World Class Players like Mima Ito often use the towel-break to calm down, visualize different scenarios and to implement self-talk.
Today the ITTF High Performance & Development team will show you some mental techniques which will improve your Table Tennis techniques even when you are unable to practice on the table. It may seem impossible, but research has shown that this is possible to a high degree by only performing mental simulations through specific psychological techniques.
by Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager
Sports psychology and mental training are topics that enjoy widespread prominence and are currently widely discussed. Therefore, an enormous amount of scientific literature is available on these tools. Today we will show you a short step by step guide on how you can build up your individual system that can be implemented within your Table Tennis sessions and everyday life. Why individual? Because the “one size fits all”-method will not work.
We’ve previously discussed an athlete’s mental “toolbox”, giving you an insight into the mental practice of world class athletes, how they prepare and fix their mindset either in or for different demanding situations.
I hope that our input has motivated you in case you were not already using psychological techniques, and that they have already become part of your daily routine. If not, then today is the day you could start with practicing them. After a while of practice and using those techniques you will achieve the first developmental results, because of the effort you have put into it. Your perspective on many different topics will be changed significantly, which results in being better able to deal with setbacks, pressure and stressful situations.
It is of paramount importance to be able to calm down, to think clearly, to find focus, to concentrate, and to have your mind and body under control. A lot of practice is needed to be able to master this, especially within a sport like Table Tennis as one of the psychologically most demanding and complex sports. Young athletes have a big advantage in learning psychological techniques, as with any new skill younger age translates to easier learning. Therefore, it is highly recommended to start mental training as early as possible, to teach them correct behavioral skills or psychological techniques from the start. Once the skills mentioned above have been mastered, self-confidence will increase.
Self-confidence the “mark of a champion” – but how to grow it?
Self-confidence was defined by Alan Goldberg as a positive mental attitude, which keeps an athlete working hard, no matter how many times he/she may fail or how many distractions influence him/her.
To build up and hold self-confidence you have to build up a routine practice of it. It can be done in 5 steps:
- Physical training is a solid base of self-confidence. To know and believe that you have trained better, harder and even longer than your opponents, can make you feel stronger.
- The focus has to be on yourself; strictly speaking on the things you can influence and control. Try to avoid comparisons with other people. Stay inside yourself.
- Increase positive thinking within your life. Always look on the bright side of life J
- Write down your successes, big wins, best achievements or even what others may deem “insignificant” things, which are important to you. Keep reminding yourself of them, especially in difficult times.
- Mistakes are part of a successful learning process. You have to accept that mistakes are part of the process, try to get better with them and afterwards refocus and let them disappear out of your sight! Concentrate yourself on the upcoming things. Which leads us to our next topic!
Concentration – the key to athletic excellence
Concentration is the ability to completely focus the attention on something for an extended period. This quality enables you to perform at your peak level from the beginning to end of the competition/practice. There are numerous possibilities and techniques to fix your focus, for example:
- The 3 P’s system: Keep your focus on the positive, the process and the present
- Develop routines during practice and competition preparation
- Breathing techniques to redirect the focus and center yourself
- Use messages on your equipment which remind you of what you need to focus on
- Mental imagery, also known as visualization and self-talk to fix your focus
The last point contains two of the most renowned mental techniques, which we will look at in more detail.
Imagery, also for many of us known under the term “visualization”, can be described as an experience, that simulates real experiences including sensory modalities of actual perception. It is a highly effective technique and one of the most effective psychological tools which can on the one hand decrease anxiety and on the other increase self-confidence, self-efficacy and concentration. It can be useful for pre-match preparation, during the match, for post-match analyses, the preservation of existing skills, correcting mistakes and analyzing past performances.
How does imagery work? While practicing new skills, our brain cells form new connections with other groups of cells and the amount of myelin (membrane, that surrounds nerve cells) increases. This function prevents the signals from “leaking out”, improving memory and therefore skills. Imagery is able to shorten the time our body needs to implement the new skills simply by “just thinking” of them.
The PETTLEP-Model of imagery: Using the functional “equivalence”
The PETTLEP model is based on work by Jeannerod and explains how certain areas of the brain get activated during both physical and imagined movements. PETTLEP stands for:
Physical: Imagine the relevant physical characteristics
Environment: Imagine the environment where the performance takes place. Use all your senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell).
Task: Imagine details of the relevant task.
Timing: Can be in “real time”, or in “slow motion” to emphasize and perfect more difficult aspects.
Learning: Continually adapt and review to match task’s demand and your experience-level.
Emotion: Feel the situation, the same as you would if you were present and try avoiding debilitative emotions, such as fear or panic.
Perspective: Use the first-person perspective (focus on timing, open skills) or the third-person one (form, positioning)
For the more advanced ones among yourselves, maybe even professional players, imagery practice can be combined with your breathing exercises, which makes it more effective, but I would recommend it just in the case of having enough experience with abdominal breathing and imagery practice.
Cut good points, in which you succeeded, out of your match videos, or it could also be a specific, well-performed Table Tennis technique in your practice.
Find a quiet place.
Prepare your electronic device, so that you can act it out promptly.
Take a seat or lay down.
Do abdominal breathing for 3 to 5 minutes.
Open your eyes and let the electronic device act out your highlight video 10 times in a row.
Close your eyes and do abdominal breathing for 3 to 5 minutes again.
But imagery can be used for other situations too. E.g. for “What if” situations, in which you can dive into different possible match scenarios. Another very important area is the one of “Mistake correction” – the 3 F’s system:
Fix it (what was wrong; what can you do better in the future?)
Forget about it (maintain positivity, learn from mistakes and go on)
Focus (get back on track, re-focus your mind on the task in hand)
You have to follow some rules to gain the highest benefit from imagery. It shall be done ideally with the help of a sport psychologist very close to competition conditions and at least for 30 minutes per day.
Let’s dip into the last mental technique for today. It seems to be a very simple one, but quite to the contrary it is very tough to master.
Self-talk – a key component of applied sport psychology practice
The following definition by Judy L. Van Raalte and Andrew Vincent sounds quite clear: Self-talk is the expression of a syntactically recognizable internal position in which the sender of the message is also the intended receiver. It can be expressed either internally or out loud and has expressive, interpretive and self-regulatory functions.
You have to differ between 3 categories of self-talk. On the one hand you have got the positive/motivational one, which is based on positive thoughts and speeches (e.g. “Well done”), on the other you find the negative one, which consists of negative thoughts and speeches (e.g. “I am so bad”). In general, negative self-talk shouldn’t be used; however in some cases it may enhance motivation and performance. The last kind of self-talk is neutral, also called instructional self-talk. E.g. talking about tactics or strategies – “short and heavy spin”.
As mentioned before, we can’t say that negative self-talk is always bad and the positive one is the one and only successful method. Yes, in many circumstances it is, but maybe it isn’t ideal for everybody. Additional research is needed to make clear which kind of self-talk is most beneficial for an individual.
One of the most important things regarding self-talk is the connection between your words and your belief. The definitive aim of this technique is to use words and beliefs, which are reachable and believable. The positive self-talk habit development is done in 3 steps:
- Choose signal words or very short sentences (“Strong”, “I feel strong”)
- Practice different scenarios. Once the development and automatization of the habit is done, create familiar and comfortable statements for different situations (“I am a great player”)
- Imagine/visualize a positive image. The choice of the words should help you to immediately recall a visual picture, showing yourself how you want to perform. The combination of the right words and the visualized image sends the body a very strong and positive message.
Bear in mind: All psych-down techniques should be practiced during your practices or in less important competitions. The goal is to automatize them and then implement them within your major events.
If you are interested in sharing your experience with other mental/sport psychological methods or to receive more information about it, please write to Dominique Plattner.
The ITTF High Performance & Development team wishes you all the best for implementing sport psychological techniques and all the best for your future competitions.
 Cumming & Ramsey, 2009