Internal Vs External Factors - Making the Table Your Only Focus

A few months ago, when I first started my journey, I wrote a blog called the psychology of the impossible. It centred around the idea of scale and how the scale of my task affected the pressure I felt when I played. Today, I want to go beyond the single idea of the pressure of this journey and expand out to every pressure that effects me.

It is my biggest weakness and a huge character flaw. My reaction to perceived external pressure. In all honesty I am always a little ashamed of how much pressure I feel. Sometimes I am too scared to even train. Don't get me wrong, I never miss a session but in the car I can often feel like my heart is going to explode out of my chest. Every external factor feels like a massive weight on my shoulders that will gradually push me onto my knees. In athletics the pressure was less consistent, training meant nothing, we rarely ran 100m so I could never tell exactly where I was at until it was time to perform. When I did perform I usually wanted to go home before I even began and I always thought I would lose. My friend Tom can tell you he watched me with tears in my eyes and anger on my face until I found out that I had ran a PB. I am definitely a guy that gives out more confidence than he perhaps feels. I am weaker psychologically than I would like to be and it comes into conflict with my second weakness: winning. I love winning. Honestly, I couldn't care less what it is. I just want to win it. I whoever I play at anything I genuinely believe I can beat. Even when the odds are stacked against me. I have a hunger and will to win that is probably too strong for my own good. The weakness, however, is also a strength. I can be ruthless when I need to be and I have a dedication to things that would shock most people. The problem is that winning, especially in table tennis, requires a relaxed focus. If I get nervous, I get tense. If I get tense, I lose.

However, rather than look at my own character flaws lets generalise a bit further. Nerves are a natural part of human emotional response to stimuli. It all about our fight or flight response. In this case, most of us, choose to fight however, flight also seems like a pretty good idea if we are being honest with ourselves.

Nerves come for a variety of reasons. They can usually be broken down into two camps: internal and external stimuli. For now lets look at the more "reasonable" factor which is the internal stimuli. When I refer to internal stimuli I mean in terms of a table tennis match. Internal factors could also be termed "controllable factors". I can control how I play. I can control my serve, I can control my approach to each shot and my concentration on the game. These are all internal to me. I can control all of them. I can control how I stand, how I move and how I play. It may annoy me if I don't execute to my ability but I can control all the factors. They are reasonable things to think about in game, they should be the only thing you think about in game. Even the ball cannot be controlled until you strike it. Therefore, it is external until contact. However, anticipation of that ball is an internal factor as I can control how I analyse my opponent. There is still danger to internal factors though.

Recently, I have been playing inconsistently. On occasion I look fantastic but on the other hand I can have periods where I look like I did 3 or 4 months ago. A part of this has been due to focusing on internal factors too much. I have a tendency to get lost in my own brain. Thinking about all the things I should be doing. It makes the game too complicated. As I have said in my last blog, my big focus has been movement. This interacts with everything else I do in game, therefore, it makes me think about everything more than ever.

When it comes to thoughts in table tennis, though; it is external factors that can be the most dangerous. Outside pressure comes in many forms. For me, the challenge itself is very stressful. As I have said before, I struggle to comprehend if I am improving at the speed I need to. I worry that I am wasting my time, that the challenge I have attempted is too big. I also find the opponents stressful. If I play someone I feel I should beat I worry I will lose. Likewise, if I play someone I should lose to I worry that I might lose by too large a margin or I should be closer to them in performance levels. With guys around my age the tension ramps up even further. Its a testosterone thing. Especially if they are a lower level because it is a lose lose situation. If I win I was expected to, if I lose it looks like all the time I put in hasn't improved me. Likewise, I find people will latch on to me, I am a pretty unique player. I train a lot and play a lot but started in my mid-twenties as a complete and utter beginner. Therefore, inexperienced players like to use me as a marker. If they can beat me or get near me they see it as a win, my worry is that if they do it says that I am not improving at the same rate as someone putting in half (or less) of the work. The same applies to my family life. If I fail to perform well I feel like all the hard work, all the time I put in for days upon days, month after month, has been worthless. With Ben or Karl I get nervous in a different way. I want to impress them, I want them to continue coaching me. I want them to feel like this project is worthwhile. I want to show I am improving.

Another big problem is what people say to me. Little things, like "you should attack more" or even, "you are playing well". It drives me crazy, because I feel like I have to live up to the words spoken too me. I get it with players who will say "you are much too good for me" then I will start missing the ball entirely. It is a genuine problem as these words should have no baring on me but they can change my game entirely.

The reality is these things are all out of my control. I cannot control my opponent, how they will perform against me or what they will say to me. Likewise, I can control the challenge parameters but once the parameters have been set I cannot change the pressures they apply. I cannot change time, if I have sacrificed things to play table tennis, it is in the past. I have no idea about how long it will take me to improve. It isn't even worth thinking about.  None of the above is controllable by me. It can often give me a sense of helplessness or make me put more pressure on the things I can control. It is dangerous to my games and has contributed to more of my losses than any other single factor.

It isn't all doom and gloom though. Dealing with it has been part of my development in this sport. As I have said, the constant competition, even in training is different from anything else so I have had to learn a couple of coping mechanisms. I tend to go off into side rooms between games, win or lose, to compose myself. I can then calm down, have a drink and then go back out a little calmer. I also chew chewing gum. I know its a bit weird but it stops my brain wandering quite as much. The chewing seems to fill up the middle bit between my conscious and my sub-conscious so those external factors are not quite as prevalent. I also love having a towel. It provides a second or two of respite between points. I can use it fairly strategically and just help myself become refocused especially if I am a point or two down. I also keep a list of points on my phone to help me remember not to worry about things too much and just enjoy the game.

The truth is anxiety and pressure will always come because that is who I am. I am sure most successful players have similar worries on occasion. I know I could deal with mine better and as time goes on I will find more and more ways to cope (I am looking to see a sports psychologist so if anyone knows someone it would be great!). Little things can have big effects when it comes to the mental side of the game. I would implore anyone to try and find little coping mechanisms for their worries, it will have a huge effect on your game. Like, the sport itself, the mental side of table tennis is a skill that has to be learnt and developed over time. It is something I will continue to do over the coming weeks.  

If anyone is interested in a professional perspective on the concepts above please have a look at the link with my coach Ben Larcombe interviewing Mark Simpson on 'Train Smart, Play Smart'

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