Currently, the World Junior Table Tennis Championship is being played in Cape Town, South Africa. Sean O’Neill recently asked me to be available to the juniors from the U.S., to answer questions and provide tips for improving their mental game. If anyone would know about mental toughness, it is Sean.
I first met Sean during my internship with the U.S. Olympic Training Center in 1990. I was working on my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, but had a focus in sport psychology. When I arrived at the Colorado Springs training site, I was happy to be assigned the table tennis developmental team. Sean was there, not as a junior, but as a veteran member of the National Team. His goal was to make the 1992 Olympic team. Sean asked me to help him with visualization, positive affirmations, etc. I have worked with many athletes over the past 25 years, but few have shown the dedication to mental toughness that Sean did. He was relentless in his physical and mental training and it paid off.
A 2008 USATT Hall of Fame member, Sean O’Neill has represented the United States in every international competition possible, including the Pan Am Games, Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup (team, doubles, and singles), and various international championships.
A five-time U.S. Men’s Singles, Doubles Champion, and six-time U.S. Mixed Doubles Champion, Sean won a total of twenty-eight U.S. Olympic Sports Festival medals, of which twenty-one were gold. A member of four Pan Am Games teams, Sean won two Gold, five Silver, and one Bronze medals.
Based on my work with Sean and with many other table tennis athletes, here are some of my thoughts about competing successfully. (This does not speak specifically to the mental training that you should do outside of competition — but most of what I write below should be employed in practice sessions too.) Since games are played to 11, here are:
Eleven Tips for Mental Toughness in Competition Table Tennis
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 (see #3). (Todd went on to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in ’96 and 2000.)
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.