By Larry Hodges
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 Nothing could be more outdated.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 Against topspin, however, the backhand loop is normally learned later on — although some may consider that to be outdated!)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.
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.
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.)
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.