The Play Between Points

Submitted by stephen on Wed, 05/14/2014 - 11:39

In the few seconds which elapse between points in a table tennis match a player has several tasks to accomplish. As critical as any physical skill such as footwork or stroke technique, the set of mental and emotional skills needed to complete these responsibilities can be identified, analyzed and trained.

Together these skills comprise the mercurial attribute we call poise.

Following the completion of a point the player must first release the emotional intensity of the last exchange, whether it is the exuberance of success or the dismay of failure. Remaining too emotionally excited can result in thoughtless aggressive play. Remaining in the diminished intensity resulting from failure of a previous effort can lead to tentativeness. While focus and intensity should remain high throughout match play, in between points, emotional arousal needs to return to the more modest level appropriate to analyze results, and prepare to thoughtfully serve or receive serve.

Quickly releasing the emotion of the previous point is the first task. But as pragmatic philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Theprincipal cause of the result of the previous point needs to be understood and assimilated by the player: If the point was won, was it won by luck, good strategy, or a flaw in the opponent's game? If the point was lost, was it a result of doing the wrong thing, or was it the right thing being done wrongly?

Little can be more counterproductive than an incorrect analysis and diagnosis. Players need to be trained in diagnosis. An analysis based on a set of simple, commonly occurring consequences of action need to be ready at hand for quick analysis between points. This is distinct from the more extended analysis that can occur between games, or the exhaustive analysis available between matches.

If for example, a player who misses an underspin serve exclaims, “Add more topspin!” Was that the principal cause of the result? Did the attempted shot lack topspin, or did the player actually misread the quantity of oncoming spin. If the latter was true then a more effective admonition might be: “Pay attention to the opponent's racket, not the ball!” Accurate diagnoses result in improved outcomes.

It is far too common to see players involved in self-recrimination between points: A player yelling at himself, “What an idiot!” is not making a diagnosis, but rather creating a self-fulfilling prediction of future performance. In the time it takes to render self-deprecating condemnation, the opportunity for analysis has passed and the next point is about to begin without the thoughtful self-correction needed to adapt to the unstable environments of table tennis.

Failure in diagnosis will surely result in an inability to adjust to evolving match circumstances. It is as much the coach's responsibility to train players in accurate self-analysis between points as it is to train them in correct stroke mechanisms.

Once a correct diagnosis has been made, the corrective palliative needs to be created. For example, if the player missed an opportunity for offense then the correct prescription should be, “I must maximize my opportunities.” Diagnoses must be linked with prescriptions.

When a simple prescription for continuing success or correcting failure has been integrated, an instantaneous return to preparedness for the next point must occur. A player dwelling on the results of a previous point, whether emotionally or mentally – locked in a reaction to a past event – is unlikely to be ready to thoughtfully respond the next point beginning.

Astute players know when opponents are locked into the result of a previous point. A player who repeatedly practices a topspin stroke after missing an underspin serve is likely to fall victim to a deceptive topspsin serve. A player who is too 'pumped up' after a successful counterattack might respond overly aggressively to a very short, low nospin ball.

While it is important to learn from the past it is critical not to dwell in the past. Poised table tennis players can leave the last point behind. With the appropriate corrections, points lost badly can precede points won easily. Good adjustments and just a dash of emotional amnesia come together to prepare a table tennis player to become responsive rather than reactive.

The steps for recovery are: 1) emotional release – a reaction that completes the emotional arc of the point; 2) diagnosis – an accurate analysis of the principal cause of the result of the previous point; 3) prescription – a ready corrective response to analysis; 4) mental/emotional balancing – recreating open readiness for the next point.

Many people think of poise and emotional balance as qualities akin to “grace” – either as innate skills or as the exclusive purview of sports psychologists. But poise is the everyday fare of the astute player and coach, a set of skills and habits to be trained, practiced and improved. 

Between shots, between points, between games and between matches are the spaces where the greatest learning can occur; these are the moments when the experiences of the past are integrated and evaluated in preparation for improved future performance.