The Ultimate Guide to Table Tennis Psychology

The Ultimate Guide to Table Tennis Psychology

My original inspiration for this series of articles came from the work of Jack Lesyk (PhD) at the Ohio Center for Sports Psychology, and in particular his paper entitled, ‘Mental Skills Training Using the “Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes” Model’. The nine mental skills of successful athletes, according to Lesyk, are;

  1. A positive attitude
  2. A high level of self-motivation
  3. High, realistic goals
  4. Good people skills
  5. Positive self-talk
  6. Positive mental imagery
  7. Control over anxiety
  8. Control over emotions
  9. Maintaining concentration

To read more about Lesyk’s work and the nine mental skills click here.

In this article, I will try my best to clearly explain each principle in the context of table tennis and provide practical applications and tips to help you incorporate the nine mental skills (listed above) into your own game.

There is no doubt in my mind that learning these nine skills and applying sports psychology to your table tennis will help you perform at a higher level and enjoy playing much more.

1. How to create a positive attitude

If there is one thing that coaches really want to see in their players it’s a great attitude. A positive attitude is worth more than technical ability, a strong tactical mind, and physical fitness. It’s a long road to the top and those lacking the required positive attitude will likely fall somewhere along the way.

Players with a good positive attitude; work hard, always turn up to training, are easy to coach (because they listen to advice), are humble, never give up, and keep going through all the difficulties of sport and life.

Our attitude is largely a part of who we are. People are often described as optimists or pessimists, those that work hard or those that slack off, even winners or losers. However, if you’re serious about improving at anything you’ll first need to have a serious look at your attitude and uncover some ways you can become even more positive.

Creating and maintaining a positive attitude, in relation to your table tennis, includes striving for excellence and constant improvement, enjoying the opportunity to compete and test your skills, learning from successes and failures, having respect for other players, coaches and officials, and keeping a healthy balance between table tennis and the rest of your life.

Here are some tips for creating and maintaining a positive attitude in relation to your table tennis;

  1. Associate with positive minded people: Find a group of players that are used to working hard, constantly improving, and believing they can achieve future goals. These people will challenge and support you in your quest to climb up the table tennis rankings. The slackers, the arrogant, and those with no ambitions (or with ambitions but without any belief they can be attained) are only going to drag you down. On top of this, find a coach that understands the importance of creating a positive attitude and learn from them. It’s also important that non-table tennis friends and family are supportive and believe in what you are trying to achieve.
  2. Consume inspirational content: Have a look at the table tennis content you are currently reading, watching and listening to. Is it helping you develop a positive attitude or is it grumbling about the sorry state of affairs at your club, national governing body, etc. is currently in? Don’t spend all evening consuming this negative content. Instead, read articles that help you to improve, watch videos of the top players performing spectacular shots, and listen to those encouraging you to keep going.
  3. Practice, perform, learn, and repeat: Remember that the goal is to be constantly learning and improving. This means that whether you win or lose the most important thing is taking something from the experience and using that in the future. If you start winning – don’t become big-headed. You should definitely remember your successes and use them to feel positive about your performance but keep your focus on the future. Similarly, if you lose – don’t lose heart. The important thing is to learn from your defeats and remember; we often learn much more from our losses than we do from our victories.

So, in conclusion, you can help create a positive attitude by surrounding yourself with positive, like-minded individuals, inspiring yourself with exciting table tennis content, and keeping your focus on the future and your steady, constant improvement.

2. How to build self-motivation

Athletes with high levels of self-motivation, sometimes called intrinsic motivation, take part in sport because they love it! A passion for something is key if you are going to continue doing it for long enough to get any good at it.

Author, Daniel Coyle (a personal favourite of mine) says that “passion [for something] makes learning fast and fun”.

The process of learning a highly complex set of skills, such as a modern sport, can be very long (some authors have even said it takes 10 years of solid training to become an expert at something) but an underlying passion for the activity can make the process much more enjoyable and much quicker.

Table tennis players with a high level of self-motivation; are aware of the rewards that can be attained through table tennis, have the drive to continue through difficulties and tough periods, and have an inherent love for the sport (training, competing, watching) and immerse themselves in it.

What’s your motivation for playing table tennis?

This is a good question to ask yourself. Why do you play?

You may play table tennis because you love the game (the spin, the speed, the quick reactions), or because you love the feeling of playing a perfect shot, or because you enjoy the fact that hard work in the training hall relates to better results at competitions.

Perhaps you enjoy winning trophies, beating other players in a one-on-one context, seeing your ranking improve, or even that you can earn a living playing full-time.

There are so many different reasons why you might play table tennis but it’s important that you realise why you are playing and ideally it should be a reason that relates to you and not somebody else. There will be times in your career when you want to throw in the towel and it is in these times you will need to remember the source of your motivation to give you the strength to keep going.

How to build self-motivation

My experience is that motivation goes up and down, and for a variety of reasons. Your job as an aspiring top player is to understand why your motivation is at its current level.

Sometimes you will have had enough of table tennis for a period. You may need to take a short break (about two weeks ought to do it) to rest, relax and have that urge to play come back. Other times you may simply have fallen away from table tennis for a period of time. Perhaps you’ve been busy and haven’t been able to train as much as you’d like or keep up to date with the pro events. Simply watching some table tennis online or entering an upcoming tournament may be all you need to reconnect with the sport and get your motivation back.

It’s worth pointing out that if our ambition is to continually be learning and improving then our motivation cannot be taken away from us. If our ambition is simply to beat a certain player or win a specific event then both achieving and failing to achieve our goal can decrease our self-motivation. 

3. How to set challenging goals

In sports psychology, goal-setting has been shown to increase levels of commitment, hard work and focus, on a particular task. Goals are often split into the categories of process, performance and outcome.

Process goals relate to executing certainly techniques or tactics correctly. The athlete has complete control over them. Performance goals relate to how well an athlete is able to perform in relation to their own previous performances. Outcomes goals relate to winning events or beating opponents. They are outside of the control of the athlete.

Goal setting, in table tennis, should include; the setting of short, medium and long-term goals, using measurable criteria to assess achievement, creating detailed plans for attaining the selected goals and becoming highly committed to the goals (doing all it takes to achieve them).

The SMARTER principles

Goals that you set should be specific (make them very detailed), measurable (you need a method of determining success or failure), accepted (they must be OK’d by all involved, player and coach), realistic (challenging but attainable), time-based (have an end date set), exciting (should be motivating), and recorded (otherwise you’ll forget them).

Here are a few examples…

Process, performance and outcome goals

  • A process goal might be to play with a more neutral grip during your next league match.
  • A performance goal might be to get 80% of your forehand open ups on the table during your next league match.
  • An outcome goal might be to win all three of your singles games during your next league match.

[These are all short-term goals by the way.]

Short, medium and long-term goals

  • A short-term goal might be to get through to the last 16 in your upcoming tournament.
  • A medium-term goal might be to get selected to represent your regional team next season.
  • A long-term goal might be to make it into the top 100 players in your country.

[These are all outcome goals by the way.]

How to achieve your long-term goals

A long-term goal, such as reaching the top 100 players in your country, may seem completely unrealistic. However, in England we have a number of 50-year-olds in the top 100 so really there is no reason why this cannot be attained despite your current level or age (provided you’re under 40, let’s say).

The key to achieving a long-term goal is breaking it down into lots of smaller, more achievable goals. For example, perhaps you need to start with process and performance goals working on your technique and shot accuracy.

You could set ranking-based outcomes goals for the next five years. If you are currently ranked 400th then think about what you need to do to reach 300th in 12 months time. Look at the current players at the 300thmark and work out in which ways they are better than you. Then set a goal to be 225th in 24 months time, 175th in 36 months time, 125th in 48 months time, and top 100 by five years.

These goals can be changed, if necessary, but all you need to focus on right now is how to become a top 300 player in the next 12 months. And that sounds much more realistic and manageable! I hope that’s inspired you to set some big goals for your table tennis.

4. How to develop people skills

People skills, often known as interpersonal skills, are all about communicating well with others and understanding yourself. An ambition sportsperson needs to be assertive (in their ambitions and views) but also responsive (listening to others and taking onboard feedback).

Extreme assertiveness comes across as aggression, which can be perceived negatively. Similarly, extreme responsiveness can turn into passivity, which is no good for your own development. Therefore, it’s very important to find a good balance between being assertive with your own agenda but also being responsive and reacting to the needs of others.

Dealing effectively with other people, as a table tennis player involves; working alongside other players, coaches, team managers, support staff, friends, and family. You need to be able to communicate your ideas, thoughts and feelings, whilst listening to and learning from others. Potential positive situations require encouragement, fun and togetherness. Potential negative situations require conflict resolution, negotiation and self-control.

Table tennis is an individual sport but you’d be surprised at how much you’ll have to work with other people if you want to reach the top.

Your coach

Probably the most important relationship you will have is with your coach (if you have one). They have been placed in a position of authority over you and should be much more knowledgeable than yourself. You must be clear about what your coach expects from you (how many training sessions per week, behaviour, physical condition, etc.) and what you want from your coach (technical coaching, encouragement/motivation, corner coaching, multiball work, etc.).

When they are speaking make sure you are practising “active listening” and give them 100% of your concentration. In turn, you should expect your coach to do the same for you during training sessions.

The easiest way for this relationship to turn sour is if the player and the coach have different ideas about ambitions and goals for the future. If your coach wants you to become a champion but you have lots of other commitments in your life they will become frustrated with your lack of dedication. If you want to become a champion but your coach is just looking to do a couple of sessions a week you will become frustrated with their lack of enthusiasm.

Other players

As table tennis players we spend a lot of time practising in clubs and squads with other players. The problem here is that everybody wants to improve, everybody wants to play with players that are better than themselves, and everybody wants as much of the coach’s time and attention as possible.

If your coach doesn’t mind organising this, one system that works really well is splitting the session in half and giving every player one “up-play” and one “down-play” per session. For example, #1 plays with #2 & #3, #2 plays with #1 & #4, #3 plays with #1 & #5, #4 plays with #2 & #6, and so on. It can take a while to order players but after that, it works quite well.

Friends and family

It’s common for friends and family (especially close family) to become annoyed at the amount of table tennis you are playing. Parents may want you to spend more time on your homework or spouses might want you to help them more with the kids.

It’s your job as an athlete to communicate your ambitions to your friends and family and get them on your side. Without their support, you will struggle to succeed. If your spouse or children need you to play less table tennis then you may need to think of some way to be more productive with your training time. Instead of 3x 2hr group sessions per week how about cutting down to 2x 1hr one-on-one sessions. You’ll probably get more out of them and you’ll have more time to spend with your family.

5. How to use positive self-talk

Positive self-talk is one of the simplest sports psychology interventions to understand but it’s surprisingly difficult to master! Positive self-talk is simply controlling the ongoing dialogue you have with yourself and turning it into positive words of encouragement.

The main problem with self-talk is that most of us seem to naturally fill our minds with negative self-talk. We tell ourselves we can’t do things. We look at better players and think “I’ll never be as good as them”. Removing this negative tendency is tricky business!

In table tennis, positive self-talk includes; learning to speak to yourself as a coach or close friend, becoming aware of your natural thought patterns and controlling them, being able to pump yourself up or cool yourself down prior to or during a game, and keeping yourself focused, motivated and ready to win.

Here are a few methods for developing a habit of using positive self-talk in table tennis;

  1. Pick a phrase: An easy way to start is to pick a phrase that you will use over-and-over to get yourself ready to play and feeling good. This is not a “Cho!” and isn’t really to be used after you win a big point. Instead, this phrase can be used in between points and could be something like “Let’s go!”, “I feel strong!”, or “Come one!”. Pick one and use it.
  2. Start using it in practice: As these words have been chosen and aren’t spontaneous you may feel a little silly saying them. Practice in the training hall saying your phrase, as you work on drills and in friendly matches. Eventually, you’ll get used to saying it and feel comfortable saying it out loud.
  3. Picture the phrase: Once you’ve got used to saying it start associating the phrase with a particular performance or feeling, something positive. The more you do this the more your brain will associate that feeling with the words. For example, if your phrase is “Let’s go!”, picture a point where you picked up the ball, confidently walked back to the table and won the next point with ease. Every time you say “Let’s go!” your brain will take you back to that moment.
  4. Expand your vocabulary: Start thinking about specific situations. Perhaps you need a phrase to use towards the start of a game when you are feeling a bit nervous or towards the end when it’s getting close or the score is 10-10. Something like “I’m strong under pressure!” can work very well as long as you can anchor it to a particular moment when you felt very confident, despite the game being in deuce.
  5. Repeat: Keep practising your positive self-talk over and over in practice and competitions. The more you say your phrases and associate them with positive feelings the stronger the connection will be. Another tactic I’ve heard is to combine the phrase with a physical feeling, such as pinching your index finger and thumb together strongly. This can make the connection between words and feelings (and in turn behaviours) even stronger.

I hope that’s opened your eyes to just some of the power of positive self-talk. There’s plenty of other great information available on the topic once you start searching and reading. 

6. How to improve mental imagery

Mental imagery has been described as “the athletes’ most powerful mental tool”. If you are going to spend any time testing out mental skills training then make sure you don’t skip imagery.

Imagery is used by almost all of the great athletes and research has shown it to significantly improve performance when combined with regular practice, as opposed to practice alone.

Personally, I’ve never really used mental imagery in my own table tennis but if I ever start training seriously again, I will, and I’m definitely going to start thinking about how I can encourage my players to use it.

Mental imagery, in table tennis, can be used to create detailed images of your own performance that are realistic, prepare yourself to compete, and recover from errors or poor shots by picturing the correct stroke and self-correcting.

Things to think about before you start…

  1. Are you going to see yourself as if you are playing or from an external point of view? Both can be used successfully and usually, athletes have a tendency for one over the other.
  2. Make sure you grab control of your imagery. Don’t let your subconscious add in any errors or poor performances. Many athletes struggle with this and can only imagine themselves playing poorly.
  3. How can you use other senses in your imagery? Can you remember specific sounds, feelings or smells from a particular situation? If not, start paying more attention!
  4. Will you view the imagery in normal speed or slow it down to focus on technique? Both can work well in different situations.

Getting started

If you’ve never attempted mental imagery before I hope these tips help you get started.

  1. Find some time: Don’t try and squeeze this in at practice or on the way to a tournament. Pick an hour slot and decide to dedicate it to mental imagery of your table tennis. You’ll need to be somewhere on your own that’s quiet.
  2. Watch yourself playing: If you already have videos of previous performances, that’s great. If not, it might be worth filming your next training session or match. If you’re new to mental imagery watching a video of yourself playing should help a lot.
  3. Start from the beginning: Don’t jump straight into imagining yourself playing in a tense final. Instead, start with walking into your practice hall. You should know the hall well enough to picture it fully. Put your bag down, get changed to play, go onto a table and begin having a knock. It’s much easier to imagine this as you’ve done it so many times before.
  4. Build it up: You can then start thinking about certain techniques or drills. Think about how you feel, how your body is moving, where the ball is travelling. You could start with a regular movement drill (something you are confident at doing) and try and keep the ball going for as long as possible (in your mind).
  5. Visualise success: Only after mastering the skill of visualising practice fully should you begin thinking about competition and matches you’ve played. As before, a video can help a lot. Try and play through a previous good performance in your mind. Watch the video over and over until you know every point, every shot, every feeling. Then you can start imagining situations all on your own.

Mental imagery and visualisation may all sound a little spooky and new-age but the research clear shows it works and the top players are definitely doing it.

7. How to deal with anxiety

Anxiety is a part of life (and a part of sport). At one stage or another, we’ll all feel a certain degree of anxiety about something. As athletes we need to be able to deal with that anxiety we feel, otherwise, it will begin to affect our performance.

There have been times when I have played really badly and looking back now many of those poor performances can be put down to anxiety. Situations that may make us nervous include;

  • Moving up a level (for example, to a higher league or rating band).
  • Playing in front of a crowd.
  • Playing in a new environment (for example, abroad or somewhere else unfamiliar).
  • Being filmed by a coach.
  • When we are expected to win and are under pressure.

Successfully dealing with anxiety, in table tennis, involves; accepting that feelings of anxiety are a part of sport, learning to view mild anxiety as a positive, not a negative feeling, learning how to reduce feelings of anxiety, and understanding how you perform under pressure/stress/anxiety.

Have you ever gone onto a table to knock-up only to realise you can’t hit a forehand (the ball keeps going off the end of the table) or you can’t serve (you keep missing the ball)? It’s very unlikely you’ve actually forgotten such a well-learned skill. Instead, you’re probably just over-anxious.

Here are a few tips for dealing with anxiety in table tennis;

  1. Don’t panic: Not all types of anxiety are bad. If you have absolutely no anxiety you will likely struggle to focus, concentrate, and perform to your best. If you start to feel anxious, don’t panic. Address your fears, whatever they may be. Think logically and ask yourself questions like, “What’s the worst that can happen?”. Usually, it is just losing a match, which really isn’t that bad. We lose matches all the time. Take some time to yourself to refocus on the task at hand and performing.
  2. Use it: The top athletes experience just as much anxiety as you do. Look around you. The #1 seed has a lot of pressure to win and is probably feeling some anxiety. However, they learn to use the anxiety as a positive. It is important that you begin to view the feeling of anxiety as a signal that you are taking the competition seriously and are ready to perform. The top athletes are able to use their anxiety in this positive way.
  3. Relax: When you are feeling particularly anxious the worst thing you can do is try and pump yourself up. Instead, relax your body (you can do this with simple breathing exercises and by tensing and relaxing your muscles) and relax your mind (think about something else or have a chat with a friend about something non-table tennis related).
  4. Prepare: In the minutes just before you have to go on the table to compete, the negative anxiety may try and sneak back up on you. Use this time to plan and think strategically about the other person. Don’t focus on yourself or your own feelings. If your mind is busy planning and strategising then it’ll have no time to worry about losing.

8. How to manage your emotions

Emotions are a big part of sport. Players, coaches and spectators all show varying degrees of emotion over the course of a game (usually depending on the current score). As a player, emotions can be positive and negative. As a player trying to improve, learning to manage your emotions for your benefit is very important.

Jim Taylor’s article on Psychology Today splits athletes into four emotional styles; the seether, the rager, the brooder, and the zen master. I’ll briefly explain them here, which one are you?

The seether has frustration and anger building slowly inside them until something happens that causes them to explode. Once they’ve gone they usually can’t get it back.

The rager releases frustration and anger as it happens instead of storing it up. This can help to keep them focussed but often they too are prone to eventually explode and lose it.

The brooder feels more despair than anger and is likely to sulk or pout if things are going badly. They are fine when playing well but likely to give up if things take a turn for the worse.

The zen master is largely unaffected emotionally and can easily let go of mistakes and/or loses. They generally react positively to all situations and therefore maintain performance.

How can we apply this to table tennis…

Well, a successful table tennis player will realise that emotions such as excitement, anger, frustration etc. are all part of our sport. They will learn how they personally react emotionally to certain situations and how best to use these emotions to improve, rather than disrupt their performance.

How to become a table tennis zen master

We should all want to be a zen master but beware, changing our emotional style is not easy. A zen master is the master of his emotions, he is in control. On the flip side, the seether, rager and brooder are victims, controlled by their emotions.

Here are some specifics for table tennis to think about;

  1. Take the positives. Zen masters are always able to come away with a positive, this is why they are unlikely to quit (unlike a brooder).
  2. Grow in awareness. Your anger and frustration are likely coming out of you while you are pretty much unaware. Begin to take note of what you say and how you act during a match.
  3. Focus on the next point. This is said to death in table tennis but it’s true. The last point is gone, it can’t be changed. Don’t get angry or sulk. The zen master doesn’t care about the previous point (whether he won or lost) as he realises that the only important thing is winning the next point.

Which one is Ma Long, the current best player in the world? Is he a seether, a rager, or a brooder? No. He is definitely a zen master of table tennis!

9. How to maintain concentration

In order to perform well, you need to be able to keep your concentration or focus. If you are competing for several hours you will not be able to maintain concentration for the whole period of time. Instead, you will need to get good at switching your concentration on and off when you need it.

Maintaining concentration, during a table tennis match, can include; selecting the relevant cues and areas to focus on, being able to ignore distractions such as the crowd or the conditions, learning methods to regain concentration quickly, and staying in the present by ignoring previous points and/or the future final outcome of the match.

I will go through these points one by one.

Selecting relevant cues

When playing a table tennis match it’s important to know what to be looking out for. Obviously, you need to see the ball but there are lots of other important “cues” for you to pick up on. For example;

  • Watch your opponents arm, wrist, bat angle, and contact point when they are serving. This will help you to read the spin.
  • Look for space to play into. Don’t hit the ball straight to your opponent.
  • Keep an eye on your opponent’s body position and arm movement as they play a stroke. This will help you judge the direction of the ball.

Remembering these important cues will help you keep your concentration during a long match. Don’t switch off! And don’t just relax and react!

Ignoring distractions

When playing a table tennis match your attention should be on your opponent. If you are worried about the crowd, the floor, the umpire, etc., then you are concentrating on the wrong things. Imagine a boxer being distracted by the crowd… they would get knocked out. Keep your concentration on your opponent.

Also, if your concentration is too heavily on yourself, you are distracted. Yes, it’s important to know your own game but when you’re playing this should all be automatic/subconscious. Your opponent should have your full concentration.

Regaining concentration

There will undoubtedly be times when you realise that you have lost concentration. Here are three R’s to help you get it back…

  1. Recognise you are off task and do something about it.
  2. Regroup and interrupt that unhelpful train of thought.
  3. Refocus and direct your focus back to the task at hand.

Stay in the present

If you have just won the previous point, well done, now win this point. If you’ve just lost the previous point, don’t worry, there’s another one coming up in about five seconds.

When you are playing a competitive table tennis match your job is surprisingly simple. It’s not like in team sports, such a football, where your job is to pass the ball, or defend in the hope that yourself or another player will help the team win the game. No, in table tennis your job is to win the current point.

The whole process of winning has been broken down for us. In order to win the game, we need to win three or four ends. In order to win an end, we need to win eleven points. Winning the tournaments starts (and continues) right here, in this point. All of your concentration should be on winning the single point you are about to play. Nothing else matters!

Authorized republication from Table Tennis Expert by Ben Larcombe.

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