In every competitive table tennis match (league or tournament), you’re likely to get a little nervous.
Some players deal with nerves absolutely fine. They love competing and channel any nerves or stress into a focused and energetic performance.
Other players find nerves quite debilitating. The extra anxiety in playing a competitive match can make their body and mind freeze, which can have a terrible impact on their performance.
I have really struggled with nerves in the past. In the first few years I played league table tennis, I frequently let my nerves get the better of me. I would get all the classic physical symptoms – heavy legs, breathlessness, tension in my shoulders and arm, butterflies in the stomach, a dry mouth.
My nervous state made me play terrible in a lot of games. I would finish the match unable to explain to team-mates why I was so bad, when they had seen me play so much better in practice matches.
This frustrated me.
I did a lot of reading about sports psychology and controlling nerves. There is a lot of great advice out there on websites and books and also therapists who specialise in sports psychology.
From doing all of this research and applying some of it successfully to my game, I feel I’m in a good place to share some advice.
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to sports psychology and the nervous system, but I want to share three things (one mental, two physical) which have helped me control my nerves. Maybe they can work for you too, if you also suffer from nerves when playing competitive matches.
1. Focus on the process of playing, NOT winning or losing
Part of the problem I used to have is that I would get fixated with my win percentage. In a lead up to a league match I would start worrying about whether I would win or lose. If I lost this would have a negative impact on my win percentage. And if my win percentage got too low, I would worry about what other people would think of me.
I would look at the results of my opponents and start feeling anxious if they had beaten players who I had lost to. All of my mental energy would be focused on worrying about the outcome of the match.
What did all this worrying achieve?
Absolutely bloody nothing!
It just made me really nervous. I was so worried about whether I would win or lose, I would end up playing very cautious table tennis, refusing to take any risks, hoping beyond hope that my opponent would make mistakes and I would sneak a victory.
Did this work? Rarely.
Was I ever happy with my performances? Never.
So I had to change my approach. Instead of worrying about the result in the hours before a match, I started to focus on the process of playing. I would think about my match tactics and visualise how I was going to serve and receive, how I was going to open up attacks, how I was going to move my feet.
I stopped myself looking at my opponent’s results. This became irrelevant. I started focusing on me – how I wanted to play. Visualize, visualise, visualise. Classic sports psychology – but it works.
I started to re-evaluate my goals. I wanted to judge my performance on whether I played well. Winning or losing was less important. If I lost but played well, then I would sleep ok at night. If I won and played well, I would sleep great at night.
And by focusing on the process of playing – and playing well more often as a consequence – I actually won more matches, which led to a higher win percentage. So by not worrying about winning, I actually won more.
I still experience nerves before matches, but nowhere as bad as before. I don’t have games any more where I become paralysed with fear. My focus is trying to play a certain way (positive, attacking table tennis). I don’t always execute my game plan, but that’s ok. I try to play my best and if I Iose I don’t have any complaints.
It’s a liberating approach and makes competing a lot more enjoyable.
So if that’s the main mental approach which has helped me to control my nerves, let’s now look at two physical things which have also helped me…
2. A proper pre-match warm-up
When I first started playing league matches – when I was most nervous – I never really bothered with a proper warm-up before matches. I would be very distracted. I would hit a few balls with a team-mate, but only half-heartedly. I would have one eye on the table and the other eye on the door, looking out for when my opponent’s turned up. By the time my first match begun, I wouldn’t be warmed up at all. I would still be a quivering wreck.
This was a missed opportunity to control my nerves.
Again, I decided to change my approach. Quite simply, I started to warm-up properly. This meant hitting some high energy shots, to get my blood pumping and my body loose. I would do some exercises to get my feet moving and some service and receive exercises to focus my mind.
It made a huge difference. Sure, I still got butterflies in my stomach when a match began, but my nervousness didn’t make my body freeze any more. The warm-up would reduce my anxiety levels, as I had something to focus on, rather than worrying about when my opponent’s would turn up. And by doing some high energy stuff, my body would start to release endorphins, helping me to actually feel positive before a match began.
The outcome? I started playing much better, much earlier in matches. From the start I could move my feet, play attacking shots and feel good about how I was playing.
Related blog post: How to warm-up before a match (if you only have five minutes)
3. A breathing technique to relax the body
And finally, the third thing which has helped me control my nerves is a simple breathing exercise.
When I get tense in matches, I grip my bat tighter, my arm stiffens up, my shoulders become tight and my feet become rooted to the ground.
When I sense this happening, this is what I do…
- I take a deep breath in through my nose and breath out slowly through my mouth
- I shake out my wrist and loosen my grip
- I drop my shoulders and let my hands dangle down
- I jump on the spot a few times to get my feet moving again
It’s my way of pressing the reset button. It helps me control my nerves, get rid of tension and relax my body. When I relax my body I can focus my mind again on the process of playing.
All of this can happen quite quickly, in between points. No-one will even notice. But it might just help you play much better in the next few points.
Being nervous when you compete is entirely normal. I would say it is actually very healthy, as it shows you care and you want to be play good quality table tennis.
The challenge is to channel your nerves to help you play well, rather than make you freeze.
The techniques I use to control my nerves my also work for you or they may not. If they don’t, there will be other methods to try, so don’t give up. (You can read how other players deal with nerves in this discussion on the TableTennisDaily website).
As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog post, there is a huge amount of advice available online, in books and on the couches of sport psychologists. I encourage you to do your own research.
Don’t let nerves get the better of you. It’s only table tennis after all!