Using mental rehearsal to reduce nerves and boost performance in table tennis

I have suffered badly with nerves in the past when playing competitive table tennis matches.

One technique which has helped me control my nerves is mental rehearsal. This is a technique which is very common with professional athletes in all sports. But you don’t need to be a professional athlete to experience the benefits of mental rehearsal. Any table tennis player, at any standard, can benefit.

In this blog post, I explain what mental rehearsal is and how you can use it when playing to boost your performance.

What is mental rehearsal?

In very simple terms, mental rehearsal is where you play an imaginary movie in your mind of yourself playing table tennis to the best of your ability.

This imaginary movie could be focused on one aspect of table tennis – executing a serve, doing a loop, playing a fast push, smashing a high ball or any stroke which you like to use when playing.

Or the movie could be a sequence – serve, recover, loop, recover, topspin down the line.

In this movie, you are executing each stroke or movement to the best of your ability. You are playing your ‘A’ game.

Your actual performance improves, as your physical actions strive to match the mental images you have created.

Mental rehearsal helps to build and deepen the pathways in your brain, reinforcing the physical practice you do. And these mental pathways provide the blueprint of how a shot should look, feel and sound.

How can you use mental rehearsal in table tennis?

Whilst of all of this may sound a bit new-age and pseudosciency, there is actually tons of research about how effective mental rehearsal can be. Let’s looks at some practical examples of how you can use mental rehearsal when playing table tennis…

Day of match

On the day of a league match or competition, do not waste any time or energy worrying about the ability of your opponents and whether you will win or lose.

This will increase your anxiety levels.

Instead, start playing the movie in your mind of how you want to play. Focus on two or three things you want to do really well when playing.

Imagine in your mind how this looks. How it feels. How it sounds. Imagine in detail each aspect of a movement or stroke or sequence of strokes.

For me, I visualise myself staying low, on the front of my feet, playing spinny backhands and really twisting well when playing my forehands. I visualise myself making space on the table to play my forehands (my strongest shot). Overall, I am visualising myself playing positive attacking table tennis, in a low stance with good footwork.

This mental rehearsal helps get me into the right mindset. It prevents me from worrying about winning or losing. I still experience nerves, but a little more towards excitement nerves, rather than deep foreboding debilitating nerves!

Just before the match starts

5-10 minutes before a match starts is another opportunity for mental rehearsal. You will quite likely rehearse the same shots or movements as earlier in the day. It’s the final reminder for your brain and body of how you want to perform. And it’s a great way of getting in the zone and keeping your nerves under control. It helps you to start a match quicker and to reach your best level early in a match.

Before serving

Mental rehearsal before serving is something I have found very beneficial.

It’s your serve. Take your time. Visualise the serve you are going to do and your recovery after the serve. Visualise how the serve is likely to be returned. Visualise your ideal 3rd ball attack.

Of course, you can’t guarantee how your serve is going to be returned. But you should have an idea of the likely return.

For example, I know a short backspin serve at my level, is very often returned with a push. So I play the movie in my mind. I serve, recover, stay low, my opponent pushes the ball. I then execute a forehand loop and am in control of the rally.

This mental rehearsal makes it much easier to execute the serve and loop sequence. Because I have played the movie in my mind, I am in a better state of alertness. I am expecting the ball to be returned. I have already planned out my next move. And even if the ball is returned in a way I am not expecting, because my mental state is sharper, I can cope with it better.

In between points

You have just lost a point and something went wrong. It could be clumsy footwork, rushing your shots, hitting the ball too flat, a poorly executed loop or a weak block.

Before the next point starts, you have an opportunity to refocus and rehearse the shot in your mind – reminding your body of what it should be doing.

For example, when I get tight, my forehand topspin breaks down. I don’t twist. Instead I poke at the ball, playing a weak shot.

If this happens, in between points, I imagine myself playing a forehand topspin properly – keeping low, rotating the core and accelerating forwards and up.

This refocuses me and keeps my mindset positive. And I am more likely to execute the forehand topspin properly the next time I attempt the shot.

Change of ends

At the end of a game, when you change ends, you have another opportunity for mental rehearsal.

You may have picked up on a pattern during the previous game. For example, you missed 5 backhand loops – each one going into the net. Chances are you were too tight and rushed too much.

But you know you can make this shot. Imagine how it looks and feels. Play the movie in your mind of how you play this shot when training.

The mental rehearsal once again helps you refocus and re-establishes some self-belief.

Focus on the process of playing

All this mental rehearsal keeps you focused on the process of playing. And if you focus on the process of playing, you stop worrying so much about the outcome of the match and whether you will win or lose.

This helps reduce levels of anxiety and you will find it easier to control your nerves. Then you have far more chance of playing closer to your ‘A’ game.

Mental rehearsal has definitely worked for me. I have been using it for 3-4 years and it feels quite natural to do now.

I definitely encourage you to try mental rehearsal, especially if you do get nervous when playing.

It’s not going to transform you into world champion! But it may help you play closer to your best ability more often. And if you do that, you will win more matches. But much more crucially, you will feel far, far, far happier about your own performance.

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