Mental Side

Background

Think Big

Rowden Fullen 1980s

  • Good fortune is not the result of luck – but of preparation, planning and success-producing thinking.
  • Action cures fear, inaction destroys confidence.
  • Put only positive thoughts into your memory.
  • Put people into perspective – try to understand others.
  • Do what your conscience tells you is right. Be human.
  • Project confidence, concentrate on your assets.
  • To think confidently, act confidently, look important.
  • See what can be, not what is.
  • Realize what you do is important, focus on the big objectives.
  • Believe it can be done, invest in yourself – build the mind.
  • Experiment, be receptive to new ideas.
  • Ask daily – ‘How can I do more and do it better?’
  • Practise listening, look for the good in others.
  • How we think is affected by the group we are in. Be in the right group.
  • Diet makes the mind. Think right.
  • Don’t let others hold you back. Don’t be pulled down by negative attitudes around you. People who tell you it can’t be done are small-minded, unsuccessful people.
  • Be enthusiastic. Think progress, high standards in all you do.
  • How you think when you fail, determines how long it will be until you win.
  • Act, be a doer. Never wait till conditions are perfect. They may never be. When you act you get the mind moving.
  • Ideas only have value when you act on them.
  • Think now, tomorrow, next week is failure. Be a ‘now’ person.
  • Be stubborn, never give up, persist but experiment.
  • There’s a good side to every situation, find it.
  • Have clear goals and stay with them. Never surrender a goal, take detours. A detour is only another route.
  • Let your major goal be your automatic guide, when you are totally absorbed you will make the right decisions.
  • Take one step at a time. Each one a little nearer the goal.
  • In the end life is a contest against yourself. Beat yourself and you walk away tall no matter where you finish.
  • Managed solitude pays off. Find time to confer with yourself.

How much does Success Cost?

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

HOW THE CHILD SEES IT

How does the average child see his involvement in sport and his relationship with the trainer? Does in fact the average child think at all? In very many cases it seems to be rather a matter of feelings than of coherent thoughts. The child often seems to operate on a subconscious level — ‘Am I liking and enjoying what is happening this week at the training? Are my friends and comrades here to play against and chat to during the breaks? Is the whole thing fun?’ The coach is of course aware that the whole thing only has a goodly element of ‘fun’ if there is some level of achievement and progress. The average child seems to put the coach or trainer somewhere between schoolteacher and grandparent or uncle depending on the age! After a while a relationship builds as they come to realize that this ‘father figure’ can actually help them to achieve something in the sport of table tennis!

Sometimes a player can go the wrong way and become a little self-important. He thinks he is doing you a favour by attending your sessions, it must be nice for the coach to have such a star to train. Then he can come to feel that perhaps a coach is not really necessary — from then on hard work in training and commitment and dedication go out of the window, practice is after all not so important, he can still (he thinks) turn it on in the big game.

Yet others seem to have great difficulty in concentrating for a full training session. It is rather more fun to conduct an on-going conversation with two or three other players some tables away, than concentrate on the training. It does not take too many people who can’t be bothered to train, even in quite a large group and the whole training session is devalued or destroyed. The application and concentration of those who do want to work hard and develop their game is gradually eroded too.

‘It is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters’. This well-worn adage typifies the sportsmanship and comradeship enjoyed by generations of youth from 8 to 16 years and trying to live up to that statement has perhaps helped many children over the years to understand the concepts of friendship, teamwork and winning and losing. However many sports psychologists would say that changes in our society over the last 15 to 20 years have created conditions that turn this proverb upside down, especially in the individual sports. Children competing in these, swimming, gymnastics, skating, tennis and table tennis are required early in life to live by a new, though not necessarily improved, version of the old adage — ‘Win at any cost!’ This must-win situation is taking its toll on many children adding pressure and stress to their lives. Somewhere around puberty children figure out that their performances are important to the people who love them, to their peer group, their friends and their coaches and club. The pressure increases tremendously when children realize that people have an investment in them. It becomes harder to pull back and stop — they are on the roller-coaster, the web has been woven!

Don’t see children as little adults, they are children and don’t see things in the same light as you do!

HOW THE COACH SEES IT

The average coach couldn’t care less about the one individual child in the club. It is the club as a whole and group progress and development which matter and it is within this framework that the individual must operate and fit in. Children who don’t attend regularly, won’t conform or work with others not only destroy their own progress but more importantly disrupt group development and must therefore be weeded out.

Most coaches in fact get very little out of coaching. Often after a hard day’s work they turn out in all weathers, tired and weary and try to summon up the energy to cope with a long evening’s training. They get little or no money, often only the satisfaction of seeing a player they have started off reaching his or her full potential. The pleasure and satisfaction is invariably for the player — to feel you have had a hand however small in the development of a great player is reward enough in itself and no coach worth his salt wants to hang on to a player and hold them back once they are good enough to move on.

To see a player become self-important is sad — only hard work and total commitment will enable a player to reach the highest levels. Coaches know this, they have seen it all before. They know that however good a player, he or she cannot pick and choose the moment to turn it on — the only way is total commitment all the time. To see a young player under unacceptable stress is also sad, especially if it’s a great talent that’s being pushed out of our sport or gradually eroded and destroyed. Adult pressure is greatest in individual sports because the parent or trainer is dependent on one star, not a whole team. That is why a good club environment can be so important where you have the support and interaction of a group of players, older and younger and of leaders and coaches too. Children however often stress themselves. They consider bad performances in the light of having not lived up to everyone’s expectations — they feel they have let people down.

The greatest asset a young player can ever have is a good coach and to be part of a good club. If you have them hang on to these for dear life!

THE RESULTS OF SELF-IMPORTANCE AND STRESS

What happens in the case of the player who achieves too much too quickly, who is pressured at too early an age, who becomes too self-important, who is continually told (or it is inferred) that he is rather better than the average human being? All goes well of course as long as the player is successful and the ego can continue to grow — but no player however skilful wins all the time. Defeat brings the accounting — he, the player is no longer as good as he (and everyone else) thought he was, he has failed parents and coaches! The ego is dented and often doesn’t want to face up to facts. It is often easier not to face the problem, but to find other scapegoats, to make excuses — the other player was lucky, it was bad conditions, bad umpiring. Anger usually makes its appearance, tantrums occur, what started out as a game, to be enjoyed, becomes a war, to be won at all costs! Unfortunately throughout their young lives in our modern society children get the message, if they do well they are worthwhile if not, better not think about it! When they come home after a success they are rewarded — they therefore find it difficult to imagine a life devoid of competition. Some parents even treat the child miserably until he or she wins, obviously they confuse their own ego with that of the child!

Many of the mental deficiencies of the young player are the result of the stresses of our modern society and inadequate or unprofessional psychological handling by parents or trainers.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

One must look at the peaking age of table tennis players in relation to other sports. It is not like gymnastics where 12 – 15 year olds can achieve consistent world-class performances. Usually players reach their peak at around 18 – 25 and can carry on till their mid-thirties at the very topmost level. There is therefore not the need in our sport to push young players in the 9 – 12 age groups into a totally professional adult world. Rather the development of talented youngsters should be professional yes, but limited. Allow them to enjoy not only table tennis but other activities as well. In the mid-teens the professional approach becomes more necessary, particularly if they show real potential, but push them too early and you risk killing off the young stars before they even fully develop!

The question of prime importance becomes — just how much is being demanded of our youngsters and at what point in their lives. There is a ‘delicate balance’ between stress and distress. Children need to learn how to relax and concentrate under pressure. Changes in parental thinking can help to diffuse any stress the child may feel. Anxiety levels can be reduced by educating coaches and parents in the proper way to train children. Nobody should expect a child to become a mature athlete by daily repetition and regular increases in workload in only one sport. It’s unnatural and unhealthy. Let him or her have the opportunity to participate for fun in a variety of activities, including other sports, before specializing. A number of respected sports psychologists believe in fact that a large number of ‘elite athletes’ over-train which prevents them reaching full potential. They say — ‘you cannot always just train harder and harder and then expect to get better and better’. Indeed you should train in the way which is right for you, the individual.

The sad thing about stress or the inflation of the ego is that with all the extra feelings floating about, all the excuses and tantrums, the player ignores the lessons to be learned from defeat. The way to progress and to develop is to study one’s losses and learn from them — face up to the loss, extract the real reasons for defeat, decide how you would do things differently next time and forget the whole matter. By trying to avoid facing facts you lose the opportunity to benefit positively and to improve.

We are in the dark when it comes to the relationship between emotional trauma and physical injury. Children at a young age realise for example that injury is a socially acceptable alternative to the pressures of competition. In the public’s eyes an injured athlete is not the same as one who ‘quits’. Many young players exaggerate minor injuries and convince themselves they are still injured long after. Physically the doctors can find nothing wrong with them. This can be indicative of ‘burnout’, where youngsters show no enthusiasm about what they are doing. Their personal relationships may deteriorate, sometimes they can’t eat or practise. Competition is no longer fun, it has become a burden.

Training in the right way will always eventually pay dividends. The true champion faces facts and learns from his defeats.

THOUGHTS ON THE WAY FORWARD

Coaches must be careful how they build the will to win. Parents must be supportive without wanting to ‘live on’ the successes of their children. The home environment is very important — this is where the young player returns every day, here he or she must have a refuge, a safe haven away from the stresses of the outside world. Few of our coaches unfortunately have the psychological background or training to dabble with real assurance in the mental field and far too often they know next to nothing of the home environment and upbringing of their player and make little effort to find out. What we must be working towards is a stable long-term mental approach and state, not a short–term development which will bring short-term results. The young player should especially have a gradual and guarded introduction to pressure and should not be pushed too early into the hotbed of competition, bearing in mind the peaking age of table tennis players. The individual should be considered in detail, even young players are very different in coordination, concentration levels, strength and body types — above all the emotional well-being must be taken into account to ensure proper technical and physical training and development.

Try to minimize issues such as winning, talent and superiority (who is better than who), try not to build self-importance. Try to maximize issues such as the value of hard work in training and training the right way, with above all the right attitudes. Try to build self-esteem, that progress is based on sound foundations and advances one step at a time

Coaches must bear in mind that their duty is to train the player to unleash his or her full potential as a senior. The coach should not expect to be part of the end product, rather he should train the player to be in fact self-sufficient. In other words over a period of time the coach will work himself out of a job!

Even if you stay all the way there are varying stages in the coaching/pupil relationship and these change (and should do so) as the player changes and develops.

  • Teacher/instructor — Up to even a fairly advanced stage the coach will be heavily committed to technical and tactical development — however there will come a time when the player is technically competent and has learned to assess and solve his own shortcomings.
  • Trainer/adviser — Bear in mind these stages will overlap. This stage will have started some time ago. Here physical and mental development, planning and tactical advice, the continuing evolvement of style and the introduction of new things to keep the player’s game alive assume more importance. The role of the coach has changed and his relationship with the ‘once’ pupil has also changed.
  • Manager/friend/confidant — At the very highest level the coach has lost much of his function, rather he is there to lean on, offer support, handle the problems which may affect the concentration of the player. He releases the player so that all he or she needs to do is to play. He is there to smooth the way and becomes largely a spectator watching a great performance like many others.

Making the Mind Work for You

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Analysis and evaluation

Relaxation

Positive thinking

Visualization

Concentration

Motivation/Goal setting

Arousal/stress

1. Analysis and Evaluation

Regular analysis -- what is going on when you compete or train? Be aware what is happening with and around you

In competition write down exactly what has happened, how you behaved, what you were thinking of, what went well, what went badly, what you need to do to get better — also what stressed you and what you can do about these things. In respect of the external factors you can’t change and which are not under your control, consider how best you can change your attitude towards these aspects. What you have no control over, you must live with.

When you perform exceptionally well it is important that you can recapture this ‘state’ in the future. If performance was bad it is equally important that you isolate the factors responsible for this. You must analyse your physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction you are going to take. This is after all, the first step to being the self-sufficient athlete.

Every so often but at least once a month assess your progress. Are you analysing and learning from your experiences, both good and bad? Are you still moving forward and proceeding in the right direction? Are you satisfied with how you are playing just now? If not what can you do about it?

2. Relaxation

Relaxation methods and control of these play an important part in achieving better performance. When the body operates on autopilot results are usually much improved

Work at progressive relaxation exercises and establish ‘triggers’ (reminder words) such as ‘relaxation’, ‘peace’, ‘harmony’, so you can bring about a more instant reaction as and when you need it.

One method can be to tense and relax different areas of the body in turn working from the feet up or the head down — another to visualize the blood circulating round the body washing away all aches and pains and tiredness and bringing total relaxation — a third technique to use deep breathing to a pre-arranged rhythm – yet another to imagine the body filled with water or air which gradually drains out from the fingers and toes to leave you totally empty and at peace.

When you first start mental training you must usually set aside a little time to perfect individual techniques. In the beginning you should work quite intensively to get good results, say 15 minutes, 3/4 times per week. As soon as possible however it is desirable to integrate the mental side into the actual physical and on-the-table training.

Try to automate these techniques in training till you don’t need to think too much about them. It is in your training that you can test which work best for you and here that you can adapt them to your game and needs.

Train to play with relaxed concentration, to be calm and in harmony with yourself. Train to focus on one aspect at a time. In your daily training regime introduce outside disturbances so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise.

Also bear in mind that table tennis is a very much switch-on, switch-off sport — the natural pauses in the flow of play (picking up the ball between points) should be used to relax.

3. Positive Thinking

Stop negative thinking. Monitor your inner and outer dialogue and steer your thoughts into positive channels

Don’t stress yourself by thinking you must win — break down competition into many small parts, the warm-up, the knock-up, the start of the game, the middle game, the end game.

Don’t always be ultra-positive, think also how you would cope with a losing situation (this can happen too) and be mentally prepared to face and handle it.

Remember always that you should be positive in the right way and in a realistic way. Be aware what you say to yourself in critical situations, a conscious dialogue, together with visualization are very effective in influencing negative thinking.

Bear in mind too to change from negative to positive you must believe in what you say. If you believe that you can’t do something then quite simply you won’t be able to do it. If you have a problem talk with yourself — ‘Why do I think I can’t? If I’m bad at this particular aspect, how can I change? Is this going to help me to do better?’

Bear in mind first of all that it can take time to change an attitude that one has built up over many years. Certain athletes have a negative and disparaging attitude towards themselves and their abilities. They are never satisfied and complain over every little thing.

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

Using others as an example can also help us. When we see others in our sport reach new limits, then we see what is possible and just what can be done. This phenomenon is called the Bannister effect after the man who first broke the four-minute mile barrier. The psychological barrier disappears.

Players who are too negative often have poor confidence. If your self-esteem is low you tend to avoid challenging situations because you are afraid to put yourself to the test. Many people too are good at pointing out weak areas and mistakes instead of focusing on the good things they have done. They know where they are bad but not always where they are good. When you constantly bring up your bad points then it’s not easy to maintain a high level of self-esteem and self-confidence. It is better to learn to focus on one’s strengths.

(Practical exercise — write down three positive qualities you possess — can be physical, mental, tactical or technical, whatever. Print up a sign and leave it in a place where you will often be during the day and where you will see it.)

4. Visualisation

Visualization should be three-dimensional to have maximum effect

Not only should you see you should hear, taste, feel and smell in your mind, using all the senses. Visualization takes place without access to external stimulation and is often at its most effective when combined with physical training. Use it in your preparation period leading up to competition. It can also be a very useful tool in the recovery phase after injury — here you have often had a break in training and visualization helps you to keep the idea of good technique firmly fixed in your mind.

Visualization with the help of video can help your understanding of technique. For new strokes or techniques try to set specific goals. In what situation are you going to utilize these, how are you moving, what and who are in the area? The more clearly and exactly you can see every detail the better the long-term effect.

It is also a good idea to see yourself in stressful situations and explore differing strategies for dealing with these. This is one way you can test different methods of reducing stress without actually being in the real life position. In this way you increase your consciousness of how to handle difficult situations and how to prepare for competition. It is always easier to deal with a situation you have thought about and pondered over before.

Visualization can help even with motivation and self-confidence training — see yourself as you want to be in the future. Such thoughts and pictures control the actions that can limit development. If you keep seeing yourself as you will be in the future, it keeps you focused.

5. Concentration

It is important that you develop the ability to alter concentration levels and areas and are not distracted by irrelevant factors from inside or outside

Develop concentration in a methodical manner. For example listen to the sounds around you and isolate them one at a time concentrating on one at a time, even when you are doing something else, such as jogging. Look at a candle burning in a quiet room, focus on the flame and nothing else, then close your eyes and see it in the mind. Examine in detail something you use often such as your racket, focus on every little aspect, the marks and tears on the rubber, the curve of the wood, damage to the blade edge etc.

Often when you have an intense level of concentration you don’t remember much about what you do and how you play. The right concentration is characterized by mental calmness, not tense and not influenced by irrelevant events. Relaxed and focused is the key, full concentration on the task at hand means that you are much less likely to be influenced by negative thoughts or anxiety.

Concentration areas — There are four basic areas.

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

It is important that the player is aware of which type is suitable to which situation and when it is best to change the concentration field. Mistakes often occur when the athlete changes too early or too late. When you perform well in training or in a tournament and your concentration is particularly good, try to analyse which areas of concentration you used and in which time frame and to cope with which situation. When did you change from one area to another and why? What did you focus on within each individual style? Have you developed one style more than others? What causes you to lose concentration and is this with one type more than others?

In training try to split up the various areas of concentration and develop them individually even though in competition they will function as a whole. The goal is to automate the various groups in training so that they work as a whole in competition.

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

In your daily training regime introduce outside distractions especially so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise.

If inner doubts or worries start to upset your concentration, it can be best to direct your thoughts outwards for a brief moment and to change the focus. Or redirect inwards but concentrate on slow breathing or calming thoughts. Many athletes start to think negatively when things are going wrong. You will see top players replay the shot when they miss so that they get the feel of the right action and get their mind back on the right track. Remember training aims to prepare us to compete and the goals of training should reflect this — handling distractions, controlling tension, thinking positively and extending our limits are all parts of training.

6. Motivation/Goal Setting

Daily or weekly short-term goals which are more easily reached will keep you focused and stop you being disillusioned when the going gets tough

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

Instead of concentrating on result-goals let us define another type, the process-goal, which is more how we are going to achieve success and the qualities we need to develop to get there. This means that we must analyse our physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction we are going to take. When we have completed our analysis and know where we are going, for all practical purposes forget the destination and only concentrate on how to get there. When an athlete has completed all the steps in the process-goal, it often follows as a natural consequence that he or she achieves the results too!

Most athletes have a long-term dream-goal and many have surprised themselves and all around them with just how quickly they have reached this, when everyone thought it was impossible. Yet others have experienced that the biggest stumbling block in their development has been the lack of vision and belief in their own potential. Dream-goals have in important function in that they help to break through the mental barriers of what the mind thinks is and is not possible.

Set up a goal for every training session — at first it may seem like a great deal of work but soon it will become simple routine. Assess afterwards if you achieved what you set out to do. Soon you will be more focused on the task and less on the results — also you will be training much more systematically and with quality.

Bear in mind always that regardless of how many and how high goals you set up for the future, it’s what you are doing today which will determine just how far you will go in the future and what heights you will reach. If you are thinking too much of the future and not giving your full concentration to the ‘now’, then this can lead to lack of success in competition.

Guidelines for goals –

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

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

Remember too the vital importance of following up and of evaluating progress with reference to your goals and of adjusting the training load to ensure you have the best possible chance of achieving them. You must be active in this in your daily training. In this way you will often find that your original goal will be altered or amended and will take on a new shape.

7. Arousal/Stress

Arousal, stress, tension and anxiety are all slightly different

When the body is ready for action you must find the level of tension and arousal that suits you best, handle the extra pressures that threaten to disrupt your performance and never let anxiety become fear. These are the negative feelings where you are afraid of the consequences of failure. They can have physical effects, butterflies in the stomach, a racing pulse, difficulty in breathing — and mental effects, doubting your own ability, having negative thoughts etc.

Athletes who are anxious about their performance before competition often have a tendency to focus on how they do automatic actions and this leads to a worse performance.

You cannot control tension until you can identify the source. Write down and isolate what exactly stresses you in competition. Look at what you can influence and accept what you cannot! Where you can’t change things change your attitude towards these things. In training try to maintain the right attitude and the optimum conditions for yourself, so that you create and build the right environment for competition.

Ask Yourself

Rowden Fullen 2000

Players who are in control of themselves, of what they are doing and of the situation they are in, usually perform better. The players, who are best able to adapt to new situations and circumstances, are almost always those who have a good understanding of themselves and their capabilities.

  • Do you know that how you feel is going to determine how you perform?
  • Can you use you feelings constructively and turn these into a positive winning weapon?
  • What are you thinking about when you play? Does this differ when you are playing well or when you are playing badly?
  • Do you believe in your own ability to cope with most situations and to ignore those aspects over which you have no control?
  • Which situations do you find it hardest to cope with?
  • Do you judge your performance after you have trained or competed?
  • Do you always give 100% and do you do it for your own sake?
  • Are you aware that stress management is a vital ability if you are to reach the top?
  • Do you understand that the more honest you are with yourself, the better your chances of turning mental situations to your advantage?
  • Do you understand that many mental aspects cannot be changed overnight? You must take the long-term approach.
  • Do you understand that even the things you are best at now, must change and develop if you are to progress and succeed in the future?

How can you develop better control of yourself?

Which persons can help you in this?

Have you role models, which you can look up to in this respect?

Wise Man or Fool?

Rowden Fullen 1960s

As the great Chinese philosopher said – ‘When a fool sees himself as he is, he is a fool no longer. When the wise man becomes sure of his wisdom, then he is a fool.’

This saying sums up one of the problems with many table tennis players. You want to do your own thing, play your way and have your own style. This can be very good or very bad, it just depends on how you do it and whether you know where you are going! Style is a living, growing organism — unless you the player continue to grow and develop, you stay where you are, unless you the coach guide the player to release his or her full potential, you fail. Both the player and the coach who are totally dogmatic, who are sure of their wisdom, are fools! As soon as you say — ‘the only way to loop is……. This grip is the most effective for serves….’ — then you have stopped listening, you are no longer prepared to look at other possibilities.

Perhaps it is true to say — only in absolute certainty is there danger. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further development is not possible. Do not become the fool, always have an open mind, ready to listen and question. Nor become the ‘wise’ man who is so sure he knows it all that he doesn’t need to listen or even to think any more.

Why do we Play?

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Most of us play because we love the game — the travelling to matches or tournaments, the competition, the meeting with friends and comrades even from other clubs. There is a companionship in sport that transcends race, colour and age and sex. Does a painter or a musician stop at a certain age? Many of us continue well past retirement, some even resume playing when they give up work and have more time. Even most professional players like the sport, what indeed is more satisfying than being able to earn a living at something you want to do? And if you do something really well, whatever this may be, perhaps you owe it to yourself for your own peace of mind to give it your best shot!

For many table tennis is the ultimate form of self-expression. What you are and how you play you have to create yourself, through application and constructive effort. People are consumers — very few are producers. Most people don’t do anything even remotely creative with their lives. The game gives you the chance to learn to produce something for yourself, you can’t buy a great backhand at the supermarket, but you can make your own!

The social player does not need to be as goal-oriented as the professional, but the game is good for you socially, physically and mentally. It can teach you to think and to react quickly in a pressure situation and there is nothing like the feeling of relaxation after a long, tough match. Most of us too like to compete, we enjoy the stress and pressure of the battle.

Table tennis is not an easy game to learn — in fact some of us never stop learning. One of the reasons is that there are so many variations, in a whole lifetime of playing the ball never comes over the net twice in exactly the same way. Practise as long as you like but you can never rehearse one single game, nothing is predictable. Our game is all about spontaneity and reacting to unexpected situations as they arise. In fact the prime skill of table tennis at the very highest level is the ability to be able to adapt to and cope with new techniques, tactics, styles of play, innovations and challenges. The player who cannot do this cannot survive at the top.

The game can still matter as you get older. Often you learn to appreciate it more and there are always aspects to improve and new things to learn. Also like many other sports table tennis is changing year by year, there are new rules and regulations, new equipment and tactics, always another challenge around the corner. Some of us too are more the perfectionist rather than the competitor. We want to play our own game just as well as it can be played — winning or losing is not always important, we want to reach out and touch perfection. Many of us in fact walk a tightrope on court — the winner in us insists on playing shots that have a higher percentage of success — the artist inside, the creative part of us, always wants instead to take risks, variation in spin, speed, direction or tactics. Some of us just don’t like to play in a dull and boring way, we like our game to be flowing, colourful and exciting!

However whatever your approach and your reasons for playing, it doesn’t do to take yourself too seriously. Win or lose, the sun will still shine tomorrow and it will still rain in the mountains. And indeed will anything you may do or achieve be remembered in 400/500 years?

Mental Methods

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

As a champion you only have one true friend, only one person you can always rely on — yourself. So you feed your body well, look after it, train it, work on it. Where you lack skill you practise, where you lack knowledge you study. But above all you must believe. You must believe in your strength of will, of purpose, of heart and soul. Whatever you want to achieve, you can, if only you want it enough. Never doubt openly or speak badly of yourself for the champion that is inside you hears your words and is diminished, lessened by them. You are strong and you are brave, there is a nobility of spirit within you, let it grow and you will do well enough.

It is all too easy to 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 also all too easy to be limited by those around you, both coaches and players. How often do I 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.

To be skilful requires hard work and dedication, to be unbeatable requires a little more. There is a magic in sport that few master. Forget the strokes or the footwork — the battle is won in the mind. Never let anger, outrage, irritation or fear affect you — that is easy advice to give but hard to follow. Whatever others do, laugh or jeer or bait you - it’s just noise! The only way to make them stop is to win and to win with the right attitude. To beat them is not important, it never was and never will be. To beat yourself is all that matters. To be a real champion you must try and rise above the world around you.

One of the hardest things for young people is to combat the negativity that is all around and to cope with those who wish to interfere with the direction of their life, in many cases those near and dear to them. Often young people realize that the direction in which they are being pushed is not where they want to go. This is why there is so much rebellion and so many problems between the generations. It is one thing to understand that something is good for you, quite another thing to realize that the person recommending this ‘good thing’ is not altogether doing it for your sake, but also for his/her own. This is what he/she would have done but it’s not his/her life. Youth naturally resents being controlled.

When a young person has the opportunity to be really successful, many people seem to resent this and they are surrounded by such an aura of negativity that it’s almost tangible. We hear the well-worn phrases — ‘You’ve got a big talent but you’re never going to be world champion or make a living from sport. Face up to reality and get a job like normal people!’ What you must always remember is that the more you have, the more you will be subject to the envy of those who are patently inferior to you. The more of an ‘individual’ you are too (the kind of person who thinks for himself and refuses to be manipulated by others) the more you will be the target for negative emotions. People generally dislike individualists. They upset the smooth running of things and make others unsure of themselves. If you in fact talk to the ‘big’ people, the ones who have done it all, they will not laugh at you or mock you because they know it can be done. What is and is not achievable is always a matter of perception and of just who is doing the looking! Don’t let others make your reality. Each of us achieves our own reality. What is yours!

Fear is another emotion which causes incredible problems to the smooth operation of the nerves and muscles. Suddenly the body doesn’t seem to work very well anymore. The legs are made of wood, the breathing is laboured, there is a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, how can you hope to perform under such handicaps? Even normal everyday activities suddenly become next to impossible to carry out. If you allow fear to take over and dominate then it’s very difficult to compete at any level. What you must do is to control the fear, not allow it to control you. As people who have been in life-threatening situations for several days or weeks have found out, you can only live with fear for so long, then you absorb it and it starts to lose its power! What you must do is face your fear and conquer it. Imagine the very worst that could happen, see it happening to you, face it, absorb it. To conquer fear you must first realize that there is no escape from what you fear most. You must take it inside yourself, live with it, taste it, understand it and overcome it. Does the world end, does the sun stop shining, does everyone you know walk away and leave you alone, does life itself end? Or is it after all not quite as bad as you thought it would be?

MIND

Will Emotion Consciousness (problem solving) Subconsciousness.

Emotions one area to control, to minimize pressure. Through breathing, diverting mind’s attention, focusing. Only concern yourself with the things you have control over and can change. Where you have no control over events change your attitude towards them. Those things you can’t change should never cause pressure. Don’t let emotions take over, it’s easier to look for excuses when you lose and many people are very negative in attitude. Be logical and positive, evaluate the reasons for losses. How you behave when you lose determines how long it is before you win again.

Appearances — What the opponent sees matters to you and him and can give him an advantage and cause you a disadvantage.

AFFIRMATIONS

MEET AN IMPORTANT, A REALLY IMPORTANT PERSON. YOU ARE THE BEST, YOU ARE A BIG THINKER, SO THINK BIG, THINK BIG ABOUT EVERYTHING. YOU HAVE ALL THE TALENT AND ABILITY YOU NEED TO BECOME THE BEST, THE VERY BEST. SO GO FOR IT, WHATEVER YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE, YOU CAN ACHIEVE. YOU BELIEVE IN HAPPINESS, PROGRESS AND SUCCESS. SO - TALK AND THINK ONLY HAPPINESS. TALK AND THINK ONLY PROGRESS. TALK AND THINK ONLY SUCCESS. INSIDE YOU HAVE INCREDIBLE ENERGY AND WILL INCREDIBLE ENERGY AND WILL. JUST PUT THESE QUALITIES TO WORK AND NOTHING CAN STOP YOU, NOTHING. YOU ARE ALWAYS ENTHUSIASTIC LET YOUR ENTHUSIASM SHOW, SO THAT ALL CAN SEE. YOU LOOK GOOD AND YOU FEEL GOOD — STAY THAT WAY. YESTERDAY YOU WERE A GREAT PERSON AND TODAY AND TOMORROW YOU ARE GOING FORWARD TO EVEN GREATER SUCCESSES. NOW GO FOR IT WITH YOUR WILL AND VITALITY NOTHING CAN STOP YOU. YOU ALWAYS TRAIN WELL AND GET GOOD RESULTS AND YOUR RESULTS ARE GOING TO GET EVEN BETTER AND BETTER. ONLY TRUST IN YOURSELF AND NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE!

BRAIN WAVE CYCLES.

People dancing or listening to disco music often have brainwaves that reach 70 cycles per second. The mind cannot produce coherent thoughts at such a level. Let us look at what normal brainwaves should be and what you can do to reach a super thinking brainwave level.

Beta has a frequency of more than 14 cycles per second. As you read this you are more than likely at a level of about 18 cycles per second. If you reduce this down to around 14 you will stimulate your powers of comprehension and concentration.

Alpha vibrates from 8 – 13 cycles per second. This state will give you a sense of relaxation and peace and dramatically heighten your suggestibility.

Theta has a frequency of 4 – 7 cycles per second. In this state you can get unusually creative insights and ideas. Psychic healers usually operate around this level.

Delta vibrates from ½ — 6 cycles per second and usually occurs during sound sleep. However it is quite possible to be awake in the upper cycles of delta and to tune into more creative sources of both knowledge and energy.

Concentrate on the ‘third eye’ and use a repetitive, self-hypnotic count-down from level 14. Or visualize the blank screen technique and flash up on the mind’s screen the level 14 and slowly count down, not going to the lower level until you are comfortable with and relaxed at your present level. Once you have counted down to and feel comfortable at level 7 relax completely and let your thoughts float across the blank screen of your mind. After between 10 – 20 minutes place a mental image of yourself on the screen, happy and smiling, without a care in the world, all your problems solved. Count back up to the level you wish to remain at for the rest of the day and leave your subconscious mind to find solutions to your problems.

CONTACT THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND

It is enough to tell the sub-conscious mind to do something and it will do it. You do not have to waste time giving instructions on what to do or how to do it! If you call a mechanic to fix your car you don’t tell him what to do, you tell him what you think is wrong and let him get on with it. You should treat the sub-conscious mind in the same way.

Decide what you want to achieve and write down a list of ‘commands’ to your subconscious. Dictate these into a tape recorder using your own voice, softly, slowly and firmly (the subconscious responds better to commands from its owner). Give the right commands and be both positive clear and specific. Be relaxed and comfortable when you listen to the playback (the subconscious is most receptive when the body is in a relaxed state), there should in fact be no conscious attempt to ‘listen’ to the tape, rather switch off and let it wash over you or even concentrate on something else. Regard the subconscious as a separate entity and always address it as ‘you’. Repetition is the key, repeat everything at least ten times. Should you fall asleep while listening to your cassette no matter, the conscious mind may be asleep but not the subconscious. If possible try to find one master command or even word which summarizes what you want to achieve, as we said at the start the subconscious doesn’t need detailed instructions on what to do.

Another method can be to have prime instructions (no more than three) pinned up beside your bed so that you see them when going to sleep and on waking. Even more effective keep a torch by the bedside and every time you wake in the night look, read, then drop off to sleep again.

A.C.H METHOD

Bring the right attitude to training. How you think and feel determines how you will train or play. Think of a good match you have played, there is more behind thoughts than mere winning figures, good thoughts can influence how you feel now. Think positively and you will tend to be positive, in the mind there is a combination of thoughts and feelings churning round, each affects the other and without some measure of control it is difficult to achieve the higher levels of success.

If you on the other hand think badly, things will tend to go badly. Also you should try not to stress yourself. Not, I must, this brings in the element of pressure directly, but I can, it is possible. In this way you keep your options more open, you don’t impose limitations and you lessen the stress element. If you miss a couple of backhands don’t immediately say — ‘I can’t play backhand …’ Try to rely on your training, you know you can play backhands in training, you have done so many thousands of times before so in competition it shouldn’t be that much different. It’s all in the mind, give yourself a fair chance. Even if you’ve missed one or two it’s going to start getting better and also bear in mind that the opponent also suffers stress too. Look at and study his/her face and body language.

Do not be too results-oriented, especially at a young age. If you get too stressed because you are not winning and moving up the ranking ladder, you put more pressure on your own game and the more your main rivals forge ahead of you the bigger the risk you will stress yourself to the point of having real difficulties in keeping up your level of performance. Try to focus on your development, on bringing new things into your game, a little here and a little there, one small step at a time. Progress is much more important than winning.

Don’t let outer motivation be a factor (winning, achieving good tournament results, getting in the district or national team, being ranked in the top five), concentrate on harnessing the inner motivation. What can you influence? What factors can you bring to table tennis, stubbornness, fighting spirit, the right attitude, calmness and concentration? Can you even decide how the opponent plays? Yes, you can have a big influence here too. What you show to your opponent in terms of your feelings and attitude to the match will often determine how he /she reacts and plays. Don’t help the opponent to win!

You can be positive or negative in your approach to our sport, but bear one thing in mind. Negative people are rarely champions! You can be sour, irritated, angry, sad and always complaining, hanging your head. You can say how bad you are, how you can’t play, how much luck the opponent has, how bad the umpiring and the conditions. But just what does any of this achieve, other than give the opponent confidence and destroy your own? You lessen your chances of success and you lose the opportunity to learn anything constructive from defeat. On the other hand you can be positive, enthusiastic, urging yourself on as you play and psyching yourself up. Your whole body language says you are a winner, everything is under control and if the opponent is going to beat you then he/she has a real fight on their hands.

Be a fighter, always be ready. Face doubt and beat it. You don’t win by worrying about others, respect them yes, but don’t worry. Always remember training is physical but competing is emotional.

S. M. METHOD.

Improve your mental toughness.

Most people reading this have spent years working on their game. Practising to improve their shots, training on their footwork or to become fitter, only to lose in the next tournament or important match because they are nervous on a vital point. How many have made a decision to become fitter or to work on their backhand, only to let their good intentions slip after two to three weeks for no apparent reason?

The point here is that the difference between a good player, an excellent player and an outstanding player is often the ‘mental toughness’, yet most of us spend very little time working on this side of our game! There is no such thing as positive thinking. This is when you believe that something will happen without the need to take any action. We must believe in intelligence, in seeing things as they are, not as worse than they are, as many people do. They say they are sceptical or pessimistic about success, which you can interpret as meaning they are afraid.

Change fear into action.

There are three essentials to change and to improve.

  • If you want to improve your game it is very simple — you must raise your standards. You have to take the shoulds and make them into musts. Ivan Llendl was one of the most successful tennis players ever, yet not the most talented. How did he become world number one and stay there longer than anyone else had done? In his own words – ‘No-one has a higher demand on themselves than me. I don’t compete with other players, I compete with the best I could become. Since I was eight years old I have demanded more from myself than anyone else could possibly imagine.’
  • If you want to change your game you must first change your limiting beliefs. The only thing stopping you from achieving what you want is your limiting beliefs. Your belief deep down inside. Not your ‘I can do it belief on the outside’ but the ‘who are you kidding?’ belief deep down inside. Have you ever been in the situation where you have been playing out of this world? Every shot seems to hit the table. What are you thinking about at this time? Is it ‘Am I hitting my backhand correctly?’ or perhaps ‘What happens if I lose?’ You know the answer — usually you are not thinking about anything. You are so focused and conditioned to playing the game that you are just letting it happen.
  • You must change your thinking through having the right strategy. If you have not improved your game over the last year there is only one reason. You do not have the right strategy to improve! It’s as simple as that. Do you have the right mental strategy to enable you to train every day and to enjoy it? Do you have the right mental strategy to get the best possible results out of your training? Do you have the mental conviction that your game is developing in the right manner and proceeding in the right direction? Do you have the right strategy to win when the chips are down, or to win 80% of your deuce games? You can easily train your nervous system to achieve the above but without training it will not happen automatically. Do you know people who are better than others when it ‘gets tight’? Do you know people who are fitter than others? It all comes down to having the right mental strategy and training your nervous system to work for you and not against you. How much time and effort do you put into training yourself to be mentally tough?

To create peak performance.

  • Put yourself in a peak state. Focus your mind and body in a pro-active way on what you are going to do.
  • Find your passion. What do you love? Why do you want to improve? How important is it to you? What do you hate? What drives you in life?
  • Decide, commit and resolve. Decide on the action you are going to take, commit yourself to it and resolve to carry it through.
  • Take immediate, intelligent, consistent and massive action. Get a proven model or create one. Get a plan and do something now, immediately.

Be S.M.A.R.T.

Strategy

  • Check it. Change it. Re-engineer it. Reinforce it. Strengthen it.

Measure

  • Measure it on a regular basis to see if it is working.

Assess

  • Is it working as effectively as possible?

Reinforce

  • Reinforce what works in your mind.

Take

  • Take new action to continue beneficial change. Always ready to innovate.

In order to achieve your own personal best you have to get the best possible result out of everything you do. Becoming mentally stronger is not a should it’s a must.

Success Triangle

Rowden Fullen 1990s

 Success Triangle

Thailand: 8th wonder of the world

Rowden Fullen 2007

Thailand has hardly any immense past tradition in table tennis or in the production of world-class players. One looks in vain through the annals of the history of our sport for past champions on the world stage in the men’s, women’s or doubles events. But perhaps all this is about to change. Probably few if any of you reading this article have heard of the name Suthasini Sawettabut and none of her coach and mentor, Kraiwan Suphaprasert.

Here we have a young girl not yet 14 years but already considered as the best in the world in her age group and already feared and respected at the very highest levels in the table tennis hierarchy. The ITTF have sent envoys to examine just how she achieves the results she does. Even the Chinese are starting to take note of the continued development of this wonder girl and with no little apprehension.

So just how has she reached the heights, where is the high-level sparring she trains against every day, where are all the varied styles of player, the defenders, penholders, long and short pimple artists, where is all the technical equipment, the robots, multi-ball nets etc? The simple answer is she has nothing.

The hut where she trains is home to four cats and five table tennis tables and is situated in a small town in Thailand not too far from Bangkok. She is by far the best player in the ‘club’ and has no high-level sparring of any kind. In fact the vast majority of her training is mental and physical – the actual ‘ball crossing the net part’ of the training takes up less than 25% of training time. There is in fact in theory, or so 99 out of 100 coaches in the West would say, no way this girl could have achieved the results she has with the level of help and opportunity she receives!

Some of you may have seen Suthasini in World Junior Protour events. She is the one sitting alone, eyes closed, quietly meditating prior to her next match and totally oblivious to everything going on around her. Not for her the loud music in her earphones or the chatting with fellow-players and friends before she has to perform. She is just completely and totally focused on what she has to do and on nothing else. The results and the way she plays once the match starts demonstrates that this approach works for her.

Perhaps this type of training where the coach is predominantly working with the mind and getting the player to learn for themselves rather than instructing them is the way forward, although in the Western world we tend to be rather sceptical concerning the ‘inner’ game of table tennis. It may be that in many cases the way we learn and more importantly the way we teach in our modern society must be questioned and modified. What we should bear in mind however is that coaching is unlocking a player’s potential to allow him or her to maximise performance. Often major breakthroughs can be made if the coach can identify a new way forward with players working from their own experience and perceptions rather than his own.

Certainly one of the aspects where most of the top players are in agreement is in the vital and increasing importance of the mental side in top level performance. Perhaps here in a remote outpost in Thailand it is being demonstrated that the mental side is all important and that we don’t even need to concern ourselves overmuch with the technique and style development of the player. Get the mind right and the rest will follow!

Injury - Chance to Refine/Retune

Rowden April 2017

● A time of injury is actually an ideal occasion to sit back and have a rethink about your game. It’s a chance to get off the endless roundabout of training, the daily focus on technique and perfection and the pressure and stress of competition and the emphasis on winning

● It’s an opportunity to review recent progress and results and ask yourself if you’re satisfied with your direction. Are you improving and progressing steadily, are there things you need to change, are there ways to play which will lessen future injuries of this nature while still being just as effective as you are now or even more so?
● Don’t just let the time pass idly, use it effectively. Many top athletes find that periods of visualization while injured help them recover more quickly and help them recap on streamlining some of their strokes to prevent a reoccurrence. Visualization also helps to strengthen mental attitudes so that you come back stronger and more resilient
● Visualize also how to play opponents, particularly those who cause you problems. See yourself trying different tactics, see yourself staying calm and relaxed and winning easily, see the expression on your opponent’s face as they lose
● Also visualize yourself encountering problems in a game and coping with them, whether it’s bad or wrong calls from umpires, poor tables or lighting or distractions from other players or coaches. What you have prepared for mentally beforehand is much more easily handled when it actually occurs
● Look also to the long-term during this period of recovery. This can be an opportunity to re-evaluate your self-image, attitudes and just what you think you need to do to attain your full potential. It’s also a chance to listen to your own body more and when you are practising shadow play during recovery, to feel just where your body is tight, tense and in which areas
● Above all this can be an ideal time to build mental strength. Feed yourself with inner pictures of the new, stronger successful you, a you with total focus, concentration and will power and an unshakeable self-belief

Momentum

Rowden March 2016

● How smart or intelligent you are is irrelevant. What you lack in experience, skill, talent or strength and speed you have to make up by hard work

● If you always take 100% responsibility for all you do, with zero expectation of receiving anything in return, you hold the power. The day you graduate from child to adulthood is the day you take full responsibility for your life. Eliminate all excuses and choose to take control. Take personal responsibility. It is all your fault. Most of us unfortunately always have the attitude that the other person is wrong, rather than looking inside and doing what is necessary to put our own house in order. We can all take control by not blaming chance, fate or anyone else for the outcomes
● Where we end up in life is a result of the choices we make. Each choice starts a behaviour that over time ends up as a habit. Don’t choose at all and you are a passive onlooker in whatever happens to you
● Track every action relating to what you want to improve, this forces you to be conscious of your decisions. You cannot manage or improve until you measure what you do, equally you can’t make the most of you until you are aware of and accountable for your actions
● Routines are exceptionally powerful. With the good habits, develop routines for accomplishing the daily disciplines, which is the only way we can predictably regulate our behaviour. Control how your day starts and ends. Start your day with a feeling of gratitude for what you have; the world looks and responds very differently when you do this. At the day’s end review how it’s gone and what you may need to carry over till tomorrow. Log any insights you’ve picked up over the day and as the mind continues to process the last information consumed before bedtime focus your attention on something constructive to the progress of your goals and ambitions. Always start and finish strong
● Understand always that your choices, attitudes and habits are influenced by very powerful external forces. We are all affected by 3 kinds of influences: input (what we feed into our minds), associations (the people with whom we spend time) and environment (our surroundings). Be disciplined and proactive about what you allow into your mind. You get in life what you create, so what is influencing and directing your thoughts? Your mind is like an empty glass, if you fill it with all the bad things that are happening around you and in the world, you fill it with muddy water. If you have that dark, dismal aura in your mind, everything you create and try to do is filtered through this mess of negativity, which can have a severe even crippling impact on your creative potential. It’s not enough to eliminate negative input, you must flush out the bad and fill up on the good
● Your brain is not designed to make you happy its agenda is survival; to look out for the negative, what can hurt you or what you really need. You need to be extra vigilant to stop your brain absorbing irrelevant, counterproductive or destructive input. Nowadays the media bombards you with all kinds of negativity. It’s very easy for your mind to chew on this all day/night long
● Which people do you associate and spend time with? Research shows that your ‘reference group’ determines as much as 95% of your success and failure in life. The influence of your friends is subtle and can be negative or positive but either way is incredibly powerful. The attitudes of the 5 people closest to you have an unbelievable impact on your life. Upon close examination you may need to break away from some – completely. Others can be limited associations, a three minute, three hour or three day person. Just look at your relationships to make sure you’re not spending 3 hours with a 3 minute person. Remember when you put up boundaries between you and people they will fight you and try to drag you back down to their level. Keep in mind that the person you walk with can determine how fast or slow you go and even if you actually reach your destination. Ask yourself: ‘Who of those I know positively influences me?’ Get an unbiased, honest, outside perspective. Team-mates, partners, coaches should be open enough to tell you what they really think about you, your attitudes and performance. Find people who care enough about you to be brutally honest
● An individual needs to be open to being mentored. It is our responsibility to be willing to allow our lives and minds to be touched, moulded and strengthened by the people around us. What you wish to achieve may be bigger than the environment in which you find yourself. Sometimes you may need to move on to see your dreams realized. Each incomplete thing in life exerts a draining force on you, sucking the energy of accomplishment and success out of you. Think what you can complete today. Set standards for yourself, otherwise you get out of life what you tolerate, what you accept and feel you are worthy of
● When the going gets tough do you push through the pain or does your mind start inventing all sorts of convenient excuses? These are the moments where real growth and improvement live, where we can get to the front of the pack and seize the medal. There is a point in all our lives when we understand the real opponent is actually ourselves. It’s not getting to the wall that counts, it’s what you do after you hit it. Hitting the wall isn’t an obstacle, it’s an opportunity. When conditions are easy it’s easy for everyone, it’s only when situations reach a level of extreme difficulty that you get to prove you are worthy to progress. Don’t wish things are easier, wish they were harder and you better. It doesn’t take a lot more effort but the little extra multiplies your results many times over. It takes very little extra to be extraordinary

The Age of Experience

David Bainbridge (Middle Age: A natural History)2012

Middle and even old age is a controlled and even pre-programmed process – a process not of decline but of development. Development -- and the genetic processes which direct it – does not stop when we reach mid-twenties. It continues well into adulthood. The tightly choreographed transition into middle age is a later, but equally important, stage of human development when we are each recast into yet another novel form.

That form is one of the most remarkable of all. It is an evolutionary novelty unique to humans – a resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive phase of life which has laid the foundations for our species’ success. Indeed the multiple roles of older people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, that it could be argued they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection.

There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers have taken decades to learn their craft and resource-acquiring abilities may not peak till they are over 40 years of age. Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced ‘super-providers’ on which the rest of us depend. Modern middle age is in fact the result of millennia of natural selection.

The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. All animals inherit a great deal of information in their genes; some also learn more as they grow up. Humans have taken this second form of information transfer to a new level. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs – collectively known as culture – if we are to survive. The main route by which culture is transferred is by middle aged people telling and showing their children what to do, as well as the young adults with whom they associate.

These two roles of middle aged humans – as super-providers and master-culture-conveyers – continue today. In offices, on construction sites and in sport around the world, we see middle aged people advising and guiding younger adults. Middle aged people can do more, earn more, in short they run the world!

All this has left its mark on the human brain. Changes do occur in thinking abilities but these are subtle and as might be expected of people propagating complex skills, middle-aged people exhibit no dramatic cognitive deterioration. In fact they tend to be better at developing long-term plans, selecting relevant material from a mass of information, planning their time and coordinating the efforts of others – a constellation of skills that we might call wisdom!

To carry out their roles in society, middle-aged people need not necessarily think better or worse than younger adults, but they do think differently. Functional brain imaging studies suggest that sometimes they use different brain regions than young people when performing the same tasks, indicating that the nature of thought itself changes as we get older.

A central and related feature of middle age is the many healthy years we enjoy after we have stopped reproducing. Female humans are unusual animals because they become infertile halfway through their lives and males often effectively ‘self-sterilise’ by remaining with their partners. Almost no other species does this.

Thus, humans can be seen as members of an elite club of species in which adulthood has become so long and complicated that it can no longer all be given over to breeding. The menopause now appears to be a coordinated, controlled process. Recent scientific research is now revealing the truth about this long-neglected phase of human life and all the evidence suggests that it is not a meandering, stumbling deterioration but a neatly executed event which is a key part of the developmental programme of middle age. Without the evolution of middle age, human life as we know it could never have existed!

Training and the Mind

Rowden November 2014

If you wish to win matches and to reach your full potential, then the first requirement is that you train in the right way for you. Success also demands that you have the right personal mindset. We are all different and to attain our own potential must travel our own path and do what is best for us, technically, physically, tactically and mentally. Each of us needs to know how we play best and how to achieve this.

You may for example lose vital matches because you lack ‘skill experience’. Your skills may have reached quite a high level due to many hours of training but you may lack the ability to use those skills effectively in a competitive arena where you are being asked to play many different shots in a highly fluid situation. A simple comparison might be that you can play 100 FH’s without a mistake when playing at medium pace from one spot, but can’t do this at speed from a variety of areas. Top psychologists state for instance that ‘performing a skill well’ only ranks around 2 to 3 on a scale of 7 in mastering a sport completely. To attain level 7 is to ‘perform the skill very well at speed, under fatigue and pressure, consistently and in competitive conditions’. There is a big difference between levels 2 and 7.
Once a performer moves into the advanced stages of development, it is therefore important that he/she works at executing the various skills at speed, in moving situations and under pressure. It is also equally vital that he /she learn to identify and monitor where work is needed in training and where weaknesses need to be addressed. Bear in mind too that at the higher levels in any sport it may only require a very small improvement to win major events. The margins between success and failure among the top half-dozen stars at world level are often minimal!
Many players tend to overlook too that in sport it’s not only the technical aspects which need to be honed to perfection, but also physical, tactical and mental areas as well. All parts of the ‘whole’ athlete must be in harmony and combining well together. There are no shortcuts.
Just as important of course as all of the basics of the individual sport if not even more so, is the mental aspect. It doesn’t really matter how much skill and feeling you may have if you are mentally weak or can’t be bothered to work or don’t have the desire to win, then real success will often elude you. The mental side, just as the physical or technical areas, has to be worked at; with most players this doesn’t just come naturally, you need to put some effort in yourself and draw up a program. There are however a number of simple things you can do to help on the mental front and always bear in mind that habits, however deeply ingrained can be changed.
First and foremost train yourself to always fight till the last point and to never to give in. One of the prime qualities of the world’s best players is their extreme stubbornness; they might lose from time to time but they don’t go down easily. If you cultivate an attitude of working and fighting right to the end, other players will fear you. There will be an added bonus too in that when you are focused and working hard, you have little time to be negative or to think too much about your own performance.
Secondly train every day in the training hall to be positive, build up an attitude of self-belief and be optimistic. Don’t ‘knock yourself’ and your performance or become emotional if you don’t perform as expected. Try different things, altered timing, more or less spin, until you solve any problem you may have. Develop the habit of calmness under pressure and introduce pressure situations into the training. Even imagine yourself coping with such situations and still being able to win; this will help when the real thing happens.
Thirdly direct your focus outwards. Too many players focus too much on their own shortcomings and what is wrong with their own game; they fail to notice what is happening around them and especially at the other end of the table. Most top table tennis performers have trained for many years, their automatic reactions are ingrained and don’t need to be monitored and controlled. Allow your body to play automatically and don’t interfere with its performance. The main area of any thought while you are playing should in fact be tactical. By focusing on your opponent, the facial reactions, the movement and shot preparation, trying to make yourself aware of his/her intentions, you will focus your attention away from yourself and allow your body to play.
Always remember too that in any match you play, whoever the opponent, there is no ‘better player’. Whatever the ranking, whatever has historically occurred between you and your opponent in previous meetings is irrelevant, is in the past. It is only the current match that matters and it is up to you to give 100% and to prove that on this occasion you are the better player!

Approach

Winning

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Depth Mental Training

rowden Fullen (2003)

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

METHOD

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

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

THE START-UP

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

Think of the ‘peak performance’ triangle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCENTRATION

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

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

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

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

Concentration areas — There are four basic areas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

VISUALIZATION

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

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

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

MOTIVATION AND GOAL SETTING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidelines for goals –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ART OF BEING POSITIVE

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

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

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

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

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

COMPETITION PLANNING

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

Phase 1 — Preparation. Reserve plan for preparation.

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

Phase 3 — Execution. Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4 — Evaluation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME SCALE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Mental Development

Rowden Fullen (2003)

SUMMARY

Analysis and evaluation.

Relaxation.

Positive thinking.

Visualization.

Concentration.

Motivation and goal setting.

Arousal levels and stress.

Competition planning.

ANALYSIS AND EVALUATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

RELAXATION

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

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

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

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

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

POSITIVE THINKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VISUALIZATON

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

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

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

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

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

CONCENTRATION

Concentration — know and work in the four areas.

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

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

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

Concentration areas — There are four basic areas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOTIVATION AND GOAL-SETTING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidelines for goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

AROUSAL LEVELS AND STRESS

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

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

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

COMPETITON PLANNING

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

Phase 1 — Preparation. Reserve plan for preparation.

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

Physically/focusing
Mentally/focusing.

Phase 3 — Execution. Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4 — Evaluation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME SCALE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition Planning

Rowden Fullen (2003)

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

Phase 1

Preparation.
Reserve plan for preparation.

Phase 2

Warming up.
Reserve plan for warming up.

Physically/focusing.
Mentally/focusing.

Phase 3

Execution.
Reserve plan for execution.

Phase 4

Evaluation.

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

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

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

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

PHYSICAL

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

MENTAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME SCALE.

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

Tournament day

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

Performance phase

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

During breaks/pauses

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

Afterwards

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

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

Tactical Table Tennis Thinking

Dan Seemiller (2007)

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

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

OK, let’s get started...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TACTICAL THINKING GUIDELINES

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

Sports Psychology for Table Tennis

Richard McAfee (2007)

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

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

Sports Psychology Includes:

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

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

Basic Sports Psychology

Rowden February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus

Rowden December 2013

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

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

The Psychology of the Rally

Gunther Straub 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winning Mind

Larry Bassham -- (Olympic Champion) 2007

Introduction

The 3 phases of a task

The principles of mental management

Performance analysis

Goal setting system

Improve concentration by running a mental programme

Skills development

Build a better you

The directive affirmation

Seven strategies of the mentally tough

1. Introduction

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

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

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

2. The three phases of a task

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Principles of Mental Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Performance analysis

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

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

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

Next write down a projected training budget for each quarter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Goal Setting System

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

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

6. Improve concentration by running a mental programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Skills Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Build a better you

Are any of these attitudes familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. The directive affirmation

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

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

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

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

10. Seven strategies of the mentally tough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winning Mind: Summary

Larry Bassham (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willpower

Baumeister/Muraven (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

Peter K. Tyson 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal

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

Summary

  • 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.

WHEN THINGS START TO GO WRONG, TAKE A COUPLE OF SECONDS -- AND REFOCUS!

• 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.

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.

AWARENESS

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.

RESPONSIBILITY

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.