The Specific Consciousness of Players
Rowden Fullen (1990’s)
Table tennis practice is guided by table tennis theory. Training at all levels needs theoretical guidance and players of all levels should absorb theoretical lessons. The concept of table tennis consciousness has not come about of itself, it has emerged only after long years of practice on the part of countless coaches and players. Unfortunately most publications concerning our sport contain little or no information on this subject and many trainers work their whole lives and never even consider this aspect of table tennis. Such a serious gap on the theoretical side should call for comprehensive attention from all coaches, players and researchers. In fact table tennis consciousness and the methods of cultivating this should be an obligatory theoretical course for all coaches, trainers and players.
The state of consciousness refers to the degree of awareness of your own feelings and of what is going on around you. A high level of consciousness means a state of mental clarity, where the player is not only well motivated but also well aware of the differing demands on him or her and how he or she is going to handle them. A healthy person’s state of consciousness is in fact variable, fluctuating from highly conscious, to moderately conscious, to absent-minded. The same can be said of the player in training or in competition. Other things being equal, a player in a good state of consciousness shows greater concentration in play and will achieve better results in training — also with accurate judgement, quick reflexes and good adaptability to changing circumstances, he or she will perform better in competition.
Coaches have for example carried out simple consistency or accuracy tests during training sessions and have discovered that their own approach to training can considerably affect the consciousness of the group. There can be a considerable difference if they speak in a quiet and mild manner and then give exactly the same instructions with a much more forceful and aggressive attitude. Results over a variety of test cases were markedly different because of the changing state of consciousness of the players being tested. According to the views of some 20 top level coaches, a change in the degree of a player’s concentration (which depends on the state of consciousness), can make all the difference in a match even though he or she doesn’t alter the tactics! Sometimes a little ‘nap’ may cost him several points but once he arouses himself and plays with a high degree of concentration, he can often make up the deficit extremely quickly — in other words his level of play goes up dramatically. This is why in tournaments the support of coaches and team-mates can often be of value in altering the level of consciousness of the player.
Table tennis play whether matches, tournaments or training is characterized by intense exertion punctuated by brief breaks. While the ball is in play, the player is required to attain the highest level of consciousness so that he or she is extremely clear-headed and capable of displaying a high degree of concentration. But as soon as the ball goes out of play between the points or games, the player can immediately switch off, relax and rest. It is important that all players fully comprehend this situation and are good at taking advantage of it. The value of being able to switch off cannot be underestimated, no player can keep going at 100% concentration level all the time and it’s crucial to be able to relax — however it’s also crucial that the player is capable of switching on and off at a moment’s notice, so that this ability becomes second nature.
The actions of a player in training or competition are bound to be governed by his consciousness. With a good state of consciousness he can train efficiently and quickly improve his overall competitive ability. However generally speaking, technical problems are visible and tangible and can therefore be easily spotted and resolved, whereas problems pertaining to consciousness are more difficult to detect and once they reveal themselves one may have to make tremendous efforts to overcome them, if indeed they can be overcome at all! Those who are not scientifically minded often pay little attention to the aspects of table tennis which they cannot physically see. They take the attitude that if you work a player hard enough you will eventually get the results and that those who sweat more will progress faster. Actually the hard toil of these people in many cases fails to bear fruit commensurate with the efforts they have put in. This is because things don’t really work in this way and all players are different, often a different approach is needed. It is important that coaches in particular are prepared to think scientifically.
In teaching theories about table tennis consciousness, great emphasis should be laid on integrating the theory with the practice. Skills are acquired through practice but consciousness is cultivated through the powers of understanding. Often we can use examples outside our sport to help players understand the essence of table tennis consciousness. In training we should stress that players cultivate consciousness in conjunction with technical and tactical practices. In judging incoming balls for example emphasis should be laid on making conscious efforts to ‘stare’ at the ball, especially at the salient points in its flight (just before the bounce on your side so you see the spin or lack of spin). In technical drills try to instil awareness of what is happening and what they are doing into the players’ minds. If they hit a ball out don’t just explain the cause of the error which may be faulty timing but stress the vital importance of feeling the stroke and the contact with the ball in play and the necessity of constantly adjusting the swing of the racket to compensate.
While doing technical exercises one must always have tactical aims in mind if one is to learn solid skills that are of practical use in tournaments. You often hear coaches say that their players progress very rapidly at the start of their career but then development slows down when they reach a higher level. One of the main stumbling blocks can lie in the lack of tactical awareness within their technical training. Tactics are a means of using and applying techniques and skills, which in turn serve as a means of operating tactics. Negligence in developing tactical awareness amounts to forgetting that the ultimate aim of training is competition! Training is aimless unless you know clearly what tactics to adopt against various types of game and which tactics are most effective against a particular opponent. On the surface all players may train in almost the same way but they may achieve very different results if they have different ideas in their heads. If you take the practice of block and push strokes for example, players may practise varying the direction and the placement of the ball as the exercise requires. However if the player does not have any tactical sense he or she may be able to acquire the skills but find it extremely hard to apply them properly in tournaments. One may even find the practice boring with all the endless repetition. But if we teach the trainees that some tactics can be applied with even block and push strokes, such as play to the wings then the middle or to the body then down the sidelines, they can at the same time learn to use their skills in competition and heighten their interest in training.
Some players fall into the habit too of playing too much control play in training and neglect cultivating a strong urge to attack. It becomes then very easy in tournaments to settle into grooved stroke play and it becomes very hard to break the habitual way of playing and actually break out and take the initiative.
When talking to the few coaches who understand the concept of table tennis consciousness, the vast majority of these are of the opinion that a player’s consciousness is more important than his or her technical proficiency. Skills can be learned but it is only with great difficulty that the quality of consciousness can be improved. Some players with poor consciousness are not aware of their problems until they have played for many years, others even remain ignorant after their retirement!
Consciousness of what is happening is vital when you play in all aspects of table tennis. Draw up programmes for cultivating consciousness with your players.
- In the initial stages teach your players to develop a scientific approach to training, to set higher aims and to combine industry and ingenuity in all table tennis practice.
- Cultivate consciousness in ‘staring at the ball’. Use different methods, hitting the ball against a wall, staring at a ball hanging from a string, looking at a ball in a dark room, during stroke practice etc.
- Try to attain a good state of consciousness with your players and explain the meaning and importance of maintaining such a state. Try to work to maintain the state for longer and longer periods till they can operate at maximum capacity for a complete training session.
- At this stage in which basic skills and simple tactics are learned, work at cultivating consciousness in judgement. By feeding the trainee shots with differing properties, placement and trajectories, you can help the player to understand that judgement is the basis and the prerequisite for a good stroke, so he must exercise judgement in returning each and every shot.
- Consciousness in recovery. It must be clear to the player that one stroke will end where the next begins. He must consciously recover his balance during the brief instant between to ensure smooth execution.
- Consciousness in movement of the feet. The aim is not only to learn how to move the feet but, what’s more important, to develop awareness in movement of the feet during stroke play.
- Consciousness in seeking the optimal point of contact in executing the stroke. Emphasize this in training so that players think about the best contact point for each individual type of stroke.
- Consciousness in combining ‘flat’ and ‘brush’ strokes during play. Such a combination is the very essence of table tennis skills.
- Consciousness in feeling one’s stroke movements. The player should be aware of each stroke he plays so that he knows the reasons for its success or failure.
- Consciousness in placing the ball to differing table areas. Combine theory with practical and organize quotas for placement hits to improve player’s awareness.
- Developing a good state of general consciousness. The importance of effort in this respect should be emphasized again and again. Play one-point games where your players go all out to win a single rally, making concentrated mental preparations beforehand. Play from 8 – 10 down and serving, 9 – 10 or 10 – 10.
- Cultivate consciousness in attack. Watch videos or top performers live so your players can see for themselves the importance of taking the attacking initiative in competition. Work with special training games where the player must win the point in three strokes or less or in which only one push stroke is allowed before attacking or only two backhand strokes before stepping round to play a strong forehand.
- Cultivate consciousness in producing different spins and teach your players the importance of using spin in stroke play.
- Emphasize to your players that the purpose of training is to achieve good results in tournaments and matches. They should develop the urge to make a good showing in competition. The only test of the player’s skills is his or her actual performance in the competitive situation. In the day-to-day training they should make every endeavour to cultivate an irrepressible desire to do well and to give of their best.
- At the advanced stage in technical and tactical development, set higher demands in respect of cultivating consciousness in ‘staring at the ball’, exercising judgement of incoming balls and ‘feeling’ stroke movements.
- As the player’s skills improve try to break away more from conventional practice and ‘feel’ the stroke movement more at the instant of impact.
- Cultivate consciousness in making adjustments (in the amount of force applied, the method of applying force, the back-swing of the racket, the timing of the stroke, the angle of the racket, the direction of the stroke, the use of the wrist and fingers).
- Cultivate consciousness in understanding the relationship between stability and variation in play.
- Cultivate consciousness in memorizing the salient points of a game, where you are winning and losing points, which serves are more effective, whether you are winning on serve and receive and in what proportion, what are the strengths of the opponent, which tactics are working best etc.
- Cultivate consciousness regarding speed and variation in speed. Teach trainees the meaning of speed and methods for speeding up and slowing down their play. Instil into them a strong urge to vary pace, spin and placement of their shots.
- Cultivate consciousness in tactics, seizing the initiative in attack, adapting to changing circumstances, awareness of time and space in executing a stroke.
- Players are required to carry to a still higher level what they achieved in the previous stage in cultivating an urge to make a good showing in play.
- At this stage in which styles are becoming firmly established cultivate consciousness in evolving techniques. With both theoretical and practical sessions look at variation in playing styles and how players should approach matches against opponents with specialist styles and techniques.
- Cultivate strategic awareness and an urge to assert one’s advantage even if only partially as early as possible.
- Cultivate consciousness in developing one or two fortés, setting up continuous attacks and in improving containment techniques, defence and counter-attack.
- Cultivate consciousness in making innovations. Introduce new skills and give examples from table tennis history to illustrate the importance of technical innovations.
- Cultivate consciousness in preparing files, keeping notes on their own play and development and even on other players (how to beat them etc).
- Cultivate a good state of consciousness and emphasize this repeatedly. Play many ‘one-point’ games to focus the player.