Dominique Plattner, ITTF High Performance Manager
Have you ever wondered how world class players are able to deal with the enormous pressure that they face? The approaches they use differ vastly but elite athletes clearly succed in many instances.
What sets them apart? Practice, practice, practice. Mental training doesn’t offer a quickfix solution, as is often, quite wrongly, believed; each and every one of these athletes has worked hard on their mindset and has created a “toolbox” to which they can refer in various demanding situations, both within a match and in everyday life.
The “toolbox” includes many different individual strategies and techniques to gain the most out of the athlete and to let them recover more easily from setbacks. Another important aspect is that an athlete’s entourage nowadays is aware of the importance of focusing on sports psychology and encourage implementation of the methods.
Sports Psychology is a very broad term that requires definition before elaborating particular mental training methods. In general, sports psychology helps to:
- get a better understanding of yourself as an athlete
- guide you through your sports career
- get your mind ready
- have better focus
- deal more easily with disappointments
- increase your ambition
- cope with pressure and stress
- have better working conditions with your staff
- last but not least, handle the “Paradox of Success”, which is a psychological phenomenon that arises when a successful athlete’s confidence increases, leading to increased self-reliance that creates blind spots and limitations to greater success.
What does the mind of those “winner” athletes look like? – Which factors are needed to be able to be as successful as they are?
Motivation tops the list of these factors, as setting goals is surely one of the most important aspects within a sports career (or any career, for that matter). In addition, you have to set sub goals which link in with your performance. In order to do that, think “smarter” – a method many athletes, scientists and psychologists subscribe to and that makes characterizing realistic sub-goals easier:
Confidence is the next key factor to becoming a successful athlete.
There are many different possibilities to enhance an athlete’s self-confidence. You should remind yourself of your past experiences. Go for a carefully considered plan of techniques you are going to use to be able to perform at your best.
Finally try to gain feedback from your coaches or people you trust, in the best case a positive one which is highly important for your confidence. The goal is to fight against the “Confidence-Rollercoaster” and work to build stable self-confidence. You have to accept that mistakes are part of your development, so recognise them and then avoid making them again in future activities.
Try to create routines which can be pre-, in- and post-match ones. Many players have a pre-match ritual (e.g. changing into their match clothing, doing final warm-up routines, listening to motivational music, visualising specific stroke-combinations, giving their self-confidence a last push by reminding themselves of good results or even good rallies).
Within the match you have also a great deal of variety. You can be very creative with choosing in-match routines but be aware to work by legal means (e.g. taking a towel break after every six points, walking a small round within the field or bouncing the ball on the table before your serve). Especially with the post-match routines the opinions differ a great deal. There are some players who like to analyse their game right after having finished it, some go for a cool-down and the other ones just want to leave the hall and get fresh by changing their clothes. As mentioned before, all routines should be chosen very individually. They have to fit to your personality, to make you feel comfortable!
Another topic is the high importance of Anxiety Management. Anxiety is a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms caused by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat. You can manage this through different relaxation techniques like breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), meditation, stretching or music.
Your performance could be harmed if you are too anxious. It is why you have to work on those relaxation techniques on a daily basis to get in the right frame of mind. A lot of players speak to their coaches about nervousness prior to their matches but we have to differ between being nervous and excited. It’s a big difference.
If we are talking about being nervous, it means that we focus on not wishing to be in a bad scenario as we imagine and expect it to be, while being excited means that we want to be in the upcoming situation. We want to take the opportunity and accept it as a challenge; that sort of feeling is very much needed to be able to perform at your best. Within the match you should focus on the task at hand, forget about the outcome, perform here and now and focus on breathing!
The following two psychological techniques can be useful in your sports career as well as in your private life. It is useful to know how to stay calm and be able to relax – generally, but particularly in these extraordinary times; these techniques require no equipment. They are simple methods which nonetheless offer maximum results, which in turn will produce better performance. And the best is, you can do them anywhere!
Exercise Number 1 – Abdominal/Diaphragmatic breathing (15-20 min):
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
- Lie down on the bed or floor with a pillow under your knees. Remove any tight-fitting clothing and your shoes. Try to calm down and ease your mind.
- Close your eyes, spread your feet approximately shoulder-width apart, and check that your head, neck and spine are in a straight line.
- Your attention is fully focused on your breathing. Become aware of how slow or fast your breathing is and if you do it through your chest or diaphragm. Furthermore check if there are any pauses or gaps between inhaling and exhaling.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other one on the abdomen just below your rib cage.
- Relax your shoulders and hands. While you inhale, your abdomen will rise and as you exhale the abdomen will flatten. There should be little or in the best case no movement of your chest.
- Give yourself a bit of time to catch a regular rhythm. The breathing rate should be around six-eight breaths per minute (inhaling and exhaling counts as one). So try to inhale for around four seconds and afterwards exhale for around six-eight seconds. No problem if it doesn’t work out at the beginning and the breathing rate is a bit higher. With daily practice you will improve step by step. It is important that you breathe smoothly, easily and regularly.
- If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, let them in, then allow them to go and focus again just on your breathing.
- When you are ready to end the exercise, take a few deeper breaths in, revive your fingers and toes, open your eyes slowly and turn over to onto on side before slowly getting in a sitting position.
- If you are already more experienced and the exercise is automated then you can perform it while sitting or even in every other position and situation, also between the points in a match, to calm yourself down and decrease your heart rate.
Exercise number 2 – Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) (15-20min):
PMR has shown to produce highly significant long-term effects in sport, particularly with helping to reduce general anxiety and stress, while increasing concentration. Besides it can help to reduce physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches as well as improve your sleep quality.
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
- Take a seat or lie down (increased chance to fall asleep)
- Remove uncomfortable clothing and your shoes.
- Take a few slow and deep breaths before you begin
- Before building up the tension, take a deep and slow breath; afterwards, squeeze the muscle(s) as hard as you can for about 5 seconds. Focus on the muscle(s) you target to tense.
- The exercise may cause a bit of discomfort or shaking of the muscles. Don’t exaggerate and take care not to hurt yourself while tensing. You should never feel intense or shooting pain. If you have any medical issues that would hinder physical activity, consult your doctor first!
- Quickly relax the tensed muscle(s). After about 5 seconds let all the tightness flow out of your tensed muscle(s). Exhale while performing this step. Remain in the relaxed position for 15 seconds and then go ahead with the next muscle(s).
- After completing all of the muscle groups, take your time and enjoy the feeling of being relaxed.
To make it easier to remember start with your feet and systematically move up or vice versa.
How to tense the muscles:
- Foot => curl your toes downward
- Lower leg and foot => tighten your calf muscle by pulling toes towards you
- Entire leg => squeeze thigh muscles while doing above
Repeat it on the other side of the body
- Hand => clench your fist
- Entire right arm => tighten your biceps by drawing your forearm up towards your shoulder, while clenching a fist
Repeat it on the other side of the body
- Buttocks => tighten by pulling your buttocks together
- Stomach => suck your stomach in
- Chest => tighten by taking a deep breath
- Neck and shoulders => raise your shoulders up to touch your ears
- Mouth => open your mouth wide enough to stretch the hinges of your jaw
- Eyes => clench your eyelids tightly shut
- Forehead => raise your eyebrows as far as you can
By tensing and releasing, you learn not only what relaxation feels like, but also to recognize when you are starting to get tense during the day. Practice the exercise for the first two weeks twice a day to automatize it. It can be helpful to be guided through the entire PMR by a voice. There are many CDs available focusing on PMR.
Besides the positive effect on your performance, your body and mind will for sure thank you if you do at least 30 minutes of mental training every day.
If you are interested in sharing your experience with Mental Training/Sports Psychology or to receive more information about it, please write to Dominique Plattner.
Stay healthy and both physical and mentally fit!
Contact: Dominique Plattner