Interview with Larry Hodges
(By Ayan Bagchi)
1) What Butterfly equipment do you use and why?
I use a Timo Boll ALC (flared) with Tenergy 05 2.1 (black) on forehand, Tenergy 25 2.1 (red) on backhand. Regarding the blade, I used to coach Tong Tong Gong, who made the USA National Cadet team two years in a row by upset – pulling off nine upsets in two years without losing to anyone below him. One day, before the first Trials, I tried out his blade – a Timo Boll ALC with Tenergy on both sides – and my eyes went wide. It was perfect!!! After Tong Tong made the team the first time, he gave me his racket as a reward. It still has his name on it – I’ve been using it since! (Ask me at a tournament and I’ll show you.) I’m sponsored by Butterfly and have two backups, but I still prefer to use the original, though it’s now older than some of my students.
I use Tenergy 05 2.1 on the forehand to maximize my looping. I both loop and hit on the forehand side, but while I can hit with anything, Tenergy 05 makes looping really easy, and so it basically props my loop up, even when I’m feeling off. (And when I’m on, it’s deadly!) I used the Tenergy 05 FX version for a few years, which is slower but even easier to loop with, but then went to the regular. The FX version is perfect for older players, for steady counterlooping, and for learning to loop. I’m looking forward to trying out the new Tenergy 05 Hard!
I use Tenergy 25 2.1 on the backhand because it not only is great for looping, it’s great for all-around play – blocking, countering, and so on. It’s not designed for big swings, and so few world-class players use 25, but in my opinion, it’s the best backhand rubber for most players up to 2000 and probably somewhat beyond that.
2) What is your best win?
This is a very tough call, so I’m going to cheat and name a bunch. Sorry!
- Best played tournament match of my life – a win over 2500+ Rey Domingo, former Philippines champion and U.S. team member. It was uncanny – his best shots seemed to move in slow motion, so I could react to anything he did, and my forehand looping and smashing just wouldn’t miss, especially on third-ball attacks. I was like a spectator watching that match. I’ve had nine tournament wins against players over 2450, the highest against Nigerian team member Kazeem Badru, rated 2538.
- Coming from down 13-17 in the fifth to win the 1980 North Carolina Open against Fred King, my first big title. (Games were to 21 back then. I’d go on to win Open Singles at 15 USATT tournaments.)
- Winning the 1990 National Collegiate Men’s Doubles Championships with Christian Lillieroos, and quarterfinals of singles where I ran up against Khoa Nguyen. (Also two National Collegiate Team Championships with University of Maryland.)
- Winning Hardbat Singles at the 1991 U.S. Nationals over Lim Ming Chui. (I’d later win another at the Open.)
- Winning the 1998 U.S. National Hardbat Doubles titles with Ty Hoff, the first of nine we’d win (plus five others, four with Steve Berger, one with A.J. Carney). Ty and I would also make the quarterfinals of Men’s Doubles at the 1989 Nationals (with sponge).
- Going 52-0 at the U.S. Open Team Championships in 1995 and 1996 (31-0 and 21-0 respectively.) I was a player/coach, playing with lower-rated players, but they were still 2000 players and I was playing lots of 2100 players and a number of 2200 players.
3) What did it mean to you to make the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame?
It was surreal. I could write paragraph after paragraph about it, but surreal pretty much describes it. I also was this year’s USATT Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and again, surreal best describes it. While I was a pretty good player – #18 in the country at my best, and in hardbat, #1 for several years – I was inducted primarily as a coach and writer.
4) How does MDTTC compare to other clubs across the country?
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the club dominated the country in almost every way. Our players consistently dominated the U.S. Nationals and Junior Nationals/Junior Olympics, year after year. Our monthly tournaments were often stronger from the quarterfinals on than the U.S. Nationals. For about twelve years, we won more gold medals and more total medals than the rest of the country combined. I had co-founded the club (along with Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang), but I was also editor of USATT Magazine, and it reached the point where I had so much conflict of interest – the magazine constantly covered the players from my club – that I sold my shares as a club owner. (So I became just a coach, promoter, and tournament director.)
How did we do this? We were the first successful full-time training center in the country. MDTTC is both a full-time training center and club. Others had tried to do this, but it hadn’t worked out. I started it with the idea that if you let the full-time coaches keep most of their money, they’d have incentive to build up their coaching practice, and their students would fill the club – and pay memberships, tournament fees, league fees, group sessions, and buy equipment and refreshments. I was assured by many that there simply weren’t enough players in the U.S. for this to work, but of course they were thinking of current players, when the whole point of a full-time center is to recruit and develop new players. (I almost want to say “duh” here.) Even after we were a success, many said it was a fluke, that it would only work in a few areas, that there would never be more than a few of them, and so on.
Over the last ten years the rest of the country came to their senses and copied what we’d done, and now we are one of a number of “elite” clubs. We have our strengths – at the recent U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas, our players placed first, third, and fourth in Under 10 Boys. We have some great kids, both these three and many more!
The most amazing thing is just how many great table tennis centers and coaches we now have in the U.S. – they each have their own story, and are each are heroes in those stories. We also have a full-time USATT High Performance Director, Jörg Bitzigeio, whose job it is to integrate the work of all these coaches and centers so that we can someday challenge the best countries in the world. Hopefully he, working with the USATT CEO (Gordon Kaye, who’ll hopefully stay with us forever) will bring us to a new level.
5) How has the influx of Chinese born coaches impacted MDTTC and the quality of play/coaching across the country?
It’s been huge. People often forget that when we opened MDTTC in 1992, there were at most five professional coaches in the country, and they all essentially coached in basements, often driving house to house. There were no full-time training centers back then. Now there are 93 in 24 states plus DC. The has led to a huge influx of Chinese coaches, many of whom start their own training centers. Between the rise of full-time training centers and all these Chinese coaches, the level and depth of play in the U.S. has gone up dramatically. There was a time when it seemed almost pointless to send our best juniors overseas – they’d rarely get out of the preliminaries of big tournaments. Now they’re medaling, and the ones medaling are being pushed by many other USA juniors breathing down their necks, which pushes them all to even higher levels.
The part that I can’t figure out is why so many don’t yet see the connection between the rise of full-time training centers and the rise of the level and depth of play in the U.S., even though all these top players are coming from full-time centers, opportunities which didn’t exist before. If we want the level of play in the U.S. to continue to increase, the first priority has to be to develop more and better full-time training centers – and by “better,” that mostly means better coaches, including all of these Chinese coaches.
6) If you could, what would you change, what would you change about the US juniors’ style of play compared to the rest of the world?
I wish there were a way of taking some of our most talented juniors and have them add more experimental aspects to their games – such as more change-of-pace play, or perhaps on the women’s side where power isn’t a premium, the Seemiller grip or short pips on backhand. The problem is that you are taking a big risk with the player when you do this.
Some scoff at the idea of doing anything other than what is currently successful at the highest levels, forgetting that coaches around the world are all pretty much copying what’s currently successful, and so we don’t really know what would happen if a player were trained differently. When it’s tried, it’s rarely with our most talented players, so we don’t really know. I’ve watched Eric Boggan at his peak (#17 in the world), and think that style would work well on the women’s side. I think some of the change-of-pace and misdirection tactics done by Waldner would work against anyone – but you can’t just do these things, you have to spend many years training at it. There doesn’t seem to be an answer to this – how do you pick which talented players to try these things on, without risking their future playing careers?
7) What do you enjoy about coaching at MDTTC?
It’s great fun working with the players, both adults who are willing to work at it, and the up-and-coming juniors. I often can’t wait to coach some of them at the big tournaments. The kids are great!
Here’s a funny story regarding the kids at MDTTC. My first big title was the 1980 North Carolina Open when I was twenty. I went in unseeded in the Open, with a rating about 1850, but I was obviously better than that. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night, and then I was sick on Friday, and couldn’t sleep that night. So when Saturday morning came about, I hadn’t slept in two days, not since getting up Thursday morning. I also had a fever of 102. But I had to play. I had a big win early on, and “celebrated” by eating a quarter pounder with cheese from a McDonalds nearby. I had another nice win, another quarter pounder. This went on and on, so I’ll skip ahead.
By early that night, I’d won Under 22, Under 2000, and Open Doubles, and incredibly, was in the final of Open Singles. But I’d eaten nine quarter pounders with cheese, and had the stomachache to end all stomachaches! In the final against Fred King, I was clutching my stomach between points, and during rallies I was ending the points with my forehand as quickly as I could because of the pain. I was down 13-17 in the fifth, and won all five points on his serve to go up 18-17, and won 21-19 in the fifth.
Afterwards the very idea of eating a hamburger made me sick to my stomach. So I didn’t have another hamburger for 20 years. (I’d have meatballs in Spaghetti and things like that, but a hamburger? It made me nauseous.) At the 2000 Junior Nationals/Junior Olympics, I told the story to some of the kids, and they made a bet: If they won over half the gold medals at the tournament, I had to eat a hamburger. I agreed, clarifying it would be a cheeseburger, since the cheese made it slightly more palatable. They had won over half the year before, and they did so again. And so, that night, as all 30+ of them watched and cheered, I ate a cheeseburger! That was 18 years ago, and I haven’t had another since.
8) Who is your most successful/prized student/pupil?
That’s a tough call, since most of my students have also worked with other coaches at MDTTC, in particular high-level Chinese coaches/practice partners, such as Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang. For many I was the tactical coach, coaching many of our best players in the big tournaments, such as Han Xiao, Peter Li, Crystal Wang, Tong Tong Gong, Derek Nie, Todd Sweeris (including at the U.S. Olympic Trials one year when he made the Olympic Team), and many, many more. Often before big tournaments I’m the one who sits down and watches extensive videos of likely opponents, and comes up with game plans against each, and what our players need to make the team.
For example, it was no fluke that Tong Tong upset so many players to make the National Cadet Team twice – he was trained specifically for the shots and tactics he’d need in that tournament. For example, videos showed that the #1 seed in the event his first year had trouble when players counter-attacked down the line, and who looped his half-long serves. So Tong Tong spent many months practicing these, and won the match because of it. The same was true of most of his rivals – I’m almost embarrassed how much time I spent watching those videotapes and creating tactics and training plans to prepare for each, but it led to many great wins. I do this with nearly all tournament coaching assignments – when I see who my player is playing, I find videos of that player to study.
Most of our current and past MDTTC juniors started out in my beginning junior class, including the current U.S. 10 and Under Boys’ Singles Champion, Stanley Hsu, and Semifinalist Mu Du. They are great fun to work with! (Just don’t tell them about the hamburger thing.)
9) What are your major achievements and positions in table tennis, outside playing?
Here’s a quick rundown!
- Co-founder of the first successful full-time table tennis center in the U.S., the Maryland Table Tennis Center in 1992. The model was copied successfully all over the country, and there are now over 90 of them. This may be my biggest contribution to the sport.
- Instigator and co-founder (with Robert Mayor) of the USATT League and rating system. The system processes far more matches than the USATT tournament system. I also created a prototype for a Regional Team League System, using the Capital Area League (which I instigated and co-founded) and others as models.
- Eight books and over 1600 published articles on table tennis. I’m still overwhelmed by the huge sales and popularity of Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!!!
- Over 1800 blogs and 350 tips of the week at com.
- Editor of USATT Magazine for 71 issues, 1991-95, 1999-2007.
- USATT Certified National Coach and ITTF Certified Level 2 Coach.
- 2003 Member of USATT Hall of Fame and 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Two USATT Coach of the Year awards – 2002 Developmental Coach of the Year, and 2013 Doc Counsilman Coach of the Year. (I was also runner-up twice for Coach of the Year.)
- Current member of USATT Board of Directors.
- Current (and for five years in the 1990s) chair of the USATT Coaching Committee, and past chair of the Clubs Committee, League Committee, Resident Training Program Committee, and a member of numerous other committees.
- Manager/Director/Coach of the USATT Resident Training Program, 1985-1990.
- Director of over 200 USATT sanctioned tournaments.
- Created the State Associations Program in the early 1990s, with 47 state club directors and 43 state coaching directors, and state league and tournament directors planned, and eventually state directors and state associations. In about 2.5 years the program increased USATT clubs from 223 to 301, and USATT membership from about 5200 to about 7500. Then a new USATT president was elected in 1995, and he cancelled the program.
- Professional coach at Maryland Table Tennis Center, 1992 to present.
10) Tell us about your writing.
I have 13 books (8 on table tennis), over 1800 published articles (over 1600 of them on table tennis), and over 1800 table tennis blog postings at TableTennisCoaching.com. (Here’s my complete bibliography.) Some of my books are on sale at Butterflyonline.com. Many of my articles were in USA Table Tennis Magazine, which I edited for 12 years/71 issues. (Here’s my Amazon page.)
For 7.5 years, ending earlier this year, I did a daily blog, Mon-Fri, plus a Tip of the Week, at TableTennisCoaching.com. Now it’s a weekly, with the blog and tip both going up every Monday. (Butterfly also posts these tips.)
One of my novels is The Spirit of Pong, a relatively short one (100 pages), which is about an American who goes to China to learn the secrets of table tennis, and trains with the past spirits (i.e. ghosts) of past champions. He meets up with betrayal, and incredible (and often crazy!) coaches, and you’ll meet many of our past and current champions as he works to develop the Body of Pong, the Mind of Pong, and then win the Paddle of Pong against the great Dragon.
Another of my novels, Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions, has a lot of table tennis in it – Here’s my blog, Table Tennis in Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions. The novel got the best reviews of my novels.
11) What is your favorite pro event that you’ve attended?
I’ve been to the Worlds in Japan and China, and the recent World Veterans Championships in Las Vegas, and all were, to use that word again, surreal. But by far my favorite was as the head coach at the 1994 World Cup Youth Championships in Taipei. I coached the USA boys’ team of Barney J. Reed, David Fernandez, and Richard Lee, and they kept pulling off upset after upset. Unseeded, we made it to the semifinals. (Once we realized most of the players weren’t so used to backhand loops, most of the tactics for Barney and David centered around getting their backhand loops into play, and it paid off.) I’d was out there coaching them between games with over 15,000 fans screaming every point!!! That was, well, double-surreal. (I sort of miss the old days, when I coached USA junior teams in tournaments around the country and the world, but I no longer can make the time commitment to that – but we have a great group of USA National Team Coaches to carry the torch.)
12) What is your day job?
For many years, table tennis was my day job. Most of my coaching was at night at weekends, but during the day I was writing articles and books on table tennis, and organizing TT activities. I am also very busy as a member of the USATT Board of Directors and chair of the Coaching Committee. Plus I have my table tennis blog and tip of the week. I’m also pretty busy helping others with their table tennis books – Tim Boggan on his now 22 volumes of History of U.S. Table Tennis (vol. 22 will be up in a few weeks), Samson Dubina’s 100 Days of Table Tennis, and Dan Seemiller’s Revelations of a Ping-Pong Champion.
This year, due to shoulder problems (a frayed rotator cuff, plus I’m not getting any younger at age 58), I’ve dramatically cut my coaching hours, and so mostly coach on weekends. (I stopped private coaching earlier this year, only do group sessions.) Now I spend my days focusing on my favorite outside activity – writing science fiction. I’ve had four novels published, and have sold 97 short stories. (Here’s my science fiction page, which includes a bibliography of all my published work, as well as a sporadic blog.) I have a short story in the current (Sept/Oct) issue of Analog (“The Plaything on the Tesseract Wall”), the biggest science fiction magazine in the English language! These days I can basically live off the income from my writing alone – but I’ll never stop coaching!