Making the Mind Work for You

Rowden Fullen (2002)

Analysis and evaluation


Positive thinking



Motivation/Goal setting


1. Analysis and Evaluation

Regular analysis -- what is going on when you compete or train? Be aware what is happening with and around you

In competition write down exactly what has happened, how you behaved, what you were thinking of, what went well, what went badly, what you need to do to get better — also what stressed you and what you can do about these things. In respect of the external factors you can’t change and which are not under your control, consider how best you can change your attitude towards these aspects. What you have no control over, you must live with.

When you perform exceptionally well it is important that you can recapture this ‘state’ in the future. If performance was bad it is equally important that you isolate the factors responsible for this. You must analyse your physical, technical, tactical and mental strengths and choose the direction you are going to take. This is after all, the first step to being the self-sufficient athlete.

Every so often but at least once a month assess your progress. Are you analysing and learning from your experiences, both good and bad? Are you still moving forward and proceeding in the right direction? Are you satisfied with how you are playing just now? If not what can you do about it?

2. Relaxation

Relaxation methods and control of these play an important part in achieving better performance. When the body operates on autopilot results are usually much improved

Work at progressive relaxation exercises and establish ‘triggers’ (reminder words) such as ‘relaxation’, ‘peace’, ‘harmony’, so you can 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 working from the feet up or the head down — another to visualize the blood circulating round the body washing away all aches and pains and tiredness and bringing total relaxation — a third technique to use deep breathing to a pre-arranged rhythm – yet another to imagine the body filled with water or air which gradually drains out from the fingers and toes to leave you totally empty and at peace.

When you first start mental training you must usually set aside a little time to perfect individual techniques. 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.

Try to automate these techniques in training till you don’t need to think too much about them. It is in your training that you can test which work best for you and here that you can adapt them to your game and needs.

Train to play with relaxed concentration, to be calm and in harmony with yourself. Train to focus on one aspect at a time. 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.

3. Positive Thinking

Stop negative thinking. Monitor your inner and outer dialogue and steer your thoughts into positive channels

Don’t stress yourself by thinking you must win — break down competition into many small parts, the warm-up, the knock-up, the start of the game, the middle game, the end game.

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.

Remember always that you should be positive in the right way and in a realistic way. Be aware what you say to yourself in critical situations, a conscious dialogue, together with visualization are very effective in influencing negative thinking.

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?’

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 towards themselves and their abilities. They are never satisfied and complain over every little thing.

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. Motivation can be very much influenced by how you look at wins and losses. It is in fact important to recognize one’s own ability, because by doing so you increase motivation and self-confidence.

Using others as an example can also help us. When we see others in our sport reach new limits, then we see what is possible and just what 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.

Players who are too negative often have poor confidence. 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.)

4. Visualisation

Visualization should be three-dimensional to have maximum effect

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.

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.

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 position. 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.

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.

5. Concentration

It is important that you develop the ability to alter concentration levels and areas and are not distracted by irrelevant factors from inside or outside

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.

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.

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. (When playing in a relaxed manner you use this style, you are focusing on a ‘feeling’).
  • Broad inward looking — using previous experience, tactics, training to change tactics, working at ‘set’ pieces, planning, reacting to situations in the right way, assessing the opponent. (Players involved with this style can be too analytical at times especially when things don’t go too well).
  • 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.

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. 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?

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.

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 distractions especially so that you can train to refocus as quickly as possible on the exercise.

If inner doubts or worries start to upset your concentration, it can be best to direct your 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.

6. Motivation/Goal Setting

Daily or weekly short-term goals which are more easily reached will keep you focused and stop you being disillusioned when the going gets tough

It is 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.

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. 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!

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.

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. 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.

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 and will take on a new shape.

7. Arousal/Stress

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.

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.

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. In training try to maintain the right attitude and the optimum conditions for yourself, so that you create and build the right environment for competition.