Discipline has gotten a bad name. A quick look at a dictionary definition will reveal that punishment is closely associated with discipline. Self discipline, on the other hand, involves doing the right thing even without the threat of punishment. Watching the Winter Olympics for the last week has reinforced in my mind the importance of discipline in sports. When events are won or lost by fractions of a second, discipline might be the only difference between a gold medal and heartbreak.
Table tennis requires tremendous self discipline. It’s certainly possible to play an undisciplined game. I see players do it every day, and am often guilty of it myself. Really good players remain focused throughout the entirety of their matches, and don’t leave details to chance. These players tend to train exactly the way they play. You can’t turn self discipline on like a light switch. If you typically play an undisciplined game, it’s unlikely you will be able to play a smarter more focused game just because you paid a tournament entry fee.
Players can begin developing self discipline by the way they approach structured drills. Drills that involve predictable returns are perfect for fine tuning footwork, timing, and perfecting basic strokes. Failing to execute these shots consistently in drills is a sure sign that they won’t be done well in competition. As players progress, there will need to be increased emphasis on less structured drills and more creative approaches. This phase of training will be far more productive if it is built on a good foundation of structured drills.The argument against structured training is that it isn’t representative of what happens in matches. Players who only do structured drills can become frustrated with the unpredictability of games. Conversely, players without the self discipline to do structured drills correctly may find themselves missing easy shots. They may find themselves frequently out of position, or opting for complicated shots when simple ones would work.
The world of sports is full of stories of teams and individuals that succeeded because they were disciplined. These are the athletes who paid attention to details, and rarely made mental errors. Success in the world of table tennis requires an obsessive self discipline, and commitment to train in the way you want to play. It may be that discipline has gone out of style, but in the world of table tennis, there is no substitute.