Achieving Perfection in Performance
Rowden Fullen (2004)
It is when the body does things on autopilot that it is most effective. When you start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, you introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, you only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. This is why with players who have trained for many years and whose habits are firmly ingrained, you can often only change small aspects. You can only restructure the player’s technique by destroying his or her game and starting again. The things that you can think about when you play and think about profitably, are where you are winning and losing points, which serves to use and not to use, free your conscious, thinking mind to operate more in the tactical areas and how to gain advantage here.
Because table tennis is a very technical sport the basic law is adaptation and counter-adaptation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work so well any more and the player’s reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent will have difficulty in adapting in time.
The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to an ever changing situation. Unfortunately the way we train is often significant in reducing our chances of achieving this ideal. Training is repetition in the right environment, with the right content and the right attitude. As a result of this repetition our strokes become ‘grooved’ and automatic. We train so we don’t need to think about what we are doing — so that we can in effect play on auto-pilot.
Once we are in this position of playing completely automatically just how are we supposed to handle thinking about something new and different, much less being actually able to cope with and adapt to new aspects? This is the reason why players who have something unusual or unconventional in their game are so difficult to play against and why the Asian coaches, especially the Chinese, are always on the look-out to give their players some extra ‘specialty’, something that bit different to give them a big advantage over others.
This is of course why it is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the formative years.
Technique for example is the basis of tactics and the development of technique generally precedes that of tactics. Only when the player has mastered all-round technique successfully can he use various tactics to the fullest extent. But also the appropriate use of tactics can allow the player to use his technique to the fullest extent. New techniques will inevitably give rise to new tactics. A thorough understanding of the interaction between technique and tactics will enable us to better understand the vital importance of innovation in tactics in our work with young players.
Another aspect that many players and coaches do not seem to appreciate is that development must be in the right direction for the particular player and that the right training must be devised to enable that player to evolve and mature. Indeed it is the prime function of the coach to unlock the potential of his player. Direction is vital, if the player follows the wrong course for him or her then much of that potential can remain untapped.
How many players really know how to get the best out of their own game, what is effective with their own personal style of play? If you ask players how they win points, what is their winning weapon, they may well know this. But if you go into their style in more detail you get fewer and fewer answers and often little understanding of several important areas. Many players do not even seem to be aware of their most effective playing distance from the table or how much of the table they would cover with the forehand or the backhand for example.
If you start to explore in depth, which serve and receive is most effective with their style of play against designated opponents, how they change against defence or pimples, ask if they can take advantage knowledgeably of return spin on the third or fourth ball and use elastic energy or the Magnus effect against defence players, often you only get blank looks in reply. How many even know where they are going and more important, how to get there? At a personal level how many players actually comprehend that they are training in the right way for them, with the right content and the right methods?
Even if you become involved with players who have been in their national squads for some years and have played in European and World Championships, often they are still not aware how to get the best out of their own game (especially women players) or indeed where they are going. It would appear that a thorough understanding of the relationship of tactics to technique and the intricacies of personal style development are not considered necessary at national level in many countries.
How many players even know how to train properly and to train in the right way for their type of game? How many have the right attitude and the optimal level of nervous excitement in the training hall to get the best out of the session? So often training operates at a lower and less intense level than it should because the players bring the wrong attitude to the training hall.
A player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but attitudes and the quality of consciousness are difficult to improve. The cultivation of table tennis consciousness should be an obligatory theoretical course for all players. Each player should be aware, should be able to ‘feel’ how he or she is contacting the ball, how he or she is moving, how his or her own body is performing during play. Many players are in fact quite insensitive and indeed ignorant as to just what is happening with the various parts of their own bodies when they play!
Cultivate awareness in seeking for example the optimal point of impact when striking the ball or in combining ‘drive’ and ‘brush’ strokes during play (such a combination constitutes the very essence of table tennis skills), even in getting the feel of the movement of one’s racket during each stroke (being mindful of each stroke you play so that you are aware of the why and wherefore of its success or failure). In many cases the ability to be totally aware of exactly how you are performing, only evolves after some research or exploration into the mental side of the game. In fact many athletes in many differing sports are becoming much more conscious of the value of the ‘mental side’ of performance, especially now that in many areas we are perhaps closer to reaching the physical limits than we were some years ago.
If you are to be more aware for example of how you function and how your body operates in a playing situation, it is important that you study relaxation techniques and are first able to relax. 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 then in a better position to control and to take action to change what is happening with your body.
It is quite important also 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. We must bear in mind too 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 and we should understand this if we are to be effective.
If you are to aim for the top levels it is critical 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 should 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.
No player is going to become extremely successful at the highest levels unless he or she is adaptable enough to contend with all variations of play. Most top players also have strong fortés which help them to win through even against the toughest opposition and they are invariably mentally tough themselves. In fact it is often this quality of never giving up, of extreme stubbornness, which many competitors refer to when they talk about the ‘real’ champions.