(By Larry Hodges)
Like it or not, mind games are a part of all sports. They range from “stare downs” in boxing to starting arguments in any sport to force an opponent to lose his focus. The best way to deal with most of them is two-fold: 1) ignore them and keep your focus, and 2) call for the referee if it goes too far. Here are the most common mind games you might face in table tennis.
- Intentionally showing up late for a match. This can irritate an opponent, leading to him not playing as well. If an opponent does this, smile to yourself and do your best to stay focused and ready. Do not be afraid to ask for a default if the opponent takes too long – check with the referee on how long you have to wait. (Some players are notorious for this. I’m tempted to name names!)
- Stalling. This can also irritate an opponent. There’s no problem with slowing down to a degree to keep your focus or to rest, but there are limits. If an opponent does this too much, get the referee.
- Playing overly fast. This can trick the opponent into playing points before he is mentally or even physically ready. This you can easily control, especially on your serve. When the opponent is serving, not only should you not go to the table until you are ready (though you shouldn’t stall), but you might consider holding your non-playing hand up as you get into your ready position, signaling you are not yet ready, so the opponent can’t quick-serve you.
- Praising an opponent. This gets an opponent to think about the very shots that he is doing well – and that’s the quickest way for the shots to fall apart. The best play is almost mindless (other than tactical thinking between points), as you let the subconscious do what it’s been trained to do. In general, other than keeping score and other game-related issues, you shouldn’t talk to an opponent during a serious match nor should he talk to you. If he does in a distracting way, either give short, quick answers or just ignore him. If it gets out of hand, call for a referee. (In the final of Men’s Singles at the Nationals one year, one player was winning relatively easily. The opponent began chanting the player’s name between points, punching his fist into the air in unison, and motioned for the crowd to do so as well, which it did, over and over. The player who was winning fell apart and lost.)
- Staring. Some players are infamous for just staring at their opponent, especially as they are about to serve. If they take too long doing this, call a referee.
- Intentional minor infractions. They are done to cause irritate an opponent, thereby hurting his focus. These include toweling off at improper times, talking to people on sidelines (that might be coaching), arguing over the score or who serves, kicking the ball away, or walking around opponent’s side of the table. When an opponent is losing, he may decide his best chance of winning is to distract the opponent so that he won’t play as well – and it often works if an unwary opponent isn’t ready for it. Ignore it, knowing opponent is desperate. If it gets too bad, call for the referee. (The classic case of this was the Men’s Final at the 1987 World Championships, when, after coming back to reach deuce in the fourth (up 2-1 in games in a best of five to 21), China’s Jiang Jialiang walked around the table, walking between his opponent and the table on the far side, pumping his fist the whole time. This seemed to distract his opponent, Jan-Ove Waldner, who lost the game and match.)
- Screaming. Sometimes this is done innocently, especially by junior players, as a way to release tension – and most coaches, including me, encourage this, to a degree. Other times it is done to intimidate. Sometimes it is both. Since this is generally allowed, get used to it. In fact, you might consider doing it yourself so that it’s not all one-sided and to release your own tension – some of it from the opponent’s screaming! (For classic example, go to Youtube and pull any video of Japan’s Harimoto Tomokazu.)
- Outright cheating. Call the referee immediately.
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