your back shoulder up.

Intermediate Players 

You’ve learned to loop, but want to loop even better. You should be forehand looping against both topspin and backspin, with slow, medium and fast loops, from and to all parts of the table. That’s 24 types of loops to practice already! (Not including backhand looping.) Get with it! (Intermediate players should also try the footwork drills given next for advanced players.) 

Advanced Players 

It’s time to throw in some footwork and randomness. Set the robot to sweep 50-75% of the table (both backspin and topspin ), and try looping them all with your forehand. (If you have a backhand loop, you may use that as well for some shots.) You should be able to cover more of the table against the slower-moving backspin. You might even try covering the entire table against backspin — if you’re very quick and very brave.

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Close-To-The-Table Defender

Newgy Robo-Pong

Constant changes in equipment, gluing methods, and training methods have had a large effect on the evolution of styles within our sport. The decade of the nineties has seen the decline of two styles, the passive chopper and the passive half-distance topspin player. In their place, a stronger more balanced attacking style has emerged, the All-Round Attacker. This can be seen in both shakehands and penholder versions, with the penholder version incorporating the new reverse penholder backhand loop technique. Recently, the switch to the 40mm ball has changed both stroke techniques and tactics; and even now, playing styles are evolving quickly to take full advantage of the new ball's playing characteristics. Table Tennis is an ever-evolving sport that requires both coaches and players to constantly update their knowledge.

The purpose of this article is to examine the eight styles currently in use at the World Class Level. If you are uncertain of your style or wish to better identify which style is best for you, then please read What Style Should You Play. These styles include:

  1. The Attacker, Pips-Out Penholder, Traditional Style
  2. The Attacker, Shakehands Hitter
  3. The Attacker, Inverted Looper
  4. The Attacker, All-Round
  5. The Counter Driver
  6. The Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper
  7. The Attacking Chopper
  8. The Close-to-the-Table Defender

This series of articles will provide you with the strengths and weaknesses of each style, along with some suggested robot drills to help you develop your game. In reading the descriptions you may find that your personal style will have attributes from more than one. However, you should be able to recognize your dominant style ("A"style) and your secondary style ("B"style). Each article will also give you some suggestions on tactics to use against the other styles of play. Hopefully the style descriptions will serve as a guide in analyzing your own.

Close-To-The-Table Defender
Description:

This style is built around a chop/block executed from close to the table. Players of this style most often use combination rackets with long-pips or anti-spin on one side and inverted rubber on the other. Players of this style use underspin blocks to force weak topspin shots from their opponents. They will then attack the weak topspin with a well-placed drive or loop. This style is often the master of placement but lacks real finishing power.

Strengths:
  • Very consistent close-to-the-table chop/blocks.
  • Excellent serve and receive game.
  • Very accurate forehand drives.
  • Excellent short game using pushes and drop shots.
  • The ability to absorb their opponent’s strong opening shots.
  • Often use the speed and spin of oncoming shots to make their returns stronger.
Weaknesses:
  • No real power.
  • High looping balls directed to the backhand.
  • Hard balls directed towards the wide forehand.
  • No spin serves, loops, and pushes will often cause errors. 
Suggested Robot Drills
Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Penholder

Keep most of your serves short. Press backhand to backhand exchanges. Do not over hit. When attacking, go most often down-the-line. Extend the points as long as possible.

Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Shakehands

Same general tactics as above. However, direct more balls at your opponent’s middle.

Against the Attacke — Inverted Looper

When serving, keep most serves short and try to follow with a safe 3rd ball attacks. Then vary your blocks until your opponent makes an error. When receiving mix up your returns between drops, flips, and long pushes. If you push long cut the sidelines of the table to force your opponent to move.

Against the Attacker All-Round

Against this style, you will need to attack more often. However placement, not speed or spin, will force errors from your opponent.

Against the Counter Driver

Against this style, you must be very steady in your play. Also, slow down the tempo of your blocks below the speed the counter driver enjoys. When you get an opportunity to attack, a kill is preferred over a loop.

Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper

Keep your serves short. Block fast and wide to the forehand. When your opponent backs up to loop, drop short, then attack if possible. Use a combination of deep and short blocks to keep the mid-distance looper moving in and out. Attack down the line when possible.

Against the Attacking Chopper

Similar tactics to playing a counter driver. Play steady, moving the chopper in and out, as well as side-to-side. Kill any loose returns.

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Turn Your Newgy Robo-Pong Into A World Class Chopper

Newgy Robo-Pong

Too often in today's table tennis clubs, there is a lack of quality choppers available to train with. This is especially a problem when training the young developing topspin player. As a full-time professional coach, I am always on the lookout to find ways to simulate training against styles or individual shots that don't exist in my own backyard.

Often I can accomplish this through the use of multi-ball feeding techniques. However, I have found a creative solution that works even better by using my Newgy Robo-Pong

First of all, I remove the unit completely from the table and set it on a low table or even the floor itself. The distance back from the table should be similar to the distance that a chopper would actually be working from to return hard hit balls (8 – 12 feet behind the table). 

By setting up the Newgy Robo-Pong in this fashion, your students gain several advantages over the conventional multi-ball set-up. First and most importantly, the correct timing for the stroke can be developed. Secondly, the student can get the feel of training at full power and observing the results of his/her own strokes. 

(Editor's Note: When using the robot "off table" in this fashion, it will help to use the Pong-Master scoreboard to help start, time, and end each drill. Plug the scoreboard into the control box, but do not plug any targets in. Set the robot for the proper trajectory angle, ball feed, ball speed, and sweep range. Turn on the scoreboard and set the number of minutes for the drill. When you're ready, hit the start button and the scoreboard will give you 3 seconds to get ready before it starts delivering balls. The scoreboard will also stop ball delivery when time runs out.

Also, since many of your returns will not be captured by the net for recycling, use lots of balls or have an assistant pick up balls and place them back into the robot's trays. This will permit you to continue doing the drill for the allotted time.)

Here is a set of six attack drills that my students often do against chop. Each set of drills should run from 5–7 minutes, remember to stress quality not quantity. If your students are having less than a 70–80% success rate, than the drill should be modified. 

Normally, I set up the Newgy to oscillate from the middle of the table to the wide forehand of my player. After finishing the six drills, I reset the Newgy to oscillate from the middle of table to my player's wide backhand and repeat the six drills again. In all cases, forehand attacks are being used. 

  1. Loop consistently to opponent's forehand. The student should focus on consistency as well as producing as much spin as possible. 
  2. Loop consistently to opponent's backhand. Like the above drill, consistency and spin are the keys to work on. 
  3. Loop consistently, alternating between opponent's forehand and backhand side. Have your student pay special attention to their footwork when changing the direction of the ball. 
  4. Loop to one corner, then push to the other corner. 
  5. Loop consistently to opponent's wide forehand corner, then hard attack to the middle. Have student concentrate on contacting the ball at the top of the bounce for the hard attack, as well as the explosion of the hips and the feeling of being "un-weighted" at the moment of the hard attack. 
  6. Loop consistently to opponent's middle, then hard attack opponent's wide forehand corner. Same focus as previous drill.
Advanced Options: 

You can mix the above drills with some limited multi-ball. A coach can randomly feed a single attacking shot between the Newgy's chops, just to keep the player ready to defend at all times. The coach can also mix in a short drop shot, timed to force the player to work hard to get back into position to loop the next ball. 

Throughout the United States, there are very few clubs that have strong players of every style to train against. I hope these chop suggestions, along with the idea of pulling the Newgy Robo-Pong away from the table will strike a creative cord on just how it is possible to overcome any training weakness.

By the way, the basic six drills against chop that I have suggested come mostly from my several years as acting coach of America's finest chopper, Derek May.

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Long Pips Attack and Defense Techniques

Newgy Robo-Pong

Many of my senior (Over 40) students have asked me to do an article on the use of long pips, for close-to-the-table play. This style is very popular with the older table tennis players as it allows them to slow down play and to put the focus on using their hand skills rather than movement and power to win points.

Table tennis robot training is particularly useful when learning and practicing these techniques as few players can consistently attack against this style. In fact, as you are learning this style many players may become frustrated and not want to practice with you at all.

Let's take a look at the six basic strokes that should be in the arsenal of any close-to-the-table long pips player. All of these strokes are described as backhand strokes.

  • Lift against backspin: This stroke is executed with a slightly open paddle. The stroke itself is very simple. At contact, push forward and slightly up. Use mostly the forearm and little or no wrist action. This stroke, when executed with long pips, allows you to use your opponent’s backspin to produce a controlled topspin attack. This is the only stroke in which you can produce enough topspin to hit with speed.
  • Sidespin attack against backspin: This is an unusual looking stroke to most inverted players. The stroke is executed much like the straight lift against backspin, but at contact, the racket is pushed forward and pulled to the right (for right-handed players). Depending on the racket angle this return will produce a wide range of no-spin, sidespin, or light topspin returns, all with some degree of sidespin. This stroke can force many errors from your opponents.
  • Attacking backspin by pushing: Pushing with long pips can be very aggressive. While pushing, if light contact with the ping pong ball is made, the return will be a dead ball (no-spin). If harder racket contact is made (more force), a light topspin can be produced. This leads to a lot of high and very attackable returns from your opponent.
  • Controlled counter attacks: The key to attacking with long pips against topspin is to remember that controlling the speed of your returns is the key to success. Do not over-hit. Your returns will carry some backspin, so there will always be a limit on the amount of speed you can produce. Generally speaking, if you are using long pips without sponge this stroke will be quite slow and carry heavier backspin. If you are using long pips with sponge, this return will be faster but without as much spin. Once again, keep the stroke simple using only a forward pushing motion, with the forearm. Remember, when counter attacking with long pips, let the racket do the work for you. It is the ever-changing spin on your returns that will force errors from your opponent, not the speed of your returns.
  • Defensive chop blocks: This stroke looks just like its name suggests—a block with a downward chopping motion. When used against heavy topspin, this stroke can produce heavy chop returns. Often your opponent will be forced into pushing this return back, which will allow you to attack.
  • Pullback block: Once again, the name says it all. Against a topspin attack, you simply pull your racket slightly back at contact, thereby taking almost all of the pace off the ball. This can be used to produce a very short return making it impossible for your opponent to continue an attack. This technique works best with long pips without sponge.

There you have the major long pips, close-to-the-table techniques. When used properly, these table tennis strokes can make life very difficult for your opponents. Fortunately, your robot will not mind at all while you practice and perfect these techniques.

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Topspin Defense

Newgy Robo-Pong

All players will at some time find themselves in a defensive situation. For many topspin players, it is only natural to also use topspin when making defensive returns. These returns fall into two categories based on the player's distance from the table. Mid-distance returns are most often referred to as "Fishing". From long distance, lobbing returns are used.

Mid-Distance "Fishing"

This short topspin defense stroke is contacted from mid-distance before the ball has begun to descend. Most often used on the backhand against a driving loop, this stroke resembles a long blocking stroke with a little added topspin. You are just trying to redirect your opponent's power back to him/her.

The Fishing Defense is often effectively used against looping players who lack a strong flat kill stroke. To be effective the ball most be kept deep and at a medium height (shoulder height). At this height, it is difficult for the looper to generate enough power to finish the point. When using this defense, it is important to move your returns around to try and force a weak shot and then to counter-attack.

Basic Stroke Elements 
  • Redirect your opponent's power back to him/her, using a short stroke
  • Make friction contact (spin) with the ball
  • Contact the ball before it descends 
  • Contact is above the center of the ball 
  • Return should be deep and medium high (opponent's shoulder level)
Key to Success 

On the backhand side, always try to center the ball directly in front of the body. If you are reaching for the ball, you will lose control of your returns. Also, try to move your returns around the table forcing your opponent to move as much as possible. 

Defensive Lobs

Topspin lobs are used when a player is deep from the table. To be effective, the lob must carry a lot of spin and land deep on the table. This stroke is executed with a long upward stroke, which carries the ball high into the air (10 to 15 feet high). I often tell my students to imagine themselves carrying the ball up an elevator shaft to emphasize the "lift" element of the stroke and obtain the necessary height on their lobs. 

Basic Stroke Elements 
  • Contact the ball as it is descending
  • Use a long upward stroke 
  • Contact the bottom of the ball and brush upward 
  • Make as much friction contact (spin) as possible 
  • Return should be deep and bounce high on the table 
Key to Success 

The use of sidespin is very important when using a lob return. From the forehand side, add left to right sidespin (for right-handers) by contacting the outside surface of the ball. This will cause the ball to bounce sharply to your opponent's right on contact with the table. This leaves your opponent little choice but to return the ball directly back to your forehand side. Knowing this, you can anticipate the return and setup to counterattack.

Robot Practice Techniques 

Your Newgy Robot is a perfect partner for practicing your defensive topspin techniques. The key is to duplicate the downward angle that would be produced by your opponent attacking the high defensive returns. This can be easily accomplished by using your Newgy Robo-Caddy. First of all, place your Robot in the Caddy and raise the Caddy to its highest position above the table. This will give you the downward angle you need to duplicate your opponent's smashes. Now set your Robot head for topspin and set the ball speed at a high level (7 to 10) and you are ready to practice your Topspin Defense. 

(Editor's Note: See "Alternative Set-up For Wide Angles and Smashes," by Yeushan Goan for diagram on how to set-up your Newgy robot to simulate smashes.) 

Practice Drills 

Fishing Defense Practice 

Set up your Robot as described above and to oscillate over your backhand side of the table. Back up so that you are contacting the ball just before it begins to descend (from 6-8 ft. from the table). Now practice using your backhand "Fishing" defense returns. When you begin to feel comfortable with your returns, set the Robot to oscillate returns over the whole table. Practice "Fishing" with your backhand and counterattacking with your forehand.

Lob Practice 

Set your Robot as described above and to oscillate over one half of the table, either backhand or forehand side. Back up so that you are contacting the ball as it is descending, below table height. Practice making lob returns until you can keep the ball deep on your opponent's side. Practice both forehand and backhand lobs. Remember to try and add sidespin to your returns to control the direction of your opponent's returns. When you feel comfortable with your returns, practice mixing lobs and counterattacks. The ability to play some defense is an important skill even for the most aggressive player.

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