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Mastering the Mental Approach to Tournament Play

Mastering the Mental Approach to Tournament Play

With the Cary Cup around the corner and players putting the final touches on their training program, I thought I would take a departure from training tips and open up another aspect of table tennis. There are a multitude of things you have to do off the table when you are preparing for a tournament. You have to set the date to play an important tournament. You have to purchase your equipment in time to break it in and get acclimated to it. You have let Human Resources know the vacation days you want to take off. You have paid your entry fee, plane tickets, hotel, and the rental car. You have even convinced your spouse to let you have a weekend getaway to pong hard. You put in the training weeks in advance, hoping for a great result. The only problem you have overlooked is the approach you can’t write on paper. And that is the “Mental Approach” to playing a tournament. Where all your investment and time has gone down the drain is not preparing for battle in your mind. Just because you showed up, did forehand loops, backhand loops, footwork, serve training, and took lessons doesn’t mean you will get the result you want. It simply means that those shots are trained. This blog post is an attempt to get you to learn how to train the most important aspect that will have the deepest impact on your result. What I will lay out is a checklist of things that you need to develop to ensure that you can create your peak performance.

Establish Your “Priority A” Tournament
Most players mark the calendar months in advance for the tournament that is their “Priority A” event. There are 3 levels of tournament importance. “Priority C”, “Priority B”, and “Priority A”, and they all have a purpose leading up to a big tournament. “Priority C” is an event that must happen because it allows you to play a tournament with low expectations regarding your result. This can be a weekly non-sanctioned tournament with your peers, playing in a league, or playing a tournament. These “Priority C” events allow you to transition your mind from training mode to competition mode. There is a certain posture you have when you are training in one static position. There is also a dynamic posture you have when you playing points like you are in a tournament. This is the type of event that allows you to work through those adjustments. “Priority B” is a little bit more serious with regards to what your performance should look like. You should have all your shots in place in your “Tactical Construct” even if you aren’t playing your sharpest. There is a reason that there is a Football Preseason. You need this same period in table tennis  to make corrections to the sequences of play that you have created that will be responsible for how you win the match. All of this leads up to “Priority A”, which is the event that you are simply looking to “Win” when it matters. At this stage, you have what you have, so go out and don’t just play your best, become Victorious. Taking yourself through this process of development will increase your chances of having a great result.

Tournament Prep Training
To ensure that your” Priority A” puts you in tournament mode, take a departure from doing static drills where you are focusing on stroke production. Instead, work on sequences like Serve & Attack and Ball Placement. This will allow you to see what type of return is trending based on the play that you made. Being able to anticipate the next play is how you can improve your chances of playing your best. Focus on returning the ball deep, which forces your opponent to attack the ball. This will eliminate the element of surprise that they are attacking because you provoked their shot selection. This will improve you composure and allow you to make a play without feeling anxiety. Do more drills where there is no set pattern so you learn to watch the racket angle that produces that shot.

Don’t Train anything new
A big mistake going into a big tournament is players trying to cram in some last minute training. Before a big tournament, clubs are normally packed, and players are inspired. They see the performance that they want to have, but it is important to not sabotage it. That performance can be sabotaged by doubling down on a new serve that you are trying to create or hyper-focusing on a neglected shot and over-training it. Both of these approaches are wrong because it keeps your mind in training mode, and it completely eliminates how that shot should fit into your tactical approach. Nothing good results from cramming and trying stuff the week of the tournament. Focus on games the week of the tournament to sharpen up on your game play and tactics.

Gathering Tactical Data
Going into the actual tournament another big mistake players make is playing their strategy too close to the vest. If you focus only on how you can force your best shots on your opponent, you miss the real silver lining. That silver lining is actually acknowledging what your opponent is bad at. If they have a skill that is above their game, then they must have a skill that is below it. In game 1 especially, it is important to find out what the skill is, as well as exactly what skill you can use to exploit it. Don’t look at it as throwing away the first game. Look at it as gathering accurate tactical data. You can dominate and control the match based on what your opponent is bad at, as opposed to what is most familiar to you. If you like to utilize a particular skill, and they happen to love playing against that skill, then you have just created a tactical deficit. Back off your favorite plays enough to give yourself space to see what skills you need to use to control the sequence of play.

Throw in your garbage plays
A fantastic way to gain more tactical awareness in match play is to play some giveaway shots. When I say give away shots, I means shots or plays that seem almost too standard to even attempt. That could be a backhand sidespin serve deep to the forehand. It could be a deep push off to the side of the table, or a tomahawk sidespin serve. Between these 3 examples and anything else you can pull out of your garbage can of trash plays, you should be able to find something that you don’t really see as a viable play that they find absolutely paralyzing. To do this, you have to be brave enough to risk the play when it matter in the game, so be ambitious.

Prioritizing Your Day
When most players enter a tournament, they don’t take into account how to manage their competition day. They normally enter as many events as they can play. Where this can be problematic is when events run back to back, especially if they are round robins. If you play a round robin, don’t enter another event within 2 hours. If you are able to advance, you will be playing single elimination next. You need the time to allow your brain to recalibrate to the fact that you are in the knock out round. You want the time to see who you will be playing so you can scout their game to create a strategy going into the match. If you have another event scheduled, you will have to divide your emotions between playing single elimination and being in another round robin. This is when you can have a bad loss because your focus isn’t in the right place, or you can’t get up for the single elimination match because you just came off a tough round robin match. Give your event the full attention that it requires so you can play your best. If you lose, it should be because your opponent played better than you, not because you were in the wrong head space.

Mental and Emotional Management
The real rollercoaster during a tournament is not so much the performance and result, but the emotions. Emotions are the catalyst for having an awful performance, or playing two levels above your game. Your emotions are the most delicate after you have had a great win or a bad loss. After a great win you are on mental high. That mental high can carry you on to play even better, or it can numb your emotions so that you can’t get up for the next match, or rest of the day. Your emotions are also delicate after a bad loss. This can be the point where you spiral downward and play the rest of the day without being totally engaged, or it can be the pivotal moment where you start to push yourself to performance at your best. Making it a point to be aware of your emotions, and how to manage your mental focus going into each match, is a process you must train as well.

Stay Focused
Staying totally engaged the entire game, or tournament, is what almost all players suffer from. It is because there is a lot of data to gather to create tactical approaches for all the players you may face, and going on automatic pilot is a way to take your foot off the gas mentally. Don’t! All these points matter. You don’t want to lose focus, give up a game, and have that end up being the reason that you lose a three way tie. Get in the habit of fighting hard mentally, emotionally, and tactically for no reason at all. If you are down big in a particular game, fight hard to get back into the game from a momentum standpoint. If you are down 7-3, fight to win as many points even in a losing effort. If winning that game is out of reach, then shifting the momentum in the match can give you a head start going into the next game. Most players that are up big in a game take their foot off the pedal. Don’t! Press harder to finish the game as soon as you can using the best tactics. Most players that give up mentally and emotionally have given up tactically first.

Closing out the match.
Most players don’t have a real problem playing well and controlling the game. Where the conflict reveals itself is with actually finishing the match. This can be a problem if you are looking at it from a performance and emotional standpoint. It is hard to control the match if you are playing well. It is also hard to control the match if you are playing inspired. That only means that you are playing good, and you are in great spirits. What can set you apart at this junction in the game is making tactics and strategy the theme. If you are following “How” you are winning the points, then go with the most definitive play that has had the most impact on how many points you have won. Even if your opponent is playing harder at the end of the match, they are up against a skill that you have been exploiting. This is the best approach to finishing the match in tactical fashion instead of having a mental block to cross the finish line.

As you can see, tournament play is an art in itself, and it is important that you take the time to go over these aspects of what tournament play present so that you can get the full benefit out of the competition experience.  Good luck at your next tournament, and I’ll see you on the table.