Watch almost any top player a number of times just before he serves and you’ll notice something interesting – they go through the same routine each time. It’s part of mental rehearsal, which is what primes the brain (read – subconscious) for what’s about to happen. It’s almost like the famous Pavlov dog experiments, where they’d ring a bell just before feeding the dogs, and eventually the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. If you have a set routine for something, it similarly primes you for what you are about to do.
Let’s look at the top two players in the world, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, who recently played in the Men’s Final at the 2017 Worlds, with Ma Long winning, deuce in the seventh. We often watch truncated versions, where time between points is taken out, so never see what happens just before. Here’s the link to the start of the full match, 2:50 into the video.
Fan is serving at 0-0 in game one. What does he do here before this first serve, and repeatedly throughout the match when he serves? In rapid succession, he bounces the ball twice on the table, stops, bounces it two more times, stops, then bounces it two more times, and then he’s primed to play. I didn’t watch every point for this, only about ten, and he did this every time. (One time he bounced it three times, stopped as if realizing his error, and then did the six-bounce routine.)
Now watch when Ma Long serves. It’s a bit more subtle, but watch as he sets up to serve. He stretches out, holding the ball just over the middle line – and comes to a stop, holding the ball with his hand upside-down. You can see him focusing, and then he turns his hand over so the ball rests freely on the palm, and he’s primed to play.
In both cases, at some point they come to a stop, and while still, they are visualizing the serve they are about to do.
I have my own routine, which I’ve been doing before I serve for nearly 40 years. I give my right sleeve a tug with my left arm, then step to the table. As I step in, I drop my playing arm and pull it back and then forward, like a pendulum. I finish in my serving position, bounce the ball on the table one time, and I’m primed to play (and especially to serve!). I’ve found that in serve demonstrations, if I don’t go through this routine, I lose control of my serves.
On receive, players also have routines, but they are usually more subtle, involving swaying back and forth between the legs (watch Ma Long) as they get into their receive position, or just getting into their ready positions. This primes them physically, plus it clears their minds so they are ready to react to anything.
But routine isn’t important just before serving or receiving. It’s also good to have a pre-match routine. Some listen to music. Some meditate. Some shadow-practice. The purpose, once again, is to prime you for the match, which often means preparing the mind (often clearing it, and then thinking of a few tactical things), and the body physically.
So create your own routines – or steal one from someone! – and soon you will be primed for each match.