Below are Eleven Tips for Mental Toughness in Competition Table Tennis published by Dr. Robert Swoap
Have a pre-serve routine (whether serving or receiving) that is unshakable.
Have an emotion-setting routine. You will be nervous — no question. That is not the problem. The problem is interpreting the butterflies in your stomach as negative. They are not. They are your body’s way of saying “I’m ready. I’m excited.” If you are really over-the-top anxious, slow things down a bit. Take a little more time before a point to breathe from your belly and to calm your mind and body.
Have a refocusing routine (when you lose a point or become distracted) — more on this in Tip #2
2. Refocus after distraction or a poor point. When Todd Sweeris was a junior, many times after he made a mistake, he would look to the crowd (anticipating negative feedback). I had Todd draw a small blue dot on his racquet that he would focus on after each point. This allowed him to prepare for the next point, leading to….
3. Next point mentality (NPM). Once the point is over, it is over. Quickly analyze what just happened and then move on. The mentally tough player is immediately onto the next point and rally.
4. Process not Outcome. Focus on the process of playing well. The second you think about the outcome (winning or losing), you are no longer in the present moment. You can only control the current point and the way you play it. Of course you want to win. But wanting to win (and thinking about winning/losing) isn’t the route to successfully competing. Wins come from playing each point with full intensity, courage, and composure. There is no point where you relax. And there should be no point where you over-try.
5. Thought control. Ideally, your thoughts will remain positive throughout a match and a tournament. The reality is that you may have negative thoughts (e.g., self-criticism) pop up. That’s okay. Just don’t attach any weight to those thoughts and self-statements. They are just thoughts. Let them go without trying to force it. The easiest way to do this is to get back to #3 (NPM).
6. Confidence. Confidence is easy when you’re playing well. But what about if things aren’t going so well. Remind yourself of how hard you have prepared for this and don’t allow your mind to move to negativity. Sean did this very well. He had a set of positive affirmations that he would repeat before a match and during visualizations. This got him into a confident mindset that translated to…
7. Try for every ball. (Sean’s rules…
Rule #1: Try for EVERY ball
Rule #2: If the ball is too far away to reach, see Rule #1
8. Display mental toughness. This mentality in #7 translated to an intensity in competition that was hard to ignore. It demonstrated to Sean’s competitors that they couldn’t beat him by getting into his head. They knew they would have to beat him tactically.
9. Reframe. A mental trick you can use when the game is tight (say 10-10) is to reframe the score in your head as something like 4-4. How would you play a 4-4 point? That’s how you should play a 10-10 point. We often get tighter at 10-10 and play more conservatively. But that is moving away from your game. Always play your game.
10. Body language. Before matches and in between points, be sure to keep your head up. When nervous or self-critical, we tend to gaze down. Keep your head up and try to have a body language that suggests confidence, but not cockiness.
11. Have fun. Table tennis is a blast. I have played since I was a little kid and now I’m teaching my own children. We can sometimes take it way too seriously. Remember, it is a GAME that is fun. Have a small smile on your face as you play. You’ll confuse your opponent (“Why is she smiling?!?). And you’ll put yourself into the right frame of mind. Have fun out there.