[Lessons Learned] Table Tennis Mentality

Random Observation/Comment #417: I love table tennis almost as much as I love mashed potatoes. That’s a lot of love.

see lemons tt

I don’t have a gym membership, I just go to SPiN NY on weekdays after work (5:30-7:30pm) and play with the usual table tennis (TT) junkies.  It covers my cardio, core, legs, and overall mental focus for the day. I use it as pseudo-meditation and it’s the key to my stress relief and overall happiness – something that is priceless to my work-life balance.

As with getting better at any sport, it takes dedication in physical endurance and mental visualization. I think about table tennis much more than I should, and I try to watch/dissect the game videos that flood my youtube subscriptions. Those crazy rallies that happen in-game or during practice keeps me hooked and looking forward to that next shot.

Each successful stroke is instant gratification, like making a swish in basketball, completing a throw in football, or hitting a run in baseball. The satisfaction and measurable improvement in accuracy from the immediate feedback/results just makes every serve a new puzzle and every return a new sequence to add to my muscle memory.

Needless to say, it’s a wonderful feeling and I’ve learned quite a few things after devoting much of my time playing. These principles also apply to early career advice as well:

  • Get the basics right. Everyone has their own style of playing, but to get to that next level, you have to be able to consistently return shots and read spin. At the more advanced levels, you’d want a compact shot that efficiently lets you reset and make the next one with deadly accuracy. This can only be achieved if you practice good habits and adjust to each shot. In life, we shouldn’t fortify bad habits or false information – relearn it from the beginning if you have to!
  • Learn the game. Obviously, know the rules, but also think about the strategy. As with most things, if you understand the way it’s played, you can then stretch your own limits.
  • Reset and be ready. Each serve comes with a sequence of expected returns, so really think about what you’re expecting back and be ready to make the next move. Everyone has their muscle memorized set-up shots where they expect a pop-up ball and get an easy kill. As the person expecting the 3rd ball kill, you should be ready to adjust and learn from earlier mistakes. Getting ready and expecting returns is the key to then return where the other person doesn’t expect it. In your work life, always expect the next move from your colleagues. Things will always need to work in parallel for efficient productivity.
  • Get into the zone. Mentally, visualize your win and think positive thoughts. High level players all have shots that they can make flawlessly, so it’s really the strategy that separates out the best from the best. Try to get into your own rhythm and get into your comfortable pace. In work, I think it takes at least 15 minutes to get into the zone. I often block out times in my calendar devoted to working on projects without meeting interruptions.
  • Play to your strengths / Play to their weaknesses. When going through your serve sequences, make sure you’re analyzing the other person’s weaknesses and memorizing the particular combinations that get the point. You will probably use these at important points of your match.  When you know what works, you can adjust your game to beat the opponent. Make them play your game. In management, it’s important to see everyone’s potential. When I manage my interns, I don’t always just assign them based on their past experience. I give them a chance to improve on their weaknesses.
  • Don’t underestimate your opponent. I play with different levels of seriousness to keep the game fun, but if it’s a serious match, I use Brett’s “no mercy” rule. I treat my opponent as my equal so I keep the fight going.
  • Ignore the score – play it one point at a time. Points are won one at a time, so play each point without bias from how the previous point went. If you won it and you’re ahead 8-3, that doesn’t mean your opponent can’t come back. In fact, if you don’t take your lead seriously, you will most likely lose careless points. If you lose too many, the opponent can get motivated and magically get the momentum they need to catch up.
  • Motivate yourself. I’m as guilty as every other TT junkie for talking to myself after each point. In between points, I coach myself into thinking what I did right and wrong about the previous point. I give myself a pep talk and point out the other person’s weaknesses to remember it moving forward. When I do this, it’s not to stress myself out for the next point, but instead keep my energy up for a positive approach. It helps with visualization and it makes a difference.

For more in-depth analysis of table tennis mental game, read “Get Your Game Face On” by Dora Kurimay. She’s certainly experienced with the game and gives a lot of practical advice.

See you all on the courts! I’m always open to challenges.

~See Lemons Love TT