I was live interviewed by Eric Anderson, director of the documentary Way of the Puck. On his blog we discuss training, discipline and touch on marketing. If you’d like to read a transcript of our chat, check it out here:
I was live interviewed by Eric Anderson, director of the documentary Way of the Puck. On his blog we discuss training, discipline and touch on marketing. If you’d like to read a transcript of our chat, check it out here:
When playing someone unknown, you should quickly gather information about his defense to build an offensive strategy. In this post, I cover how to do this through off-goals, offensive progression, and in-game experimentation.
First, get a feel for your opponent’s defense by making generalizations based on appearance, such as:
How does he deal with off-goals?
If you are unsure of your opponent, start with an off-goal(s). This allows you to see how your opponent reacts without wasting an on-goal shot. If the defense retreats, follow it up with a straight shot. Why? Because straights destroy back-rail defenses!
Establish under-banks, early and often
Regardless of who you are playing, unknown or known, generally begin by shooting unders. This doesn’t mean that your first shot, or second shot is an under; it means that you will start the match by shooting a higher percentages of unders overall because you want to establish unders to make sure that your complimentary straights are open later.
Offensive progression, have a plan
Once you have have sized up the opponent, with a few off-goals and unders, see what shots are open. Ideally you want to score with your easiest shots, again and again. For instance, you would rather score with medium-speed cuts than full-speed left-wall-over pot shots.
Next, go through a rote series of shots to see if any “gimmes” are there for the taking. You should usually progress through your offense something like this:
1) Cut shot from left-of-center (LoC)
2) Cross from right-of-center (RoC)
3) Right-wall-under from RoC
4) Left-wall-under from LoC
These are by far the easiest shots for most players (and me) to execute. If the defense isn’t capable of blocking these shots, you are going to score easily. And unless your opponent has an equal or better offense, you should win.
All air hockey is an experiment
However, if these shots are not scoring, you can experiment to find out what works. You can’t try everything in a match, but again, you should continue a pattern of trying different things that is something like:
5) Cuts from RoC
6) Crosses from LoC
7) Over-the-mallet banks
8) Time delays
9) Pot shots
10) Pump fakes
11) Alternate tempos
12) Different drifts
13) Right-wall-unders from LoC
14) Left-wall-unders from RoC
16) Off-speeds, etc.
This progression is fluid because along the way you should be looking for different combinations of what works and basing your next play off of that. For instance, if you try an exaggerated time-delayed right-wall-under from RoC and the defense freezes, but the angle needs to be more acute to score, next try it from LoC for the better angle. Or if you discover that the defense is disciplined, you might skip to more advanced shots. As you continue to experiment, look for a minimum of 2-3 complimentary shots to score with.
Below are diagrams of complimentary shots; there are many more complimentary groupings, but these are some of the most common and useful:
Since matches are relatively short, you have to quickly figure out what is working, or use in-game situations that are not as meaningful to experiment. For example, if I am winning the first game 6-2, but still do not understand the defense, I will spend a couple points breaking the code. Likewise, if I lost the first game 7-2 and am having a difficult time scoring, I might devote/sacrifice the second game to discovering what works. If you’re able to find a couple of effective shots, it could be enough to win the match, even if down 2-0.
Against skilled defenses, you will routinely adjust to score by going through a series of offensive progressions and experiments. This is one of the things that I love most about air hockey: There is always room to improve your strategy, and when both players are doing this, it becomes a battle of wits!
USAA rules allow one 10-second timeout, by each player, per game. With a little planning, a 10-second timeout can be stretched to 30 seconds or more.
First, what are the main reasons to call a timeout?
Normally timeouts are called because a player wants extra time to rethink strategies and tactics, and/or the player is tired. In these scenarios, the longer the timeout, the better. To increase the length of a timeout, take advantage of all of air hockey’s clocks.
Here’s an example of how to turn a 10-second timeout into 30-plus seconds:
All in all, this equals to about 30 seconds of no play. The key to extending timeouts is to not rush and stay composed prior to saying the word, “timeout.”
I’m finally getting around to posting my instructional video from the Worlds held in Chicago, Oct. 2013. Unfortunately the audio quality is low, and some of my demonstrations are off camera. We’ll re-record it soon. At the end of the video (29:16) Ehab Shoukry discusses defense:
Below are my unedited personal notes from the presentation:
Today I’m going to talk about releases. I will cover the following 3 topics:
But first, what is a release? A release is how you strike the puck with the mallet. It’s not a pump fake, drift, or time-delay. It’s the motion of mallet to puck. It’s your delivery. Releases make or break offenses.
Attributes of effective releases
Deception, accuracy, and speed:
These 3 attributes have an inverse relation: As 2 attributes go up, 1 attribute goes down. For example, if you want to have releases that result in both accurate and deceptive shots, your speed will suffer.
Release mechanics for cuts/right-walls and crosses/left-walls
My approach to air hockey offense is to base all releases off of under banks. With under banks I am primarily concerned with speed and accuracy. I’m not as concerned with deception. Why be concerned with only the speed and accuracy of unders?
A triangle defense must always be kept in check with under-banks. If you have a fast and accurate under, the defense cannot wander; in other words it makes it very risky for the defense to attempt to snag pucks. A fast under commands respect and opens up straights, overs, and it also keeps the defense on its heels. Without an under there is nothing that can score; all straights and both over-the-mallets can be blocked by a single out position on defense.
First let’s look at the cut, right-wall-under/over combination. Then I’ll discuss the cross, left-wall-under/over. I think of these shot groupings as two different combinations defined by release motion.
Cut, right-wall-under/over combination is based on the release of the right-wall-under
Right-wall-under (Table Demo)
Cut (Table Demo)
Right-wall-over (Table Demo)
Cross, left-wall-under/over combination is based on the release of the left-wall-under
Left-wall-under (Table Demo)
Cross (Table Demo)
left-wall-over (Table Demo)
Will repositioning your body give away whether a cut/right-wall v cross/left-wall is coming? Yes…maybe, but so what. By and large defenses won’t notice, and if they do, they can only narrow it down to three complimentary shots. And that’s totally fine. Your offense will still work. But, if you want to keep the defense completely at bay, occasionally you can use cut/right-wall releases out of a cross/left-wall stance or cross/left-wall releases out of a cut/right-wall stance. 1 out of 5 or so will keep the defense confused. It depends on my opponent, but these are plays that I normally do not use unless it is particularly effective because using cuts/right-wall releases out of a cross/left-wall stance and vice versa is complex and difficult because the body weight is running counter to the banks.
To develop combinations you should have a logical framework of how releases work together to construct offensive attacks.
As we have discussed:
Right-wall-under/cut/right-wall-over use one release (Table Demo) and the left-wall-under/cross/left-wall-over use one release (Table Demo)
Thinking of how to attack based on these combinations should be the first way to organize attacks in your mind. However, there are other effective and useful ways to think about combining shots. Such as drifts, mallet contact point, complimentary straights etc.), but these should not be the primary ways to organize shots. For the best attacks think of combinations in terms of cut/right-walls and crosses/left-walls because of 2 reasons 1) releases are the most deceptive weapon in your arsenal and 2) these combinations are simple to think about (and a simplicity is good – I could give an entire clinic on why simplicity applied to offense is the best approach), but within these shot combinations there are an infinite amount of ways to construct an attack. For example a right-wall-under with time delay out of a diagonal drift, followed by a right-wall-over with no time delay out of vertical drift and on and on.
Cross v cut (Table Demo)
Key differences: Mallet contact location and release motion (Table Demo)
Versus a good out defense we are not trying to fool a defense between cut and cross, but between straight and bank. This is an important distinction and I think that most players overlook this. Against a back rail defense, the approach that I am advocating for straights does not necessarily work, but I am most concerned with developing an attack that scores on good defenses, and good defenses play out from the goal and do not move when they think a straight is coming. Constructing releases and attacks to beat defenses that are against the goal or false rail defenses is an easy assignment.
Bizarro cuts and wolf slayers (Table Demo)
Definition – a Bizarro cut is a term that I use to define a straight shot to the right side of the goal that uses a right-wall-under release. A Wolf Slayer is a shot to the left side of the goal that uses a left-wall-under release. Cuts release is like X, Cross release like X. (Table Demo) Bizarro cut goes right. Wolf Slayer goes left.
Why these shots should not be used. For a Bizarro cut we’re using a right-wall-under release, so the defense pulls to here, or stays here if it thinks a straight is coming. In none of these scenarios is a Bizarro cut open. This will only score if the defense correctly reads the release as a Cut release and moves to the cut side. If you think about offense the way that I do, this means that ultimately your attack has failed (unless you are specifically trying to take advantage of a defense not recenetering correctly) because the defense should have been fooled into thinking that the release indicated a right-wall-under or possible cut.
Why these shots can be good in small doses and if done correctly (Table Demo). Double flinch. Wolf should be off-speed. And shots should not typically follow this approach.
Wolf is more effective v right-handed defense because it attacks the opponent’s weak side.
Recap and questions
Effective releases result in deception, accuracy and speed. Base all your releases off of unders. Think of your attacks as combinations based on releases: one release for cuts/right-walls and on release for crosses/left-walls.
Before 2012, I thought that most shots should be struck from center-table so that unders have acute angles. There is merit to this approach, but my view has changed. In this article I discuss the pros and cons of attacking from each side of the table with video examples of top players. First a definition of left-of-center (LOC) and right-of-center (ROC), then a look at the offensive strike zone.
Definition of LOC and ROC
LOC refers to the table’s left side and ROC refers to the opposite. More specifically, LOC ranges from five inches outside the goal’s left edge to one inch inside, while ROC ranges from five inches outside the goal’s right edge to one inch inside.
Shots should generally not be struck outside of the above zone (highlighted in blue) because the difference in straights and banks off the near-rail is negligible; banks off the far-rail are overly difficult and travel too far.
Pros and cons
Below are four short videos of top players who are experts at groups of shots from LOC and ROC. Beneath each video are pros and cons for that particular strike point/group of shots.
ROC: Cut, right-wall-under/over
Pedro Otero (left side) executes a grouping of cuts and right-walls from ROC: Cut, right-wall-over, cut, right-wall-under, and then right-wall-over.
LOC: Cut, right-wall-under/over
Danny Hynes (right side) executes a grouping of cuts and right-walls from LOC: Right-wall-under, right-wall-over, cut, and then another cut.
LOC: Cross, left-wall-under/over
Billy Stubbs (yours truly on the left side) executes a grouping of crosses and left-walls from LOC: Left-wall-over, cross, and then left-wall-under.
ROC: Cross, left-wall-under/over
Jose Mora (left side) executes a grouping of crosses and left-walls from ROC: Left-wall-over, cross, cross, and then left-wall-under.
A shot location/grouping with more pros than cons does not mean that it is better. For example, deceptive banks might be the most important consideration for offenses that lack power.
The best attack is the right attack
In my opinion cuts and right-walls from ROC, and crosses and left-walls from LOC are more effective in general because of the deception gained on straights and the additional velocity that banks can hold. However against a defense that does not recenter properly I am more likely to use cuts and right-walls from LOC and/or crosses and left-walls from ROC. Your opponent’s defense and your strengths will dictate which approach is best.
*This article is written from a right-hander’s perspective, mirror the information if you are left-handed.
The basis of Triangle Defense is that there are three mallet positions to block all straights and single banks. However, the positions shift based on where the puck is located – I refer to this as the “floating triangle”. In this article I discuss how the concept of re-centering to defend straights should also be applied to banks.
Let’s start by looking at two illustrations. The first shows three different puck locations. Each puck location has three unique mallet positions to defend straights and banks:
The second illustration shows the same as above, but uses lines to visualize the movement of the Triangle Defense:
A game of inches
The adjustments required to play a solid floating triangle defense are small but important. Think of it like this: An air hockey table’s goal is 15 inches across, pucks are three inches in diameter, and mallets are four inches. A shift of the mallet by just a few inches makes a huge impact.
Make it intuitive
Figuring out where to move your mallet to, depending on where the puck is located, is not the type of thought process you want to have in a close match. To make the defensive locations intuitive practice defending banks which are hit from everywhere. Once you are aware of the concept of the floating triangle, pulling to the correct spots becomes second nature with enough repetitions.
Owen Giraldo and Ehab Shoukry have the best defenses against straights. What do they do differently to block cuts, crosses, power straights, and off-speeds? The answer is right in front of you (and them). They hold steady.
Once their defenses are set, they simply do not move their mallets after a straight shot is executed. This is one of the basic ideas behind the Triangle Defense – movement is reserved for blocking banks. When the puck is struck your mallet should already be in the correct position to block ALL straights: About 14″ out from the goal, directly on the path between the center of your goal to the center of the puck. Once the mallet is in this position, there is only one type of straight that will score: A perfect one. And unless you are playing Jesse Douty or a small handful of others, you will not have to worry about too many dead-on shots. When a straight is hit against you, do not move the mallet to the left, right, back or to the centerline. The mallet is already in the path of virtually all of the straights. Just make sure that your mallet is centered correctly in relation to the puck and goal.
A few more pointers to block straights
Keep your wrist limp so that when the puck strikes the mallet it will be deadened. Once the puck makes initial contact with the mallet in its out position, then move the mallet so that the puck is not redirected off the bank back into the mallet and into your goal.
Easy enough, right? Now all you have to do is the hard part…figure out when the straights are coming!
*Originally published April 30, 1999
Charges are a risky proposition, but if successful they are gratifying, especially when stuffed back into your opponent’s goal. In this article I go over the pros and cons of charging, when and how to charge, and discuss a short video. Let’s start with a definition:
A charge is a defensive movement away from the goal toward the centerline or rail that is used to block a shot.
The pros and cons of charging
Use sparingly, it is a dangerous weapon
The prevailing wisdom, which I think is correct, is that one charge per two games is usually appropriate. When you are learning to play, and even if you are a top-tier player, you should condition yourself to simply not charge the vast majority of the time. One charge per two games means that you are going to charge about one out of 65 shots. That is fewer than 2% of the time!
When is charging the right play?
A sprinkling of charges is appropriate when you: 1) wish to deter your opponent from a specific shot, 2) are able to clearly read your opponent, 3) would like to “advertise” a charge in a less-meaningful situation, such as being down 5-1 or ahead 3-0. This is intended to cause doubt in your opponent’s shot selection later on when the situation might be more important.
There is a time when you should charge often: when you are being absolutely destroyed on defense and your blocks do not result in turnovers. Even more so if you are being scored on with shots that follow a similar path, such as Left-wall-unders and overs – a charge can block both with equal effectiveness. When you are blocking under 25-50% of shots on goal and getting few turnovers, go ahead and charge. Charging every time in this circumstance is OK. Davis Lee, 2-time world champion, sums it up like this:
… if you are playing against a superior opponent, the correct strategy is to gamble against him. When you are playing a better player, it is correct to take more chances on defense to try to get the puck back.
I agree wholeheartedly, but remember this should not be your typical approach. I have only needed to use this charge-each-shot tactic a handful of times in 20 years. However, I think that as offenses improve, charging will and should happen more often.
How to charge
A charge is an all or nothing tactic that requires total commitment. When you charge, move your mallet in a straight line and push the mallet forward. You should not swing your mallet like on offense; instead shove the mallet from behind. As you do this, lunge toward the centerline as quickly as possible while remaining controlled. This lunge is best accomplished when your full body is used. Lean out over the table by bending at the waist, and as I have talked about before, you should be on the balls of your feet while on defense. This defensive stance is particularly important when charging because you need to rapidly transition from a defensive stance to an offensive stance. The use of your legs will help create additional speed and power. Also remain in constant motion while on the balls of your feet to make quicker movements – similar to the way tennis players bounce prior to returning serve.
When charging straights, meet the puck at the centerline – this will cut off the most angle. When charging banks, meet the puck two to three inches from where the puck will impact the rail – this allows for the largest room of error. If the opponent is hitting obtuse banks that contact the rail on their side of the table, meet the puck at the centerline.
Charges should happen at the last possible moment so that you do not tip your hand, unless you are faking a charge to bait the offense into attempting an early bank. This fake should be a rare occurrence and happen even less than an actual charge. As always it depends on my opponent’s reactions, but I would normally use this play once, possibly twice, over the course of a set unless it is exceptionally effective.
Examining The Doctor
Jesse Douty, a.k.a. “The Doctor”, was one the best chargers of all time. Below is 18-second clip of him making a flurry of text-book charges vs. Bob Dubuisson way back in 1983. Notice that Jesse uses his full body to extend to the centerline as he aggressively pushes the mallet in a direct path to the puck:
These charges were in the finals of the World Championships with the score tied at 6-6 and Jesse was down 3 games to 2. Charging in that type of high-pressure situation takes commitment, and cojones!
Practice controlled aggressiveness
Charging is a skill that you should have, but it needs to be used sparingly in specific circumstances. Polish up your charges by calling practice games in which you must charge all shots, or if you charge successfully three times in a row you are awarded a point. You can even practice the charge motion without a partner; I do this as part of my warm-up routine. Just make sure that charging is practiced in a controlled setting so that it does not slip into your typical game as a bad habit. If you notice that you are charging too often, have a sidebar with yourself and get back to playing solid non-charging defense.
Here is an article that I wrote before starting Say AH. It appeared in Goal Grinder Magazine.
Flashy offense impresses; basic offense wins. To hone a winning air hockey offense, master the basics.
Defense fights an uphill battle
The reaction time on defense is very small – impossibly small. Pucks move up to 45 mph. This might not seem that fast until you consider that a table is only eight feet long and when a shot is executed from the centerline, travelling at 45 mph over four feet, the defense has just under .07 seconds to respond. The upper limit of reaction time for athletes in all sports is .12 seconds. Simply responding to the puck’s movement to block it is not feasible because the window of reaction time is so small that it exceeds human limits.
A top-tier defense does not primarily respond to the movement of the puck after it is struck. It responds to everything that precedes the shot: the relation of the mallet to puck, tendencies, shot location, arm movement, and body language. When the offense disguises its shots perfectly and strikes the puck from the centerline at 45 mph the defense cannot react in time and is forced into to a guessing game. If you are on offense you want the defense to be in this quandary!
Just say no to chases and volleys
Since offense holds a distinct advantage over defense, the way to approach offense is to stick to the basics. Execute most of your offense at the centerline with full velocity while using a controlled attack. If you take your shots two feet back from the centerline, and do not use full velocity, you allow the defense time to react. Chases, volleys, hand serves, double banks, and blade shots, etc. are not needed to score effectively – this level of complexity will result in too many unforced turnovers and is difficult to execute.
For a world-class attack only three well refined shots are needed: Both straights and either one of the under banks, everything else is gravy. With just a Cut, Cross, and Right-wall-under (or Left-wall-under) a full offensive arsenal is possible. Add to each of these three shots various drifts, several shot locations (all near the centerline and middle), multiple releases with time delays, and you have more than enough to score on a defense that only has four feet to react.
Three shots, thousands of combinations
Let’s take a look at how a hypothetical player who only uses a Cut, Cross and Right-wall-under can score effectively by applying subtle variations to each shot. He has three drifts, two vertical locations, three horizontal locations, two release motions, and three variations of timings and drift speeds:
|Vertical Locations (VL)
|Horizontal Locations (HL)
|Release Motions (RM)
Large delay/pump fakes
|Drift Speeds (SP)
Within the matrix above there are almost 1000 possible combinations of shots and an infinite number of sequences. Below is an example of a shot sequence that our hypothetical player will find useful against most defenses:
VL: At line
HL: 6″ left-of-middle
RM: Towards right-wall
T: Small delay
VL: At line
HL: 6″ left-of-middle
RM: Towards goal
T: Small delay
VL: 6″ back
RM: Towards goal
T: No delay
Why end with a Cross? It works because it breaks the patterns established in the two previous shots. Straights executed six inches back have a better angle (sometimes). The defense may be out of position after defending shots from left-of-center. No delay reduces the time the defense has to adjust. And the fast right-to-left drift, after two medium-speed-drifts, should help yank the defense out of the way.
What this basically means
Since it is relatively easy to score you should capitalize on this advantage by perfecting a handful of basic complimentary shots, be able to make your releases look identical, and use a controlled attack from the centerline. If you master this and can identify which shots are most effective, you will render the defense helpless without doing anything that will impress onlookers, except win.
*Originally published July 26, 2012
I will blog a few more of my articles that were initially posted, before starting Say AH, on airhockeyworld.com‘s forums. This is one of my favorites:
The Pyramid Defense is the most widely used defense and the most successful. Every top-25 player, save Jose Mora and Mark Nizzi, uses this defense. It is successful because the Pyramid Defense operates on the premise of defending all straight shots with one outward position of the mallet. The defensive focus of stopping straights is effective because it is more difficult for offenses to execute banks. Or simply put, it takes away your opponent’s natural strengths.
The Pyramid Defense, at its basic level, is easy to understand, but there are fundamental cracks in the defense that you should be aware of. The Pyramid Defense should not charge straights or pull back when straights are executed against it. However, the Pyramid Defense’s worst error is not being positioned directly between the puck and center of the player’s own goal. This concept is known as “recentering”. When the defense does not recenter correctly, this is when the greatest amount of goal is left unprotected. Case in point: Pulling your mallet back to the goal when a straight shot is hit against you is a lesser mistake than using a Pyramid Defense that is not recentered.
In the middle example above, 75% of the goal is unprotected. If the puck is further off-center, 100% of the goal may be open.
As a defensive player, you should always be recentering based on where your opponent has drifted the puck, while at the same time not overcompensating based on the puck’s movement. The recentering should should be constant and occur prior to the opponent striking the puck. The recentering range is only about 2-3 inches to the right or left depending on where the puck is located – this recentering movement is to ensure that the defense’s mallet is directly on the path between the center of the their goal to the center of the puck. The recentering adjustments are minor, but vital. If the defense does not make these nuanced movements, a large opening (as you see above) is left for an easy score.
As an offensive player, you should consistently use tactics that cause the defense not to recenter. An example is to drift the puck from right to left-of-center. As the puck drifts across the center of the table, the offensive player pump fakes a cut shot, thereby freezing the defense, then the player continues to drift the puck further to the left and executes a cut shot from the left-of-center while the defense remains frozen at the center of the table.
Patch the cracks
What can you do to improve defensively on this weakness of the Pyramid Defense? And conversely, what on offense can you do to take advantage of this weakness? One of my favorite drills is to play a set in which both players use only straight shots: Backhands and forehands, cuts and crosses. The defense may not charge or play out past its normal distance – usually about 14-16 inches from the goal. This drill forces the offense to become very creative in using tactics that cause the defense to off-center. From the defensive player’s point of view, it builds discipline and constant focus on recentering based on the location of the puck.
So, the next time you are playing, always be recentering on defense. And when on offense, drift to the left and right of the table, looking for those easy goals.
*Originally published January 5, 2012