Preparing the Mind for Competition

The mental aspects of our sport are a vital to table tennis. The sport is all about levels of performance and having a strong mental approach is often the main difference in competitive play.

What are we trying to do?
In order to have a player play at their full potential they need to be in the correct state of mind. This is often referred to in a number of ways but the commonest I come across is being in the “zone.” I believe this zone is when all the mental and physical factors come together in a balance that enables a player to perform at their best.

What are the practical things we can do to affect our mental approach?
Every human being is unique and this obviously applies to every aspect of our lives. We have different talents and capabilities and my job as a sports coach is to find a way of unlocking those in the field of table tennis. We often talk about arousal as being a fundamental aspect of the mental so what is it?

optimum_arousal
Arousal is your level of excitement and readiness to perform. Arousal can have positive and negative effects on your performance. Your performance will be best at an optimum level of mental arousal. After this level, performance gets worse as you become anxious and nervous and this level is different for every player. Some can reach a state of nervousness and stress and even too hyper to make good decisions or in these terms become over aroused while others lack focus, commitment and concentration as they are under aroused.

There is no one way to get your players into the correct state of mind so there is not one formula or gimmick to get your players into a balanced state of mind. An example of this can be what some term as “cho’ing.” I don’t know where this came from but it is commonly used these days, I do remember Wang Hao making this noise and pumping his fist while looking straight at his opponent a good few years ago, I also remember him being warned for overly aggressive behaviour by an umpire.

If this is pumping yourself up to heighten your arousal it could work if you need to get yourself to a higher level, if it is to intimidate and to try to mentally dominate your opponent then I wouldn’t encourage it within the younger players. It might even be within the rules but I find it unnecessary and unsporting and I for one don’t encourage all my players to use it regularly. If in the “heat of battle” after an excellent rally or a significant win a player exclaims then I have no problem and would probably be doing the same!

I would go as far as to say that in a number of cases I think some players who are encouraged to “cho” are actually causing a negative mental effect. I have a number of players who need to remain focused and calm in order to reach optimum mental arousal and would feel uncomfortable displaying or making this kind of noise. Once again it depends on the type of player and what works for them.

Heightening mental arousal can also effect the player’s physical movement. The body changes with mental pressure and muscles can tighten creating less touch and effecting technique. Time and again we see players “bottle” even when they look as though they will see out a big win. Players can become hesitant to play a winning shot and become afraid to make a mistake; alternatively they can panic and try to finish off the match with extreme winners. If “cho’ing” was a really effective mental strategy for maintaining a balance optimum arousal then surely it would be required after every point even if the player loses!

I would be a big believer in creating positive habitual patterns or routines, ones that can be maintained throughout a competition in order to put the mind into “play mode.” Wiping your hands on the table (near the net), rather than just be an effective way of preventing your bat from slipping, or walking away to calm your heart rate can also have a positive mental effect of controlling the mind and maintaining the optimum arousal. In table tennis we can “go for the towel” every 6 points and ritualising this can have a positive effect.

I think maintaining a rhythm can be very effective for many players; this can be created by maintaining a habitual pattern for competition which can put a player into the “zone” and keep a player at optimum arousal or the ideal mental level for performance.

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