Zen and the Art of Table Tennis (Peter K. Tyson)

Peter K. Tyson 2011

An interesting approach from Peter Tyson exploring the Eastern philosophy and its relevance to Western sport, particularly table tennis. It is also stressed that many of our top players already use a very similar mental approach! A number of excerpts from the book appear below.(Amazon UK Kindle version is reasonably priced)

Waldner: ‘Use your head. Mental strength is a vast and important subject…. The starting point must be yourself…. I studied many successful Swedish athletes…. I was impressed by their calmness when competing.’

Syed: ‘The choker is thinking too much and this over-analysis of every shot leads to him falling apart’.

Werner Schlager advises a smooth playing rhythm: ‘Always think to be creative and innovative and work in combinations, so that you flow from one sequence to another’.

Top players see the need for Zen qualities like calmness and mental strength without making the philosophical connection and actually naming them as such.

Hodges sees the differences between players at the higher level as ‘mostly mental’… and advocates the qualities of calmness, positive thinking and relaxation as well as techniques like deep breathing.

Hamersley stresses calmness, self-control, confidence, the will to win, positive thinking and positive body language.

Practice does not mean cruising in a comfort zone and just going through the motions. It means purposeful, challenging practice with specialised training and deep concentration. Quality of practice is as important as quantity. For Syed…the Chinese are so successful… because they train more smartly with practice which pushes the player harder until they are out of their comfort zone.

Positive thinking is necessary and belief, even if the belief has no rational basis and is false. Its enemy is doubt, which undermines the player’s ability, affects confidence and leads to failure – ‘doubt to a sportsman is poison’. Arsene Wenger asks his players for intense belief and ‘irrational optimism’ which eliminate all doubt. Even after a dire defeat, players need to filter out unwanted evidence and take the positive out of the defeat in order to sustain exaggerated belief in their own abilities.

Junior players can easily forget the basics like thorough practice and a decent warm-up. They think, sometimes, that they can go into a game cold, without knocking and naively expect their shots to flow by magic. They can have totally unrealistic expectations. They believe they need to play at 100% every match… If they miss a shot and lose a point, they can take it out of context, get frustrated and their game can fall apart. A lack of harmony between mind and body sets in, destroying them. Young players need to see that often a game can be won without many winning shots, just by forcing opponent errors and that against a weaker opponent a 70% performance is usually good enough.

Zen has a lot to offer. Practice and training are crucial. The more you practise, the easier it is to reach an unconscious, automatic state which allows you to stay calm. You’ve played the shots so many times before, you remain comfortable and don’t choke, even in tight situations.

Table tennis is a tough, fast game with very fine margins of error. It only takes very slight mistakes in timing or positioning to send a ball flying into the net or off the end of the table. Therefore self-control is crucial. If you have harmony of mind and body, unconscious automatic shot-making resulting from lots of practice, a relaxed, calm demeanour and a positive attitude, you have a chance. If your self-control breaks down and you become a prima donna, you only become a loser.