When the pressure is on!

Guest Blog: Matt Hetherington

Table Tennis is a game of speed and reflex, sometimes when the crucial points of a set or a match come around, it is vital to take moments to mentally prepare. These crucial points (crux points) are the must-win points. The pressure is immense. Mental toughness is so important in table tennis and is often underplayed in importance, and not talked about enough. People often ask ‘what mental exercises can do to improve?’ and, ‘how can I get better at playing under pressure?’ They aren’t often met with good answers, so I thought as my first guest blog here on After Dark Ping Pong, I would try and shed some light on things which will help you in a table tennis match when you are playing under pressure. A lot of them are simple and don’t require a big fundamental change in your current style of play! Here are a number of things you can do to improve your gameplay under pressure and to prepare for tight points.

1. Use Towel Breaks: A lot of players underplay the benefit of towel breaks. You are entitled to a towel break every 6 points. It is difficult to maintain full 100% focus during a match, even just one set. This is proven with point records, at the World Uni Games Xu Xin was shown to go on long runs of winning then losing points. Towel breaks are like the reset button, to go away from the table, blank the mind for a moment and go back to the table ready to focus again.

2. Use your Timeout: A timeout can be a great opportunity to refocus also. Timeouts give you the opportunity to recap on what is working for you, consult with a coach if you have one on the bench and to confirm which are the best tactics to move forward with at the given time. Timeouts are also a great opportunity to try and break momentum if the opponent is on a long scoring run (i.e a big catchup).

3. Practice Set Pieces: An important skill to develop is the set piece. A player may have one or more of these. A service which is almost perfectly reliable, you want a high probability that you can predict/expect a desired return and be ready to use the 3rd ball to dominate the point. The set piece needs to be practiced frequently so it is successful when you need to win the point. Some opponents may play particularly well against your set piece so it pays to try it earlier under less pressure to test the reaction, or to have a 2nd set piece in the wings just in case.

4. Pressure Match Practice: A great way to prepare for pressure situations is to practice them with your training partner. There are a few different ways you can do this and it pays to be innovative. You can:

Practice playing sets where only you serve or receive, to work on (serving) setting up your points and (receiving) trying to shut down your opponent from attacking or setting up easy points.

Play matches with handicap points, allow your training partner to start on a number of points to make it harder for you to win. This forces you to think more about the most efficient way to win points and to really analyse your tactics in order to try and win the majority of the points.

Play deuce matches. Start each set at 10-10. This is the prime opportunity to practice your set pieces and to work strongly on your consistency. It gives you the best idea of what is most important for you to practice in training, here is not the place you want to be giving away any easy points so it sets you to focus 100% and play your best table tennis.

Play for prizes (money etc.). Add some pressure by gambling on your matches, this may be more focused at older players but it is a great way of forcing you to take the match seriously and to play it as though the win is highly important. Often training matches lose this edge as they ‘don’t count’ for anything.

You can also play for punishments, my personal trainer last year used to train for table tennis with me (I was his coach) and we used to play sets and the loser got punished with a physical exercise. I usually won so when I did lose the punishments were bad. It advanced to the stage where punishments included 200 squats or on one occasion press up jumps over a swung bamboo stick. Great incentive not to lose and to give it your best, and adds a lot of pressure.

So go forth and get mentally tough!
Thanks for reading.

Matt Hetherington

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About Matt
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Matt started playing table tennis at 8 in an area where he couldn’t train or play very high level opponents. He was a national top 20 under 13, cadet and junior boy in New Zealand. He waited till University to train seriously and trained 4-5 times a week, sometimes as early as 5:30am! In his 2nd year at university he was selected to play individually at the Oceania Championships and in his 3rd year at University he was part of the mens team which played at the Australian Open. “I love seeing how much Table Tennis has grown. It is such a marvelous sport which I think needs more exposure. I started my blog 9 months ago in with the aim of growing it to help celebrate and promote sport and of course to get in touch with the professionals. Table Tennis is definitely my sport for life.”

You can find Matt’s blog at http://matthetherington.blogspot.com or Click here

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