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!
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.
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.
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.
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 –
- 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.
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.
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.
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 (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).
- 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
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.
- 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.