Performance and Habit

Rowden May 2017

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

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