Approach

Winning

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

The big difference between the winner and the loser is in the attitude towards defeat and indeed not only defeat but towards problems, setbacks and handicaps. The winner does not wallow in self pity nor give way to depression, rather he or she regards losses in a constructive manner as part of the developmental process. If you look into the lives of many prominent people and world leaders in many cases you find a battle against adversity, they often faced misfortunes but didn’t give up, rather they learned from their experiences and moved forward.

It is only by admitting you have faults that you can hope to change and progress — the secret of winning and continued development is to always look for the lessons to be learned from losing. If you succumb to the very human tendency of making excuses and manufacturing external reasons for your failure, then you throw away the opportunity to profit from the experience and to learn something. To progress you must face reality.

In this we must be searching and ruthless. Too many coaches, trainers and parents are too easy going and protective of their charges and not always ready to face the ordeal of discussing and evaluating performance with their player. However upset a player may be after a bad loss he or she should appreciate the value of talking it over with the trainer as soon as possible, while details are still fresh in the mind. It does not have the same impact two or three hours or even days later. There is certainly no value in brooding over the loss, this only reinforces the negative aspects.

Look at things objectively, find out what went wrong, decide what to do next time under similar circumstances and then forget the matter. If there are lessons to be learned, changes or improvements to be made in your game, then these aspects should be looked at in the training hall and corrected. If the other player was better trained or indeed just better on the day that is also something you should be prepared to admit.

Another tendency in defeat is often to be totally negative about ourselves and our performance in many cases without justifiable reason. We say such things as — ‘I can’t play today’, ‘I can’t get my forehand on,’ ‘My serve won’t work.’ In other words we set about destroying our own confidence and from there our performance, often while we are still playing. All this does is to reinforce our opponent’s confidence — (our total body language says we are going to give the match away) — and kill off whatever chance we had of winning.

Your mind is like any computer, it responds to the data which is fed in. If you keep telling it that you have no chance and you’re going to lose, it will indeed help you to do just that. Equally if you emphasize that anything is possible, there is a way and you are going to find it, then the mind starts working to support you. Sooner or later positive thinking will attract solutions.

Recent studies into the motivation of top players in Sweden have thrown out the fact that the younger age group (up to twenty years of age) differs markedly from other groups, in that the players focus predominantly on results. It is more important to them to win tournaments and to beat certain opponents. Often however their overall level of preparation and their knowledge of how to reach their destination are basically very limited. No one can win all the time and over-concentration on results means self-confidence and motivation diminish in direct proportion to the number of losses.

In contrast the older age group of top players (especially those 25 years and over) has the deepest understanding of our sport, how to plan and prepare for the season and carry through their programme. Also they are most aware of the extent of their own capabilities. They are much more focused on their continuing development and less on results — individual upsets are taken in their stride and confidence does not suffer because losses too are part of the learning and development cycle. These older players have fewer worries about the future, indeed many are glad that they are still competing at a high level and accept each year as another bonus.

This emphasizes that although the winner is the sort of person who sets goals and works towards them, what goals you set are also of vital importance. Make sure your goals are not self-limiting in terms of confidence and motivation. Table tennis is one of the most difficult and complicated sports to master and to reach the top level takes a long time. It requires enormous patience and motivation — rather the aims and goals you work towards should be longer term.

But to succeed at any long term project you must really look at development in stages. You don’t become a top player overnight, progress is made one small step at a time and this is how you must view it. You should be continually monitoring your attitudes — if you maintain a good attitude throughout training and matches, you will steadily progress and continue to move forward.

High motivation comes from inner satisfaction, from the appreciation that the activity is of value to the individual and forms part of the whole person’s development. It is when outside influences or needs strengthen over a period of time that motivation diminishes — it can be for example when it becomes more important to earn money, win trophies, break into the National team, rather than to develop as a sports person. This is when one starts to weigh the advantages against the costs and even to consider the value of continuing.

Of course what makes our sport enjoyable differs from individual to individual. Some players love the competition and the pressure of contest, enjoy being taken to their limits, some the satisfaction and challenge of mastering new techniques and of seeing progress in their game. However one thing that many top players do agree on is that the prime sources of success are the areas they have control over and the capability of influencing — the internal factors.

What we are talking about here is basically attitude — the qualities and the approach you bring to training and competition. The desire and willingness to train and to train in the right way, to prepare for the big events, to fight and indeed fight hard under pressure and above all never to give in. This spirit of extreme stubbornness is a quality often found in the winner and one often emphasized by many top players when they talk about what it takes to be a champion.

Above all however these are the areas where you the player can take charge and steer your own course. If you focus completely on working and fighting for every point, then you have very little time and energy for doubt and worry and being negative. If you remain calm and in control and do not allow the emotions, irritation, anger and fear to creep in, then you have the time to think how you should play, to consider different tactics.

As we said at the beginning of this article the big difference between the winner and the loser is in attitude. If you too will be a winner learn to control the negative habits which threaten your concentration, become a fighter who never gives up and above all only feed positive thoughts into your mental computer.

In-Depth Mental Training

rowden Fullen (2003)

There seem to be quite many myths concerning mental training — that it is only for the weak and the unstable for example, only for elite athletes, that it’s just lying on your back and listening to a tape, that it’s something magical and mystical!

METHOD

Mental training must be just as systematic as physical training to have any effect. It’s no good starting the week before a major event and expecting miraculous results. A mental programme is concerned with a number of aspects — direction (goals, where you are going and how to get there), confidence (in yourself and your training), concentration levels, visualization, imagination, relaxation levels and control of these, ability to handle stress and the unexpected, well-developed training plans and tournament routines, determination, ability to refocus when faced with problems or disturbances, mental toughness (many have similar physical and mental attributes and talents but toughness and fighting spirit will win out in the end), positive attitudes, will and the desire to be a winner.

You must also approach mental training with the attitude that this is part of a total package and not an outside thing on its own. It should be an everyday part of your training and integrated with the rest of your programme and development.

THE START-UP

It is important that you start to analyse your performance and what is happening when you compete and train. This should become a regular part of your development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme must be systematic and goal-oriented and it should indeed be on-going and continuous and progressive. This doesn’t mean that you need extra time to train, the mental side should indeed be integrated into and become an integral part of your everyday normal training.

Think of the ‘peak performance’ triangle.

  • The player’s own personality or psychological base.
  • The ability to handle stress and distractions and get the best out of one’s own game.
  • The strategy behind performance development and which aspects are significant in achieving good results (concentrating and focusing etc.)

Any programme must of course be tailored to the individual player and the individual must have the right level of consciousness or arousal for him or her, in order to achieve good results. Arousal, stress, tension and anxiety are all slightly different. When the body is ready for action you must find the level of tension and arousal that suits you best, handle the extra pressures that threaten to disrupt your performance and never let anxiety become fear. These are the negative feelings where you are afraid of the consequences of failure. They can have physical effects, butterflies in the stomach, a racing pulse, difficulty in breathing — and mental effects, doubting your own ability, having negative thoughts etc. We must bear in mind that although we know that the level of performance is affected by tension, we know very little of exactly how. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures.

Outside factors can affect performance too, aspects such as support, the atmosphere and the attitude of the crowd. Every athlete is affected differently by tension and must find his or her own way to cope. However you cannot control tension until you can identify the source. Write down and isolate what exactly stresses you in competition. Look at what you can influence and accept what you cannot! Where you can’t change things change your attitude towards these things. Ask yourself how you can cope with the things you can’t change, find the solutions within yourself.

Treat the physical reactions to stress as a signal that your body is ready to compete. Look at it from a positive point of view. Never let doubt start to creep in too long before the actual competition — control this — don’t waste valuable energy and brood over something which may never happen. Handle the doubts and distractions. Focus on giving your best, maintaining your level of self-confidence and trust in your training and in your ability to play in competition.

Relaxation plays a big part in achieving better performance, when the body works on autopilot results are usually much improved. Work at progressive relaxation exercises and establish ‘triggers’ (reminder words) so you bring about a more instant reaction as and when you need it. One method can be to tense and relax different areas of the body in turn — another to relax progressively from the head downwards — a third technique to use deep breathing to a pre-arranged rhythm. Whichever system you prefer to use close your eyes and sit quietly for a while before getting up and renewing training of any kind.

Negative thinking can obviously have bad effects, keep monitoring your inner dialogue and steer your thoughts into positive channels. Don’t stress yourself either by thinking of too high goals and thinking you must win — break down the competition into many small parts, the warm-up, the knock-up, the start of the game, the middle game, the end game. Visualize a good performance and trust your training, control the inner video. Remember always that you should be positive in the right way and in a realistic way. Don’t always be ultra-positive, think also how you would cope with a losing situation (this can happen too) and be mentally prepared to face and handle it. Be aware what you say to yourself in critical situations, a conscious dialogue, together with visualization are very effective in influencing negative thinking.

Affirmations (positive phrases) can help in changing negative thought patterns. Don’t fool yourself with impossible phrases, be realistic and work one small step at a time. At tournaments don’t let too many thoughts get in your way, have a regular preparation sequence to take your mind off things. When negative thoughts creep in use simple ‘trigger’ words such as ‘stop’. Bear in mind too to change from negative to positive you must believe in what you say. If you believe that you can’t do something then quite simply you won’t be able to do it. If you have a problem talk with yourself — ‘Why do I think I can’t? If I’m bad at this particular aspect, how can I change? Is this going to help me to do better?’ GIVE YOUR BEST AND DON’T BE STRESSED! Your friends will still be there for you and the sun will still shine tomorrow even if you lose. Put things into perspective.

Before the tournament write down all that can go wrong and work out a strategy for handling this. This is not being negative, it’s being prepared, well prepared. You have less time to be afraid when you are ready to face the worse that may happen. During competition keep the body active, ‘on its toes’ — jogging on the spot or hopping from one foot to another gets the body and mind going. Increase the breathing frequency when you need more energy or new ideas, think your way out of tiredness. To help you assess your performance at tournaments, listen to coaches, watch videos, it often takes some time before you refine your own techniques and understand exactly what is happening with your game.

Try to be aware of too high tension building or even too low (when you are not psyched up enough). Bear in mind the training time you have put in to get where you are, how good a level you are at and how well prepared. See yourself achieving your goals, see yourself like a machine, strong, powerful and tireless. See yourself playing at your absolute best. Keep the inner dialogue going. If you feel tired dwell on how hard you have trained, let your thoughts drift away from tiredness to balance, harmony, rhythm and movement. Use fast music to increase arousal level or a faster breathing rate. Remember too that you will require different levels of arousal at different stages in the competition and need to be able to raise or lower the levels accordingly.

Try to automate these routines in training till you don’t need to think too much about them. It is in your training that you can test what works best for you and here that you can adapt varying techniques to your game and needs. Work to control the range of tension in training till you find and understand the optimal levels for you as an individual. Remember always that the level of arousal has a direct affect on your performance.

Stress can be positive or negative, depending on how we look at it and how we handle it. Also stress is subjective, all people react differently and have differing stress ranges. How we react to stress depends very much on experience and how often we are in a tense situation — therefore it is particularly important to introduce stressful situations into the training programme. Anxiety can have mental or physical manifestations — mental (lack of concentration, doubts concerning own ability, the desire to give up and let go) or physical (butterflies in the stomach, heart racing, excessive sweating). Mental anxiety (often more of a problem with women players, especially before a big event) affects performance more than physical anxiety. When you have a good performance try to look back on this and examine how much stress and anxiety were present and how you dealt with the situation. It is important that you can find the balance between arousal (comfortable) and anxiety (uncomfortable). This can also depend on whether you are serious and goal-oriented or a little more play and socially-directed.

Stress affects performance because too much tension in the body affects the muscles and the body finds it difficult to carry out even simple everyday commands. Also there is an increased energy consumption which is largely wasted. Too much stress means that concentration levels narrow and it’s harder to think calmly of tactics or of solutions to problems.

CONCENTRATION

This is more than attention, it is focus on a particular object for a period of time. It can also be inwardly or outwardly directed and intensity differs depending on what is happening around you and in the match. It is important that you develop the ability to alter levels of concentration and focus on what is required and that you don’t allow yourself to be disturbed by any irrelevant factors, either from inside (doubts) or from outside. Bear in mind that each sport has its specific concentration types and levels that the player must recognize and meet.

Consider the point too that to have good concentration demands that you master other techniques (visualization, stress control, anxiety). The ability to maintain concentration for a long time is the basis of the control of concentration. You should also differentiate between active and passive concentration, actively deciding what you will focus on or allowing it to flow from inside you, passively following an automatic pattern. Often when you have an intense level of concentration you don’t remember much about what you do and how you play. The right concentration is characterized by mental calmness, not tense and not influenced by irrelevant events. Relaxed and focused is the key, full concentration on the task at hand means that you are much less likely to be influenced by negative thoughts or anxiety. Visualize what you are going to do and how you are going to play, first achieve performance in the mind.

Develop concentration in a methodical manner. For example listen to the sounds around you and isolate them one at a time concentrating on one at a time, even when you are doing something else, such as jogging. Look at a candle burning in a quiet room, focus on the flame and nothing else, then close your eyes and see it in the mind. Examine in detail something you use often such as your racket, focus on every little aspect, the marks and tears on the rubber, the curve of the wood, damage to the blade edge etc. Work with concentration when in the training hall with other players. At the signal stop playing the exercise and look around, let your attention wander round the room, see how many different things you can see, then refocus again and return to the exercise. At the next break shift the focus and concentrate on your breathing or your inner self.

Try to feel more what is happening when you play, feel how you move, feel the ball when you play the stroke, feel perfection when you touch it. Train to play with relaxed concentration, to be calm and in harmony with yourself. Train to focus on one aspect at a time. Learn from your experiences, analyse situations — when things go well just what are you doing and what are you thinking of? Try to maintain the right attitude and the optimum conditions for yourself in training, so that you create and build the right environment for competition.

Concentration areas — There are four basic areas.

  • Narrow inward looking — self-analysis, visualizing, training tension levels, control and use of feelings, relaxation, use of ‘triggers’ (stay in), focus on individual details.
  • Broad inward looking — using previous experience, tactics, training to change tactics, working at ‘set’ pieces, planning, reacting to situations in the right way, assessing opponent.
  • Narrow outward looking — examining minute aspects of the opponent’s body language, focusing on the opponent’s contact point in the stroke play or on the in-coming ball just before the bounce and after, focusing on the opponent’s mental attitude.
  • Broad outward looking — the overview of the whole situation, taking in what is happening in the opposition’s doubles play, overall view of how the opponent is moving and his or her technique and tactics.

Most sports need regular training in changing from one area of concentration to another. It is important that the player is aware of which type is suitable to which situation and when it is best to change the concentration field. Mistakes often occur when the athlete changes too early or too late. The world’s best athletes are very good at not allowing anything to upset their concentration and if they are disturbed then they are able to refocus almost instantaneously. When you perform well in training or in a tournament and your concentration is particularly good, try to analyse which areas of concentration you used and in which time frame and to cope with which situation. When did you change from one area to another and why? What did you focus on within each individual style? Have you developed one style more than others? What causes you to lose concentration and is this with one type more than others? Have you ideas on how you can develop the various styles of concentration, either as individual units or as a complete entity?

In the practice hall you need to direct training so that it conforms to the concentration needs of your particular sport. In training try to split up the various areas of concentration and develop them individually even though in competition they will function as a whole. The goal is to automate the various groups in training so that they work as a whole in competition. Outwardly directed concentration is vital when external conditions all around you are changing all the time, inwardly directed when you need to plan and analyse. Inward concentration occupies a large amount of the brain’s capacity, but outward direction frees most of these resources. It is a waste of time and energy to use the brain to think how you will perform actions that are already automated. You shouldn’t need to think of such things. The aim of training is to teach the body so that it knows itself how to perform actions so that as with breathing you don’t need to interfere — indeed if you do it almost always makes performance worse. Athletes who are anxious about their performance before competition often have a tendency to focus on how they do automatic actions and this leads to a worse performance. Techniques, movement patterns, service actions and a considerable chunk of tactics should indeed be a well automated part of the player’s game.

In developing concentration in training look at the special needs of your sport and develop exercises that mirror as near as possible the pressures you face in competition. This doesn’t mean that 100% of the session should be at just as high intensity as in competition — this is a learning situation! The intensity of concentration needs to vary in respect of the content of training — some exercises will need much more focus than others do and at times you will be able to relax and switch off. Table tennis is above all a switch on, switch off type of sport and training should mirror this.

Refocusing — We all have an in-built mechanism, which controls our concentration. When something unusual occurs around us then this mechanism has the job of directing our attention to this new event. As we have already seen it doesn’t always take something unusual, the mind often has a tendency to concentrate on the irrelevant. Disturbances can even come from within. Many top players have found that it is often quite difficult to maintain focus especially during long matches. It becomes very difficult to win when you don’t only have to fight the opponent but yourself also!

It is quite important to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let yourself be side-tracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition. In your daily training regime introduce outside disturbances so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise. Also bear in mind that table tennis is a very much switch-on, switch-off sport — the natural pauses in the flow of play (picking up the ball between points) should be used to relax. It is a waste of energy to try to concentrate 100% all the time. It is much more important to train on switching off and refocusing again at very short intervals till this becomes automatic. If inner doubts or worries start to upset our concentration, it can be best to direct our thoughts outwards for a brief moment and to change the focus. Or redirect inwards but concentrate on slow breathing or calming thoughts. Many athletes start to think negatively when things are going wrong. You will see top players replay the shot when they miss so that they get the feel of the right action and get their mind back on the right track. Remember training aims to prepare us to compete and the goals of training should reflect this — handling distractions, controlling tension, thinking positively and extending our limits are all parts of training.

VISUALIZATION

Many people think of this as just sight, seeing something in the mind. But really to have maximum effect you should visualize three dimensionally. Not only should you see you should hear, taste, feel and smell in your mind, using all the senses. Visualization takes place without access to external stimulation and is often at its most effective when combined with physical training. Use it in your preparation period leading up to competition. It can also be a very useful tool in the recovery phase after injury — here you have often had a break in training and visualization helps you to keep the idea of good technique firmly fixed in your mind. Players who do this during injury almost always get back to their old level more quickly. In the beginning start with 5 – 10 minutes a day, it is much better to have good quality than a long period of time.

Try to visualize at normal speed, the only time it is sometimes better to operate in slow motion is when you are perhaps learning a new technique and want to fix every detail firmly in your mind. Try also to envisage yourself in places where you train or have played tournaments or matches, places that are familiar. Often places you like or where you feel comfortably relaxed and in harmony with yourself, make visualization easier and more effective. In cases where you are in the preparation stage for a big tournament try to visualize scenes and capture moments from past successes and triumphs.

Visualization with the help of video can help your understanding of technique. For new strokes or techniques try to set specific goals. In what situation are you going to utilize these, how are you moving, what and who are in the area? The more clearly and exactly you can see every detail the better the long-term effect. Listen to coaches whose job it is to direct you towards the areas where you need to work in future training sessions. Make sure also that your physical condition is such that you are capable of executing in reality, the actions you visualize in the mind. It is also a good idea to see yourself in stressful situations and explore differing strategies for dealing with these. This is one way you can test different methods of reducing stress without actually being in the real life situation. In this way you increase your consciousness of how to handle difficult situations and how to prepare for competition. It is always easier to deal with a situation you have thought about and pondered over before.

MOTIVATION AND GOAL SETTING

There are many factors which influence motivation but the setting of goals can be particularly important. Motivation is a dynamic process influenced by the personality, the situation and the task in hand. It is characterized by high achievement, stubbornness, commitment, will, belief and enthusiasm. But inspiration, positive thinking or even successes are not synonymous with motivation. Motivation can be increased by success and an athlete can have many expectations of success, but without belief it will be hard to reach the top. Not least of all is motivation kept alive if the athlete feels he or she is on the right road and going in the right direction. Motivation can also be strongly affected by the surroundings and the people around you.

Motivation is really the engine that drives all you do. But it’s important that you have a goal and that all this energy and power that is available is directed and not revving without purpose. Often the main goal may be long-term and may take years to achieve, so it is necessary that you do this in a number of smaller steps. Daily or weekly short-term goals, which are more easily reached, will keep you focused and stop you becoming disillusioned when the going gets tough. There have been a number of occasions where long-term goals have been counter-productive and have actually had a negative effect, because after some time the athlete has felt that he or she is achieving little progress.

It is therefore important that the athlete focuses on the circumstances that he or she has some control over. Instead of thinking of the end-result, concentrate on how you can use your training time to the optimum every day, on your own routines and your preparation for training or for competition. Avoid focusing on areas outside your control, whether you will be picked for this or that event or the national team etc. There will always be factors you can’t control, the opponent, umpires, conditions and these can influence results. However it is of no use to agitate and frustrate yourself over such aspects — only focus on the factors you have control over and this is particularly important in the case of short-term goals.

For many this may mean a new way of approaching their sport, so much nowadays is more and more goal-oriented. Perhaps it is necessary here to differentiate between different types of goal. Instead of concentrating on result-goals let us define another type, the process-goal, which is more how we are going to achieve success and the qualities we need to develop to get there. This means that we must analyse our physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction we are going to take. This is after all, the first step to being the self-sufficient athlete. First we should do this for ourselves and then with our trainer – often we have a certain self-picture of ourselves and of our own capabilities but others see us in fact in a completely different light. When we have completed our analysis and know where we are going, for all practical purposes forget the destination and only concentrate on how to get there. When an athlete has completed all the steps in the process-goal, it often follows as a natural consequence that he or she achieves the results too!

It is important too to have vision and imagination. Just what could you achieve if all your skills and abilities developed to the maximum and you had the right breaks and a little luck on the way? Most athletes have a long-term dream-goal and many have surprised themselves and all around them with just how quickly they have reached this, when everyone thought it was impossible. Yet others have experienced that the biggest stumbling block in their development has been the lack of vision and belief in their own potential. Dream-goals have in important function in that they help to break through the mental barriers of what the mind thinks is and is not possible.

Attitude in training is vital if athletes are to achieve success. Far too many come to a training session to be trained and not to train. Those who achieve most are usually quality conscious in everything they do. Set up a goal for every training session — at first it may seem like a great deal of work but soon it will become simple routine. Assess afterwards if you achieved what you set out to do. Soon you will be more focused on the task and less on the results — also you will be training much more systematically and with quality.

Bear in mind always that regardless of how many and how high goals you set up for the future, it’s what you are doing today which will determine just how far you will go in the future and what heights you will reach. Every elite sportsman has a strong desire to win and no one denies that it’s important. But an essential point also is that if your only criterion in terms of success is that you win, then you place yourself in a potentially very stressful situation. Few athletes can win all the time and there are always many factors that you can’t control. Also if you are thinking too much of the future and not giving your full concentration to the ‘now’, then this can lead to lack of success in competition.

Guidelines for goals –

  1. As exact and specific as possible.
  2. Challenging but realistic.
  3. Set up both short and long-term goals.
  4. Emphasize process rather than result-goals.
  5. Set up goals for both training and tournaments.
  6. Set up positive goals.
  7. Set a time or date, by which the goal should be reached.
  8. Set up a programme to achieve the goal.
  9. Keep a diary and note progress and when you reach your goals.
  10. To succeed it’s vital that you have feedback and that you constantly assess and evaluate progress.

It often helps also to have a safety-goal — a little lower than what you may consider to be realistic, but which is also acceptable. In this way you do not have too many negative feelings if circumstances prevent you reaching your first goal. Some athletes think it is a little like cheating to do this and it can lead instead to being satisfied with lesser ideals. Others however feel quite strongly that to define a safety-goal relieves stress and takes the pressure off, allowing them to function in a more relaxed manner.

One problem with goal-setting is that often athletes set too many and then use all their time evaluating and assessing, so that a disproportionate amount of time is spent on administering the system – eventually they lose interest. Prioritize 1 or 2 goals at the start and work with them. When you are more accustomed you can handle more. Bear in mind also that the process of keeping up with the system and monitoring progress tends to keep the player’s interest alive and growing.

Goals should not be too general (just to ‘play one’s best’ is not enough). Construct specific goals which stretch you, the player. And if circumstances change, injury for example, it may well be necessary to adjust goals to suit the new situation. Often too many athletes focus too much on the future and too little on the now. Focus more on process-goals – it is vital to develop these, as they are the goals over which you have control. Process-goals don’t only need to be about technique, they can be about attitude or other mental qualities or even tactics, use of placement etc.

Remember too the vital importance of following up and of evaluating progress with reference to your goals and of adjusting the training load to ensure you have the best possible chance of achieving them. You must be active in this in your daily training. In this way you will often find that your original goal will be altered or amended. Sometimes athletes can be so focused on themselves and their own sport that they tend to give up on life. Try to retain a balance. Life has many dimensions and it isn’t only about sport. As a rule motivation with most athletes tends to swing up and down. If it stays on the downward curve for too long a time this can result in the athlete losing interest and giving up. Also if you achieve almost all you want to achieve then too you can feel there is little point in continuing. It is important to have new goals as you achieve new levels. It is also then that goals which are concerned with the athlete’s own development can help to keep the top performers going. More varied training with the addition of new exercises can also increase motivation.

The athlete who is losing motivation because of continual bad results must sit down with his or her trainer and analyse exactly what is happening. Perhaps there is too big a gap between the goal and the actual training — the goal must be changed or training methods upgraded.

Visualization can help even with motivation and self-confidence training — see yourself as you want to be in the future. Such thoughts and pictures control the actions that can limit development. If you keep seeing yourself as you will be in the future, it keeps you focused. Use affirmations and keep the inner dialogue going — keep everything positive and constructive and leave no room for doubt. If you are also 110% prepared this helps much too — your mind knows you have done all that is required to achieve good results.

THE ART OF BEING POSITIVE

We talk much about the value and importance of being positive but often we have little concrete advice on how to create a positive attitude. Bear in mind first of all that it can take time to change an attitude that one has built up over many years. Certain athletes have a negative and disparaging attitude concerning themselves and their abilities. They are never satisfied and complain over every little thing. They in fact can bring down the level of positive thinking in the group or team. In extreme cases it may be necessary to forbid them to be openly negative for the sake of the others in the group.

Everyday try to pick out a high point (ask yourself and others in the group). After a while you will be aware that there are more high points than you think. There are always ups and downs in life but it’s always possible to see things from a different point of view. You can choose to look at the positive or the negative side. Motivation can be very much influenced by how you look at wins and losses. You can explain a good performance by ability or by luck. Many girls for example have great difficulty in attributing a good result to their own ability. It is in fact important to recognize one’s own ability, because by doing so you increase motivation and self-confidence.

To achieve real results it is also important that you are enthusiastic and happy with what you do – you should want to play table tennis. Humour is always a good method of relieving stress and variation often a way of making training more interesting. Training should for example sometimes be in areas where you are quite proficient and can achieve a good level of success, sometimes in areas where you meet new challenges and are like a beginner again — the learning curve climbs quite quickly when we learn new activities. Using others as an example can also help us. When we see others in our sport reach new limits, then we see that it is possible and can be done. This phenomenon is called the Bannister effect after the man who first broke the four minute mile barrier. The psychological barrier disappears. It is best of course if the examples we identify with are as near as possible to us in sex and age.

Tension also affects self-confidence — high tension levels usually mean that confidence diminishes. Often if your self-esteem is low you tend to avoid challenging situations because you are afraid to put yourself to the test. Many people too are good at pointing out weak areas and mistakes instead of focusing on the good things they have done. They know where they are bad but not always where they are good. When you constantly bring up your bad points then it’s not easy to maintain a high level of self-esteem and self-confidence. It is better to learn to focus on one’s strengths. (Practical exercise — write down three positive qualities you possess — can be physical, mental, tactical or technical, whatever. Print up a sign and leave it in a place where you will often be during the day and where you will see it.)

The performance-oriented player will often compare him or herself with other players. The player who is more concerned with skill and ability levels is not so interested in drawing comparisons with others, but more in his or her own development and progress. To win is not everything, one must also play to the best of one’s ability. Performance-oriented players think talent is important and you have it or you don’t. Ability-oriented players think that training and input is more important than talent and that one can learn most of what one needs to succeed. There is often a difference between the sexes. Women are more often more ability-oriented than men and think it is better to develop abilities and skills long-term than to focus on results short-term. One important area where there is no difference between the two types is in the will to win. The biggest difference is in the criteria which make up the basis for judging whether one thinks one is successful or not.

COMPETITION PLANNING

By planning beforehand you will often have a more stable performance. Use physical, technical, tactical and mental resources to best effect. Also have a reserve plan in case of unexpected problems.

Phase 1 — Preparation. Reserve plan for preparation.

Phase 2 — Warming up. Reserve plan for warming up.
A. Physically/focusing
B Mentally/focusing.

Phase 3 — Execution. Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4 — Evaluation.

  1. Preparation is based on routines used before which have proved to work well — use a checklist, have all equipment with you, sleep early the night before, get up in good time, eat well (what and when), take food and drink with you, know the programme, how you will travel etc. Relax and focus on the positive (but don’t focus too strongly on the tournament too early).
  2. Warm up in a positive manner and learn to banish negative thinking and mind pictures of the wrong kind. This will mean that you will have a bigger concentration capacity to direct towards more relevant factors and that the body is less stressed. Warm up in three stages, physical, mental and focusing (means that you are in a state where you feel sure in yourself and sure about what you have to do). Have your concentration directed towards the tournament so that you have the right arousal level and the right thoughts and feelings.

Physical — General and specific warm-ups — so that the body is ready for the demands of the tournament.

Mental — Positive self-suggestion and visualization — carry on the inner dialogue, how well you have trained, what good form you are in etc.

PHYSICAL Free and easy, relaxed, balanced, strong, energetic, light
and flexible.

MENTAL
Controlled, sure, calm, clear, concentrated and focused.

Adjustment of tension levels — To psyche yourself up use the inner dialogue – ‘I am ready, prepared to succeed, I shall give everything’. Even shout it aloud! To sink the tension levels, use slow, deep breathing, visualize your best performances, see yourself moving easily and playing in a relaxed fashion. Remind yourself that you have played well before and can again. Try to concentrate on the maximum release of ability — focus on this and believe that nothing can distract you.

3. Execution — To maintain concentration levels for a long time it pays to break up the tournament into small parts and also to be very much aware that the levels will be very different in differing phases of the competition. Concentration is particularly important when you start to tire. Often in fact you will have less anxiety (and tests have proved this) when you direct your concentration away from the problem at hand to something else. Strong focus on technique and how you will carry out different movements is usually counter-productive and negative in a competitive situation. Technique should be automated, conditioned, so you are ‘switched-off’. Endeavour to concentrate on this ‘passive’ mode and let the body take over, it knows best. Try to have the right ‘feeling’. When problems arise avoid wasting energy in being irritated. Don’t worry over factors that you can’t control. Control your own actions and thoughts. Too often we concern ourselves over much with what the opponent is doing and how good he or she appears to be!

Ability/skill during competition — Focus on skill-proficiency goals. Results are a product of how well you perform the different parts of the whole match. You also need of course the desire, the will to win. It’s often a good idea to have more than one reserve plan — you should for example know what you will do in differing situations and avoid having to make off-the-cuff decisions during competition, or last minute changes. Think of the various things that could come up to distract you and visualize how you would go about solving these. In this way you build up reserve plans to deal with the actual situation when it arises. The aim is to take control over your surroundings so that you are not caught in the situation of having to improvise at the last minute.

4. Evaluation — See bad results in a positive light; you have the opportunity to learn and progress — without adversity few get to the top, adversity tempers the mind and makes you stronger. Ask yourself — ‘What went well? What could go better?’ Often you may want to change your training plan after a big tournament. But always test new things for a reasonable time and give them a fair chance to work. Don’t follow plans slavishly, there must always be room for manoeuvre.

TIME SCALE.

  • The week before the tournament — How are you training and what are you thinking about during the last week before the competition? How long ago did you start to prepare and how are you doing this?
  • Tournament day — How do you feel? What are you saying to yourself when you begin with physical and mental warm-ups? How strong is your feeling of control? How sure are you of yourself, what are you concentrating on, are you happy and alive? What is your anxiety level? Are your feelings changing as the day moves on?
  • Performance phase — What are you concentrating on? Are you having inner dialogue — key words, reminders? What is the result? Are you controlling the tension level — does it need to be higher or lower? Can you relax without losing tension and arousal levels?
  • During breaks/pauses — What are you thinking of, what are you doing? Are you changing anything?
  • Afterwards — Understand which factors lead to weak or strong performance, it is important that you recognize them for the future. Every individual training session takes you nearer to your goal.

Experts say it takes between 1/3 years to develop a training plan which gives stable performance at a high level. As a goal have a competition plan to achieve automatic actions which relieve you of the need for conscious thought. The central theme of any mental programme is that it must be regular, systematic and goal-oriented. The best time to start a programme is just before a new season and let it grow with the season (the least suitable is mid-season or just before a big competition; if you must start mid-season, work at strengthening areas where you are already good). Just the same as in technical areas a mental programme should be automated before use in competition. It is also vital that you view the mental programme as being both on-going and an integral part of your whole training set-up.

The start-up — When you first start mental training you must usually set aside a little time to perfect individual techniques. Relaxation exercises for example can be best learned in the evening just before going to sleep. In the beginning you should work quite intensively to get good results, say 15 minutes, 3/4 times per week. As soon as possible however it is desirable to integrate the mental side into the actual physical and on-the-table training. Often after relaxation training you will be more aware of tensions in the body than ever before and at times in places where you wouldn’t have expected them to be. In some areas of the game, serve for example, it’s important to be relaxed. A gradual automation gives time for the athlete to learn mental abilities in an orderly fashion and to test them under varying conditions. Above all it is necessary to have patience — new skills are not learned overnight. Systematic training over a time period will give results. Nowadays many athletes are increasingly realizing the value of working in the mental areas. As we near the limits of physical effort, if we are to extend ourselves and reach new heights, the mental side assumes ever increasing importance.

It is vital that you have a plan for developing mental training.

  • Develop a plan for competition (to control feelings and focus).
  • Develop a plan for yourself when competing (to control the focus during competition).
  • Work on re-focusing (to handle distractions constructively and to avoid negative thinking).
  • Work at evaluating training and competition.

As far as mental training is concerned it is vital to identify weaker and stronger abilities. Don’t try to hide the weaknesses, bring them out into the open, so that you can do something about them. Many tend in fact to be too focused on what they aren’t good at and forget there are many positive things in their game. Bear in mind too that there are many sides to performance — beware of trying to explain everything only from a mental point of view.

To be conscious of your weaker and stronger mental sides it is necessary for you to continue to judge good and bad performances from a mental viewpoint. ‘What did you think about before, what did you focus on during? What did you say to yourself and what did you think about?’ This can be hard at first. Some find that if you think too much about things you can get worse performances. Try to focus on what you do in training and use training plans in tournaments to evaluate what you really are doing. With new techniques it is important to work at one or two strategies at a time. An evaluation scheme will give you pointers as to which mental areas you need to work on first. You can sometimes learn from other sports too: the mental side of fencing, concentration – boxing, aggression. You can learn about discipline and psyching your-self up. To be creative it is above all vital to develop the courage to try out new things and methods, while at the same time remaining organised and systematic.

Practical Mental Development

Rowden Fullen (2003)

SUMMARY

Analysis and evaluation.

Relaxation.

Positive thinking.

Visualization.

Concentration.

Motivation and goal setting.

Arousal levels and stress.

Competition planning.

ANALYSIS AND EVALUATION

It should be an everyday part of playing that you analyse and evaluate your performance in both training and in competition.

It is important that you start to analyse your performance and what is happening when you compete and train. This should become a regular part of your development and become a habit. What often distinguishes the elite from the ordinary athlete is the ability to make mental assessments more or less automatically. Any mental programme must be systematic and goal-oriented and it should indeed be on-going and continuous and progressive. This doesn’t mean that you need extra time to train, the mental side should indeed be integrated into and become an integral part of your everyday normal training.

Every time you train ask yourself what is happening, exactly what you are thinking and doing, how your body is working. Monitor yourself, the objectives being that you aim to become better aware of what is happening with yourself and around you and you come to know yourself and how you work rather better. In competition write down exactly what has happened, how you behaved, what you were thinking of, what went well, what went badly, what you need to do to get better — also what stressed you and what you can do about these things. In respect of the external factors you can’t change and which are not under your control, consider how best you can change your attitude towards these aspects. What you have no control over, you must live with.

It is vital that you identify your stronger and weaker abilities, physical, technical, tactical and mental characteristics and bring them out into the open, so that you can work on them. To do this it is necessary that you continue to ‘judge’ your good and bad performances all the time from a mental point of view. Consider not only the facts (what you did or did not do), but also the mental state (what you were thinking of and how you were feeling). When you perform exceptionally well it is important that you can recapture this ‘state’ in the future. If performance was bad it is equally important that you isolate the factors responsible for this. You must analyse your physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction you are going to take. This is after all, the first step to being the self-sufficient athlete. First we should do this for ourselves and then with our trainer – often we have a certain self-picture of ourselves and of our own capabilities but others see us in fact in a completely different light. To help you assess your performance at tournaments, listen to coaches, watch videos, it often takes some time before you refine your own techniques and understand exactly what is happening with your game.

Every so often but at least once a month assess your progress. Are you analysing and learning from your experiences, both good and bad? Are you still moving forward and proceeding in the right direction? Are you satisfied with how you are playing just now? If not what can you do about it? Bear in mind that if you are not advancing or not going in the right direction for you, then training must be adjusted so you end up where you want to be. In all things try not to be a slave to routines, there should be imagination and room for manoeuvre.

Think of the 'peak performance' triangle --
The ability to handle distractions and get the best out of own game.
The player's own personality or psychological base.
The strategy behind performance development (which aspects are significant in achieving good results, concentration and focusing etc.)

RELAXATION

You should have a method of relaxing so that you know how to do this, what it feels like and are able to make it happen quickly.

Relaxation methods and control of these play a big part in achieving better performance. When the body operates on autopilot results are usually much improved. Work at progressive relaxation exercises and establish ‘triggers’ (reminder words) such as ‘relaxation’, ‘peace’, ‘harmony’, so you bring about a more instant reaction as and when you need it. One method can be to tense and relax different areas of the body in turn working from the feet up or the head down — another to visualize the blood circulating round the body washing away all aches and pains and tiredness and bringing total relaxation — a third technique to use deep breathing to a pre-arranged rhythm – yet another to imagine the body filled with water or air which gradually drains out from the fingers and toes to leave you totally empty and at peace. Whichever system you prefer to use close your eyes and sit quietly for a while afterwards before doing anything energetic. In fact one of the best times to train relaxation is just before you are going to bed in the evening.

When you first start mental training you must usually set aside a little time to perfect individual techniques. In the beginning you should work quite intensively to get good results, say 15 minutes, 3/4 times per week. As soon as possible however it is desirable to integrate the mental side into the actual physical and on-the-table training. Often after relaxation training you will be more aware of tensions in the body than ever before and at times in places where you wouldn’t have expected them to be. In some areas of the game, serve for example, it’s important to be relaxed. A gradual automation gives time for the athlete to learn mental abilities in an orderly fashion and to test them under varying conditions. Above all it is necessary to have patience — new skills are not learned overnight.

Try to automate these techniques in training till you don’t need to think too much about them. It is in your training that you can test which work best for you and here that you can adapt them to your game and needs. Try to feel more what is happening when you play, feel how you move, feel the ball when you play the stroke, feel perfection when you touch it. Train to play with relaxed concentration, to be calm and in harmony with yourself. Train to focus on one aspect at a time. In your daily training regime introduce outside disturbances so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise. Also bear in mind that table tennis is a very much switch-on, switch-off sport — the natural pauses in the flow of play (picking up the ball between points) should be used to relax. It is a waste of energy to try to concentrate 100% all the time. It is much more important to train on switching off and refocusing again at very short intervals till this becomes automatic.

The beauty about learning to relax completely even if you do this off the table and away from table tennis is that soon you become aware of tensions in your body as you play, train or compete. You know yourself better and are therefore in a better position to control and to take action to change what is happening with your body.

POSITIVE THINKING

Positive thinking is largely a matter of monitoring your external and internal ‘dialogue’ and correcting it where necessary.

Negative thinking can obviously have bad effects, keep monitoring your inner (and outer) dialogue and steer your thoughts into positive channels. Don’t stress yourself either by thinking of too high goals and thinking you must win — break down competition into many small parts, the warm-up, the knock-up, the start of the game, the middle game, the end game. Visualize a good performance and trust in your training, control the inner video. Remember always that you should be positive in the right way and in a realistic way. Don’t always be ultra-positive, think also how you would cope with a losing situation (this can happen too) and be mentally prepared to face and handle it. Be aware what you say to yourself in critical situations, a conscious dialogue, together with visualization are very effective in influencing negative thinking.

Affirmations (positive phrases) can help in changing negative thought patterns. Don’t fool yourself with impossible phrases, be realistic and work one small step at a time. At tournaments don’t let too many thoughts get in your way, have a regular preparation sequence to take your mind off things. When negative thoughts creep in use simple ‘trigger’ words such as ‘stop’. Bear in mind too to change from negative to positive you must believe in what you say. If you believe that you can’t do something then quite simply you won’t be able to do it. If you have a problem talk with yourself — ‘Why do I think I can’t? If I’m bad at this particular aspect, how can I change? Is this going to help me to do better?’ GIVE YOUR BEST AND DON’T BE STRESSED! Your friends will still be there for you and the sun will still shine tomorrow even if you lose. Put things into perspective.

The art of being positive — We talk much about the value and importance of being positive but often we have little concrete advice on how to create a positive attitude. Bear in mind first of all that it can take time to change an attitude that one has built up over many years. Certain athletes have a negative and disparaging attitude towards themselves and their abilities. They are never satisfied and complain over every little thing. They in fact can bring down the level of positive thinking in the group or team. In extreme cases it may be necessary to forbid them to be openly negative for the sake of the others in the group.

Everyday try to pick out a high point (ask yourself and others in the group). After a while you will be aware that there are more high points than you think. There are always ups and downs in life but it’s always possible to see things from a different point of view. You can choose to look at the positive or the negative. Motivation can be very much influenced by how you look at wins and losses. You can explain a good performance by ability or by luck. Many girls for example have great difficulty in attributing a good result to their own ability. It is in fact important to recognize one’s own ability, because by doing so you increase motivation and self-confidence.

To achieve real results it is also important that you are enthusiastic and happy with what you do – you should want to play table tennis. Humour is always a good method of relieving stress and variation often a way of making training more interesting. Training should for example sometimes be in areas where you are quite proficient and can achieve a good level of success, sometimes in areas where you meet new challenges and are like a beginner again — the learning curve climbs quite quickly when we learn new activities. Using others as an example can also help us. When we see others in our sport reaching new limits, then we see what is possible and just what can be done. This phenomenon is called the Bannister effect after the man who first broke the four minute mile barrier. The psychological barrier disappears. It is best of course if the examples we identify with are as near as possible to us in sex and age.

Players who are too negative often have poor confidence. If your self-esteem is low you tend to avoid challenging situations because you are afraid to put yourself to the test. Many people too are good at pointing out weak areas and mistakes instead of focusing on the good things they have done. They know where they are bad but not always where they are good. When you constantly bring up your bad points then it’s not easy to maintain a high level of self-esteem and self-confidence. It is better to learn to focus on one’s strengths. (Practical exercise — write down three positive qualities you possess — can be physical, mental, tactical or technical, whatever. Print up a sign and leave it in a place where you will often be during the day and where you will see it.)

VISUALIZATON

Visualization should be five ‘dimensional’, use all the senses.

Visualization — Many people think of this as just sight, seeing something in the mind. But really to have maximum effect you should visualize three- dimensionally. Not only should you see you should hear, taste, feel and smell in your mind, using all the senses. Visualization takes place without access to external stimulation and is often at its most effective when combined with physical training. Use it in your preparation period leading up to competition. It can also be a very useful tool in the recovery phase after injury — here you have often had a break in training and visualization helps you to keep the idea of good technique firmly fixed in your mind. Players who do this during injury almost always get back to their old level more quickly. In the beginning start with 5 – 10 minutes a day, it is much better to have good quality than a long period of time.

Try to visualize at normal speed, the only time it is sometimes better to operate in slow motion is when you are perhaps learning a new technique and want to fix every detail firmly in your mind. Try to envisage yourself also in places where you train or have played tournaments or matches, places that are familiar. Often places you like or where you feel comfortably relaxed and in harmony with yourself, make visualization easier and more effective. In cases where you are in the preparation stage for a big tournament try to visualize scenes and capture moments from past successes and triumphs.

Visualization with the help of video can help your understanding of technique. For new strokes or techniques try to set specific goals. In what situation are you going to utilize these, how are you moving, what and who are in the area? The more clearly and exactly you can see every detail the better the long-term effect. Listen to coaches whose job it is to direct you towards the areas where you need to work in future training sessions. Make sure also that your physical condition is such that you are capable of executing in reality, the actions you visualize in the mind. It is also a good idea to see yourself in stressful situations and explore differing strategies for dealing with these. This is one way you can test different methods of reducing stress without actually being in the real life position. In this way you increase your consciousness of how to handle difficult situations and how to prepare for competition. It is always easier to deal with a situation you have thought about and pondered over before.

Visualization can help even with motivation and self-confidence training — see yourself as you want to be in the future. Such thoughts and pictures control the actions that can limit development. If you keep seeing yourself as you will be in the future, it keeps you focused. Use affirmations and keep the inner dialogue going — keep everything positive and constructive and leave no room for doubt. If you are also 110% prepared this helps much too — your mind knows you have done all that is required to achieve good results.

CONCENTRATION

Concentration — know and work in the four areas.

Concentration is more than attention, it is focus on a particular object for a period of time. It can also be inwardly or outwardly directed and the intensity differs depending on what is happening around you and in the match. It is important that you develop the ability to alter levels of concentration and focus on what is required and that you don’t allow yourself to be disturbed by any irrelevant factors, either from inside (doubts) or from outside. Bear in mind that each sport has its specific concentration types and levels that the player must recognize and meet.

Consider the point too that to have good concentration demands that you master other techniques (visualization, stress control, anxiety). The ability to maintain concentration for a long time is the basis of the control of concentration. You should also differentiate between active and passive concentration, actively deciding what you will focus on or allowing it to flow from inside you, passively following an automatic pattern. Often when you have an intense level of concentration you don’t remember much about what you do and how you play. The right concentration is characterized by mental calmness, not tense and not influenced by irrelevant events. Relaxed and focused is the key, full concentration on the task at hand means that you are much less likely to be influenced by negative thoughts or anxiety. Visualize what you are going to do and how you are going to play, first achieve performance in the mind.

Develop concentration in a methodical manner. For example listen to the sounds around you and isolate them one at a time concentrating on one at a time, even when you are doing something else, such as jogging. Look at a candle burning in a quiet room, focus on the flame and nothing else, then close your eyes and see it in the mind. Examine in detail something you use often such as your racket, focus on every little aspect, the marks and tears on the rubber, the curve of the wood, damage to the blade edge etc. Work with concentration when in the training hall with other players. At the signal stop playing the exercise and look around, let your attention wander round the room, see how many different things you can see, then refocus again and return to the exercise. At the next break shift the focus and concentrate on your breathing or your inner self.

Concentration areas — There are four basic areas.

  1. Narrow inward looking — self-analysis, visualizing, training tension levels, control and use of feelings, relaxation, use of ‘triggers’ (stay in), focus on individual details. (When playing relaxed you use this style, you are focusing on a ‘feeling’).
  2. Broad inward looking — using previous experience, tactics, training to change tactics, working at ‘set’ pieces, planning, reacting to situations in the right way, assessing the opponent. (Players involved with this style can be too analytical at times especially when things don’t go too well).
  3. Narrow outward looking — examining minute aspects of the opponent’s body language, focusing on the opponent’s contact point in the stroke play or on the in-coming ball just before the bounce and after, focusing on the opponent’s mental attitude.
  4. Broad outward looking — the overview of the whole situation, taking in what is happening in the opposition’s doubles play, overall view of how opponent is moving and his or her technique and tactics.

Most sports need regular training in changing from one area of concentration to another. It is important that the player is aware of which type is suitable to which situation and when it is best to change the concentration field. Mistakes often occur when the athlete changes too early or too late. The world’s best athletes are very good at not allowing anything to upset their concentration and if they are disturbed then they are able to refocus almost instantaneously. When you perform well in training or in a tournament and your concentration is particularly good, try to analyse which areas of concentration you used and in which time frame and to cope with which situation. When did you change from one area to another and why? What did you focus on within each individual style? Have you developed one style more than others? What causes you to lose concentration and is this with one type more than others? Have you ideas on how you can develop the various styles of concentration, either as individual units or as a complete entity?

In the practice hall you need to direct training so that it conforms to the concentration needs of your particular sport. In training try to split up the various areas of concentration and develop them individually even though in competition they will function as a whole. The goal is to automate the various groups in training so that they work as a whole in competition. Outwardly directed concentration is vital when external conditions around you are changing all the time, inwardly directed when you need to plan and analyse. Inward concentration occupies a large amount of the brain’s capacity, but outward direction frees most of these resources. It is a waste of time and energy to use the brain to think how you will perform actions that are already automated. You shouldn’t need to think of such things. The aim of training is to teach the body so that it knows itself how to perform actions so that as with breathing you don’t need to interfere — indeed if you do it almost always makes performance worse. Athletes who are anxious about their performance before competition often have a tendency to focus on how they do automatic actions and this leads to a worse performance. Techniques, movement patterns, service actions and a considerable chunk of tactics should indeed be a well automated part of the player’s game.

In developing concentration in training look at the special needs of your sport and develop exercises that mirror as near as possible the pressures you face in competition. This doesn’t mean that 100% of the session should be at just as high intensity as in competition — this is a learning situation! The intensity of concentration needs to vary in respect of the content of training — some exercises will need much more focus than others do and at times you will be able to relax and switch off. Table tennis is above all a switch-on, switch-off type of sport and training should mirror this.

Refocusing — We all have an in-built mechanism, which controls our concentration. When something unusual occurs around us then this mechanism has the job of directing our attention to this new event. As we have already seen it doesn’t always take something unusual, the mind often has a tendency to concentrate on the irrelevant. Distractions can even come from within. Many top players have found that it is often quite difficult to maintain focus especially during long matches. It becomes very difficult to win when you don’t only have to fight the opponent but yourself also!

It is quite important to understand that the ability to concentrate and the ability to handle stress are very closely connected. The ability to focus on the task in hand and not to let yourself be side-tracked is one of the most essential qualities in competition.

In your daily training regime introduce outside distractions especially so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise. Also bear in mind that table tennis is a very much switch-on, switch-off sport — the natural pauses in the flow of play (picking up the ball between points) should be used to relax. It is a waste of energy to try to concentrate 100% all the time. It is much more important to train on switching off and refocusing again at very short intervals till this becomes automatic. If inner doubts or worries start to upset your concentration, it can be best to direct your thoughts outwards for a brief moment and to change the focus. Or redirect inwards but concentrate on slow breathing or calming thoughts. Many athletes start to think negatively when things are going wrong. You will see top players replay the shot when they miss so that they get the feel of the right action and get their mind back on the right track. Remember training aims to prepare us to compete and the goals of training should reflect this — handling distractions, controlling tension, thinking positively and extending our limits are all parts of training.

MOTIVATION AND GOAL-SETTING

Motivation and goal-setting. Use process, safety and dream-goals more than result-goals.

There are many factors which influence motivation but the setting of goals can be particularly important. Motivation is a dynamic process influenced by the personality, the situation and the task in hand. It is characterized by high achievement, stubbornness, commitment, will, belief and enthusiasm. But inspiration, positive thinking or even successes are not synonymous with motivation. Motivation can be increased by success and an athlete can have many expectations of success, but without belief it will be hard to reach the top. Not least of all is motivation kept alive if the athlete feels he or she is on the right road and going in the right direction. Motivation can also be strongly affected by the surroundings and the people around you.

Motivation is really the engine that drives all you do. But it’s important that you have a goal and that all this energy and power that is available is directed and not revving without purpose. Often the main goal may be long-term and may take years to achieve, so it is necessary that you do this in a number of smaller steps. Daily or weekly short-term goals, which are more easily reached will keep you focused and stop you becoming disillusioned when the going gets tough. There have been a number of occasions where long-term goals have been counter-productive and have actually had a negative effect, because after some time the athlete feels that he or she is achieving little progress.

It is therefore important that the athlete focuses on the circumstances that he or she has some control over. Instead of thinking of the end-result, concentrate on how you can use your training time to the optimum every day, your own routines and your preparation for training or for competition. Avoid focusing on areas outside your control, whether you will be picked for this or that event or the national team etc. There will always be factors you can’t control, the opponent, umpires, conditions and these can influence results. However it is of no use to agitate and frustrate yourself over such aspects — only focus on the factors you have control over and this is particularly important in the case of short-term goals.

For many this may mean a new way of approaching their sport, so much nowadays is more and more goal-oriented. Perhaps it is necessary here to differentiate between different types of goal. Instead of concentrating on result-goals let us define another type, the process-goal, which is more how we are going to achieve success and the qualities we need to develop to get there. This means that we must analyse our physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction we are going to take. When we have completed our analysis and know where we are going, for all practical purposes forget the destination and only concentrate on how to get there. When an athlete has completed all the steps in the process-goal, it often follows as a natural consequence that he or she achieves the results too!

It is important too to have vision and imagination. Just what could you achieve if all your skills and abilities developed to the maximum and you had the right breaks and a little luck on the way? Most athletes have a long-term dream-goal and many have surprised themselves and all around them with just how quickly they have reached this, when everyone thought it was impossible. Yet others have experienced that the biggest stumbling block in their development has been the lack of vision and belief in their own potential. Dream-goals have in important function in that they help to break through the mental barriers of what the mind thinks is and is not possible.

Attitude in training is vital if athletes are to achieve success. Far too many come to a training session to be trained and not to train. Those who achieve most are usually quality conscious in everything they do. Set up a goal for every training session — at first it may seem like a great deal of work but soon it will become simple routine. Assess afterwards if you achieved what you set out to do. Soon you will be more focused on the task and less on the results — also you will be training much more systematically and with quality.

Bear in mind always that regardless of how many and how high goals you set up for the future, it’s what you are doing today which will determine just how far you will go in the future and what heights you will reach. Every elite sportsman has a strong desire to win and no one denies that it’s important. But an essential point also is that if your only criterion in terms of success is that you win, then you place yourself in a potentially very stressful situation. Few athletes can win all the time and there are always many factors that you can’t control. Also if you are thinking too much of the future and not giving your full concentration to the ‘now’, then this can lead to lack of success in competition.

Guidelines for goals

  • As exact and specific as possible.
  • Challenging but realistic.Set up both short and long-term goals.
  • Emphasize process- rather than result-goals.
  • Set up goals for both training and tournaments.
  • Set up positive goals.
  • Set a time or date, by which the goal should be reached.
  • Set up a programme to achieve the goal.
  • Keep a diary and note progress and when you reach your goals.
  • To succeed it’s vital that you have feedback and that you constantly assess and evaluate progress.

It often helps also to have a safety-goal — a little lower than what you may consider to be realistic, but which is also acceptable. In this way you do not have too many negative feelings if circumstances prevent you from reaching your first goal. Some athletes think it is a little like cheating to do this and it can lead instead to being satisfied with lesser ideals. Others however feel quite strongly that to define a safety-goal relieves stress and takes the pressure off, allowing them to function in a more relaxed manner.

One problem with goal-setting is that often athletes set too many and then use all their time evaluating and assessing, so that a disproportionate amount of time is spent on administering the system – eventually they lose interest. Prioritize 1 or 2 goals at the start and work with them. When you are more accustomed you can handle more. Bear in mind also that the process of keeping up with the system and monitoring progress tends to keep the player’s interest alive and growing.

Goals should not be too general (just to ‘play one’s best’ is not enough). Construct specific goals which stretch you, the player. And if circumstances change, injury for example, it may well be necessary to adjust your goals to suit the new situation. Often too many athletes focus too much on the future and too little on the now. Focus more on process-goals – it is vital to develop these, as they are the goals over which you have control. Process-goals don’t only need to be about technique, they can be about attitude or other mental qualities or even tactics, use of placement etc.

Remember too the vital importance of following up and of evaluating progress with reference to your goals and of adjusting the training load to ensure you have the best possible chance of achieving them. You must be active in this in your daily training. In this way you will often find that your original goal will be altered or amended. Sometimes athletes can be so focused on themselves and their own sport that they tend to give up on life. Try to retain a balance. Life has many dimensions and it isn’t only about sport. As a rule motivation with most athletes tends to swing up and down. If it stays on the downward curve for too long a time this can result in the athlete losing interest and giving up. Also if you achieve almost all you want to achieve then too you can feel there is little point in continuing. It is important to have new goals as you achieve new levels. It is also then that goals which are concerned with the athlete’s own development can help to keep the top performers going. More varied training with the addition of new exercises can also increase motivation.

The athlete who is losing motivation because of continual bad results must sit down with his or her trainer and analyse exactly what is happening. Perhaps there is too big a gap between the goal and the actual training — the goal must be changed or training methods upgraded.

AROUSAL LEVELS AND STRESS

Any programme must of course be suitable to the individual player and the individual must have the right level of consciousness or arousal for him or her, in order to achieve good results. Arousal, stress, tension and anxiety are all slightly different. When the body is ready for action you must find the level of tension and arousal that suits you best, handle the extra pressures that threaten to disrupt your performance and never let anxiety become fear. These are the negative feelings where you are afraid of the consequences of failure. They can have physical effects, butterflies in the stomach, a racing pulse, difficulty in breathing — and mental effects, doubting your own ability, having negative thoughts etc. We must bear in mind that although we know that the level of performance is affected by tension, we know very little of exactly how. Table tennis is one of the sports that will only tolerate a relatively low level of tension. Too much and it is extremely difficult to perform. Also different phases of an individual match will have differing levels of stress and pressures.

Outside factors can affect performance too, aspects such as support, the atmosphere and the attitude of the crowd. Every athlete is affected differently by tension and must find his or her own way to cope. However you cannot control tension until you can identify the source. Write down and isolate what exactly stresses you in competition. Look at what you can influence and accept what you cannot! Where you can’t change things change your attitude towards these things. Ask yourself how you can cope with the things you can’t change, find the solutions within yourself.

Treat the physical reactions to stress as a signal that your body is ready to compete. Look at it from a positive point of view. Never let doubt start to creep in too long before the actual competition — control this — don’t waste valuable energy brooding over something which may never happen. Handle the doubts and distractions. Focus on giving your best, maintaining your level of self-confidence and trust in your training and in your ability to play in competition. In training try to maintain the right attitude and the optimum conditions for yourself, so that you create and build the right environment for competition.

COMPETITON PLANNING

Competition planning — By planning beforehand you will often have a more stable performance. Use physical, technical, tactical and mental resources to best effect. Also have a reserve plan in case of unexpected problems.

Phase 1 — Preparation. Reserve plan for preparation.

Phase 2 — Warming up. Reserve plan for warming up.

Physically/focusing
Mentally/focusing.

Phase 3 — Execution. Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4 — Evaluation.

1) Preparation is based on routines used before which have proved to work well — use a checklist, have all equipment with you, sleep early the night before, get up in good time, eat well (what and when), take food and drink with you, know the programme, how you will travel etc. Relax and focus on the positive (but don’t focus too strongly on the tournament too early).

2)Warm up in a positive manner and learn to banish negative thinking and mind pictures of the wrong kind. This will mean that you will have a bigger concentration capacity to direct towards more relevant factors and that the body is less stressed. Warm up in three stages, physical, mental and focusing (means that you are in a state where you feel sure in yourself and sure about what you have to do). Have your concentration directed towards the tournament so that you have the right arousal level and the right thoughts and feelings.

Physical — General and specific warm-ups — so that the body is ready for the demands of the tournament.

Mental — Positive self-suggestion and visualization — carry on the inner dialogue, how well you have trained, what good form you are in etc.

PHYSICAL Free and easy, relaxed, balanced, strong, energetic, light and flexible.

MENTAL
Controlled, sure, calm, clear, concentrated and focused.

Adjustment of tension levels — To psyche yourself up use the inner dialogue – ‘I am ready, prepared to succeed, I shall give everything’. Even shout it out aloud! To sink the tension levels, use slow, deep breathing, visualize your best performances, see yourself moving easily and playing in a relaxed fashion. Remind yourself that you have played well before and can again. Try to concentrate on the maximum release of ability — focus on this and believe that nothing can distract you.

3) Execution — To maintain concentration levels for a long time it pays to break up the tournament into small parts and also to be very much aware that the levels will be very different in differing phases of the competition. Concentration is particularly important when you start to tire. Often in fact you will have less anxiety (and tests have proved this) when you direct your concentration away from the problem at hand to something else.

Strong focus on technique and how you will carry out different movements is usually counter-productive and negative in a competitive situation. Technique should be automated, conditioned, so you are ‘switched off’. Endeavour to concentrate on this ‘passive’ mode and let the body take over, it knows best. Try to have the right ‘feeling’. When problems arise avoid wasting energy in being irritated. Don’t worry over factors that you can’t control. Control your own actions and thoughts. Too often we concern ourselves over much with what the opponent is doing and how good he or she appears to be!

Ability/skill during competition — Focus on skill-proficiency goals. Results are a product of how well you perform the different parts of the whole match. You also need of course the desire, the will to win. It’s often a good idea to have more than one reserve plan — you should for example know what you will do in differing situations and avoid having to make off-the-cuff decisions during competition, or last minute changes. Think of the various things that could come up to distract you and visualize how you would go about solving these. In this way you build up reserve plans to deal with the actual situation when it arises. The aim is to take control over your surroundings so that you are not caught in the situation of having to improvise at the last minute.

4) Evaluation — See bad results in a positive light; you have the opportunity to learn and progress — without adversity few get to the top, adversity tempers the mind and makes you stronger. Ask yourself — ‘What went well? What could go better?’ Often you may want to change your training plan after a big tournament. But always test new things for a reasonable time and give them a fair chance to work. Don’t follow plans slavishly, there must always be room for manoeuvre.

TIME SCALE.

The week before the tournament — How are you training and what are you thinking about during the last week before the competition? How long ago did you start to prepare and how are you doing this?

Tournament day — How do you feel? What are you saying to yourself when you begin with physical and mental warm-ups? How strong is your feeling of control? How sure are you of yourself, what are you concentrating on, are you happy and alive? What is your anxiety level? Are your feelings changing as the day moves on?

Performance phase — What are you concentrating on? Are you having inner dialogue — key words, reminders? What is the result? Are you controlling the tension level — does it need to be higher or lower? Can you relax without losing tension and arousal levels?

During breaks/pauses — What are you thinking of, what are you doing? Are you changing anything?

Afterwards — Understand which factors lead to weak and strong performance, it is important that you recognize them for the future. Every individual training session takes you nearer to your goal.

Experts say it takes between 1/3 years to develop a training plan which gives stable performance at a high level. As a goal have a competition plan to achieve automatic actions which relieve you of the need for conscious thought. The central theme of any mental programme is that it must be regular, systematic and goal-oriented. The best time to start a programme is just before a new season and let it grow with the season (the least suitable is mid-season or just before a big competition; if you must start mid-season, work at strengthening areas where you are already good). Just the same as in technical areas a mental programme should be automated before use in competition. It is also vital that you view the mental programme as being both on-going and an integral part of your whole training set-up.

Competition Planning

Rowden Fullen (2003)

By planning beforehand you will often have a more stable performance. Use physical, technical, tactical and mental resources to best effect. Also have a reserve plan in case of unexpected problems.

Phase 1

Preparation.
Reserve plan for preparation.

Phase 2

Warming up.
Reserve plan for warming up.

Physically/focusing.
Mentally/focusing.

Phase 3

Execution.
Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4

Evaluation.

Preparation is based on routines used before which have proved to work well — use a checklist, have all equipment with you, sleep early the night before, get up in good time, eat well (know what and when), take food and drink with you, know the programme, how you will travel etc. Relax and focus on the positive (but don’t focus strongly on the tournament too early).

Warm up in a positive manner and learn to banish negative thinking and mind pictures of the wrong kind. This will mean that you will have a bigger concentration capacity to direct towards more relevant factors and that the body is less stressed. Warm up in three stages, physical, mental and focusing (means that you are in a state where you feel sure in yourself and sure about what you have to do). Have your concentration directed towards the tournament so that you have the right arousal level and the right thoughts and feelings.

Physical — General and specific warm-ups — so that the body is ready for the demands of the tournament.

Mental — Positive self-suggestion and visualization — carry on the inner dialogue, how well you have trained, what good form you are in etc.

PHYSICAL

  • Free and easy
  • relaxed
  • balanced
  • strong
  • energetic
  • light
  • flexible

MENTAL

  • controlled
  • sure
  • calm
  • clear
  • concentrated
  • focused

Adjustment of tension levels — To psyche yourself up use the inner dialogue – ‘I am ready, prepared to succeed, I shall give everything’. Even shout it out aloud! To sink the tension levels, use slow, deep breathing, visualize your best performances, see yourself moving easily and playing in a relaxed fashion. Remind yourself that you have played well before and can again. Try to concentrate on the maximum release of ability — focus on this and believe that nothing can distract you.

Execution — To maintain concentration levels for a long time it pays to break up the tournament into small parts and also to be very much aware that the levels will be very different in differing phases of the competition. Concentration is particularly important when you start to tire. Often in fact you will have less anxiety (and tests have proved this) when you direct your concentration away from the problem at hand to something else.

Strong focus on technique and how you will carry out different movements is usually counter-productive and negative in a competitive situation. Technique should be automated, conditioned, so you are ‘switched-off’. Endeavour to concentrate on this ‘passive’ mode and let the body take over, it knows best. Try to have the right ‘feeling’. When problems arise avoid wasting energy in being irritated. Don’t worry over factors that you can’t control. Control your own actions and thoughts. Too often we concern ourselves over much with what the opponent is doing and how good he or she appears to be!

Ability/skill during competition — Focus on skill proficiency goals. Results are a product of how well you perform the different parts of the whole match. You also need of course the desire, the will to win. It’s often a good idea to have more than one reserve plan — you should for example know what you will do in differing situations and avoid having to make off-the-cuff decisions during competition, or last minute changes. Think of the various things that could come up to distract you and visualize how you would go about solving these. In this way you build up reserve plans to deal with the actual situation when it arises. The aim is to take control over your surroundings so that you are not caught out in the situation of having to improvise at the last minute.

Evaluation — See bad results in a positive light; you have the opportunity to learn and progress — without adversity few get to the top, adversity tempers the mind and makes you stronger. Ask yourself — ‘What went well? What could go better?’ Often you may want to change your training plan after a big tournament. But always test new things for a reasonable time and give them a fair chance to work. Don’t follow plans slavishly, there must always be room for manoeuvre.

TIME SCALE.

The week before the tournament — How are you training and what are you thinking about during the last week before the competition? How long ago did you start to prepare and how are you doing this?

Tournament day

How do you feel? What are you saying to yourself when you begin with physical and mental warm-ups? How strong is your feeling of control? How sure are you of yourself, what are you concentrating on, are you happy and alive? What is your anxiety level? Are your feelings changing as the day moves on?

Performance phase

What are you concentrating on? Are you having inner dialogue — key words, reminders? What is the result? Are you controlling the tension level — does it need to be higher or lower? Can you relax without losing tension and arousal levels?

During breaks/pauses

What are you thinking of, what are you doing? Are you changing anything?

Afterwards

Understand which factors lead to weak and strong performance, it is important that you recognize them for the future. Every individual training session takes you nearer to your goal.

Experts say it takes between 1/3 years to develop a training plan which gives stable performance at a high level. As a goal have a competition plan to achieve automatic actions which relieve you of the need for conscious thought. The central theme of any mental programme is that it must be regular, systematic and goal-oriented. The best time to start a programme is just before a new season and let it grow with the season (the least suitable is mid-season or just before a big competition; if you must start mid-season, work at strengthening areas where you are already good). Just the same as in technical areas a mental programme should be automated before use in competition. It is also vital that you view the mental programme as being both on-going and an integral part of your whole training set-up.

Tactical Table Tennis Thinking

Dan Seemiller (2007)

When I first started playing this sport, at aged 12, at the South Park Club in Pittsburgh, I knew very little about the tactical side of table tennis. I just played by feel, reaction and instinct. About aged 17, still with no formal training, it really bothered me that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason why I played well or poorly. “Why did I win that last point?” “Why did I lose that last match?” I wanted to know. That summer I attended a Dell Sweeris camp and learned the techniques about this sport, including tactics that work and why.

I would estimate that 75-80% of tournament players do not think very much when they play – they just compete. If you incorporate tactical thinking into your play you will have a distinct advantage over these competitors and you will win more often. That’s a good thing. One warning – too much thinking can also be harmful, slowing you down and not allowing you to play naturally. I try to go by this credo: 50% conscious thought, 50% instinctive play. In other words, my strategy is to plan or anticipate certain combinations while at other times (50%) I want to stay neutral and be prepared for anything.

OK, let’s get started...

The number one tactic is to attack your opponent’s middle; this is the switch point between forehand and backhand. This is sometimes called the pocket or crossover; if you were playing a right hander it would be around their right pocket. A good loop or block to the middle can lead to indecision (as in whether to play FH or BH). The opponent will have to think, move and hit and the body inhibits the proper swing. So, if you can place the ball to your opponent’s middle quickly they will have three different areas to deal with. Fast serves, quick block/pushes and loops are all weapons that can be used to exploit the middle. One note of caution: the middle is a moving target, not a stationary one. It requires skill and experience to consistently find it. When I compete, attacking the middle is my main focus.

The second tactic would be to play wide to the forehand or backhand – when the angle is there attempt to place the ball so as to play off the sidelines of the table. This will force your opponent to move more and will open up the other side. For example: play a shot wide to your opponent’s FH and then the next ball wide again, but to the backhand. In general these first two tactics are all about ball placement and trying to stay out of the main FH and BH lanes.

Changing spin and speed is essential to winning table tennis. So many players spin the ball hard, hit it fast, have all the strokes yet never reach their potential. Why? You must keep your opponent off balance – changing spin and speed as well as placement is necessary to be effective in this sport. Ilija Lupulesku and Cheng Yinghua are masters at changing the amount of spin and speed on their loop drives. One block goes in the net, the next off the end. How can you learn this technique? Consciously think about it. Change the arc on your loops, mix up the speed when you attack. Use less friction and hit fake (FH) loops that your opponent will block in the net. Practice these skills; you will find them invaluable. Yes, faster is generally better but if it’s always the same your opponent can easily adjust and use the speed against you. Push with heavy spin then light spin. Changing spins and speeds combined with good placement can improve anyone’s level. The bottom line is you must use your brain during play; conscious thoughts, not just instinct.

Table tennis is like physical chess, or cat and mouse interplay. You must be thinking and be aware of what your opponent is also planning. In the beginning this will be difficult. But, you must start somewhere and you will improve this process as you gain experience. I tell my students to think because it will help them focus, make better choices and there’s the added benefit when your mind is active in the “now phase” that you will be less likely to become nervous. Think about it this way – if your opponent is expecting you to attack it might be a good time to defend and vice versa.

Combination tactics: Play one ball to the middle then the next one wide or vice versa. Impart heavy spin on one ball then light spin on the next. Play short to one side then deep to the other corner. What about playing specific styles? What to do against a power looper? Serve short and attack first. On return of serve limit the amount of pushing you do. Attack the serve or drop it short. If your opponent has a strong FH loop your strategy will be to minimize how many times he can use it, trying to take away or limit your opponent from using their best weapon is a successful tactic and always part of my game plan.

Playing a pen-holder: What to do? Remember these tactics are in general terms. High spinny loops to their backhand are difficult to block for the pen-hold player. Do not attack or counter with speed to the backhand – pen-hold players use this energy to block you out of position. Generally, play safe and topspin to their backhand side and when possible attack the forehand side with force. Playing the ball wide to the FH then deep to the BH or vice versa works well. Do not push slowly to the BH corner. The pen-hold player is excellent attacking with the FH from the BH corner.

What about the defensive or blocking style player? Be patient. Remember, they are playing this way because their offence is usually weak or inconsistent. Choose your attack carefully. Change the pace of your attacks; vary the spin and speed on your loops. When pushing or playing drop-shots, play to their short forehand, do not make consecutive attacks unless you are sure of the spin and your position. Exploit the fact that they probably can’t hit through you. Against the defensive player, attack the middle whenever possible and of course move them in and out. The blocking player is generally susceptible to the wide FH or wide BH – not as vulnerable in the middle as attacking players are.

Other intangibles would be to scout your opponent. Particularly watch their serves; plan out your response to each of their serves. Are they stronger on the FH or BH? A strong BH position would be with the right foot forward; a closed stance. How do they return serve? When possible do your homework and try to find out what you can about an opponent. When this is not possible remember to play your game. Be ready to adjust if necessary. Having good tactics means you have to keep probing your opponent, looking for weaknesses. In an ideal situation (the one you’re working towards) you would like to be able to pit your strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses. It seems simple but too often in the heat of the match we can forget unless we train (remind) ourselves to focus on this.

If you want to improve the tactical side of your game you must know your strengths, be focused, do your homework and be aware of your opponent’s strengths. Have fun while you’re doing this … this is the mental challenge of table tennis. Our sport is like physical chess. You must be ready to move and choose the appropriate shot in the fraction of a second. Of course, experience is the greatest teacher. This sport is definitely a cat and mouse situation where if you are weak mentally you end up as the mouse. Lastly have fun when you play … you will think more clearly.

TACTICAL THINKING GUIDELINES

  • Keep probing opponent to find weaknesses.
  • Serve short and attack the third ball.
  • Loop the serve if it is long.
  • Playing the ball wide to the FH (when possible) opens up the BH.
  • Serve short and use drop shots when returning short serves.
  • Use the entire table when serving.
  • Have more than one option on each serve return.
  • Attack & defend the middle as the number one focus.
  • Change spin/speed especially when on the offence. Variation of these will improve deception.
  • Have a game plan then follow and adjust when necessary. This will improve your concentration.

Sports Psychology for Table Tennis

Richard McAfee (2007)

So you want to become a table tennis champion? Besides the necessary technical and physical training, successful athletes must also learn to master their own emotions and thoughts. Many talented players have found this to be their major hurdle in achieving elite status.

News stories are full of top athletes working with sports psychologists to achieve a breakthrough in their performance. Coaches now routinely include psychological elements in their training sessions, even for beginner players. So just what is sports psychology all about?

Sports Psychology Includes:

  • Developing short and long-term goals for your journey though sport. Your coach cannot help you reach your goals until those goals are clearly understood.
  • Changing your negative thought patterns and perceptions into positive ones (re-scripting). Everyone has thought patterns that continuously run through his/her mind. Often these patterns/scripts are formed when we are young and are not based on reality. When they interfere with performance, the athlete must learn how to change the thought pattern (re-scripting). He/she must recognize when these thought patterns are occurring and practise stopping the pattern and inserting a rehearsed position pattern in its place.
  • Using positive and eliminating negative self-statements about your abilities and athletic performance. Self-statements are self-fulfilling. “YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK YOU ARE!”
  • Learning to use progressive relaxation techniques to help your performance. There is a strong mental and physical connection. Learning to relax physically leads to top mental performance.
  • Learning to use visualization techniques to enhance both learning new skills and competition performance. The stronger your mental image of a skill becomes, the easier it becomes to learn or correct a physical skill.
  • Learning how to better concentrate and focus during practice and competition. This is the ultimate goal of sport psychology. You will play like you practise.
  • Learning how to mentally cope with adverse situations as well as injury and pain. These situations occur in the life of every athlete. The ability to mentally stay strong through adversity is often the difference between the good player and the real champion.

If these skills sound a lot like the same skills you need to achieve in life and the work place, they are. That is what makes this area of training so important to all athletes. It is this area that most translates over to our everyday life. Sports psychology will not only help you achieve your goals within the sporting world, it will help you achieve a better life.

Basic Sports Psychology

Rowden February 2013

This involves the study of how the mind affects performance and how we can educate the mind to improve how we perform. We should bear in mind from the start that we are all different and our personality can affect performance: in addition consider that some sports may be more suited to extroverted or introverted individuals. Equally we should bear in mind that we can work in the mental area, just as we do in the physical, to improve how we deal with our sport.

Self-confidence is reflected in the trust we have in our own abilities and in the certainty we have in our own minds that we can function as we want when we need to. An athlete’s confidence is demonstrated in how he/she appears to others. In how he/she talks, acts, is dressed and in all aspects of body language: even posture, facial expressions and mannerisms tell others a great deal about our mind and how we are liable to act.

There are a number of common signs and areas where an athlete can be seen to be developing low self-esteem:
• Fear of failure or even being afraid to win/succeed
• The feeling that he/she must be perfect and that however good the performance it’s never quite good enough
• Failure to make the right decisions, especially under pressure
• Thinking about the mistakes just made and by such reinforcement, continuing to make them
• Lack of real self-belief even when it’s blatantly obvious to all around that he/she has enormous talent

Of course we all face stress at one time or another, but we must face up to the fact that stress within a sporting event can be good or bad. It’s how we cope with it that is the defining factor!

We all need to be in the right state of ‘readiness’ before competing, but we should be aware that this feeling of arousal is brought about by the release of a chemical in the body called adrenalin. There can be number of physical and emotional symptoms of an aroused performer and some will be negative and some positive: aspects such as heightened heart rate and blood flow, nausea, sweating, tension, breathlessness, nervousness, excitement, frustration and many others.

Good stress will improve performance, bad stress will harm it. It’s therefore vital that we are able to:
• Identify which physical and emotional symptoms positively or negatively affect our performance (bearing in mind too that we are all different)
• Relax as relaxation techniques will help us achieve peak performance and are crucial for any athlete striving to reach the highest levels
• Have a plan to cope with the stress symptoms which are most relevant to you and your development
• Fully understand that mental strength and power can, just as physical strength and power, be strengthened and developed (and changed) by the application of a regular program

One of the first aspects to focus on is after-match evaluation: what went wrong, what was right, why did you win or lose, what was your attitude to winning or in defeat, what must you work at for the next meeting with the same player? But do not just dwell on the negatives: what went well, what caused problems for the opponent, what picked you up some cheap points, what frustrated him/her? You should wrap some positives round the negatives in your performance and over a period of time you will find that the ‘whole’ you (not just the table tennis you) will become a more positive person!

Of course you should also set up your mental program, which is something you will do on a regular basis. Base this on 4 aspects:
• Relaxation and the use of relaxation techniques
• Imagery and visualisation
• Pre-performance routines
• Self-talk

Relaxation is particularly crucial for reducing self-worry and anxiety and increasing focus and concentration. Focussing on your breathing is one good way of relaxing, on the rise and fall of your chest allowing this to become deeper and deeper or even on the sound. Equally you could imagine sitting under a waterfall and the clean water flowing into your head and filling your body. Then imagine dirty water spurting out from your fingers and toes and all your cares and tensions being washed away. Relaxation exercises should be carried out on average from between 10 to 15 minutes per day.

Similarly with visualisation relax first, then take yourself back to a previous recent victory. See yourself playing a winning game and relive the feeling, savour the winning shot and the shaking of hands with the opponent. After a while you will be able to shift in and out of this imagery quite quickly and prepare for a performance before you play.

Pre-performance routines will also help to reduce anxiety, increase confidence and help preparation and focus. Try to take 5 to 8 minutes before you play a competitive match to be alone, to relax and focus on what you need to do. As well as visualisation, think to focus your mental energies and if you have met this opponent before, revisit the tactics which have worked before.

Self-talk is of particular importance, your own commentary on how you are performing at any one time. We tend to ‘self-talk’ mentally as we perform in either a positive or negative manner. This has a direct impact (whether we realise this or not) on our performance and we should not under-estimate its value. Three main steps are used by top athletes to help turn negative thoughts into positive self-talk:
• Identify when and under what circumstances/pressures you are using self-talk
• Assess why, how and what you are saying and how you feel at the time
• Initiate change if necessary – if emotional, be calm, if your talk is mainly negative introduce more positive alternatives

The above may seem simple, it isn’t. In some cases it takes time (a great deal of time) to effect change, especially where negative habits have been in place and reinforced for many years. But change is possible and can be achieved if only athletes have the tenacity to work to a program and the desire to succeed!

Focus

Rowden December 2013

High level performance occurs when you turn off conscious thought and have an external focus. Don’t think about what you are doing or how you are doing it, think outside yourself, fix your attention on the opponent or the outcome.

Above all silence your self-critical thoughts and allow the automated process, the hundreds of hours of training which have built up in your brain and body to flow naturally. The body knows how to perform, give it the freedom to do this.
Conscious thought interferes with automated reactions, the conscious is always slower than the subconscious and will limit what you can achieve. Scientific tests have proved that the world’s top performers have little or no prefrontal cortex activity when they compete, they are not thinking about what they are doing. Lesser performers have much more activity in this area of the brain and perform at a lesser level as a result. When top performers are asked to think more about what they are doing or how they are doing it, they get worse: when beginners are asked to focus their attention away from their own body and self towards an outward point, they improve dramatically. The only thinking which should occur in a competitive situation is that of tactical input and this should be kept to a minimum and not be clouded by emotion.
Of course we all face stress at one time or another, but we must face up to the fact that stress within a sporting event can be good or bad. It’s how we cope with it that is the defining factor! We need to try and keep emotion out of the equation, emotion as well as too much or the wrong kind of conscious thought destroys the harmony of body and mind and stops the flow of performance. Try to be calm at all times, to control your reaction to the stimuli or situation you are facing, by thinking positively and not just reacting on your primitive instincts. This will give you the best chance of making good decisions, which can turn a performance around. The thinking however too must not be in the direction of criticizing what you are doing or have done or how you are performing, but rather in evaluating what you need to do to redress the situation. Such an evaluation requires you to be objective and to assess what you need to do in a composed and logical manner.
Of course once you have made a calm and speedy assessment of the tactics required, you should then again turn off the conscious thought and resume the external focus, allowing the body to perform as near subconsciously as possible. Try above all to look outwards and avoid focusing inwards: keep your attention on an outside point; watching your opponent for signs of weakness or stress for example, will not only divert attention away from yourself and what you are doing, but will help you get ‘in the zone’ where you perform in an automated manner.

Performance

Rowden July 2018

The prime goal of any athlete is to achieve maximum performance even under the extreme pressures of high level competition. You require your body to do what it’s capable of doing whether it’s a routine training session or the final of a world event.

Of course the major championships are where your performance really matters and this is the problem. Many of us have not devised a system to deal with this, or do not understand that what goes on in our mind has a direct effect on our body. The emotional, mental and physical components of performance are interlinked and cannot be separated.
In the 1980’s sports psychologist James Loehr sought answers to ’superior’ performance by studying the top tennis players and came up with a surprising observation – the best players, those able to perform nearest to perfection under pressure, used the time between points to maximum effect. They in fact utilized this short time frame to achieve the stability and emotional balance needed for high performance.
‘To maximize your performance on game day, you need to prepare physically and mentally for the between-point moments, those times when you’re not actually playing a point. Training and maximizing your between-point time will take you to an entirely different level of execution and competition. In going for peak performance, every second counts and needs to be trained.’ (Loehr, 1988)
Many players and most coaches spend all of their time working on skill development. This is of little or no value if you cannot execute these skills effectively at the moment of truth, under pressure, regardless of fear, nerves, anger, distraction or emotional upsets. Many young athletes experience high level competition as threatening even frightening, yet the top players respond with good focus, confidence, clear thinking and engagement, they relish the challenge. Of course they too have nerves, even doubts at times, but the great athletes learn to control their emotions. Any period of nervousness doesn’t last for long and they get back into ’the zone’ very quickly. Rather than focusing internally on their own fears they are more often observing the opponent and looking for any small signs of weakness.
Being in ‘the zone’ and performing at maximum is not just down to mental strength, it is a matter of balance and interaction between physical, mental and emotional factors. The physical side is not just what you do with your body, but how you look to your opponent; regardless of how the points go, maintaining a strong confident body language is vital. The mental side is concerned with thoughts, images, will and focus, above all working hard and assessing what needs to be done to cope with differing opposition. The emotional side represents feelings and you should be controlling fears and doubts and projecting energy, confidence, optimism and calmness.
What many athletes don’t fully appreciate is that what goes on in the mind has a direct effect on the body – fear and anxiety cause physical changes, muscle tension, faster heart rate, quicker breathing and reduced blood to the extremities. On the other hand positive thoughts lead to calmness, feelings of control, more focused energy and the anticipation of challenge. Even smiling helps your confidence as your brain produces chemicals which affect your mood, muscles and performance. When your body becomes more relaxed and comfortable, this leads to even more positive thoughts and adds to the circle of growth.
What we must all constantly bear in mind is that how we respond is in fact our choice. We have the choice to react negatively or positively in any situation. In our sport as we become more experienced we will face the same problems time and time again and coping should become easier. We will know what worked previously, will have confidence in coping and adapting and will be less stressed and calmer in ourselves, therefore leading to a higher level of performance.
What we should try to do is to control our emotions and react in a consistent manner. Do not let frustration linger on to the next one or two points, do not rush between points (this robs you of energy and recovery/thinking time) retain calm and the capability to assess what needs to be done, use physical strategies such as deep breathing, bouncing on the toes, using the towel, wiping the table etc. Also do not let outside distractions affect you, what you have no control over you have to ignore.
Do use the between-point breaks to refocus – think strong posture and body language, what is the game situation, what is the next priority, what serve or receive should you use, what response do you want, what doesn’t the opponent like? Remind yourself to watch your opponent for signs of weakness, either emotional, mental, physical or tactical/technical. Keep your focus external rather than internal. Take care with the seconds before you resume play – don’t over or under think, get ‘into the zone’ ready for action, take a deep breath and look at the opponent. And if you have made a bad mistake, or played stupidly, or missed an easy shot, don’t let this impact on the next two or three points. Refocus immediately. Have a system, a ritual to deal with this. Many top players smile to reduce tension and regain their emotional calm and balance. Others turn away from the table and focus on the crowd or a point in the hall while they collect their thoughts and re-stabilise. The purpose of any refocusing is to clear the mind so you are ready to concentrate on the next point.
The mental side of any sport is vital, the more so as you reach higher levels – unfortunately it’s often not given enough attention. Try to think of this aspect just as you would physical or technical development; the mental side just like other areas needs exercise and training!

The Psychology of the Rally

Gunther Straub 2010

Manfred Muster quotes statistical evidence to show that players are impressed or motivated by the quality (or lack of quality) of a shot produced by themselves or their opponents respectively. According to Muster´s data a piece of luck or a sense of frustration at a certain point in a rally both might have an impact on the result. Thoughts like ‘Saved by the bell!’ which occur because an opponent has neglected to convert a chance, are rather more performance-enhancing than ‘I just blew my chance!’ – despite the fact that both situations are the result of a mediocre shot by the opponent.

Similarly the reaction and feeling of a player pressurized by a good shot from his opponent (and losing the point) is different to that of an athlete under pressure because of his own mistakes. Here, too, seen through the eyes of a psychologist there are different levels of pressure. At the end Muster assumes that top players at international level are subject to a kind of distorted perception as to the value of weak shots (either produced by themselves or by their opponent). Conversely strong shots happening on either side of the table are downgraded from an individual perspective. In other words it’s okay to lose to a good shot but not to a weak one. Perhaps further investigation should be directed towards this particular point.

In Muster’s thesis a key word appears several times – this is: ‘patience’. Some German sports psychologists would probably rather name the phenomena behind this term ‘concentration endurance’ or ‘prolonged concentration’. At least two research findings suggest that patience is needed in the course of a rally. First of all, it´s quite obvious that fighting patiently is vital in table tennis especially when you are struggling. Muster has stated: In more than 50 percent of all cases in which a player has been in a nearly no-win situation the athlete has been able to find a way to succeed.

Furthermore there is statistical evidence to suggest that mistakes in table tennis are frequently caused by impatience. Although it’s always been obvious, it is now statistically proven. But the expert coach not only collects statistics but also gives advice on how to practise: He devises exercises training to be patient using two methods.

1. Both athletes should expose themselves to so called ‘stalemate situations’ in which they try to keep the ball in play.
2. Players should learn to manage those critical situations in which one player dominates a rally while the other is dominated (these situations are named ‘preliminary situations’ by Muster).

Let’s have a look into the training hall: Manfred Muster takes up the cudgels for what he calls ‘situational training’. The term ‘situational training’ describes a specific type of drill. The player has to find the best possible solution within a given situation. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement is pre-arranged. At a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essential of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.

In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill.

A drill, which is supposed to be called situational, starts with realistic serves and returns as in competition. After having made the significant decision or shot mentioned above, the rally ends in free play without any predefined restrictions. Muster’s study of high-performance table tennis reveals some interesting hints how to gainfully decide on ball placement. According to his data certain ball placements are most promising depending on the quality of the opponent’s shot. Further research seems to be necessary in this particular field but nevertheless it makes sense to integrate such knowledge about the ideal placing of the ball in situational training.

There are similarities between situational training and other forms of systematic practice. For example there are tactical-oriented drills or drills which are somewhat ‘loosely’ defined in advance – drills for a player to only decide about playing parallel or diagonal without any specific criteria in mind. However, situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence. On many occasions Muster refuses to accept the somewhat negative image of a player who is seen as a ‘robot’, which at problem times in a game, reflexively reels off what has been automated in training. Muster thinks that an athlete in table tennis does not tend to be overwhelmed by what is coming at him across the net. On the contrary: In his opinion the player has his own area of variance in which he can be creative. He makes his own decisions and – like the scouts say – he paddles his own canoe. In other words the player has responsibility for his actions and responses. All this sounds like an issue of dispute for certain philosophers, but Muster can confirm his positive perspective on table tennis athletes with defined data. Similarly his research shows that high-performance table tennis is based on a playing philosophy which is highly offensive but not excessively aggressive.

Muster´s contribution to what is called in Germany ‘operating experience anticipation’ is quite thrilling. This certain knowledge about where the incoming ball will hit the table without using one´s eyes is frequently mentioned in literature. Here Muster is using statistics to show where balls will be played in certain situations. Once again the German scientist delivers figures. One simple example: A player serving short to the backhand of his opponent can expect with a 66 percent chance that his opponent will hit the ball cross-court to the backhand of the (right-handed) server. The server of course is always well-advised to keep his eyes open (using ‘perceptual anticipation’) because the return could be placed short to his backhand (25 percent) or long (41 percent) or after all even to his forehand side. Using his statistical methods Muster can make clear statements about how efficient certain decisions on ball placement are made and perhaps this is something that all coaches should look into more deeply.

The Winning Mind

Larry Bassham -- (Olympic Champion) 2007

Introduction

The 3 phases of a task

The principles of mental management

Performance analysis

Goal setting system

Improve concentration by running a mental programme

Skills development

Build a better you

The directive affirmation

Seven strategies of the mentally tough

1. Introduction

95% of all winning is achieved by only 5% of the players. They don’t just hope to win – the winners are convinced they will finish first. The only thing that separates the winners from the rest is the way they think. Winners expect to win and if you don’t have this expectation then you have no chance of winning.

Winning occurs when the player is in harmony with the idea that his expectation and his performance will be equal. Many players do not win because they lack the mental system to control their performance under stress. Most champions are sure that performance is 90% mental.

Mental management is about maximising the probability of having a consistent mental performance, under pressure and on demand. An outstanding performance is easy, only poor performance is afflicted by frustration and extra effort. When you play really well you are balanced and in harmony with your efforts. If you are to become a winner then your mental management system must be able to balance the three mental components, the conscious mind, the subconscious mind and the self image. All great performances are accomplished subconsciously. We develop skills through repetitions of conscious thought until actions are performed automatically by the subconscious mind. The self-image is the total of your habits and attitudes and can be changed. When the self-image alters, performance will change.

2. The three phases of a task

To properly implement the mental management system you need to understand that everything we do has three parts –

  • The anticipation phase
  • The action phase
  • The reinforcement phase

The anticipation phase is what you think about immediately before you perform. By running a mental programme you ensure that each shot will be executed in exactly the same way. Success is no accident – paying attention during the anticipation phase will make your goals easier to accomplish.

The action phase is what you think about as you perform – this could be the length of the stroke, the timing, the follow-through or just watching the ball etc.

The reinforcement phase is what you think about immediately after you perform. If it’s a good shot say to yourself – ‘That’s usual for me’. If it’s not forget the shot and go on to the anticipation phase of the next stroke. Too many athletes reinforce their bad performances by thinking and talking about them. Every time you do this you improve the probability of having another bad performance just like it in the future.

Remember champions carefully prepare for their matches, concentrate properly while performing and reinforce all good results. Ask yourself for example how well prepared you are for the match, how well you performed when circumstances were different from what you anticipated and finally what you reinforced. Do you praise others when they perform well, do you praise yourself?

3. The Principles of Mental Management

1) Your conscious mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time. If you are picturing something positive in your mind, it is impossible at the same time to think negatively. The converse of course also applies. This is a vital principle because it is impossible to think of winning and losing at the same time. You are either picturing in your mind something which will help you or something which will hurt you. If you constantly control the image in your mind in a positive manner it is impossible to have concentration errors or poor performance.

I control what I picture in my mind and I think about what I want to happen in my life

2) What you say is not so important. What you cause yourself or others to picture is crucial. The coach who says –‘Whatever you do, don’t lose’ – sets the player up for failure. The player automatically pictures losing! He would have been better to say – ‘Go out there and kill every ball’.

When you first begin anything, good performance is difficult because you are trying to do everything consciously. As the conscious mind can only do one thing at a time nothing works. It is only when the process becomes automated by the subconscious mind, which can handle many things at once, that performance becomes easy. This is why we need to perform not in conscious but in subconscious mode.

I remind myself that what others see when I speak and act is vital to my image. This determines how strong or weak they are in competition against me

3) The subconscious mind is the source of all mental power. You perform best when you allow your well-trained subconscious to do the work. However the conscious can override the subconscious and when this happens performance deteriorates. Conscious override is a major problem at the really big events because this is when the athletes try extra hard to do well – as a result they tighten up and lose their rhythm. Allow the subconscious to do its work, let it flow, trust in your ability.

I trust my subconscious to guide my performance in competition. I am so well trained that all my performance is carried out subconsciously

4) The subconscious moves you to do whatever the conscious mind is picturing. Being positive is the only way. Positive pictures demand positive results from the subconscious – if we think negatively then we can expect negative results.

I realise my subconscious power is moving me to perform what I am consciously picturing in my mind. I control what I picture and picture only what I want to see happen

5) Self-image and performance are always equal. To change your performance you must first change your self-image. The subconscious is always asking the conscious mind what it sees, then it starts to push in that direction. The speed is determined by the self-image. Sadly most people believe you can’t do anything about your behaviour and cannot change the way you are. In fact you are changing all the time as you age. The direction of the change can be determined by you or for you.

Your self-image is like the accelerator in a car and controls the speed and distance you can achieve. You limit yourself by your self-image. We all have a ‘comfort zone’, the upper and lower limits being defined by our self-image. As long as we are in the zone our self-image is content to leave us alone – however if we start scoring better or worse than our comfort zone, the self-image tends to slow us down or speed us up till we are back in the zone. Change the zone and we change the performance – to change the zone we must first change the self-image.

I am aware that my performance and self-image are equal. I am eager to change my habits and attitudes to increase my performance

6) You can replace the self-image you have with the self-image you want, thereby permanently changing performance. Most of us are aware that something has to change for our lives to improve but we want the change to be in others or other things and not in ourselves. NOTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE UNLESS YOU CHANGE YOURSELF FIRST. The self-image resists change. At times it will even discourage you – ‘What makes you think you can beat this girl, you’ve never done it before?’ instead of ‘We are going to do whatever it takes to win this time.’

I am responsible for changing my self-image. I will choose the habits and attitudes I want and cause my self-image to change till it ends up as I want it to be

7) The principle of balance – when the conscious, subconscious and self-image are all balanced and working together, good performance is easy. In this state you work smoothly, efficiently and seemingly effortlessly towards your goal – you are balanced and in harmony and great performances can become a reality. The key is the ability to experience this state under pressure and on demand.

I cause my conscious, subconscious and self-image to move towards being in balance thus increasing my performance without frustration

8) The principle of reinforcement. The more we think about, talk about and write about something happening, the more we improve the probability of it happening. Concentration is nothing more than the control of your mental picture. Remember the subconscious moves you to do what the conscious mind pictures. If you can control the picture you control the performance. Be careful what you think about! Picture doing well and don’t spend time listening to the problems of others lest you inherit their problems. What you want to talk about is your good shots – by doing this you increase the probability that you will have more good shots in the future. Fill your thoughts only with your best performances and you cannot help but be successful.

I choose to think about, talk about and write about what I wish to have happen in my life

9) The self-image cannot tell the difference between what actually happens and what is vividly imagined. Rehearsal is mental practice. You are mentally duplicating everything you do when you’re on the table. Rehearse only good performances so that there is no negative reinforcement. Mental practice can be powerfully effective. If you consistently rehearse what you want to achieve, what you imagine can become reality. Rehearsal also controls pressure, the stress you feel when you are in competition. Pressure is in fact neither good nor bad and is necessary for performance. Too little or too much and bad consequences occur, the right amount and world records fall.

Pressure can be divided into two parts – anxiety and arousal. Anxiety is fear. We fear many things and fear is not always a bad thing. What many people do not understand is that fear can be controlled and one of the best ways is through experience. Rehearsal can help by giving us mental experience in a pressure situation. Rehearsal reduces fear. The second part of pressure is arousal – this is your level of excitement. There is a point between relaxation and arousal where your mental performance is maximised. It is sometimes difficult to attain this optimum mental level. Rehearsing that you are playing well will help you in this respect, especially a few minutes before you go on court.

The self-image cannot tell the difference between what actually happens and what is vividly imagined

10) The principle of value – we appreciate things in direct proportion to the price we pay for them. People who struggle for years to achieve a goal appreciate it even more. Challenges on the journey are also not only common but of value. Finding solutions to problems is essential to growth.

I realise that the problems I must overcome to reach my goals just increase the value of the goals, once they are achieved

4. Performance analysis

This is the process of recording essential information that tracks your progress and needs to take only a few minutes per day. The purpose of a journal is to add organisation to your training programme – it should contain a written record of five key planning areas. A performance journal provides athlete and coach with a valuable resource for improvement without burdening either with unnecessary paperwork.

  • Your schedule. This identifies time slots that you plan to devote to some area of your training.
  • Your diary. Fill out training and competition sessions, time spent and what you accomplished.
  • Your solution analysis. Your chance to write down solutions to any challenges you have discovered during training/competition. Also anything you have learned and even problems you have not solved. Reference to this section will reduce further errors.
  • Your success analysis. Here write down anything you did well. When you do this you improve the probability that you will repeat the success.
  • Your daily goal statement. Goal statements should be achievements which are currently out of reach but not out of sight. Every time we write down a goal we are that much closer to reaching it.

Another use for your journal is to record you training and competition programme for the year. Schedule all your major tournaments both home and abroad in the master calendar. Look for any conflicts with school, work or family commitments. Count the number of training days till the next competition and then over the whole year – you may be surprised at how few there are. Prioritise your training –which is best for you and your development – an England training camp or training in Germany or France? Maximise the training hours available by planning in advance. Too often valuable training time is lost due to inadequate planning.

Next write down a projected training budget for each quarter.

  • What new equipment will you need to reach your goals for the year?
    • What is the best time to test such items and if you need to buy them what is the cost?
    • What supplies do you need (balls for example)?
    • Don’t lose training days through poor planning.
  • What are the travel costs to get to competitions, matches, training etc? Consider both fuel costs and accommodation – do you have friends or family you can stay with. By planning in advance you may be able to combine say a competition and training camp and save money or even to travel with another player/coach.
  • What fees will be charged for entering tournaments, training, camps etc?

Divide your year into quarters as each period may be different in terms of goals and focus. A lesser time period is also easier to track and to record. Some parts of the year your priority may be competition while other parts you can work on conditioning or new ideas.

Also do not make the mistake of omitting to allow time for rest, repair and reflection. You need time away from your sport to reflect on your goals, training methods, where you are going and how to get there. During this period you can draw up an outline plan for the coming year.

Finally you should set up training objectives for the year in 3 major areas –

  1. What aims do you wish to achieve in training by the end of the first quarter?
  2. How many hours will you average in each training day?
  3. How will you spend these hours?

A well-planned training programme will improve your competition results.

5. Goal Setting System

One habit separates the top 5% of winners from the 95% who just play – the setting of goals.

  1. Decide exactly what you want. Exact and exciting goals.
  2. Decide when you want it. Time limit helps you to focus.
  3. List why you want the goal. What reasons are important? Should be your goal and exciting.
  4. Determine the obstacles in your way. What habits and attitudes must you change? How much extra time must you put in?
  5. What is your plan to get your goal? Prepare a written plan.
  6. Ask important questions. Will the plan work? Is the prize worth the price?
  7. Schedule your plan. Put your plans on a calendar. Monthly and daily.
  8. Start now. Don’t hesitate. Put in quality effort, consistently and you can do anything.
  9. Never reach a goal without setting another one. Once you near your goal, goal-set beyond this.
  10. Never, never quit. Be persistent, stay with your plan until it’s completed.

6. Improve concentration by running a mental programme

Winning requires you to develop a consistent mental picture. It is possible to duplicate an exact mental series of pictures before every performance, thus achieving mental consistency. Running a mental programme serves two vital purposes –

  • The mental programme is a series of thoughts which, when pictured in the conscious mind, will trigger the subconscious to perform the appropriate action.
  • The mental programme controls the thought process occupying the conscious mind. An occupied conscious mind cannot choke, be pressured or have a break in concentration.

The mental programme should be run every time and for every rally. It has five steps and should be run in training as well as competition –

  1. The point of initiation.
  2. The point of attitude.
  3. The point of direction.
  4. The point of control.
  5. The point of focus.

POI -- Grip the racket properly and assume the usual ready stance for the serve or receive.
POA – What does it feel like to serve well? Decide how to serve or receive – receive may be more than one alternative.
POD – Picture a smooth serve/receive action and good contact on the ball.
POC – Maintain balance and prepare the racket for the serve/receive.
POF – Focus on the ball, keeping the head still and play.

By running the mental programme you do not have time to think of anything negative or to be distracted. You are protected from failure and a bad performance.

7. Skills Development

The subconscious is where your skills are developed and where your training should be focused. The amount of your skill and the size of your subconscious circle are determined by three factors –

  1. How often you train.
  2. How efficiently you train.
  3. What you reinforce.

1) Catch yourself doing something right. Far too often players concentrate on what they are doing wrong and try to isolate the cause of their problems. What they really need to do is to study the right way of doing things. If you study failure you will become an expert on how to fail! Instead think only of your successes and never of your failures. Always talk positively. ‘Next time I will hit a better shot’. ‘That’s a good shot, what did I do right’.

2) Train four or five days a week. One day a week is worse than none at all, two or three will maintain your level, four or five (working hard) and you will improve.

3) Wherever you are be all there. Don’t think about other things (home, work, family etc.) in the training or competition hall. Be there 100%.

4) Rehearse the match day in the training session. Rehearse in your mind that each training is the competition. Feel the match, make it vivid in your mind.

5) When you are playing well, play a lot. When you are performing well that’s the time to train more. When you have a bad day, stop – don’t practise losing.

6) We raise and lower ourselves to the standard around us. Train with people who are better than you and you will get better. It is vital to be around winners. Seek opportunities to be around people who are where you want to be.

7) Make a bet with yourself, when you win it, pay up. Make a bet that you will attain a goal (five hundred forehands without a mistake) and when you reach it, reward yourself. You will soon find you are working harder in training and enjoying your improvement.

8. Build a better you

Are any of these attitudes familiar?

  • I’m great in practice but not so good in matches.
  • I start well but lose it at the end.
  • My forehand won’t work today.
  • I’m technically sound in my game but get nervous under pressure.
  • I can’t stay calm when things go wrong.

These are the type of statements you hear from many players. They are all temporary self-image attitudes and can be changed. Why not –

  • I perform better in matches than in training.
  • I always finish well.
  • My forehand never lets me down.
  • I always perform well but especially under pressure.
  • I’m always calm and cool even when things go wrong.

What can account for the change? All you have to do is to shift the self-image and the change will be permanent. We all tend to perform within a certain ‘comfort zone’. Your self-image keeps you within the zone and makes you ‘act like you’. If you perform inadequately then the self-image turns up the power till you are back in the zone. But if you do too well the self-image cuts the power till you drop back into the zone again. If you are in the zone the self-image is content and does not interfere. The means that if you wish to perform better then you must change your self-image and raise the ‘comfort zone’ levels.

This is the most important skill you will ever learn because you can only change and improve performance by changing your self-image. To do this however you must accomplish 4 important tasks –

  1. You must be willing to undergo change.
  2. You must identify the habits and attitudes you need to change.
  3. You must set up a new self-image which is in direct conflict with the old.
  4. You must exchange your old self-image for the desired new one.

If you turn your weaknesses into strengths, your performance will surely benefit. In this respect problems and frustrations are valuable keys to your success. For most athletes often their problems are negative attitudes and poor reinforcement. Each time you do something good, reinforce it – ‘Yes that’s good’. Each time you miss, forget it. Olympic athletes call this technique – feast or forget. Run a mental programme before each match. Reinforce success by recording details in the journal. The self-image cannot stand a conflict, if the old and the new are radically different then something has to go. If you continue to visualise your new self at some point the conflict will be resolved by the exchange of the old attitudes for the new.

9. The directive affirmation

This is a paragraph written in the first person present tense describing a person’s goal, what the goal is worth, the plan to reach the goal and the habits and attitudes affecting the attainment of the goal. It is rehearsed repetitively causing the self-image to change.

September 30th 2006. I am the best girl table tennis player of my age in the UK and among the best 25 women in the country. I enjoy the recognition as the best in the country. I have taken a major step towards the accomplishment of my next goal – to be European Number One. I always run a mental programme before each match I play and reinforce each successful shot by saying – ‘That’s the one’ or ‘Good girl’. I am a member of the best club in Great Britain. I record my performance analysis and read and visualise my directive affirmation every day. I train or play matches 4 to 5 times per week for up to 3 hours a time. I train on close-to-table play and also defending from further back. I utilise progressive serve and receive practice and work to increase my forehand spin and power. I exercise each day. I feel and look great. I am stronger, fitter and faster every day. I am the best girl table tennis player of my age in the UK and among the best 25 women in the country.

Reshaping the mind is very like reshaping the body. If you have a poor attitude, the likely cause is repetitive negative reinforcement rather than repetitive overeating. Repetitive change of your thinking habits is the best way to bring about an attitude change. The directive affirmation is a tool to effect permanent change.

RUN YOUR DIRECTIVE AFFIRMATION FOR 21 DAYS MAXIMUM THEN TAKE AT LEAST 9 DAYS REST.

10. Seven strategies of the mentally tough

1) Transportation. This is an important way to shorten the amount of time you need to move from being just good at what you do, to being great or the best. The fastest way to evolve is to transport the habits and attitudes you need to perform at a higher level and adopt them now. Essentially this means that you mentally transport yourself to a higher level of performance. Imagine yourself being at this level now. Grab hold of the champion’s habits and attitudes and bring them back to where you are today. Don’t live in the present mentally – use the principle of transportation to take you where you want to be.

2) Your past is not a prison. Mentally tough people do not think about the past. Your present is not your potential. How you perform today doesn’t determine how you will perform in the future – unless you allow your past to pull you back.

3) Imitate the champions. Find out what the best players in your sport are doing and how they are behaving and you do the same. I guarantee that the top 1% are not thinking like the other 99%! If you think and train like most people then you’ll perform like most people. How do you find out what the champions are doing? Ask them!

4) Train hard, compete easy. The mentally tough work much harder in training than in competition. Outwork your competitors, go that extra mile. But don’t over-try in competition – we’re often taught that the harder we try the better we’ll do. Relaxation is the key – find the right level for you which gives peak performance.

5) Visualise before the match. Success in your sport will certainly be enhanced if you rehearse you actions mentally prior to a crucial activity. Mentally go through the competition the evening before and again before playing on the day. Rehearse your strategies and think only positive thoughts – think back to some of the best games you have played and how well you performed with very little effort. Your game just flowed! If you do this your subconscious will be primed, like a guided missile, with the kind of performance you expect to have.

6) Take all problems as positive. You cannot always control what happens – what you can control is how you handle what happens. Every problem has a positive side. Look on problems as a challenge, as an opportunity. Obstacles are only obstacles when you allow them to be. Shut the door on the past and open the door of the future. Ask one question – ‘Who is the one person in the world who can best help me solve this problem’. Go to him or her and only talk with this person and no-one else.

7) Have big dreams. Don’t settle for mediocrity – dream big and big rewards will follow. Dreams will drive you to accomplish great things, things happen when you dream big, the doors of opportunity will open wide. When you set a big goal, you become energised and this will help you to do things that were impossible to do before.

When you work with elite performers you observe a pattern. In every group of people you find 80% thinking one way, 15% thinking nearly the opposite and the top 5% who innovate.

The Winning Mind: Summary

Larry Bassham (2007)

I control what I picture in my mind and I think about what I want to happen in my life.

I remind myself that what others see when I speak and act is vital to my image. this determines how strong or weak they are in competition against me.

I trust my subconscious to guide my performance in competition. I am so well trained that all my performance is carried out subconsciously.

I realise my subconscious power is moving me to perform what I am consciously picturing in my mind. I control what I picture and picture only what I want to see happen.

I am aware that my performance and self-image are equal. I am eager to change my habits and attitudes to increase my performance.

I am responsible for changing my self-image. I will choose the habits and attitudes I want and cause my self-image to change till it ends up as I want it to be.

I cause my conscious, subconscious and self-image to move towards being in balance thus increasing my performance without frustration.

I choose to think about, talk about and write about what I wish to have happen in my life.

The self-image cannot tell the difference between what actually happens and what is vividly imagined.

I realise that the problems I must overcome to reach my goals just increase the value of the goals, once they are achieved.

Willpower

Baumeister/Muraven (2000)

Everyone’s inner resolve is occasionally stretched to the limit. Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University believes that self-control requires inner strength and effort and this means you can use it up.

He and Mark Muraven, now at the University of New York, demonstrated this in 1998 by putting volunteers in the position of resisting certain temptations of varying difficulty. After about 5 minutes the volunteers were given a test consisting of a series of impossible puzzles and were monitored to see how long they would persist in trying to solve these. People who had had to resist stronger temptations had less sticking power at the puzzles.

Baumeister believes that this is because we use up our store of willpower resources every time we make the effort to hold back or do something we don’t want to do. Exercising willpower is like exercising a muscle and it takes time for the resources use to be replenished. Making difficult decisions and coping with stress may deplete the same resources, also sapping willpower.

He has since suggested that blood glucose levels are the key to keeping our willpower strong. By giving people a sugary lemonade drink before they completed a willpower exercise, he found that subsequent self-control was not depleted in the same way as in those who had no drink at all or who had an artificially sweetened drink (Psychological Science Vol 19 Page 255). ‘Conscious, effortful control uses energy’ he concludes. This could explain why all-encompassing health drives so often fail. Kicking a habit may take up all your available willpower, leaving very little in the tank to fuel a new exercise regime or healthy eating plan.

Zen and the Art of Table Tennis (Peter K. Tyson)

Peter K. Tyson 2011

An interesting approach from Peter Tyson exploring the Eastern philosophy and its relevance to Western sport, particularly table tennis. It is also stressed that many of our top players already use a very similar mental approach! A number of excerpts from the book appear below.(Amazon UK Kindle version is reasonably priced)

Waldner: ‘Use your head. Mental strength is a vast and important subject…. The starting point must be yourself…. I studied many successful Swedish athletes…. I was impressed by their calmness when competing.’

Syed: ‘The choker is thinking too much and this over-analysis of every shot leads to him falling apart’.

Werner Schlager advises a smooth playing rhythm: ‘Always think to be creative and innovative and work in combinations, so that you flow from one sequence to another’.

Top players see the need for Zen qualities like calmness and mental strength without making the philosophical connection and actually naming them as such.

Hodges sees the differences between players at the higher level as ‘mostly mental’… and advocates the qualities of calmness, positive thinking and relaxation as well as techniques like deep breathing.

Hamersley stresses calmness, self-control, confidence, the will to win, positive thinking and positive body language.

Practice does not mean cruising in a comfort zone and just going through the motions. It means purposeful, challenging practice with specialised training and deep concentration. Quality of practice is as important as quantity. For Syed…the Chinese are so successful… because they train more smartly with practice which pushes the player harder until they are out of their comfort zone.

Positive thinking is necessary and belief, even if the belief has no rational basis and is false. Its enemy is doubt, which undermines the player’s ability, affects confidence and leads to failure – ‘doubt to a sportsman is poison’. Arsene Wenger asks his players for intense belief and ‘irrational optimism’ which eliminate all doubt. Even after a dire defeat, players need to filter out unwanted evidence and take the positive out of the defeat in order to sustain exaggerated belief in their own abilities.

Junior players can easily forget the basics like thorough practice and a decent warm-up. They think, sometimes, that they can go into a game cold, without knocking and naively expect their shots to flow by magic. They can have totally unrealistic expectations. They believe they need to play at 100% every match… If they miss a shot and lose a point, they can take it out of context, get frustrated and their game can fall apart. A lack of harmony between mind and body sets in, destroying them. Young players need to see that often a game can be won without many winning shots, just by forcing opponent errors and that against a weaker opponent a 70% performance is usually good enough.

Zen has a lot to offer. Practice and training are crucial. The more you practise, the easier it is to reach an unconscious, automatic state which allows you to stay calm. You’ve played the shots so many times before, you remain comfortable and don’t choke, even in tight situations.

Table tennis is a tough, fast game with very fine margins of error. It only takes very slight mistakes in timing or positioning to send a ball flying into the net or off the end of the table. Therefore self-control is crucial. If you have harmony of mind and body, unconscious automatic shot-making resulting from lots of practice, a relaxed, calm demeanour and a positive attitude, you have a chance. If your self-control breaks down and you become a prima donna, you only become a loser.