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.


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.


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

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