Table tennis is deceptively tough to play in many ways, and this is especially true for the mental side of the sport.
The sport demands 100% of our concentration and mental energy. Simply concentrating is very important, but that alone is not enough.
There are lots of things you can do to improve your mental game, which will, in turn, help you manage your emotions at the table, perfect your mental routines, and ultimately make you win more matches. Including winning more tight matches.
From our years of competitive experience, we will explain 5 key tips you can apply to improve your mental game.
1) Focus on the process, not the outcome
One of the biggest mistakes I made was setting result-oriented goals rather than performance-oriented ones before a tournament.
In table tennis, there is a place for result-oriented goals, but they just don’t work for matches and tournament settings.
Say that you come into a tournament having set a result-oriented goal, that is, you want to be the champion.
However, you don’t know who you’re going to come up against and what kind of day they’re going to have. Your final placing isn’t something you can wholly control.
You can, however, control how well you play, which will directly affect your win percentage. You may win or lose, but playing well is up to you.
Don’t focus on the outcome (winning or losing). Focus on the process.
If you set performance-oriented goals rather than result-oriented goals, the focus will be put on playing well, rather than winning.
Playing well will then give you a greater chance of winning, and if you do lose but have played well, you won’t feel as bad, since your goal was to play well in the first place.
For example, good performance-oriented goals are to make less than 3 unforced mistakes per game, to get 80% or more of your open-ups on the table, or to attack before your opponents more than half the time.
This way of thinking is also a lot more beneficial in the long run.
If you keep focusing on improving and playing well, over time, you’ll improve a lot more than someone who doesn’t care about playing well and just wants to win.
If you go into a tournament while thinking “I have to win” but don’t think about how you’re going to win, you’ll just put extra pressure on yourself that will turn into frustration when and if you do lose.
German legend Timo Boll said it best:
“Do not analyze the game for victory or defeat, just try to be at your own maximum. That’s all you can do! Accept that the opponent was better but learn from your mistakes and don’t look for excuses”.
Timo has played against the best players in the world, and in addition to his many titles, he also has hundreds of defeats under his belt.
Even if he loses, he’ll always focus on playing well, and that’s how he was able to stay at the top of the sport for more than 2 decades.
“Be satisfied if you tortured yourself to your personal limit and to the maximum, even if the game was lost. But don’t be satisfied with every victory. Keep on working on yourself, there are certainly points that can be solved even better. Don’t be fooled by results.”
So, as Timo says, don’t be fooled by results. Short-term results don’t matter. What matters is improving as a player and having fun over weeks, months, and years of playing table tennis.
2) Never underestimate nor overestimate your opponent
Most table tennis players are warned against underestimating their opponents. The risks are quite easy to understand.
You see them playing, you think you’ll beat them easily, you go into the match with an overconfident attitude, and before you know it you’ve lost in straight sets.
It has happened to most of us. Every opponent should be respected, regardless of their league or rating points.
If they’re playing in a club or at a tournament, there’s a reason why they’re there.
Against lower-ranked players, go out and play your game as if you were playing against someone your level. Concentrate fully on every point.
A lower-ranked player shouldn’t be able to beat you, but if you have lapses in your concentration and you underestimate them, your chances of losing will be a lot higher.
However, overestimating your opponents hinders your chances of success as much as underestimating them, but we seldom hear coaches warning you against overestimating your opponents.
Lots of times you’ll be the underdog in a match and you’ll think your opponent is probably better than you.
The thing is, if you think they’re better and you’re going to lose, then you probably aren’t going to try as hard, nor will you concentrate as much, and your chances of winning will be greatly diminished.
Say player A has 1000 rating points and player B has 700.
There is quite a big discrepancy in the ratings of player A and player B. The thing is, player B knows about that discrepancy in the ratings.
If player B lets that fact get to them, they will have lost the match before it even starts because of a lack of self-confidence.
To achieve any goal, you first have to believe you can do it. Never in my life have I beaten someone without believing I could do it.
If player B thinks they’re not up to the task and they’ll lose easily, their chances of winning will be close to zero since they subconsciously won’t try their hardest.
When they lose, they’ll think to themselves “well, I knew this would happen since I’m lower-rated”.
In reality, player B has around a 20-30% chance of beating player A.
If player B believes in themselves and plays out the match to the best of their abilities:
- Player A may have an off match, or player B may have a very good match.
- Player A might become nervous and play worse than usual.
- Player B may give player A a run for their money and take a set or two off of player A, which is a lot better than not even trying and losing on straight sets.
All the pressure to win is on the higher-ranked player.
In table tennis, anything can happen if you believe in yourself, and if you do, you’ll end up scoring big wins over tough opponents more often than you’d think.
Never think that you can’t beat your opponent. If you’re sharing the same table, that means you have a real chance of beating them.
3) Perfect your routine between points
One of the most important things in table tennis is having an efficient routine between points.
This is the only time you have to think within a game, other than the one time out per match and the towel break every 6 points.
You have to make the best use of the time between points. Having a good routine will greatly affect your mood while playing and your concentration levels.
This habit needs to be trained. Between points, take 5-10 seconds, dry your hands, walk around the table, think, and take a deep breath.
This will help you reset your mental state after every point and give you time to think about A) your next serve or receive and B) the development of the match.
We have 4 tips for you that’ll help you perfect your routine between points.
Focus solely on the next point and cut the excuses
This is called the next point mentality.
This tip is very important because in table tennis, the only thing that matters is the next point and what you can do to win it.
Even if you’re 2-0 and 10-0 down, if you win the next point over and over again, you’ll win the match.
This seems like a very far-fetched example, but recently, Mattias Falck came back from being 2-9 down to win the game 11-9.
He won 9 points in a row and closed the 5th game out in the quarter-finals of the European Championship. He did it against none other than Truls Moregardh.
Mattias won 9 points in a row and seized the crucial game of the match by always focusing on the next point.
If Mattias had thought about anything else than the next point (the fact that he was 9-2 down for example, or regretting why he put himself in that position) he wouldn’t have been able to make that incredible comeback.
Let’s say for example that you’re 9-9 and your opponent gets an edge. Now you’re 9-10 down. This is a situation that will happen quite often and you have to be prepared for it.
A) Spend your time after the point by complaining about how unlucky you are, or B) Get over it as quickly as possible and think about how to win the next point.
Always thinking about how to make the most of the next point and nothing else is what makes a winning mind.
There is no place in the mind of a good table tennis player for anything other than how to win the next point.
Engage in positive self-talk and celebrate points
Between points, another thing you can do to help you make the most out of the next point is to celebrate your points and engage in positive self-talk.
If you’re telling yourself you’re playing well and you’re celebrating your points, either internally or by choing, you’ll raise your self-confidence and morale, which will make it more likely for you to win the next points.
It also signals your opponent that you’ll be very tough to beat since you’re mentally strong and confident in yourself.
Be versatile, problem solve, think outside the box
To make the most out of the next points, you should be problem-solving in between them.
If you’re losing, you should be able to assess why you’re losing and change your tactics as quickly as possible.
This will work more often than not since your opponent will have to adapt to a tactical variation.
First, they were the ones in an advantageous position since they were playing their winning tactic.
Now, they have to adapt to what you’re doing, so you have the upper hand until they adapt if they do.
Take your time before playing important points
What separates good players from great players is the way they play important points.
I’m always amazed at how professional players play out the deciding points of a match. They play an aggressive style in a very safe way, without missing.
If you’re aiming to become a professional player, the best thing to do before playing out decisive points is to take your time.
If you’re playing a deciding point, this means that you have already played many points beforehand.
Because of this, you already have an arsenal of tactics that worked and some that didn’t work.
What I recommend is taking more time than normal, if possible you can take your time out, and think about an action plan.
When playing important points, there are often two winning plans.
The safer one is to go for a consistent tactic that has proven to be effective during the match.
The riskier one is to try a new serve or receive that you think will compromise your opponent given their weaknesses.
Both options are valid and you’ll have to choose which one to go for given the circumstances of the match.
If there’s been a consistent tactic that has proven effective and that your opponent can not counteract properly, I’d go for that option.
If there hasn’t been a clear-cut tactic that has worked consistently for you, then you can try something new, as long as you have been consistent with that play during your training and you feel confident executing it.
4) Break mental blocks
One thing we all have to actively stride towards is breaking our mental blocks.
Table tennis can sometimes be quite frustrating, especially when we seem to hit plateaus and we feel like we aren’t progressing.
The thing is, plateaus are mostly mental.
It only takes a short streak of lost matches to undermine our confidence and make us think we hit a plateau.
If you keep correcting your technique and analyzing your matches correctly, you’re always going to improve, so try not to worry if you’re having a losing streak or a bad month or two of training.
Another thing that makes table tennis players not reach their full potential is not visualizing themselves accomplishing their goals.
Visualization is a very important tool to overcome mental blocks.
Look back to when you first started playing table tennis.
If that version of you saw how you’re playing now, they’d probably be quite impressed, right? We’re capable of anything we set our minds to.
It’s important to keep in mind that we’re training for a purpose: getting better and perfecting our craft.
If you visualize yourself playing at a high level, winning tournaments, or playing for your team at a league level, chances are you’ll be a lot more motivated and happy to show up to the training hall.
5) Enjoy your time at the table
The last mental tip I have for you is to remember that you’re ultimately playing table tennis to have fun.
If you’re at a tournament and you’re feeling nervous, remember that you signed up for the tournament to compete and have a good time.
Even if we’re playing a friendly match at our club, it can be a bit frustrating to lose.
However, for someone to win, their opponent has to lose. That’s how it works. It’s not the end of the world if you lose.
The best thing about table tennis is that there is always another try. Table tennis always gives us a rematch.
If you had a bad result, try not to dwell on your loss but rather use it to fuel your motivation to come back to training and show a better version of yourself the next time.
If you had a good result, then celebrate! Every time I have a good tournament, I try to go out, have dinner with my friends and talk about it.
It makes the experience a lot more enjoyable and reminds me why I keep training and playing the sport I love.
In the end, it’s all about the joy of hitting the ball, figuring out how to hit it better than the last time, and making friends in the process.
Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 100 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!