Do you know this? You are physically fit, perfect preparation, all skills are honed and tactics are working fine in the training hall. But once the competition starts, all of it is gone. Different acoustics, different visual input, different communications and different pressure on the player. The game is lost and you move farther away from your best performance. Welcome to the world of mind games and pitfalls.
Professor Yoji Yoshizawa is an expert in this field and head of the department of sports medicine and psychology at JTTA. His work includes preparation of the Japanese national team for big events such as Olympic Games and world championships. With years of experience to draw on, he has analysed all factors leading to instability in a player’s performance under pressure. In this section, we have a look at his findings and discuss the implications to help players overcome mental issues in their game. As always, you are welcome to discuss in the comments’ section.
Mental blockages – a serious danger for a player’s career?
Our question to the expert. Richard Prause, head coach of the Werner Schlager Academy.
“Can we utilize our potential as a player much better if we identify and deal with mental problems early on? How important are mental blockages of players in your daily work?”
“This issue has been recognized in coaching, but it is not on top of our priorities’ list. In any case, it is a part of coaching itself. Mental coaching and exercises are a part of a player’s life. We often cooperate with sports psychologists when we have to mentally stabilize a player before an important competition. If a player has a positive attitude it can sometimes lead to exceptional performances.
Even professional players are only human, with their ups and downs. We can support players when they do not feel positive, but, when they are coached on a regular basis it has never happened that a player never reaches his potential just because of mental blockages.”
Richard agrees that this problem would be more present in the lower leagues, where players sometimes not even realize that their problem starts in their heads.
“Quiet on the set!”
During training, we usually do not even pay attention to the acoustic atmosphere around us. But in a competition match, suddenly everything can sound and feel differently.
Sometimes this doesn’t even bother us, sometimes this really throws us off. Unusual voices in the background, in the audience. The sound of the ball bouncing on the floor is different, children screaming, lights flickering.. the list goes on.
So how do we learn to focus on the match and ignore everything else?
The home advantage
It all starts with learning to see all of these distractions as a normal part of the sport as you would technique, strategy, footwork etc.
According to Prof. Yoshizawa, the first step is to realize and pay attention to the acoustic atmosphere in the training hall, and really focus on the little things we usually take for granted and ask ourselves: Why do we feel that these conditions are perfect? Why are we fully focused here?
The more we realize our surroundings, the better we are prepared to deal with them. This helps accepting different acoustic surroundings and not getting distracted by them.
Arriving early to warm up
Richard Prause too is aware of this problem. He recommends arriving early at the playing hall, at least two hours. This leaves enough time for warm up as well as to get used to the environment at the venue. If the acoustics are not new to us, we tend to not get distracted by them, says Richie.
Only arriving early is not enough though. We need to watch and listen for possible distractions as well, and with build up a “mental checklist” for distracting sensations: Doors close more loudly in small venues, where do I get to racket control, where are the umpires located, how bright are the lights etc…
The more we know about distractions, the less we are distracted.
Playing against a home crowd
Very few players are distracted by the applause of the spectators. But what if everyone pays attention to the neighbouring box?
Sometimes even the players pay attention to the neighbouring match – and pay less attention to their own. So sometimes we wait for the applause on the other table more than we await the serve of our opponent. And if more people focus their attention on the other box, our mental problem is complete.
Especially younger players have a hard time dealing with this. Sometimes, entire matches get decided by these kinds of situations.
So how to deal with this?
Richard Prause more or less denies this problem exists with professional players. Coaches and players should be sufficiently trained not to get distracted by things like this – even if Steffen Mengel is beating Wang Hao on the neighbouring table. But there can be exceptions, even if they happen rarely.
Then again at an amateur level, the picture is completely different, all the more when there is no coach present. Sometimes players or spectators react and actively focus back on their match, sometimes they do not.
If these things happen, it could be worth mentioning after the match in order to be prepared for it the next time and react accordingly.
Do not get encouraged too much by the spectators!
The opposite is the case much more often in Richard Prause’s world. Most players are used to playing in front of a few spectators, but not a few thousand. And if all of a sudden your own match becomes the center of attention, a critical situation may arise. Applause and encouragement from the spectators can become distracting as well, killing concentration and may deprive the coach of his authority over the player. This becomes obvious when a player hits a great shot – against the tactical advice of his coach – and the spectators applaud. This gives positive feedback to a negative decision and may derail the whole tactical setup of a player. A coach must prepare his player for this kind of contingency.
Create a weird atmosphere in the training
Some amateur players can try to ignore the problem of acoustic interference simply by using earplugs to shut themselves off from the environment, thus eliminating the “natural” sounds of table tennis as well – which is not recommended.
Professor Yoshizawa recommends actively getting used to difficult acoustic surroundings by recording them and playing them back at normal training situations.
Richard Prause does not recommend using earplugs and would use playback acoustics only in extreme scenarios such as preparing for tournaments in China, where the whole atmosphere is a lot louder than European players are normally used to.
It’s only training!
Some players are using a rather rough method for preparation. “It’s only training” does not exist for them. They actively put pressure on themselves in training scenarios, such as they would experience in the finals match of the Olympic Games. Because if a player perceives this as “normal pressure” he or she does not have to adapt in the big tournaments – at least that is the plan.
Richard Prause is not a fan of this particular technique of preparation. For once, a player may stop enjoying table tennis altogether if there is pressure everywhere. Another argument can be made that experimenting in tactics and technique is an important factor in a players preparation and development. If you only play to win, this whole aspect gets neglected.
Communicating with Others
Getting used to difficult acoustics does not only help competitive players, it can also work for the amateur. People talking loudly on and off the table, a phone rings … all of this can be resolved by talking openly about concentration issues in a match, guided or initiated by the coach for example.
What are your experiences with acoustic surroundings? Are there other sounds that throw off your concentration?
(Adaptation from japanese Original by Frank Völler, Translation by Sebastian Hallen)