The Psychology of the Rally

Gunther Straub 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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