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Choking - and how to avoid it

Learn how to reduce your nerves

by Greg Letts - an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

Nerves, or 'choking' as it is commonly known, will affect just about every table tennis player at some point in their career. But what is it that makes some of us more prone to it than others? And can we reduce our tendency to 'choke'?

Avoiding the choke - things to do in practice

  • Train hard to improve your overall standard - notice how you always have less nerves when you are playing someone below your level and you are confident you will win? So the better you get, the more opponents will be below you in level, and the less you will get nervous.

  • When practicing - play for money/drinks, table hire etc to help get used to playing under pressure. Please note that I am not advocating gambling for children here - kids can do other things such as the loser doing pushups - good for the fitness too!

  • Be realistic about your standard - don't expect to play at a higher level than you really are - also don't expect to be slack and lazy in training and then play great in your matches. You aren't going to play any better than you train.

  • Train hard with intensity - so that your training is just as hard and important as your matches - this will make your matches easier to play. Your training should be focussed and intense, while your matches should be enjoyable. The matches are where you benefit from all that hard training, you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself while playing - just like when you first started - if you can remember that far back!

  • Training is where you push yourself hard and find your limits and what you can and can't do at the moment - matches are where you play up to your limits, but not trying to push too far beyond them - so playing matches should be easier than doing training. If they are not, you are doing things the wrong way around!

  • Remember, you've spent your time training to loop, hit, chop etc - and play a certain style. It makes no sense to do all that hard work and then go out and play another way just because you are nervous. Make the most of all that training and play your matches the same way - if you are going to lose go down playing the way that you dreamed of and have worked at - don't be too scared to do anything. Trust me, it's much better to sit back afterwards and think 'Well, I was nervous but I tried to play the right game regardless, but I wasn't good enough today,' compared to 'I tightened up and started to play too safe - maybe if I had played the way I know I should I might have won!' You'll have a much better peace of mind.

  • Try to reflect on what was different between the times when you got to the quarters and semis, compared to the times you lost early on. Poor warming up, rushing to get to the match, taking early opponents too easy, etc can all help cause inconsistent performance. Even going out late the night before, or drinking too much or not getting enough sleep can all affect your level of play. If you can find a common factor in your poor performance, try to get rid of it or avoid it where possible.

  • One thing I find is the more I train, and the better I train, the less nervous I get. I know exactly how good (or bad!) I am playing, and how well I will play when I get into my match. When you don't play often you never really know what to expect on any day, and this can make you nervous, since you are never quite sure how you will play on the day.

  • Visualise playing matches while training - imagine that you are playing in the World Championships finals. If you do a good job, you will feel your heartbeat quicken and your tension rise as your body responds to the mental image - once that happens, practice calming yourself back down while still playing hard.

Avoiding the choke - reducing your nerves before the match

  • Be prepared - no last minute rush getting to the match. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, report in, and warm up thoroughly. You want to be calm and unhurried before your match, not stressed and rushing around in a panic.

  • Be thoroughly warmed up - a cold body is more prone to stiffness and freezing up. You want your body, and especially your wrist, hand and arm, to be warm and loose. The usual rule of thumb is to warm up until you get a light sweat going. If you are sweating but your hands are still cold, start wearing gloves and doing more upper body warming up (ie shadow boxing, shadow play etc).

  • If it is mainly before matches that you are getting tight and nervous, avoid anything that over-excites you, such as caffeine in coffee or energy drinks, nicotine from cigarettes, too much loud rock music etc. Listen to soothing music, use self hypnosis, or try deep, rhythmic breathing etc to calm down instead.

  • If you sit and worry about upcoming matches too much, go and chat with friends or listen to music to take your mind off the match. If you need time to calm down by yourself, make sure that no-one bothers you before a match. Copy the tennis players and put your towel over your head if you have to so that you can be left alone to calm yourself.

Avoiding the choke - things to do during your match

  • Take slow, deep breaths to smooth out your breathing and your nerves/game. When you get nervous you tend to breathe quickly and shallowly, so by keeping your breath slow and deep you will help fight off the tension.

  • When starting the match, ease into things gently. Start off just trying to do the basics really well for the first half of the first game. Once you have hit a few balls well and are into the match, start increasing the power in your game.

  • Keep moving - stay on the balls of your feet - stay loose and DON'T stand still.

  • Concentrate on your tactics and what you are doing right, how you are going to stay loose etc. Don't focus on your nerves or getting tight. Stick to thinking about what you are doing well, so that you are keeping positive thoughts in your brain.

  • Repeat to yourself - "loose" - while moving around lightly on your toes.

  • Study your opponent, it's quite likely that he is getting nervous too - which makes you even.

  • During training, find your natural playing rhythm that you play best at - and then make sure that you stick to this rhythm during a match - don't let your opponent force you to play faster or slower.

  • Routines - having little routines, habits and rituals can sometimes allow you to focus on the routine rather than any nerves - this is why people bounce the ball on the floor or racket several times - the routine is easy to perform, and you can clear your mind and loosen your body while it leads you naturally into your serve or return of serve.

  • Good days/bad days - everyone has them - and if you don't train a lot you will have a wider variation between your best day and worst day - you need to accept this.

  • Worry less about winning the particular match you are about to play, and more about your standard of play. You are trying to lift your standard over the next few years, this is more important than whether you win a certain match today. So if you are 9 all in the last game - you have played to a certain standard in that match, and the last 2 points won't really change the standard you have played at - so just play them as well as you can but don't stress about them.

  • Treat all matches as equally important - every win counts, but not too much by itself. In 5 years from now, you won't remember all the matches you won or lost, but you will be a lot better than you are now, which is the main thing.

  • If you are tightening up with nerves, remember that you know that you have to be loose and relaxed to play good Table Tennis - so if you are tight you are not going to play well and will probably lose anyway - so if you are going to lose - why not relax and stop worrying about it, and maybe you will play a bit better.

  • Also, when you feel you are tightening up, try to make your movements larger and wrist snap a bit more than usual - as you tighten you tend to move less and jerkily, so try to move a bit more and keep it smooth. Keep the wrist as loose and relaxed as possible. Your wrist is possibly the most important part of your body when playing table tennis, so keep it nice and relaxed at all times.

  • Finally, everyone gets nervous - a little bit of excitement is normal for everybody and makes you play better, and stay more alert. Don't expect to get rid of every bit of nerves - it will never happen. You actually need some nerves to keep alert, focused and concentrated. Remember, when there is no pressure at all, it is very easy to get lazy and make mistakes - so a little bit of nerves will keep you concentrating hard and stop you from getting slack.


Having said all that, of course you won't remember all of it when it comes time to play a match. But if you can remember just one or two things to try when you start to get nervous, at least you know you are doing something positive about it, rather than just suffering from the problem. And if what you try doesn't work, give something else a go! To paraphrase a line from Brad Gilbert's "Winning Ugly", which is an excellent book for any table tennis player to read - it's better to have a bad plan to combat your nerves than no plan, since at least a bad plan can be improved upon and made into a better plan - and better plans win matches. So pick a couple of points to try next time, and start improving your own plan ASAP.

Success in Table Tennis DVD

© 2005-2022 Greg Letts

You may also read Greg's blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg's own website

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