How to overcome “3rd game syndrome”

One of the players I coach often struggles when he gets to the 3rd game in a match. He told me…

“I have found that I quite often win the first 2 games comfortably maybe 11:5 or 11:6 but then in the 3rd game I lose. I am sure this is a psychological thing. I have asked around and even some much better players than myself experience this from time to time. What’s going on? How to beat this?”

This issue, which we can call “3rd game syndrome”, is quite common. In fact you see it all the time in other sports too, where a player or a team, take a comfortable lead and then switch off and allow the other player or team back into the match.

But I have some good news! There are simple psychological tricks you can use to help keep you focused and win the 3rd game and the match.

Why does “3rd game syndrome” happen?

If you win the first two games comfortably, one of these three scenarios may occur:

(1) You start to relax too much and mentally switch off. In your mind the match is already won. So you unconsciously ease off. Your mind drifts away to your next match. You reduce your intensity. You become too casual with your play, expecting to win as easily as the first two games, but your level drops too much and your opponent starts winning more points. Or…

(2) You become over confident, attempt spectacular shots and transform into a table tennis show-off! But by showing off, you make a load of unforced errors or inadvertently play some softer shots, which allow your opponent to win some points and gain confidence. Or…

(3) You start playing too safe. You have a comfortable 2-0 lead, but as the prospect of winning approaches, you get a bit nervous and change your playing style. You start pushing and playing softer attacks. You try to avoid making mistakes, hoping the other player will mess up first. You try to defend your lead, rather than trying to win the match.

From my personal experience and other players I know, the most likely explanation of “3rd game syndrome” is the first one – simply switching off and relaxing too much. Although I know other players who fit into the other two categories too.

But whether it’s the first, second or third scenario, the outcome is the same. Your playing level drops.

Plus, it’s quite possible that your opponent improves. Having lost the first two games comfortably, your opponent is very likely to change tactics and try something different. So your opponent’s playing level may well get better.

The combined effect of your game dropping and your opponent’s game raising, sees a swing in momentum and points won and lost. A match which was looking comfortable is now competitive again.

Overcoming “3rd game syndrome”

So how do you overcome “3rd game syndrome”? I believe it’s largely a psychological issue, but in some situations it can be caused by a tactical change by your opponent, so you need to be alert to this too.

But let’s focus on the psychological aspect. If you win the first two games fairly easily, your main challenge is to keep focused. Here’s some things you can try…

(1) Tell yourself the match is 2-2. You have to win this next game. If you play soft you will likely lose. So you have to play your best, keep your intensity and maintain focus from start to finish.

(2) Give yourself a target. If you won the first two games 11-5 and 11-6, can you win the next game 11-4? Or if your team-mate has already played the same opponent and won 3-1, can you do better and win 3-0?

(3) Focus on tactics. If you have noticed a particular serve, receive, spin or ball placement which is giving your opponent difficulty, then turn the screw. Keep exploiting this weakness. Be ruthless. Don’t give opponent opportunity to come back.

I’m sure there are loads of other psychological tricks you could try to keep focused. For me, I often use the second approach. If I won the first two games easily, I tell myself I have to win the third game by a bigger point margin. Whether I meet this target is irrelevant. It’s just a way to keep focused.

All of these psychological tricks are simply a way to keep your mind “in the zone” and focused on the process of playing. They help you keep playing at the same intensity which resulted in the 2-0 lead in the first place.

So the next time you have a comfortable 2-0 lead, see if you can use one of these psychological tricks. Then hopefully you won’t experience the dreaded “3rd game syndrome”!

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