Separating Play and Practice


Sola Olanrewaju is my favorite opponent. There are a lot of reasons for this. He is usually so ready to play that you have to convince him to at least feign a warm-up. He plays as far back from the table as he possibly can. He trash talks so much, it is an effort to stay focused and not totally get caught up in his antics. I don’t think he spends too much time practicing. In fact, I’m not sure he ever practiced. But almost every time I see him, he spontaneously says the same thing – “I love this game.”

When I first played Sola, I am sure he won easily. It’s been quite a few years now and my game has caught up to the point that we always have great matches. Surely with some focused training, his game could still improve. But like many players, once or twice a week playing matches is about the most he has time for. When he does play, you are guaranteed to get his best effort and possibly a speech about his superior abilities.

For most players, it’s obvious that without practicing there won’t be much improvement. This makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is for players to spend hours every week practicing and see almost no improvement in their performances in matches. All those hours should pay off somehow. Improvement can show up in many ways, but sometimes just doesn’t guarantee wins. Perhaps for these players, there needs to be a clearer distinction between playing and practicing.

Things can go wrong with training just as much as with playing. The reason this does not stress most players is because there is no win/loss record for training sessions. Training can be enjoyable, but there are obstacles to overcome, skills to master, and physical barriers to be pushed through. Your practice time should be very focused and can be extremely hard work. Rarely do I encounter a student who is lazy about training. Most are spending their own money for coaching sessions and expect to get a healthy dose of table tennis drills and sage advice. Good training should result in improving skills and technique.

While we easily recognize the problems that can come from playing around when we practice, it’s just as bad to play matches with the same mindset that we practice with. It is understandable that players without much match experience, as well as those who train often, may not know how to approach matches. The secret to getting the most from your training and playing your best in matches is to make a clear mental distinction between the two. The goal of training is to develop and practice the skills needed when playing. Training plans need to be individually tailored and consistently followed.

As much as possible, completely forget about training once you are playing a match. Many players truly struggle with this, especially those prone to analyzing technical aspects of every shot. The rewards of hours of training tend to present themselves as needed during a match. The flow of a match does not allow for forcing shots or focusing on anything other than playing. Just as anything else can be a distraction in a match, thinking about what you have practiced is equally counterproductive. This does not mean that you play without thinking. In fact, strategic thinking is what you don’t want to be distracted from.

If you are still not convinced of how much you need to forget about training when you play, consider that many parts of the brain come into play during a match. Anytime you consciously try to remember some aspect of training or try to force yourself to play in a certain way, it becomes a distraction to your prefrontal lobe which is trying to play. Your conscious memories come from the temporal lobe which is deeper inside the brain. Getting your mind and body to function together without distraction means clearing your mind, even of the things you have learned in training, and thus achieving a state of zen.

[su_box title=”Zen, as defined by the Urban Dictionary” style=”bubbles” box_color=”#000f53″ title_color=”#ffffff” radius=”4″]One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.[/su_box]




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