Exhibition Tricks

By Larry Hodges

You don’t have to be a 2600 player to put on a good exhibition, although it helps.  If you have the ability to keep the ball in play, have time to practice routines, and have a sense of fun, you’ve got all you need.

There are three types of exhibitions: demonstrations, skills exhibitions, and trick exhibitions.  You can also combine types.

A demonstration can be put on by anyone who has the basic strokes down.  Here you are showing an audience the sport and how it is played.  This can be used when teaching a class or as part of a general exhibition.

A skills exhibition is more difficult.  Here, playing ability is most important.  Top players have a great advantage over the competition since they can do things that often seem incredible--fast counterlooping, countersmashing, etc.  Also, they can attract a bigger crowd since they can advertise their titles.  (“Today National Champion Larry Looper will take on State Champion Charlie Chopper.”)

The third type of exhibition, trick exhibitions, can be done by anyone with a decent playing level.  (How decent?  If you are confident you can put one on, you are good enough.) Obviously, a higher level player has an advantage in that he can probably do more tricks, but not always. 

Trick exhibitions center on trick shots and clowning around. They are meant to be fun both for the players and the audience. Often a good combination is a relatively top player as “straight man,” and a partner who is weaker but funnier.  The better player does more tricks (which often keeps the score close), while the weaker partner clowns around, entertaining the audience.  Even when doing a trick exhibition, try to throw in as many “spectacular” shots as possible.  Show off whatever skill you’ve got.  It’s undoubtedly greater than those in the audience, so don’t be shy.

I’ve done many exhibitions, mostly as the “straight man,” where I’ve perfected a large variety of trick shots.  I’ve lost some with age (at age 30 I’m already too stiff to do the behind-the-back return) but most tricks improve with experience. Following is a discussion of tricks you can use in exhibitions. With a little thought, you can add your own tricks to them.  The one thing they all have in common is that you have to practice them.  Forget the forehand to forehand practice--spend a night at the club working on your over-the-shoulder lobbing!

Exhibitions can be done with only two players, but ideally you should have a third person as announcer, with a loudspeaker if possible.  The announcer should be part of the exhibition, playing along with every gag.  The three of you need to practice the routine for best results, and perhaps even plan out on paper the tricks you are planning.

For an example of a great exhibition, try to see the Frenchmen Secretin and Puckart.  They undoubtedly do the best exhibitions in the world, and they have been performing together for over fifteen years.  They performed at the last U.S. Open, and hopefully will be at future ones.

Nothing is more spectacular in table tennis than lobbing. But you can make it even more spectacular.  First, you and your partner must cooperate.  If the lobber is stronger lobbing on the backhand, the smasher should smash to that side.  The lobber, on the other hand, shouldn’t try to spin the lob.

When lobbing, don’t just lob.  Be theatrical!  As you are about to contact the ball, turn your back on the table.  At this point it won’t affect your shot but it will make it look like you’re lobbing over your shoulder.  Or eat a sandwich or candy bar while lobbing, toss wrapper over shoulder, and counter-kill! Use sound effects as well.  Both smasher and lobber should make loud, athletic-sounding “grunts” as they go after each shot.

Wait until the last second before running down a lob.  Make it look like you just barely got there!  Even better, dive! (Only those with strong hearts.)

A good trick that is far easier than it looks is lobbing while sitting or lying on the ground.  Just get the ball back, and as long as the hitter hits the ball toward you, it isn’t difficult.  So what if you get a little dirty!

Another fun trick is to change sides in the middle of a rally and smash your own lob.  Signal your partner so he knows what’s coming, then throw your lob up extra high. Run like crazy, and smash your own lob.  Your partner then lobs, and rally continues as if nothing unusual happened.

When smashing the lob, remember that the exhibition is no good if your partner can’t get the ball back.  Work out what the best speed and spot to smash at.  Never smother kill.

A good trick is to jump in the air when smashing.  Back up five or ten feet as the lob approaches, run and then jump in the air, smashing the ball at your highest point. 

One last rule of lobbing: the lobber usually loses the point eventually, so whoever is leading in an exhibition game should lob.  An exhibition game should always go to deuce!

Most exhibitions start out with players warming up forehand to forehand.  After a minute of this, sort of lean against table, as if bored, still hitting forehands.  Your body language should be saying “This is too easy.”  Now sit on the table, still hitting forehands.  (Slow down if you need to, but don’t stop.) Finally, get up on the table and either lie down or stand on it, still hitting the ball back and forth.  With a little practice, you will find all of this easy but great fun.

A great trick is playing alone.  Stand to the side of the table by the net with a racket in each hand, and hit “forehands.” Hit the ball lightly with a light topspin for best effect, keeping the ball close to your side of the table so you can reach it.  With a little practice you’ll be able to do this rather easily at a nice steady pace.  You might work this into an exhibition by suddenly hitting the ball up into the air near the side where a spare racket is conveniently leaning against the table, grab the spare and start playing alone.  Partner puts hands on hips, looks irritated as audience laughs.  Finally, pop one up with your non-playing racket, and smash the ball.  Award the point to yourself as your partner screams “Unfair!”

A few simple tricks that anyone can learn are hitting under the legs, behind the back or kicking the ball back with the foot. You can also serve behind the back or under the legs, or even both.  You can also “head” the ball--return it with your forehead.

 Blowing the ball back is my favorite trick, and (cat’s out of the bag!) is actually very easy to do.  Have your partner feed you a high, spinless ball to your deep backhand.  When blowing it back, get slightly under the ball and give it a strong, steady stream of air.  The real danger is in blowing the ball too hard, off the end.  When you do that, say very loudly “Oops!  I blew that one!”

You can also blow the ball in the air and balance it over your head.  This takes a lot of practice.  Make sure to blow steadily, not in jerks.  My single favorite exhibition trick (never to be repeated!) was when I lay down on the floor at a basketball game halftime, blew a ball in the air, and had a local golf pro smash the ball out of the air with his driver.  Do not try this if you have buck teeth!

At some point in an exhibition game, try serving from about fifty feet or so away, from way off to the side.  It’s a tricky shot, but with practice you can make it fifty percent or more of the time.  Use a forehand sidespin serve, racket tip up, and stand well back and to the side of the table.  The key is to find the right place to stand and the right amount of sidespin so that all you have to do is get the ball to hit the right side of the table and the ball will do the rest.  A good way to follow this up is to charge the table, and jump on the table while smashing the (conveniently) popped up return.  Obviously, make sure you have a sturdy table first!

Another trick is to have your partner hit the ball side to side while you do crazy theatrics in getting to each ball.  Run side to side, just getting to each ball, and overrunning it off to the side.  Then run back, again just getting to the next wide angled return.  Wave your arms about, and you might even try to make a diving return.

Props are great for exhibitions.  One of the best is for one player to use a mini racket, the other an oversized one.  You may have to make the oversized one, but you can get the mini ones at any major tournament from the equipment booths.  You might also have both players use the mini racket.

When your partner makes a smash to your middle, gasp, grab your stomach, and hold up a conveniently stashed away racket with a hole in the middle.

You can make a racket out of anything in an exhibition. I’ve used shoes, books, I.D. cards, ice cubes, ash trays, shovels, tennis rackets, 30-pound pots, trash cans, suitcases, my forehead, and a fifty-pound second grader with plywood tied to his back.  I’ve seen others use golf clubs, combs, mirrors and telescoping rackets.

One neat trick, difficult to do in a noisy gymnasium, is to play a melody with pots and pans.  With three pans of different size, you can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

It’s always good to get the audience involved in exhibitions.  Talk to them, make fun of your opponent with them, and generally make them a part of the exhibition.  At the end of most exhibitions, you should take challenges from the audience, spotting points and doing tricks whenever possible.  Organize games they can join in, such as winner-stay-on, one point per game contest.  (You can play, but use a shoe as a racket.) 

For a really exciting (and sometimes expensive) exhibition, place a twenty dollar bill by the net.  Tell the audience the first one to return your serve gets the twenty.  They will line up, and each gets one try.  If you have spinny serves, and give them a sticky racket, most likely none will get the first one back.  But be ready to be out twenty bucks.

Bring a catcher’s mitt if you have spinny serves.  Ask for two volunteers from the audience, and give one of them the stickiest racket you can find.  Give the other the catcher’s mitt, and place him/her to the side.  Serve the ball with sidespin so the volunteer with the catcher’s mitt catches the serve return.  Then show the volunteers how to return the serve.

Lastly, make sure that your exhibition has a purpose.  Have literature available about the USTTA, local clubs, tournaments, coaching, etc.  You’ve had your fun.  Now let the people in your audience join in the fun of table tennis!