Change or Die

Rowden Fullen 1990s

Change is the very essence of life. Everything which exists is the result of and is subject to continuous change. Unless we ourselves change we remain in the same place, we stay as we were. If we are satisfied with what we are and what we have, then we will not evolve or develop, instead we stagnate.

The table tennis player who refuses to change or who is happy or satisfied with his or her play, will remain at the same level and will stop developing. Many players in fact do not even realize that their game has crystallized and is not progressing — they train in the same way with the same exercises, the same serves and do not understand the significance of the fact that nothing new is happening in their game. Many more unfortunate cases are sadly frozen in the mind and are not even prepared to consider that they should try anything new or different.

The single most vital factor in terms of restricting innovative thinking is size — train players in large groups and nothing happens. Everyone thinks the same thing at the same time, there is a pressure to conform whether it is intended or not, a group uniformity. Put three people on a committee and something happens, ten and it gets harder, fifty and nothing gets done. Any biologist will tell you that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. Put 150 birds on an ocean island and they evolve fast, put 10 million on a big continent and evolution slows and stops. For the human species evolution occurs mostly through behaviour — we innovate new behaviour to adapt and change. The effect of large groups, of mass media, is to stop behavioural change. Mass media swamps diversity, all differences vanish, even humanity’s most necessary resource, intellectual diversity, disappears.

In the big clubs with many players at varying levels, the chances of new innovative styles of play or new lines of thought emerging are extremely remote. With large training groups and few coaches, development becomes stereotyped and rigid, systems take over and the individual emphasis and personal touch are lost. There is neither the time nor the opportunity to focus on what is individual in style to each particular player. The group as a whole drifts without guidance into a general style of play and development of new and different aspects is slowed down or lost. Equally training itself, the process of training becomes devalued – players work within the group and often work very hard indeed but in many cases without ever knowing why! They train because they want to be better – how can they achieve any destination when they don’t know where they are going or how to get there?

In the small clubs there is the time and the opportunity for the individual focus and often players who are different or unusual will emerge because training is less formal and there is more chance for personal talent to flower and reach maturity. However unfortunately because of the lack of knowledge and coaching expertise, often such players will develop with built-in limitations which restrict just how far they can go.

As we said at the start of this article, change is the very essence of life, but now we are coming to realize that change may not necessarily mean improvement or development. Change in itself can be a truly futile exercise if it doesn’t lead in a positive direction. An essential ingredient is often missing if change is to be really effective and to lead to major success – informed guidance. And even informed guidance is insufficient unless it is informed enough to allow the player’s own personal talent to flower.

Each player is a unique individual, with differing strengths, reactions and latent skills — you cannot force a player into a mould of your own choosing, rather you must coax the unborn style from the player, rather like delivering a new-born child. However the development of a player is a complex affair and the duties of a coach cover a number of areas. In some areas the player should be forced into a pattern — the experienced coach will be well aware that there are techniques that work and those which don’t, those that can be developed and those which can’t, just as the experienced sergeant-major knows there are only certain proven ways to train new recruits.

In the areas of technique, tactics and physical development, there should be a certain rigidity, certain patterns to which the player should adhere if he or she wants to reach the highest levels. There is little point in training hard for 8 or 9 years only to find that you have technical limitations to further development – it is difficult if not impossible to back-track and change long-established patterns and thinking.

It is in the areas of the mind, the mental approach and the development of style where the coach cannot force the player into a mould. In the final analysis it is only the player who can choose to play safe or to take risks, to assess the percentages, to judge the value of being positive or negative. Equally it is the players’ own minds which will prompt them in the direction of their own personal style. The players’ own instincts will tell them if they are most comfortable playing fast or slow, close to the table or away, attack or defence, loop or drive, (if only the players will heed their own instincts, many don’t). Each player is unique, no two players play the same even though styles may be similar. Each player is also unique in qualities and characteristics, reactions, physical strength, stamina, speed of movement, touch, flexibility, cardio-vascular intake – and it is these qualities which will guide the coach and player towards an end style. There is little point in pushing a player for example towards close play if he or she has slow reactions and can’t cope with speed. It should go without saying that a player’s style should be based on his or her greatest strengths. You do not achieve the highest levels by working hard in areas where you will never be more than mediocre.

As a coach advising a player on style you are rather like a detective solving a crime — it’s no good conceiving a theory and trying to fit everything into that theory, then throwing aside a few little facts that don’t fit. The facts that will not fit in are usually significant – as are the unique qualities of a player in determining style.

Many coaches will tell you for instance that there is a much bigger variety of styles in the women’s game but that basically most of the top men play the same. Not strictly true. Just look at the great Swedish players of modern times, Waldner, Persson, Karlsson, Lindh and Appelgren, all very different in style. It is of particular interest to note that it is in fact these older players and not the younger element in Sweden, who continue to be inventive and innovative. Waldner especially refuses to play a standard game, even in his third decade of competition at the highest level he is still looking for new things, to do old things differently. Whether consciously or not he understands that without change there is no development and he continues to resist the stagnation that comes with satisfaction and achievement and tries to keep his style alive. You can fault his over-inventive play at times but you cannot fault his thinking – he knows that style is a living growing organism.

Each of you at whatever level you play, will only progress and develop if you change and if you are prepared to accept in your own mind that such change is necessary. And by change we do not just mean getting bigger and stronger and faster! If all you are doing is moving faster and hitting the ball harder than you did 2/3 years ago, then there is a good chance your game is starting to stagnate and progress has stopped.

It is up to each one of you, if you wish to reach full potential, to monitor your own progress and to question what is happening with your own game. You should be asking yourself — ‘How has my game changed in the last 6 months or one year and what things are new?’ Do you for example have any new serves, have you developed existing serves, are you thinking of ways to make your receive more effective? Are any of your strokes changing, earlier timing, more use of sidespin, slower spin, change of speed? Have you considered the value of different equipment, slower, faster rubbers, or pimples or change of blade? Are you happy in your own mind with the way you play, your own style — is it effective or do you have problems against certain types of player? If you have problems, what can you do about them?

And of course if you have areas where you are not happy and have doubts as to which way to go, you should seek advice, informed advice. Be prepared to listen to others, as many as is necessary, it’s your future in the balance! But remember in the final analysis, though others may point the way, the final decision is yours alone. Remember also that the one person who has stopped progressing is the one who says — ‘Now I know it all and there’s nothing I need to change.’

The Brain

T. Horne and S. Wootton 2009

The young adult brain

In 2004, brain imager, Jay Giedd realised that the explosive growth in the young adult brain normally continues till the age of 25, much longer than had previously been thought. He found that the development of the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that deals with decision making tends to lag behind the development of the rest of the brain. Small wonder that young adults struggle with reasoning, planning and making decisions, unless they are given specific metacognitive teaching and support.

Causes of damage and decline in the adult brain

It is fortunate that brain training can repair damage as the adult brain is susceptible to damage from –

  • Alcohol
  • Poor diet and additives in processed foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Grief, pessimism or depressed moods
  • Stress and raised blood pressure
  • Environmental threats
  • Lack of conversational relationship

If you stay healthy mental performance doesn’t necessarily decline as you age. In 2002 Quartz reported on the famous case of the 4000 nuns. The nuns who remained mentally active (teaching etc.) lived on average 4 years longer and their brain autopsies showed on average 40% more synapses and thicker myelin insulation on their axons. Thinking adds to your life and life into your years.

Vitamins and minerals

At least 10 different B vitamins affect the neurotransmitters in the brain. Beneficial effects from vitamins C, B1 and B5 and the minerals Boron, Zinc and Selenium are better obtained through long-term adjustments to diet rather than supplements. You can usefully increase the proportions of berries such as black and redcurrants, bilberries, strawberries and especially blueberries. Also try increasing the proportion of spinach, green cabbage broccoli and watercress. (Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables). Selenium is found in seafood, whole–grain bread, nuts and meat. Boron exists in broccoli, pears, peaches, grapes, nuts and dried beans and zinc in fish, beans and whole grains.

Beware too of fat-free diets. Without unsaturated fats in your diet your brain cannot produce acetylcholine and without this your brain cells will become ‘stiff’ and brittle. You will suffer memory loss and your thinking speed and accuracy will deteriorate. Such a fat-free diet may not only kill your brain cells it may also kill you! De Angelis found that low-fat diets increased death rates from depression, suicide and accidents. Eating protein increases the supply of neurotransmitters and the implication is that we should eat more if we wish to be mentally alert and quick thinking.

School breakfast clubs often offer toast and jam – this will rapidly metabolise into glucose and produce insulin-driven hunger pangs well before lunch. Even milk and cereal (especially if sugary) will burn up within two hours. To work, breakfast clubs must provide protein and complex carbohydrates.

The brain science of dark chocolate

The magnesium in dark chocolate decreases the coagulation of your blood. This will help your heart to deliver more blood to your brain. This will not only raise the thinking speed and thinking power of your brain, it will also protect your brain from the damage caused by high blood pressure. Dark chocolate also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors. These allow the levels of serotonin and dopamine in your brain to remain higher for longer, alleviating depression and producing feelings of well-being.

Free radicals attack and oxidise the DNA in your brain, creating growth points for tumours as well as the onset of premature ageing. Cheng Lee at Cornell University, USA, proved that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, called flavonols, which mop up the free radicals before they can oxidise your brain. It is twice as rich in flavonols as red wine and three times richer than green tea. The flavonols in dark chocolate also make your blood platelets less likely to stick together and thus less likely to cause brain damage through a stroke. Lee found that a normal cup of drinking chocolate, based on dark chocolate, contained about 600 mg of the flavonoid epicatechin.

Eating dark chocolate substantially increases your mental speed and energy because it contains the brain stimulant theobromine. (Caffeine can also give your brain a temporary boost but it has fatiguing short-term and more dangerous long-term side-effects.) The effect of theobromine is gentler and more sustained than that of caffeine, it lasts 4 times longer and is much kinder to the heart. Dark chocolate contains about 21% theobromine (up to 450mg per oz) and it works as a brain stimulant by relaxing muscles and helping to dilate veins and arteries thus allowing blood to flow more easily to the brain. Dark chocolate also contains up to 2.2% PEA (phenylethylamine) which activates the neurotransmitters in the brain which control mental attention and alertness.

Positive Thinking

Steps to overcoming negative emotions –

  • Carry out an audit only of your strengths. You have skills, resources and knowledge.
  • Forgive someone if only in your head. Let go of the negative memories that steal your head space, you need this for more positive thoughts.
  • Visualise how things will look when you have succeeded. Hear the applause and feel how you will feel at the moment of success.
  • Applaud yourself – discover you do not need the constant approval of those around you.
  • Try things that are difficult and give them your best shot. Accept that your best is good enough.
  • Admit that you are not all-powerful. You cannot be the cause of all that is bad or of bad feelings in others.

Steps to raise your optimism –

  • Collect qualifications and certificates
  • Read any further articles that catch your eye
  • Commit a random act of gratuitous kindness every day
  • Reduce the stress in your life
  • Spend time with people who share your sense of humour
  • Contact close family and old friends
  • Spoil yourself with meals out or shopping
  • Improve your appearance through exercise or tanning
  • Collect funny cards to send to people who are ill, to say thank you or for no reason
  • Keep a file of funny stories or jokes preferably at your own expense. Share one a day

The elements of involvement –

  • Your goal is clear – you know what you are trying to achieve
  • You feel up to it – you have the energy and resources
  • You feel you have a very good chance of achieving your goal
  • Your concentration can push aside any conflicting cares or concerns
  • You feel in control of the outcome
  • Your sense of achievement is immediate
  • Your sense of time is altered – how time flies when you are enjoying yourself


  • Explore what you are feeling before you try to think
  • Emotions can motivate, de-motivate or disable thinking
  • Hopes enhance performance. Anxiety and fear diminish it
  • Optimistic self-suggestion increases success in thinking tasks
  • Persistent low mood not only impairs thinking and health, it can have other serious consequences
  • The pursuit of happiness is fruitless
  • The pursuit of body-based pleasure, laughter, involvement and satisfaction will benefit the speed and accuracy of your thinking

Role of Physical Exercise

Physical training benefits your brain generally and your memory specifically. In 2005 Kramer used MRI scans to show that the normal rate at which your brain loses weight with age can be reduced, or even reversed, as a result of physical exercise. Exercise not only results in a stronger flow of blood, glucose and oxygen to the brain, it also stimulates the growth of new neurons, especially in and around your hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory.

To improve your memory, stick to reading aloud, writing and doing simple sums as quickly as you can. The reading aloud should be about topics that are new and interesting to you and the writing should preferably involve lots of drafting and re-drafting.

Environmental factors

In 2007 Professor Deepak Prasher found that noises exceeding 75 decibels raise your blood pressure, which damages your brain. Sudden intermittent background noises are more distracting to your brain than consistent high background noise. Background music has been found to reduce fatigue and improve concentration only if it is well matched to the thinking task in hand and to your preference as an individual. Communal background music actually impairs the thinking ability and concentration of around 20% of all people.

Changes in air pressure can alter your behaviour and trigger poor performance. Sunlight can also affect performance. The length and brightness of daylight affects your body’s melatonin and hormone levels and this influences the release of neurotransmitters in your brain, which affects alertness, responsiveness and mood and each, in turn, can affect your ability to think.

US defence studies report that heat stress (combination of high temperature and humidity) dramatically lowers scores in intellectual and physical tasks. High temperatures reduce performance in tasks that require accuracy and speed. A rise of only one degree in brain temperature is enough to disturb cognitive functioning.

Excessive stress increases the rate at which your body produces cortisol. High levels of cortisol in the body cause you to feel confused and can reduce your ability to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Research by Ostrander on over 4000 students demonstrated that excessive stress impairs learning, thinking, memory and problem solving and reduces IQ scores by up to 14 points (a very significant reduction).

Light affects your mood and your mental energy. It also affects your mental alertness and speed of thinking. For brainwork you need bright light and preferably natural light. Pierce Howard reports that three schools in North Carolina improved average test scores by up to 14% by increasing the use of natural lighting. If supplemented by artificial light use full spectrum ‘blue’ tubes – many bulbs emit too much red and violet light.

Computers, mobiles, Wi-Fi, televisions, faxes, copiers and air-conditioning can have damaging effects, as they affect the electrically charged particles called ‘ions’ which are present in the air at all times. The average concentration of negative ions inside air-conditioned offices is commonly around 150 per cubic centimetre. This should be compared to an average of 4000 in the mountains or 3000 in unpolluted air at ground level. Negative ions promote alpha waves of longer amplitude in the brain and these are associated with creative thinking. A low concentration of negative ions affects the level of serotonin in the blood and, according to Harper, this affects your ability to carry out tasks that require quick thinking and calculation.

Poor ventilation, traffic pollution and other people smoking all reduce the proportion of oxygen in the air. Neurons depend on oxygen to produce adenosine triphosphate, the fuel that energises the cell. Oxygen is carried in your body by the haemoglobin in the blood. When the air you breathe contains carbon monoxide this combines irreversibly with the haemoglobin in your blood to form carboxyhaemoglobin. This permanently reduces the capacity of your blood to carry oxygen to the brain.

Reflective Thinking

How to do better in the future

You can make the future profit from your past by using reflective thinking. This involves thinking about past experiences, yours and those of other people, in such a way that you can come to a present conclusion that strongly implies a future change. Reflective thinking pulls you out of the past, through the present and propels you into the future.

One way you can enhance your reflective thinking is to use visual thinking to replay your experience as a video tape in your mind. Try to imagine the tactile sensations as well as tastes and smells as you see and hear the tape. Better still, recount the experience to someone who is free to ask questions about what you remember. Focus first on positive feelings about the event, then express any negative feelings. The following questions can help:

Recalling what happened then:

  • Why did I act as I did?
  • What were the key issues?
  • What was I trying to achieve?
  • How did other people feel about it?
  • How do I know how they felt about it?
  • How did I feel at different points during this experience?
  • What were the consequences of my actions on others?
  • What influenced my decision making and actions?
  • What else should have influenced me?

Thinking about it now:

  • How do I feel about it now?
  • What other choices might I have had?
  • Could I have dealt better with the situation?

Looking forward to the future:

  • How might I support others better in the future?
  • What might I do differently as a result of what I know and think now?

Einstein was a ‘slow’ child, a late developer. He did not talk till he was 3 years old. He did poorly in school. Yet he revolutionised the world of physics. After he died scientists found no differences between his brain and yours and mine. Intelligence is not determined by the structure of the brain but by how you use it to think. It may be possible to think without learning but it’s not possible to learn without thinking. You cannot turn information into useful action without thinking. Applied thinking turns information into knowledge on which useful action can be based. Learning has 3 purposes:

  • To develop concepts
  • To develop skills that enable you to apply concepts
  • To develop the whole ‘persona’ the qualities, attitudes and dispositions which enable further growth without outside intervention.

Traditional teaching often neglects the second; modern teaching often neglects the third.

Learning Styles

‘The UK espouses theories of learning styles with scant regard for the evidence’. Phil Revell 31/05/2005 The Times.

Professor Coffield led a team which reported, in 2005, on the validity of the 13 most widely used theories of learning style and learning cycle. This included VAK (visual auditory kinaesthetic learning styles) which is the theory most widely used in the UK. His recommendation was that their use be discontinued. This recommendation has not been implemented to date in many schools and colleges. Similarly the GSD (Gregorc’s style delineator of 4 learning styles) learning style delineator was found to be ‘theoretically and psychometrically flawed’.

In short, brain research does not appear to support the idea that quality, persistence and extent and depth of learning are achieved by allowing the learner to use only a preferred learning style. What is important is that learning activities stimulate several parts of the brain simultaneously since this promotes the increased neural interconnectedness associated with the development of increased cognitive capacity. Repetition and practice are also important since they bequeath thickening of the myelin insulation on the axons of the neurons and this favours future thinking speed and accuracy.

Since learning involves thinking and thinking is difficult in groups, learning programmes or training courses which are heavily dependent on group work should be avoided. Paired learning, on the other hand, greatly aids thinking and mentoring, appraising, coaching and counselling relationships are to be encouraged. Visual thinking is not only helpful when predicting and learning but, because it involves at least 23 separate areas of the brain, it is a great warm-up and a good way to expand the connectedness and overall cognitive capacity of your brain.

Learning through thinking

  • Favour total immersion in multi-faceted, multi-level problem solving
  • Seek out experiences which are emotionally involving
  • Have the kind of critical conversations that develop your capacity for internal dialogue. Rehearse the application of your ideas in ‘your mental laboratory’.
  • Where possible, avoid working on your own. Involve someone else
  • Avoid groups except for information gathering or feeding back inferences and implications
  • Paired working is the most effective. Develop mentoring, coaching and counselling relationships
  • Seek out tutors who emphasise exploration and shared learning.

Attitude on court

Rowden Fullen 2010

Not many people can read and understand what is going on in your mind, the best person to make changes here is YOU! When you play really well you have to try and repeat that, by duplicating your mental approach and by doing exactly the same thing again. Equally when you play badly how did you approach the game and what were you thinking about? You have to try and isolate the things which make you play well or badly.

Two aspects will help you –
1. Being calm and cool at all times. You can see from certain players’ behaviour when they start to ‘lose it’ that getting emotional just doesn’t help at all. It makes you play worse because you can’t think well when you’re all wound up.
2. Try to be alert to changes from the opponent’s end of the table. Is he/she playing more short balls, suddenly playing out to your forehand more, pushing more to your backhand? You have to be ready to counter any change of tactics. Equally if she is now strong in areas where she was weak before, it is you who may have to change tactics directly.

What all players must bear in mind is that some areas of table tennis are the prerogative of the player and should not be dictated by the coach. Only the player can decide her most comfortable distance from the table, how positive she wants to be when the game is close etc. This is of course why players and coaches should talk and work together and why the relationship should be two way.

Above all you have to play ‘your game’ as much as you can in matches. It’s only if your game is unsuccessful that you may need to play in an alternative ‘secondary’ manner. Sometimes it pays to play weakness against weakness, rather than strength to strength.

Equally when the opponent copes easily with your game, you have to think your way round the problem and not become passive. Table tennis is about being active and adapting to new situations all the time and recognising when you have to change something. It’s also about starting to think for yourself and not just relying on others throughout your career.

One thing that most top players 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 emphasised 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.

The big difference between the winner and the loser is in attitude. If you really want to 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.


• The 5 C’s
– Commitment
– Concentration
– Communication
– Control
– Confidence

These 5 are essential ingredients to achieve sporting excellence.

Check List

• Remain fully focused on the task at hand
• Avoid arguments or blaming others for mistakes
• Manage emotions positively
• Maintain positive body language throughout
• Have a positive attitude and self-belief
• Look calm and collected no matter what the situation

Try to have a mature but decisive approach on court, always calm enough to think logically about what needs to be done.

Control the Head (Adam Kelly: Sports Psychology Researcher Southampton Solent)

Top athletes train day after day to meet the demands of competition as best they can at the big event. Unfortunately this can be just the time when things go dramatically wrong. Then it is far too easy for the wrong phrases to spring unbidden into the mind: ‘Am I really good enough?’ ‘I can’t understand why I put myself through this time and time again!’ ‘This always happens when I’m under pressure’.

How can the athlete really perform with thoughts like this running through the head? So how do you change and minimise the effect of a crisis? The very first thing is to take emotion out of the situation and look at this time of acute difficulty as a chance to start making changes or as a turning point in your development!
Most coaches are only too well aware that staying objective and taking emotion out of the situation is the best thing the athlete can do, but this is easier said than done. The key to dealing with crisis is to stay calm. We are always receiving a variety of stimuli from all around us, we cannot control the stimuli but we can control our reaction. A commentator may say an athlete is ‘as cool as a cucumber’, when actually his/her strength is just controlling the reaction to the present stimuli. The primitive part of our brain wants just to react, when in fact we as humans have developed to use our brain to make decisions based on our previous or similar experiences. We don’t just have to react automatically, we are better than that; we can come up with a variety of solutions/alternatives. In sport there always comes a moment when the athlete faces up to and conquers adversity. Why do some succeed more easily than others? Surely preparation for and experience in such situations is a key factor in success!
What we need to do is to introduce unexpected or ‘panic’ scenarios into the training hall, so we start to have experience in dealing with situations before we encounter them in the big event. Equally if we react in a bad way, make regular technical or tactical errors or can’t cope with certain situations or pressures, then the occasion to tackle this is again in training sessions. Don’t think this will always be easy or straight forward: many deep-seated problems will take considerable time to sort out and we will usually have to change our mental approach in a number of areas. Another aspect which can help too is to visualise possible ‘worst case scenarios’ and to see yourself coping with these; if you can do this, often when you have to deal with the reality, you are in fact more prepared.
When you implement such scenarios into training, this helps provide experience of crisis situations or helps players to correct technical or mental deficiencies. They can try new methods or reinforce certain tactics, mindsets and techniques without being in a pressure situation. When the athlete is familiar with such situations and corrective techniques he/she is more experienced/prepared to cope on the bigger stage. Positive work in the training hall will pay dividends in efficiency and self-confidence and is the best way to change habits and attitudes.
But also bear in mind the positive side of the coin. In many cases the athlete only has to make small changes to achieve big results. To go up from 50 in the world rankings to 5 may only require improving by one or two points per game; marginal improvements can mean big steps forward. Too often at the higher levels in sport athletes feel there is too much to do to achieve real top results and this impacts on their motivation. In fact often they are wrong and less is needed than they think.
To summarise we need to be calm at all times, to control our reaction to the stimuli or situation we are facing, by thinking and not reacting on our primitive instincts. This will give us the best chance of making good decisions, which can turn the performance around. Try to plan future training, competition tactics and techniques in detail to include back-up plans for crisis situations and recurring technical/tactical problems. Have a plan. Coaches and players need to work together to provide clear direction and a rationale for facing present and future difficulties.
Even when we have doubts, we can still turn the performance around. But what performers who can do this have in common is an inner belief that they will succeed and that gradually they are getting closer to the ‘breakthrough’. They trust their training regime, believe they are going in the right direction and will eventually get to the higher levels. Self-believe can be built up by various other factors too: previous experience, the performance of team or club-mates, which can give you more confidence, your physical condition (high level condition gives you a big boost) and verbal persuasion/encouragement by coaches and team-mates.
The underpinning for success in any sport is preparation. Coaches can provide the best training but if you, the athlete, do not buy into the session, then it becomes pointless. Athletes should be looking to improve every day and every training session and once in the training hall should utilise every minute. In conclusion we all need to take emotion out of the ‘crisis’ situation and work only with the facts. Coaches understand that the athlete looks to them for guidance and direction, equally the athlete should take on board that the coach expects him/her to believe in his/her own abilities.
A final word of warning. Problems which have been with you for a long time will take time to eradicate and will require mental effort. You will often be pulled back into the same old habits and unless you pause and make a definite commitment to change and do something different, you will automatically react in the same old way. If you don’t change, you stay as you are and you don’t move on. Change is the cornerstone of life, the one fact you can rely on absolutely, everything changes constantly.
Sadly many of us become locked into a circle of stagnation from which there seems no escape. We do the same old thing, react in the same old way and don’t seem to understand that change is even possible! You cannot change everything around you, it’s not always within your power, so don’t try to do it: but you can change yourself, you can learn new things, to react in different ways and to adapt and perform better in your environment. So go for it, don’t get left behind!

Go with the flow

Extracts from New Scientist 2012

Is there an easy way to prime your brain for awesome efficiency in any skill? ‘Flow’ is the elusive mental state, that feeling of effortless concentration which characterises outstanding performance in all kinds of skills.

According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action.

Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zen-like feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus completely on the activity in hand. The experience crops up repeatedly when experts describe what it feels like to be at the top of their game and with years of practice it becomes second nature to enter that state. Some people who experience this state at a far earlier stage in their training seem to be more naturally predisposed to the flow state than others.

This effortless concentration should speed up progress, while the joyful feelings which come with the flow state should make practice much easier, setting up athletes for further success, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University in California. Conversely, his research into the flow state in children shows that, as he put it: ‘Young people who didn’t enjoy the pursuit of the subject they were gifted in, whether it was maths, sport or music, stopped developing their skills and reverted to mediocrity’.

Many researchers have deemed the flow state too elusive a concept to tackle. In the late ‘70’s, Csikszentmihalyi, then a psychologist at the university of Chicago, helped change that view by showing that the state could be defined and studied empirically. He interviewed hundreds of talented people, artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess players and rock climbers. This enabled him to pin down 4key features that characterise flow.

1. An intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time

2. Auto-telicity – the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for ‘its own sake’
3. Finding the ‘sweet spot’, a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored
4. Automaticity – the sense that the ‘piano is playing itself’ without a great deal of input

Csikszentmihalyi used EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the brain waves of experts during activity. He found that the most skilled players showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher cognitive processes such as working memory and verbalisation. This may seem counter-intuitive, but silencing self-critical thoughts allow more automatic processes to take hold, which in turn produces the effortless feeling of flow.

Later studies have confirmed these findings and have revealed other neural signatures of flow. Chris Berka and her colleagues at the Advanced Brain Monitoring centre in Carlsbad, California, looked at the brain waves of archers and professional golfers. It was found that a few seconds before the arrow was released or the golf ball contacted, there was a small increase in what’s known as the Alpha band, one of the frequencies that arises from the electrical noise of all the brain’s neurons.

This surge in Alpha waves is associated, Berka says, with reduced activation of the cortex and is always more obvious in experts than novices. Her opinion is that it represents focused attention on the target while other sensory inputs are suppressed. She found these mental changes are accompanied by slower breathing and a lower pulse rate as you might expect from relaxed concentration.

Defining and characterising the flow state is all very well but could a novice learn to turn off his/her critical faculties and focus his/her attention in this way, thus boosting performance? Gabriele Wulf, a kinesiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helped to answer this question in 1998 when examining the way athletes move.

At the time she had no interest in the flow state, but she and her colleagues found they could quickly improve athletes’ abilities by asking them to focus their attention away from their body and on to some external point. Young skiers performed better and learned faster when they focused on a point ahead of them instead of on the movements they were executing at the time.

Wulf and her colleagues later found that an expert’s physical reactions require fewer and more economical muscle movements than those of a novice. They also experience less mental strain, lower heart rate and shallower breathing – all characteristics of the flow state. These findings were confirmed by later studies of expert and novice swimmers. Novices who concentrated on an external focus – the water’s movement around their limbs – showed the same effortless grace as those with much more experience, swimming faster and with a more efficient technique. Conversely when the expert swimmers focused on their movements and what they were doing, their performance declined.

Wulf’s findings fit in well with the idea that flow – and better learning – comes when you turn off conscious thought. When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automated control, you don’t think about what you are doing or how you do it, you focus more on the outcome.

Mental Grip

Rowden 2011

The Problem

Why are so many of us inclined to mess up at the precise moment when messing up is the last thing we want to do? Why are we so prone to fail when we most want to succeed? For years the paradox of ‘choking’ seemed incomprehensible to psychologists and sportsmen alike. It is only in recent years that neuroscientists have glimpsed the answers, and they are both intriguing and revelatory.

In effect, experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory and they perform almost without thinking about it. This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, use the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task.
But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find himself/herself using the 'wrong' system. It wouldn't matter how good he/she was because he/she would now be at the mercy of the explicit system. The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of his/her brain would count for nothing. He/she would find himself/herself striving for victory using neural pathways he/she last used as a novice. This is quite often what happens when the very experienced player starts doubting and questioning or when emotion takes over. He/she then starts monitoring the performance! A recipe for disaster!

The Reason

What happens is that we allow emotion to take over and especially we start to ‘doubt’ our performance and question our ability to succeed and to win. We think too much instead of concentrating only on the task at hand. When we doubt, we start to underperform and to dwell on this and to try to find reasons. This of course is fatal! Our mind is so constructed that when we are focusing on losing, it then programmes itself towards helping us to do just this.

The Solution

What is immediately necessary for us to do, is to take control of our own mind and to consciously ‘think’ success and to banish doubt. This often needs a conscious and focused effort on our part and if we are subject to negative thoughts, requires a regular programme of positive thinking. It doesn’t matter how ‘far out’ and over the top this positive thinking may be, it will work.
In order to perform way above your maximum you must believe beyond, over and above what is logical and reasonable. Your belief in your own abilities must be absolute and you must be able to communicate this belief to your opponent by your body language! You must accept that the impossible can be possible and even normal. You must also accept that you can and should at times lie to yourself and that you will in fact be believed. Many top athletes do this and it is extremely successful. They tell themselves they can do the impossible and they do!

What you must also understand is that winning is a habit, the more you win the more your self-belief will be reinforced and the more your competitors will find it difficult to sustain theirs.

Ignore the logic and what should happen and imagine what you want to happen and see this happening in your own mind. Talk to yourself, remain positive and keep your mind on the right track, but above all talk positively all the time and do not allow doubts to creep in. In this way over a period of time you will change your self-image and the way you see and think about yourself.

Above all bear in mind that any mental programme must be (just like any physical or technical programme) carried out on a daily basis if you are an up-and-coming professional player. It can’t just be done when you have time or when you are having one or two bad results.

Performance and Habit

Rowden May 2017

Most of us rarely ask ourselves why we really play our sport of table tennis. But sometimes it pays dividends to do this. Often if we sit down and examine just what we are aiming to really achieve in the long run, the pathways and methods to get us there become clearer.

Such an assessment also helps us to establish the ‘right’ habits to make sure we get where we want to go. Habits have a cue, a trigger for the behaviour to start and at the end there is a reward of one kind or another. The mind learns to encode this behaviour for the future so we don’t need to think of the appropriate action on each occasion, in other words actions become automatic.
Within any system small wins have enormous power and we should never overlook this. But we must also keep in the forefront of our minds that ‘keystone habits’ create a structure which helps other habits flourish. They encourage widespread change by creating cultures where new values become ingrained.
In our sport we develop patterns of play to help us perform effectively in most situations we meet; however if these patterns are too rigid or if we don’t have alternatives, then we have problems in progressing and moving up to the higher levels. Also it’s vital that any system is adaptable and geared to accepting change. Equally there’s no point in having effective weapons if we don’t use them, or use them at the wrong time or in the wrong way!
So if we are not as effective as we would like, how do we start to change things? We focus first on changing one small pattern – what is known as a ‘keystone habit’ -- and by doing this we learn to reprogram other routines in our game. Champions for example don’t do extraordinary things to create a winning situation, they do ordinary things without thinking, but too fast for the opponent to react. By too fast we don’t only mean just speed but deception or even something different and not expected.
Habits cannot be eradicated; instead they must be replaced. You can bring about a change, but first you must identify the trigger and the reward, because it’s only by inserting a new routine that you will succeed. For some habits too an extra ingredient is required and that is belief. In sport, although the player wants to believe, in times of real pressure he/she often reverts to the old comfort zones and habits and it takes time to change. To cause permanent change players must believe that change is feasible. In addition change occurs more readily when people are embedded in a like-minded group; belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
Habits emerge in the first place because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage as it makes the brain more efficient. An efficient brain frees us from the need to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviours. When a habit emerges the brain stops fully participating in decision making; it is able to divert focus to other tasks.
In our sport the reward is being satisfied with our performance, we may not always be able to win against much more experienced or higher ranked players, but if we can take them close or see that we have the weapons to win in the future and that we are developing in the right direction, then this obviously gives us a positive boost. The performance demonstrates we are close to fulfilling expectations and are proceeding in the right direction.
However because our play has to be automated because of the inherent speed of table tennis we can often end up by building in predictable habits into our stroke-play, tactics and strategies. In time these habits become set, whether it’s in placement, speed, spin, tactics or just being relaxed enough to execute the shots we want to play and it becomes difficult to effect change. If we are not careful we build in habits which are limiting and which will prevent us from reaching our full potential and from aspiring to the highest levels.
It is therefore crucial that we monitor our routines and make sure that we are achieving the results we really want, not just at this moment, but in preparation for future development; direction is always vital and should be appropriate to the individual player. To reach full potential, natural strengths should be accentuated and built on and unusual specialties emphasized. But also we need suitable alternatives to cope with differing styles of play, it’s not enough to assume we can impose one way of playing on every opponent we meet.
There needs to be a continual observation and appraisal of the effectiveness of our technical and tactical weapons and especially as and when the science of table tennis changes, as it is now doing with the plastic ball. Players should also, if they wish to reach full potential, take more responsibility for their own development; if they listen to and are more aware of their own body they will know what works for them.
Above all players need to play the right game for them, they should be comfortable mentally with the way they perform and physically quick and strong enough to execute this. Players who are forced into a style not of their own choosing will never reach full potential. We are all individuals and the greatest performers build on their own strengths harnessing these to progress to the top.
And of course we should ask questions of ourselves on a regular basis and also learn from other players: are our serves/receives good enough and are they tailored to our individual style of play, can we learn from others in these areas, are our strokes good enough and good enough from differing distances from the table, do we know our best distance and do we play in this area most of the time, are we adaptable and do we have alternatives if our usual game doesn’t work and do we identify when change is needed early enough, is the equipment we use the best for us, can we both use our own power and take advantage of our opponent’s power when necessary, do we have the right and most economical movement patterns for our way of playing, are we always looking to be unpredictable and different, are we always looking to improve and move forward and do we have a positive attitude and solid self-belief. No player can afford to rest on his/her laurels; the alternative to progress is stagnation. At the real top levels the margins between winning and losing are minuscule and small aspects can make all the difference.
Plants need pruning to reach full potential, superfluous or weakly developing foliage and branches are cut away to improve growth. Equally natural abilities are like plants. They too need pruning so that the weaker aspects are excised, enabling the stronger qualities to grow and mature thus allowing maximum performance. Sometimes we need to be quite ruthless about this.

Personal Best

Trevor Sylvester (Hypnotherapist) 2009

Many top sportsmen and sportswomen seem to be born with an exceptional talent which transcends the limitations of normal mortals. But talent alone is not enough. In all sports there are gifted performers who don’t make it and others less gifted who do. Why is this? It’s because elite sportspersons have certain attitudes in common which override the differences in talent levels and enable them to become winners.

Elite Thinking – consistency

‘The will to win is important but the will to prepare is vital’. There will always be examples of mercurial brilliance – either a brief career or brief examples within a career. But most of the true sporting greats achieve peak performances over extended periods. Real consistency in your sport can only be achieved by real consistency in your training. Top athletes just don’t show up, they engage totally in what they’re doing, focusing fully on their training and giving it all of their energy. This is a tough task. You can’t let up, you can’t negotiate with success, you either give it what it demands or success goes to someone else who’s prepared to pay the price.

Creating the drive

Just how do you create the desire to achieve the consistency in your training? First you have to evaluate your own values, the things that are important to you, the things that provide you with motivation. Ask yourself what is important about your training, about your sport. You are the only one who can identify your own priorities in life. Also it’s vital that your drive stays fresh and alive and that you keep on top of your motivation and question it regularly.

Apply your skills in a multi-context

We often compartmentalise our life, putting sport, relationships, job, social life etc. into different little boxes. However when we do this we unfortunately also isolate skills and good habits by attaching them solely to one context and leaving them in the one box. Often an attitude or behaviour from one part of your life could in fact considerably benefit you in other areas. Think about the times you have been consistent in any and all contexts of your life, write them down and work out how they can be applied to your training.

The tip here is for you to recognise what is really important to you about your goal and to ensure that all your values are being utilised in its pursuit. If you’re not doing well in one area of your life borrow the resources from another.

Elite Thinking – perseverance

Churchill defined success as –‘The ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm’. The development of resilience in children has been found to be a key ingredient in predicting their mental health and success as adults. One of the most significant factors is the difference between having an internal or external locus of control. People who have an external locus look to others for their solutions and blame others for their difficulties and failures. Having an internal locus means not ‘something must be done’ but ‘I must do something’. It’s about seeing yourself as the cause not as the effect.

Shield yourself

How many people remind you of baby birds the moment there is a problem, flapping their wings, running round in circles, mouths open, asking for help? Successful people first look inside themselves. This doesn’t mean not listening and learning from others, it does mean being in control of what you listen to and evaluating the best information you can before making your own decision. You don’t have to be on the receiving end of anything from others which will diminish your resolve or bring you down. You should have the power to reject things which don’t fit your needs. When faced with any setback ask yourself – ‘What can I do to move myself forward?’ The setback should usually be treated as a learning opportunity.

Feeling in command, feeling that you’re the one making the choices, both reduces the stress and is also a powerful motivator to push past any setback. This ‘push’ is important, ‘take action’ should be your personal mantra. Stubbornness and perseverance are qualities which make champions. Will Smith was quoted recently – ‘You might have more talent than me, be smarter, fitter and stronger, but if we get on a treadmill together, one of two things will happen. You will get off first or I will die. I will never be outworked.’

Elite thinking – self-belief

The final attitude step is self-belief. A lack of belief in yourself can be expressed in many different ways but something it does require is an audience. The fear of the opinion of others is a most common phobia. Scientist Paul Ekman has identified that seven facial expressions are universal indicators of particular emotions. Many of his students when demonstrating various expressions reported that adopting the facial expression caused them to begin to feel the related emotion. Our mind affects our body but our body also affects our mind. Adopt the posture and expression of someone who is depressed and your mood will dip too. Look and act confidently and everything about you will reflect your self-belief. The old adage ‘fake it till you make it’ can be changed to ‘fake it and you’ll become it.’

So take a tip from the sporting elite and emulate that elite attitude. Persevere in your self-belief and be consistent in your confidence, despite what the world throws at you and you’ll soon notice how your perception of yourself as a winner reaches a new level. Once your perception changes, so will your performance – for the better.

Power of Habit

Rowden March 2016

Whether we realise it or not we are all ruled by habits built up over years or in some cases decades. Also whether we understand it or not companies and organisations also have institutional habits, in almost all cases the result of past history.

Cultures grow out of the keystone habits in every organization whether leaders are aware of these or not. Much of an organization’s behaviour is best understood as a reflection of the general habits and strategic orientations inherent in the past. The organization is guided by long-term habits and patterns emerging from a number of independent decisions made by employees over decades. These habits have more profound impacts than anyone has previously understood.
To progress and succeed in sport as in life, we have to be aware of the power of habit, whether within ourselves, within the school we attend, the company we work for or the NGB which controls our sport. The vital factor is simply this: are the habits occurring with intention or just randomly? If the latter then basically major institutions are then surrendering decision-making to a process that occurs without actually thinking. Destructive organisational habits can be found in thousands of industries and governing bodies. Almost always they are the products of thoughtlessness and of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture, don’t monitor it and so let it develop without guidance.
In the final analysis there are only situations where habits are deliberately designed or situations where they are created without forethought or intention. We should research and analyse why some people and institutions struggle to change, despite years of trying, while others are able to remake themselves overnight. The key to personal success and to revolutionising institutions is the understanding of how habits work and how to harness these leading to progressive and often innovative transformation. Once you understand how a habit operates, you gain power over it.

What is often needed to change institutional habits is a focus which will bring people together and will get everyone on board. This then gives leverage to change how people work and communicate. New corporate habits are built. If you focus on changing or cultivating keystone habits, you can cause widespread shifts in policies and thinking. In all of this however freedom of communication is crucial. Only if all parties feel that they can comment, report dangerous procedures, make suggestions either supportive or critical and do this completely freely without punitive measures, only then do we have an explosion of ideas and everyone involved with the organisation becomes interactive and engaged.
So what about individual habits? In the case of our sport of table tennis, it’s of course vital that we have ‘habits’, that we are able to function on ‘autopilot’. Our sport is too fast for us to be able to think how we should play or react to differing situations. Strokes and techniques have to be automated so we are able to respond without conscious thought. However these ‘habits’ have to be the ‘right’ responses. If we develop incorrect habits and these become ingrained and automatic, it will be difficult if not impossible to correct and recalibrate these at a later date.
To understand why automation is necessary let us examine the process of thought required to deal with an incoming shot:
● Identify where the ball will bounce on your side of the table and the input elements of timing, speed, spin and power used by your opponent
● Decide on your response alternatives in terms of your ability to reach the ball, which timing, speed, spin and power you will utilise and where you will place the ball on the opponent’s side of the table
● Out of these evaluate which is feasible and practicable in terms of time and the movement aspects needed and then which would be of the most advantageous to you in terms of both the shot and your overall strategy against this opponent
● Execute the stroke, make a value judgement of how your opponent will respond and his/her alternatives, then recover to your best position to counter his/her action
What you have to bear in mind in all of this, is the length of the table, the size of the court, the maximum speed of the ball, any conditions which may affect the bounce or trajectory and both the limits of human reaction time and your own limits in terms of reactions and overall experience. These aspects will of course be tied in and inter-linked with your normal comfort zone distance from the table. If you are close, your available response time can be as little as one to two tenths of a second, which is well below the usual human reaction time. Therefore it is essential that certain aspects of your game, crucially those covering critical areas such as movement and the technical execution of strokes are completely automated.
So just exactly what do we mean by this? Not only does movement have to be quick and dynamic, but the patterns have to be both economical and right for both the distance being covered and the stroke to be played. As well as movement some shots will require prior rotation of the upper body in order to initiate power, others where you use the speed of the incoming ball or the opponent’s power will not need this. At times too the player will need to create time or space for the action. All these aspects have to occur without thought. As far as the strokes are concerned not only do these in the modern game have to be short, both in terms of pre-swing and follow through, especially when close to the table, but have to incorporate recovery and lead automatically into the next shot in the sequence. There is little time or occasion for the leisurely build-up or extra, unnecessary movements within the strokes themselves.

The Inner Game of Table Tennis

John Whitmore (2007)

The opponent inside your own head is much more difficult to beat than the one on the other side of the table. There are always internal obstacles to performance. If the coach can help the player to eliminate or to dilute these obstacles then an unexpected natural ability will flower without the need for a great deal of technical input. The player’s subconscious will be allowed to perform. The player of the inner game improves performance by seeking to remove or reduce the inner obstacles to outer performance.

Coaching is unlocking a player’s potential to allow him or her to maximise performance. It is helping players to learn for themselves rather than instructing them. In many cases the way we learn and more importantly the way we teach in our modern society must be questioned and modified. The coach should try to identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own. In the fields of recall experience has been proved to work.

Recall (after 3 weeks)
Told 70%, Told/Shown 72%, Told/Shown/Experienced 85%

Recall (after 3 months)
Told 10%, Told/Shown 32%, Told/Shown/Experienced 65%

The coach must think of the player in terms of potential and not performance. Good coaching or mentoring should in fact take the player beyond the limits of the instructor’s own knowledge.

Coaching focuses on future possibilities not on past mistakes

Coaches must bear in mind that their own beliefs concerning the capability of the player have a profound and direct influence on that player’s performance. For a coach to be successful he must adopt a far more optimistic view than usual to a player’s dormant or latent capabilities. It is no good to pretend. When high performers work closely with a coach they know intuitively in many subtle ways what the coach is thinking. The coach must see the player in terms of future potential and not of past performance.


This is the first key element of coaching. Awareness can be elevated or amplified considerably by focused attention and by practice. Awareness also embraces self-awareness, recognising for example where and how emotions or desires distort perception.

We are able to control only those things we are aware of. Those things we are unaware of control us! Awareness gives us influence and power to develop

In our sport the most effective way for the performer to increase physical efficiency is to become increasingly aware of the physical sensations during activity. The awareness of bodily sensations is crucial to the development of skills. Unfortunately the majority of coaches persist in imposing their technique from outside. No two human minds or bodies are the same – how can the coach tell the player how to use his or hers to best effect, only the player can do this by being aware!

Body awareness brings with it automatic self-correction. This principle applies even in the case of complex physical movement. If attention is focused internally on the moving parts, the efficiency reducing tensions will be felt and automatically released, resulting in improved performance. It is a technique from inside out rather than from outside in. Also it is a technique owned, integrated and unique to the body concerned as opposed to someone else’s idea of good technique to which you have forced your body to conform.

Teachers, coaches and instructors unfortunately are tempted to perpetuate conventional wisdom and to want players to learn by the ‘book’. This means that the personal preferences, attributes and qualities of the performer are suppressed. This makes life easier for the coach and the dependence of the player on the expert is also maintained, which many coaches unfortunately seem to need. Equally unfortunately the unique characteristics of body and mind of each individual are ignored or over-ridden. The pupil learns to develop to an outside prescription instead of harnessing his or her own confidence, esteem, self-reliance and responsibility.

Another aspect of self-awareness is the emotions. The emotions too can be tapped by asking the right questions.

• What are you afraid of when you lead 10 – 7?
• Where in your body do you experience tension at deuce?
• In what ways do you inhibit your potential?
• What is the predominant feeling you have when you play well?
• Can you give a rating of between 1 – 10 for your level of confidence in your ability to play well in your next match?

Many thoughts carry an emotion with them – all emotions are reflected in the body – bodily sensations often trigger thoughts. It follows therefore that concerns, blockages and inhibitions can be approached through the mind, the body or the emotions and a clearing of one tends to free the others.


This is the other key concept in coaching and is crucial for high performance. When we truly accept, choose or take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions, our commitment to them rises and so does our performance. To be told to or ordered to be responsible does not produce the same results. To feel truly responsible invariably involves choice. Many coaches even in these modern times withhold responsibility and kill awareness. They deny their players responsibility by telling them what to do and they deny awareness by telling the players what they see. If the player gets reasonable results he or she is not motivated to try anything else and never knows or believes what could be achieved by other methods.

In recent years much has changed in sport and many national teams employ psychologists to help high performers. However if coaching methods remain unchanged frequently coaches will in fact unintentionally be negating the psychologists efforts! The coach is not a teacher, an adviser, a problem solver or even an expert. He is in fact a sounding board, a counsellor and an awareness raiser. It is up to the coach to provide the environment so that the player can maintain the ideal frame of mind for performance, by building awareness and responsibility continuously throughout the daily practice and the skill acquisition process.

Does a coach need to have experience or technical knowledge in the area in which he is coaching? The answer is no -- not if he is truly acting as an awareness raiser. Often it is hard for experts to withhold their expertise sufficiently to coach well! In many instances the really experienced coach sees players in terms of their technical faults instead of seeing them in terms of how efficiently they use their bodies. Body inefficiency stems from self-doubt and inadequate body awareness.

Our potential is realised by optimising our own individuality and uniqueness, never by moulding these to conform to another’s opinion of what constitutes best practice

It is obvious that we must ask the right questions, which will best generate awareness and responsibility. Asking closed questions saves people from having to think – open questions cause people to think for themselves. However we need to examine the effectiveness of various types of question. Does for example ‘Are you watching the ball’, actually help you very much? Usually not. Consider however the effect of the following –

• ‘Which way is the ball spinning as it comes towards you?’
• ‘How high is the ball as it crosses the net?’
• ‘Does the ball move faster or slower after the bounce?’
• How far is it before the bounce on your side, when you can see which way the ball is spinning?’

This type of question creates important effects which commands or other questions do not.

1. It compels the player to watch the ball. It is not possible to answer the question otherwise.
2. The player will have to focus to a higher level in order to give an accurate answer.
3. The answers sought are descriptive and not judgemental so there is no risk of self-criticism or of damage to self-esteem.
4. We have the benefit of feedback for the coach who can verify the quality of concentration by the accuracy of the player’s answer.

Many coaches obviously do not consider whether what they say works or not, or they are not concerned as to the effect on the player. It is of little use demanding, we must ask effective questions.

The most effective questions begin with words which seek to quantify or gather facts – WHAT, WHEN, WHO, HOW MUCH, HOW MANY. Why is discouraged as it can imply criticism and evokes defensiveness, how often causes analytical thinking which can be counterproductive, as analysis and observation (awareness) are dissimilar mental activities. Why can be better expressed as: ‘What are the reasons….?’ and how as: ‘What are the steps….?’ Questions should begin broadly and increasingly focus on detail. This keeps the player involved.

A coach might ask a player for example which part of the swing or stroke he or she finds it most difficult to feel or to be accurately aware of. It is most likely that it is in this ‘blind’ spot that the flaw in the movement will lie. As the coach seeks more and more awareness in this area, the feeling will be restored and the correction occurs naturally without resort to technical input from the coach.

How often however do coaches actually really listen to players? When we listen, do we really hear? When we look do we really see? We short-change ourselves and those we coach if we do not really hear and see them and maintain eye contact with them. The player’s tone of voice, choice of words or body language will often be revealing and will indicate interest, the awakening of new ideas etc. Obsession with our own thoughts, opinions and ideas and the compulsion to talk are often too strong, especially if we are placed in a position of control or power. One of the hardest things a coach has to learn is perhaps to shut up!

Coaching questions should compel an answer, focus attention more precisely and create feedback. Instruction does none of these

The process of Learning

There is generally only a poor understanding in modern society of how we really learn. We learn to walk, run, ride a bike and catch a ball without any instruction. In fact we do not have to know how to do something to be able to do it. Let us look at the 4 stages of learning –

1. Unconscious incompetence – low performance, no appreciation or understanding.
2. Conscious incompetence – low performance, recognition of flaws and weak areas.
3. Conscious competence – improved performance, conscious and somewhat contrived effort.
4. Unconscious competence – natural, integrated, automatic higher performance.

The learning cycle generally takes us through each of these aspects in turn. But do we in fact need to do this? Do we need to refer to an outside expert to take us through stages 2 and 3? Do we need to give responsibility for our development to a third party? Are we incapable of determining what we are doing wrong and what we should do differently to progress? In fact we can achieve better results with less effort by advancing straight from step 1 to 4! This eliminates the need to make the effort to change flaws identified in conscious incompetence and the contrived endeavour of working through the conscious competence stage.

What we need to do is to identify the aspect we need to change and to simply observe what we are doing. To give ourselves a more precise feedback we can even create a 1 – 10 scale to rate how close we are to perfection. There is a world of difference between continuously trying to do something in the right way and continuously monitoring what we are doing non-judgementally. It is this latter that results in quality learning and performance improvement – by allowing rather than forcing.

Feedback from ourselves and others is vital for learning and performance improvement. Feedback needs to cover both the results of the action and the action process itself. Where the ball lands is the result (and the problems it causes for the opponent with speed, spin or placement) and the swing or the stroke is the process. We can learn as much from those actions which produce the wrong result as we can from those which give the right one.

Let us look at the process feedback. A coach observing a stroke will offer feedback based on the disparity between what he observes and an ideal based on his knowledge and experience of the correct way as he sees it. The observable stroke is only the symptom or outward manifestation of a complex array of physical and psychological factors which comprise the cause. Any changes demanded by the coach will be applied initially at the symptomatic level. Real, lasting change must reach the causal level, even better must be initiated here. The coach is of course unable to see the causal level which resides inside the player. It is the player’s own internal, high-quality feedback which is ideally required. The player is able to access this level by raising his physiological and psychological self-awareness.

It is up to the coach to provide the environment so that the player can maintain the ideal frame of mind for performance, by building awareness and responsibility continuously throughout the daily practice and the skill acquisition process

The Inner Game of Table Tennis: Summary

John Whitmore (2007)

Coaching focuses on future possibilities not on past mistakes

We are able to control only those things we are aware of. Those things we are unaware of control us! Awareness gives us influence and power to develop

Our potential is realised by optimising our own individuality and uniqueness, never by moulding these to conform to another’s opinion of what constitutes best practice.

Coaching questions should compel an answer, focus attention more precisely and create feedback. Instruction does none of these.

It is up to the coach to provide the environment so that the player can maintain the ideal frame of mind for performance, by building awareness and responsibility continuously throughout the daily practice and the skill acquisition process.

The Young Brain

David Dobbs 2011

Parents often find themselves unable to understand why youngsters, not only teenagers but also young adults into their early and mid 20’s, act the way they do. They often seem quite arbitrarily ready to take life-threatening or life-changing risks, without seeming to evaluate logically what can happen. In the late 20th century brain-imaging technology was developed and researchers were able to track both the physical development and the patterns of activity. The results were surprising. The brain takes much longer to develop than most scientists had thought.

The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain in the 1990’s showed that the young brain undergoes a massive reorganisation between the age of 12 and around 25. The brain doesn’t actually grow much, it has already reached 90% of its full size by the age of 6 years, but it does undergo an extensive remodelling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.

The axons (nerve fibres used in inter-neuron signalling) become more insulated with myelin, boosting the transmission speed by up to a hundred times. The dendrites (branchlike extensions the neurons use to receive signals from nearby axons) grow twiggier and branch out more and the most heavily used synapses (the chemical junctions across which axons and dendrites pass messages) grow richer and stronger. Synapses which see little use begin to wither. This synaptic ‘pruning’ causes the brain’s cortex (the outer layer of grey matter where we do much of our conscious and complicated thinking) to become thinner and more efficient.

This process of ‘maturation’, once thought to be completed by mid-teens, continues throughout adolescence. Imaging work done since the 1990’s shows that these physical changes move in a slow wave from the rear of the brain to the front, from older and basic areas of the brain (which control base functions such as vision, movement and fundamental processing) to the evolutionary newer and more complicated thinking areas in the front. The corpus callosum, which connects the left and right side of the brain and carries traffic essential to many advanced brain functions, steadily thickens. Stronger links also develop between the hippocampus (like a memory directory) and the frontal areas which set goals and weigh different agendas. As a result we get better at integrating memory and experience into our decisions. At the same time the frontal areas develop greater speed and richer connections allowing us to weigh far more variables and agendas than before.

If this development proceeds normally we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, even altruism, generating behaviour that is more complex and often more sensible and logical. At times however and at first, the brain does this work clumsily and all the new cogs don’t always mesh together.

Tests at the University of Pittsburg during brain scans of children, adolescents and students in their early twenties have shown that where the instruction in the test is to ignore certain distractions the performance depends very much on age. Ten to 12 year olds fail about 45% of the time, teens do better and even at as young as 15 youngsters can perform almost as well as adults if they are motivated. However what was more interesting was not the scores but the scan results during testing. Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan and stay focused – areas the adults bring online quite automatically. This let the adults use a variety of brain resources and better resist temptation, while the teens used these areas less often and more readily gave in to impulses. By early twenties the brain responds to tasks much as the adult brain does, indicating that the improvement is as a result of richer networks and faster connections coming online and rendering the executive region more effective.

Such studies help explain why adolescents and those in their early 20’s often behave with such vexing inconsistency. There has been an explosion of scientific papers and articles about the ‘teen brain’ which presents this as ‘a work in progress’ or ‘a less than mature state of development’. However this does not necessarily tell the full story.

Over the past 5 years or so a number of researchers have begun to view brain and genetic findings in a more flattering light, one coloured by evolutionary theory. That the teen to early 20 year old is not a ‘rough draft’ but just another biological animal being programmed and adapted for the purpose of leaving the safety of home and moving into the complicated world outside. This sits well with biology’s most fundamental principle, that of natural selection. This is a period in the ‘near adult’ life when the human organism is entering a highly functional and adaptive period.

Start with the teen’s love of the thrill. New and exciting things are never valued more highly than in adolescence. Sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviours but can also generate positive ones, like creating a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer and more successful. This upside probably explains why openness to the new with all its dangers remains a highlight of adolescent development. The love of novelty leads directly to useful experience.

Also peaking during adolescence is ‘risk-taking’. Risk is courted more avidly in the teens than at any other time. The period from 15 to 25 years of age brings highs and lows in all sorts of risky ventures with in many cases ugly outcomes. This age group dies of accidents of almost every sort and at a high rate. So are these kids just being stupid? Actually not. Adolescents usually reason their way through situations just as well as adults and understand too that they are mortal. Teens take more chances not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently. In situations where risk can get them something they really want, they value the reward much more heavily than the adults would. Often too this aspect is accentuated when youngsters are together in a group, instead of alone or with adults.

Researchers such as Steinberg and Casey believe this risk-friendly weighing of cost versus reward is selected because, over the course of human evolution, the willingness to take risks has given an adaptive edge.

Another trait that marks adolescence is the preference for the company of those of their own age more than ever before or after. Teens offer far more novelty than the familiar old family does. But teens understand that we enter a world made by our parents but they will live most of their lives in one run and remade by people of their own age. Knowing, understanding and building relationships with them bears critically on later success. This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not merely a sideshow but the main show in town. At a neural level social rejection is a threat to existence itself!

Excitement, novelty, risk, the company of peers, may all seem to just add up to nothing more than doing new stuff with friends. Look deeper and you see that these traits that define adolescence make us more adaptive both as a species and as individuals. Broadly defined these traits show themselves in virtually all human cultures, modern or tribal. This period’s uniqueness rises from genes and developmental processes that have been selected for over thousands of generations because they play an amplified role during this key transitional period: producing a creature optimally primed to leave a safe environment and move into unfamiliar territory. This move outward is not only the most difficult thing that humans do as well as the most critical – not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments.

One final key to both the clumsiness and yet remarkable adaptability of the teen brain is the prolonged plasticity of those late-developing frontal areas as they slowly mature. These areas are the last to lay down the fatty myelin insulation which speeds transmission. If we need these areas for the complex task of entering the big wide world why aren’t they up to speed when the challenges are most daunting? The answer is that speed comes at the price of flexibility. When the myelin insulation is laid down it’s as if the wiring is getting upgraded, but once it’s done it’s harder to change.

This delayed completion (the forebrain’s myelination during the late teens and early 20’s) – a withholding of readiness – heightens flexibility just as we confront and enter the world that we will face as adults. This long, slow, back-to-front developmental wave, completed only in the mid-20’s, appears to be a uniquely human adaptation and may be one of our most consequential.

To be a Champion

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Do you want to be a champion, the best there is? It’s the mind-set that’s crucial, more important than the technique, the tactics or all the agility, speed and physical power. Three aspects are above all pivotal --

• The ability to think round corners, not to be one of the herd. There are always more ways than one to beat even a good opponent.
• The ability to isolate just what makes you successful, where you win points and where you cause the opponent real problems.
• The quality of innovation and evolution. With the great player there is a constant progress, the game is developing all the time, new things are appearing. Without this quality of change, there can only be a ‘plateauing’ out, a reaching of a level and then stopping – eventually of course stagnation.

‘The Gods send victories to those who earn them’. Just what did the ancient Greeks mean by this phrase? Quite simply, that it’s your behaviour under pressure which determines just how successful you will be.

It’s how you act and what you do at the crucial stages in the match which will determine the outcome. It is here that you cannot afford the lapse of concentration which turns the tide in favour of your opponent. Panicking or playing stupidly can lose you the match but equally so can a brief slip in attention where you lose one or two vital points. Now we play only to eleven up each individual point is significant, a few unforced errors can easily change the result.

Most important is to remain calm enough so that you are able to think logically and to the point. What has been working for you so far in the match, where are you strong and where is the opponent weak? You must bear in mind too that even a ‘leading’ position can be hazardous – it’s all too easy to lead 7 – 4 then to relax and let your opponent back in. Try to keep thinking all the time and stay alert to any changes in the game or to any new tactics from the other end of the table. If you are able to read the play well you will be in a much better position to adjust to anything new or different. The essential thing is to be able to do this in time. Our game of table tennis especially now to eleven up does not give much opportunity for slow, leisurely thought processes.

The cultivation of adaptive intelligence is important but the ability to adapt quickly even more so.

Being a champion means quite simply being able to cope better than anyone else with the differing situations you face. Part of this ‘coping’ entails reading what is happening in the game and from the other end of the table in a brief fraction of time and then putting in place measures to deal with what the opponent has done. Equally however you cannot just play ‘catch-up’ all the time and just follow the opponent’s lead.

To reach the highest levels it is vital that you do what you do best and utilise your own strengths as much as possible. This requires you to isolate your own strengths (in relation to the varying styles of opponent you meet), be keenly aware of how you win points and to be strong enough mentally to put into operation what you know you have to do to win. This may not always result in actually winning. But generally what it will result in is playing the best game for you and this is obviously the way forward.

What many players fail to understand even in the advanced stages of their career, is that table tennis is a tactical sport which requires thought from you, the player. This not only means thoughts about the tactics of the particular game you are playing now, but consideration as to whether the way you play in general is in fact the way you want to play and a style and direction with which you as a person and player feel comfortable.

These are matters which only you the player can resolve. Many performers throughout their careers will have a variety or coaches and mentors, some good and some bad, some knowledgeable and some not. Their purpose is not to dictate how you should play and to hold your hand for the rest of your life (though many coaches do however seem to think this is their role). Their job should be to show you how to get the best out of yourself, so that in effect after a while you don’t need them anymore. Any player who remains coach ‘reliant’ is extremely unlikely ever to become a real champion.

At the highest levels in our sport you will see we still have the coach, but his/her function is much more on the lines of a ‘mentor’, someone to bounce ideas off, someone to suggest alternatives and possibilities. As the player is usually heavily involved in just playing it is often the coach who will research new ideas and possible new avenues for mutual discussion. In the final analysis however you the player should be responsible for your development if you are to reach the real heights. You are the only one who really knows how you feel about the way you play.

What stops us from winning?

Rowden Fullen 2010

Internal Restrictions

How many of us really believe we can get somewhere and are prepared to put in the effort to do this? In our modern society the single-minded specialist is not often thought of very highly. People who don’t conform, don’t fit in and are different from the rest are not popular. Even for those who start off being committed to a project it is all too easy to gradually drift, to procrastinate and to accept lesser levels of achievement. It’s very human to take the easy road.

Many players don’t seem to question where they are going -- they just drift. After a while the mind becomes frozen and they don’t even think any more. It’s very easy to limit yourself and to hamper your own progress!

  • Most of the time you are influenced by your own belief system – you can lift a matchbox, you can’t lift a car. But sometimes objects are deceptive; a huge bale of barley flake may only weigh a few pounds, a small bag of lead filings 25 to 30 kilos. Not only are objects sometimes deceptive, so are people, some of slight build are much more powerful than they look.
  • What happens when the belief system doesn’t work or seems to be over-ridden? When the skinny mother for example lifts a car off her 5 year old daughter, who is pinned under it? Or when the 12 year old boy carries an engine over two head-high fences without seeming to understand that it’s far too heavy for him to lift? Usually such things happen when there is a huge adrenaline rush or when the person concerned isn’t bound by a belief system at that time.
  • You have to believe you can succeed; you have to fool the belief system.

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. All you have to do is to shift the self-image and the change will be permanent. This means that if you wish to perform better then you must change your self-image and raise the ‘comfort zone’ levels. You must ‘see’ yourself as you want to be!

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 your 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.

External Restrictions

  • Also you need to surround yourself with the ‘right’ people. If you are working in a group with ‘losers’ or people of limited experience they will ‘bring you down’ to a level with which they are comfortable.

It’s all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do we hear the phrase: ‘But you must face up to reality!’ But what is reality? Ten players in your club will tell you it’s impossible to become a world champion. But if you talk to one or two world champions, they won’t laugh at you for thinking and aiming big, because they have already done it! It’s all a matter of perception: if you set limits in your own mind on what you expect to achieve, then you will indeed never exceed these limits. If you allow others around you to set your limits then you have even less chance of getting anywhere.

So to summarise:

  • You need the will and the motivation to succeed.
  • You need the belief in yourself and the awareness to change your self-image.
  • You need to surround yourself with the ‘right’ people who will support you in your endeavours.

Winning and your mind

Rowden 2011

Doubt is the prime cause of failure in sport. Every time you doubt and fail, failure is reinforced and the next time failure is more likely. Therefore you have to trick the mind even when failure is almost inevitable! The true professional cannot afford to listen to self-doubt because he knows how destructive this will be. He must therefore create a mind that is resistant to uncertainty and doubt.

Even in situations where it is almost certain he/she will lose, the top athlete must be totally positive. The purpose of performance psychology is to teach the sportsperson to believe he/she can win. Doubt is toxic to the athlete and must be controlled by whatever means possible.

In order to perform way above your maximum you must believe beyond, over and above logic and what is reasonable. Your belief in your own abilities must be absolute and you must be able to communicate this belief to your opponent by your body language! You must accept that the impossible can be possible and even normal. What you must also understand is that winning is a habit, the more you win the more your self-belief will be reinforced and the more your competitors will find it difficult to sustain theirs.

We are not concerned here with how logical, rational or even truthful our beliefs may be but only that they produce the desired results! As Jonathan Edwards the record-breaking triple jumper has stated: ‘My faith was pivotal to my success. Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious’. It is the ability to rise above the anxieties, the doubts and the tensions, which differentiates the top athlete from the rest and it is the lack of this ability which cripples so many performers. What is crucial is the capacity to believe what is effective, not what is necessarily true.

The key point of course is that the power of the mind is harnessed through some sort of belief and whether this is true or false is immaterial. It is the belief that is important, not the content. If we believe that we are likely to fail, then our subconscious mind will in fact create the situation which supports this and will help us to fail. If on the other hand we believe we are going to succeed, we probably will. Our subconscious mind gets to work to support our endeavours.

Work to strengthen your self-belief:
• Tell yourself every day that you are better than you think you are. Success does not need a big talent and is not based on luck; it only requires hard work in the right direction and environment and enough time. Build up a log of your successes each day however small. Have your major achievements, milestones and goals written down and refer to them often. Never express your doubts and anxieties, always look on the positive side.
• Set your goals high and think big. People say you usually get what you expect, so never think little, only big.
• Focus always on success and never failure. Thinking success opens up your mind and makes it more receptive to new ideas. This also helps to create internally thoughts which produce more success. When you see an opportunity always think you can, never that you can’t. Thinking positively will produce conditions which will help you to succeed.
• Try to avoid being with negative people who want to bring you down. It’s important that you gravitate towards people who are winners, always positive and forward looking.