Advising Players at Tournaments

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Just what do coaches say to players during the ‘magic’ minute between games at tournaments, what sort of advice, what aspects are they looking at, what are their main concerns and do they have priorities?

The first thing of course is to assess the mental and emotional state of the player, training is physical but competing is emotional and often the feelings can take over to the detriment of performance. The player’s emotional state can be such that there is absolutely no point in even trying to get over information about tactics, the opponent’s weaknesses or which serves are most advantageous! His or her mind is closed to all incoming information, the only step you can take within the time you have is to try and get the player in something like the right mood to continue the match in a constructive way.

Usually when emotion gets too high the level of play goes down and the player makes even more mistakes. Many players fail to realise three important facts.

  • Tension affects concentration levels, if they are too stressed it’s unlikely that they can focus well on the play.
  • Secondly to achieve a high level in table tennis is a slow process and takes time, players should allow themselves the time to learn and develop, they don’t achieve perfection overnight!
  • Thirdly they do not understand that to win it is often not necessary to play 100%, or even to play at one’s very best. Top players will tell you quite regularly that they played badly, perhaps only at about 60% level and yet actually won the tournament!

Many players allow themselves to be very negative when competing, they tell themselves they can’t play, they have no chance, they are playing badly, even that they are going to lose. The brain is very like a computer, if you feed in negative thoughts, it will do its very best to help you lose! If on the other hand you think positively and believe that if you work and fight you have a good chance to succeed, it will indeed be ‘on your side’ and help you to do just this.

Fear is another emotion which causes incredible problems to the smooth operation of the nerves and muscles. Suddenly the body doesn’t seem to work very well anymore. The legs are made of wood, the breathing is laboured, there is a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, just how can you hope to perform under such handicaps? Even normal everyday activities suddenly become next to impossible to carry out. If you allow fear to take over and dominate then it’s very difficult to compete at any level.

What you must do is to control the fear, not allow it to control you. As people who have been in life-threatening situations for several days or weeks have found out you can only live with fear for so long, then you absorb it and it starts to lose its power! What you must do is face your fear and conquer it. Imagine the very worst that could happen, see it happening to you, face it, absorb it. To conquer fear you must first realize that there is no escape from what you fear most. You must take it inside yourself, live with it, taste it, understand it, overcome it. Does the world end, does the sun stop shining, does everyone you know walk away and leave you alone, does life itself end? Or is it after all not quite as bad as you thought it would be?

It is vital to impress on all your players that perhaps the single most important consideration about competition is to bring the right approach and attitude to every tournament. Without the optimal mental state, the right level of nervous excitement and a positive, balanced approach to competition, it is very difficult to be successful. When competing you must be in the right mood, feelings and emotions get in the way and even the smallest things can be a source of irritation if you allow them to be. The psychological adjustment of players so as to keep them in the optimal mental state should in fact be an obligatory theoretical course for all players and trainers.

Players should first understand that self-control will give them the opportunity to think — the mind is much clearer and able to consider tactics, which serve to use, whether to use spin more etc. Also the body is more relaxed and able to respond more effectively to different situations. All players should try to work on the things they can control, trying to train hard and in the right way, having a good work-rate and attitude at all times, a strong fighting spirit, being calm and in control and above all being stubborn and never giving up.

One thing that many top players do in fact agree on is that the prime sources of success, are the areas you have control over and are capable of influencing — the internal factors. What we are talking about here is basically attitude — the qualities and the approach you bring to competition. Above all however these are the areas where you can take charge and steer your own course. If you focus completely on working and fighting for every point, then you have very little time and energy for doubt and worry and being negative. If you remain calm and in control and do not allow the emotions, irritation, anger and fear to creep in, then you have the time to think how you should play, to consider different tactics and possibilities.

One area where I often see coaches making a mistake at tournaments is trying to advise players on technique. Starting to get involved thinking about how to play the strokes or how to move is the last thing the player needs under the pressure of competitive play! 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. 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 concentrate more on tactical areas of the game and how to gain advantage here.

It is indeed into the tactical areas that much of your advice should be directed during the one minute coaching period between games, provided always that your player is receptive enough. The prime skill after all in table tennis is the ability to read and adapt to ever changing situations. Our sport can be considered somewhat in the light of a chess match with move and counter-move, but played at a rather faster pace! What you as a coach are trying to do is to help your player to match his strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses (though on occasions it can be better to play weakness against weakness). One of the first things to look at is the serve and receive situation, where and how does the opponent stand, where is your player winning or losing points? Are certain serves an asset, some even a liability? Should your player be thinking of returning in a different manner? Is he or she too safe or too aggressive after the serve/receive? Above all just where is your player winning and losing points and what can he or she do to change this?

Do not overlook tactical aspects such as short play, use of angles, varying length, speed or spin or even just playing slower balls. Often slow play pays dividends even against very high level players, because their usual pattern of training is with extreme tempo or power. Always remember the prime skill is to read and to adapt. If you give the opponent something they are not used to then in terms of sports training theory their automatic reactions, the conditioned reflexes, are not firmly established, because they have not trained in such a way as to counter the new stimulus. This is why new techniques, tactics and playing methods are so powerful.

As a coach try always to put yourself into the mind of opponents. What sort of game do they like to face? Do they prefer speed, have they good feeling against spin, are they good in short play, are they better at moving to one wing or to the other? Are they confident in the crossover area, are they strong on diagonal or straight play, what are their strengths and weaknesses in movement and are they predictable in placement? How do they win points, what are their winning weapons and how can your player neutralize these?

Also assess the mental capabilities of opponents. Are they strong and calm in the mind, ready to fight to the last point? Or are there weaknesses under pressure? What serves and receives do they use when the game is really close? Do they change their tactics at times of stress, play safe or more negative or do they perhaps go the other way and play ultra-positive? What advantage can we gain here?

Bear in mind too that as a coach it’s not only advice that you are dispensing to your own player but also support and confidence. Quite often your quiet support can make all the difference in a very close match. Your own attitude and your approach to advising your player are particularly important. You should above all be able to control yourself and not allow your emotions to get in the way, however badly your player may have performed. Another aspect that many coaches overlook is that the player too may have some thoughts that he or she wants to talk over. Coaching at most levels should be a two-way process and the coach should be as ready to listen as to talk. Coaching is after all a development of players’ self-confidence and self-sufficiency so that they can eventually cope on their own without you to hold their hand for the rest of their lives!

What you must cultivate and allow to flower with your player is this self-sufficiency, the ability to cope with any situation he or she will encounter in any table tennis environment. Teach your pupils to be as professional as possible and to adhere to the professional’s creed — ‘Where you lack skill you practise, where you lack knowledge you study. But above all you must believe. You must believe in your strength of will, of purpose, of heart and soul. Whatever you want to achieve, you can, if only you want it enough. Never doubt openly or speak badly of yourself for the champion that is inside you hears your words and is diminished, lessened by them.’

The most important thing is not to win but to win with the right attitude. To beat the opponent is not important, it never was and never will be. All competition is against yourself. To beat yourself is all that matters. To be a real champion you must try and rise above yourself and the world around you. Once you understand this then everything becomes possible.