USA Table Tennis What's New 11 Questions with La...

11 Questions with Larry Hodges

By USATT | March 03, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

Larry Hodges

Larry winning the Doc Counsilman Coach of the Year award, for use of science in coaching. (Specifically, for his table tennis blog and coaching books.)

1)      Why do you play? 

I don’t get it - is this a trick question? Is there another option? More seriously, there’s just something about racket sports that I like – smacking things with a stick! And table tennis is the most analytical of sports. So you get to think a lot and hit things. I even get to write about it in my daily table tennis blog.

2)      Which is your favorite tournament? 

It’s a tie between the US Open and Nationals, where 700 or so of us get together to play, coach, spectate, meet, browse the equipment booths, and (most important) invade the pizza and ice cream parlor at the hotel every night. Also, over the years since I started in 1976 these tournaments have been  proof of evolution. First I was a wannabe player who lost over and over. Then I evolved to become a better and better player, and so had fewer and fewer losses. Finally I evolved to the highest form of table tennis life, a coach who no longer plays tournaments, and so I never lose at all. (Actually, I often play hardbat events, but I’m now retired from that as well.)  Seriously, if you are at the Open or Nationals (or any other tournament), stop by and say hi. And if you are a serious player, you will be at the Open or Nationals.

3)      Who is your primary nemesis?  

Any kid at my club (MDTTC) who thinks he can beat me. Actually, that means all of them. About a year ago one of them said I’m harder to play when I use a clipboard than when I play with sponge, and several others nodded in agreement. I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not.

4)      What is your favorite game tactic to score? 

When the game is on the line and I’m serving, I always ask myself one question: macho or tricky? If I choose macho, I serve short and attack, and usually lose. (When I was younger this was more successful.) If I choose tricky, I pull out an unreturnable serve. These include the big breaking one into the backhand, the fast no-spin to the middle, the fast down-the-line ace, the short side-top serve that looks like backspin, the reverse backhand serve, the reverse pendulum short serve to the forehand that cannot be returned, and a lot of other possible ones. I sometimes spend ten minutes deciding which of these serves to use, so if you play me you might want to bring a book.

5)      Thoughts on the Poly Ball.  

BAAAAAHHHHH!!! More seriously, I think the ITTF jumped the gun here. Poly balls shouldn’t have been the norm until they were high quality, standardized, readily available, affordable, and with inexpensive but quality training balls for training. There are some quality poly balls now, but all have some of the problems above. Quality control isn’t very good yet – some of the balls just aren’t round, and take funny bounces. It’s a mess at training centers, where some players are using celluloid, and others poly balls – but since the different types of poly balls play differently, we sometimes have three or four different types of balls being used at the same time (depending on the ball to be used at their next tournament), and players can only train with those using the same type. Did I mention it’s a mess? Also, some of the new poly balls break if you breathe at them or give them a funny look.

6)      Toughest Loss?  

At the Teams one year my team played a team that had three 2350 players and an old guy rated 1950 who wasn’t supposed to play. If we beat them, we’d move up a division. This was back in the days when nearly all top players glued. One of their 2350 players didn’t show, and so they had to play the 1950 player. (You already know where this is going.) I beat both 2350 players, but they went 4-0 against my teammates, who both easily beat the 1950 player. I played so well against the 2350 players that I didn’t bother regluing before playing the ninth match against the old 1950 player, and my sponge went dead. You know what happened, and let us never speak of this again.

7)      Greatest Win?  

My best wins would probably be over members of national teams: Kazeem Badru, a member of the Nigerian National Team rated 2539, plus two Canadian Team Members (Alain Bourbonnais and David Mahabir), a former Israeli team member (Zvi Rathaus), and at least five members of the US Women’s Team while they were team members (Insook Bhushan, Lisa Gee, Carol Davidson, Faan Yeen Liu, and Virginia Sung three times). And yet, they won’t let me play for the US Women’s Team! Also, there’s an entirely separate world out there, the world of hardbat table tennis, and perhaps my best wins have been there, even though I normally use sponge – I’ve won Hardbat Singles twice, Over 40 Hardbat Singles four times, and Hardbat Doubles 13 times – nine times with Ty Hoff, four times with Steve Berger.

8)      How do you prepare for a tournament?  

Back when I played tournaments, I had specific ways to prepare. The last week before the tournament I played lots of matches; did lots of game-like drills; shorter but more strenuous footwork drills; and lots and lots of serve and receive practice. I also made sure to get lots of sleep and eat well – those are actually more important the week before the tournament than at the tournament itself, though it’s important there as well. The day before the tournament and the day of the tournament I would focus on practicing my serves, especially the long, fast ones – even though they made up a minority of my serves, those are the ones that will let you down under pressure if you don’t have them finely tuned so you can snap them out at full speed. It was also important to me to arrange a good practice partner at the tournament, so I’d usually arrange that the day before. I’ve had way too many bad experiences where I got stuck with someone who wasn’t a good practice partner. Finally, I always wanted to be physically and mentally prepared, and I always thought they went together – so the morning of the tournament I’d go jogging both to loosen up and to clear the mind.

9)      When you see a new player at the club, what do you do?  

“Hi, are you new here? Let me know if you have any questions. Are you looking for coaching or just want to play?” And go from there. It’s important that a club have programs for all types of players – leagues and coaching for all ages and levels, and junior programs.

10)   Player you would most like to play in a tournament? 

When I was an active player, I loved playing the top juniors, since I knew how to play them. Tactically, it’s a very different thing than playing an older player, who’d quickly pick up on my weaknesses. But now that I’m retired, give me Waldner or Persson, and we’d play an exhibition. Or anyone else who wants to put on a show. But even now, sometimes, when I watch or coach the top juniors at my club play, there’s this gleam in my eye that tells me I can still beat them even though my peak was about 30 years ago. It’s still okay to dream, right?

11)   If you had to face Jimmy Butler/Lily Zhang/Crystal Wang/Kanak Jha (or your choice) what would your game plan be?  

I know how to play these players – especially Crystal, Jimmy, and Kanak. I’ve played and trained with Crystal at my club about a thousand times, and coached her numerous times in tournaments, so I know everything about her game. And for just $1000, I’ll tell all her secrets!!! I’ve also studied videos and coached against Jimmy and Kanak, and have game plans against each, both for myself and for players I may coach against them. But Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui – the Chinese Men’s and Women’s National Coaches – likely read every word I write in hopes of picking up info on how to play their American rivals, and so I probably shouldn’t tell them how to play US.