Training and the Mind

Rowden November 2014

If you wish to win matches and to reach your full potential, then the first requirement is that you train in the right way for you. Success also demands that you have the right personal mindset. We are all different and to attain our own potential must travel our own path and do what is best for us, technically, physically, tactically and mentally. Each of us needs to know how we play best and how to achieve this.

You may for example lose vital matches because you lack ‘skill experience’. Your skills may have reached quite a high level due to many hours of training but you may lack the ability to use those skills effectively in a competitive arena where you are being asked to play many different shots in a highly fluid situation. A simple comparison might be that you can play 100 FH’s without a mistake when playing at medium pace from one spot, but can’t do this at speed from a variety of areas. Top psychologists state for instance that ‘performing a skill well’ only ranks around 2 to 3 on a scale of 7 in mastering a sport completely. To attain level 7 is to ‘perform the skill very well at speed, under fatigue and pressure, consistently and in competitive conditions’. There is a big difference between levels 2 and 7.
Once a performer moves into the advanced stages of development, it is therefore important that he/she works at executing the various skills at speed, in moving situations and under pressure. It is also equally vital that he /she learn to identify and monitor where work is needed in training and where weaknesses need to be addressed. Bear in mind too that at the higher levels in any sport it may only require a very small improvement to win major events. The margins between success and failure among the top half-dozen stars at world level are often minimal!
Many players tend to overlook too that in sport it’s not only the technical aspects which need to be honed to perfection, but also physical, tactical and mental areas as well. All parts of the ‘whole’ athlete must be in harmony and combining well together. There are no shortcuts.
Just as important of course as all of the basics of the individual sport if not even more so, is the mental aspect. It doesn’t really matter how much skill and feeling you may have if you are mentally weak or can’t be bothered to work or don’t have the desire to win, then real success will often elude you. The mental side, just as the physical or technical areas, has to be worked at; with most players this doesn’t just come naturally, you need to put some effort in yourself and draw up a program. There are however a number of simple things you can do to help on the mental front and always bear in mind that habits, however deeply ingrained can be changed.
First and foremost train yourself to always fight till the last point and to never to give in. One of the prime qualities of the world’s best players is their extreme stubbornness; they might lose from time to time but they don’t go down easily. If you cultivate an attitude of working and fighting right to the end, other players will fear you. There will be an added bonus too in that when you are focused and working hard, you have little time to be negative or to think too much about your own performance.
Secondly train every day in the training hall to be positive, build up an attitude of self-belief and be optimistic. Don’t ‘knock yourself’ and your performance or become emotional if you don’t perform as expected. Try different things, altered timing, more or less spin, until you solve any problem you may have. Develop the habit of calmness under pressure and introduce pressure situations into the training. Even imagine yourself coping with such situations and still being able to win; this will help when the real thing happens.
Thirdly direct your focus outwards. Too many players focus too much on their own shortcomings and what is wrong with their own game; they fail to notice what is happening around them and especially at the other end of the table. Most top table tennis performers have trained for many years, their automatic reactions are ingrained and don’t need to be monitored and controlled. Allow your body to play automatically and don’t interfere with its performance. The main area of any thought while you are playing should in fact be tactical. By focusing on your opponent, the facial reactions, the movement and shot preparation, trying to make yourself aware of his/her intentions, you will focus your attention away from yourself and allow your body to play.
Always remember too that in any match you play, whoever the opponent, there is no ‘better player’. Whatever the ranking, whatever has historically occurred between you and your opponent in previous meetings is irrelevant, is in the past. It is only the current match that matters and it is up to you to give 100% and to prove that on this occasion you are the better player!