May 18, 2020 - Mind Games: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

There are mind games in all sports. Some are okay; others are not. The key difference is whether the mind game involves some sort of table tennis skill or tactic, as opposed to just finding ways to bother or even cheat the opponent.

If an opponent plays mind games and it's bad or ugly, call for an umpire or referee. But whatever you do, don't let your opponent's actions bother you - in fact, use his actions for extra incentive. I learned to do that long ago, and so when opponents play mind games with me, all it does is get me into the ultimate focus - in the zone. The same is true of most champions in any sport. You should do the same.

As to those mind games, here's a rundown of things to watch out for! And to those of you who do play bad or ugly mind games - word gets around, and once you get that reputation, you never lose it. Just don't.

  • The Good: Supposed your opponent has one serve that gives you serious problems. You could play defensive and try to just get it back. But suppose you instead attack it. There's a decent chance you might make the shot, in which case your opponent might hesitate to use that serve again. But even if you miss it, the server will likely be leery of using that serve again, since you had no hesitation in attacking it. And so, even by missing, you may scare him from using the serve. It's a mind game - and a good one!

    Another example - I once played someone who had a great backhand but a weak forehand. So what did I do? I served deep to his fore every single time. Tactically, perhaps I should have varied it some so he wouldn't get used to it. But instead, he got so irritated at me for doing this that he fell apart, and so was unable to adjust. I won easily - and he wouldn't shake my hand after the match, saying I had tried to show him up. Nope, all I did was stick to a successful tactic, and if he hadn't fallen apart mentally, he might have adjusted, and forced me to vary my tactics more. Since I saw him mentally falling apart, I stuck with the tactic - another successful mind game - and another good one!

    The best mind game I ever did was against a player who was equally good as an attacker and as a chopper. As an attacker, he was a threat to me, but as a chopper, he had no chance - I ate choppers for breakfast back in those days. So what did I do? When he chopped, I intentionally struggled! I would grunt as I "strained" to lift his chops, I'd impatiently slap shots off the end and act frustrated, and so on. It worked - he stuck with his chopping, never realizing I was carrying him, intentionally keeping it close until the end of each game.

  • The Bad: Showing up late on purpose, talking to your opponent, stalling, and so on. There are players who intentionally show up for matches late, forcing you to wait around, in the hopes that you'll get irritated and won't play well. Or they'll talk to you between points, hoping to distract you. The ultimate example of this is the player who constantly praises your good shots - he's trying to get you out of the zone by getting you to think about your shots. These are mind games, and bad ones in my opinion - but some would say they are just a part of the game. When someone does them to me, I call for an umpire.

    Some mind games are borderline good and bad. I know of one top player who, during his peak years, when it got close, when he was serving he would first just stand there, staring at his opponent. It was unnerving and a type of stalling. Another mind game can be screaming every point. Yelling when you win a point is accepted in most sports, including table tennis but some overdo it intentionally, as a way to unnerve an opponent. 

    Perhaps the ultimate "bad" mind game ever was in the final of Men's Singles at the 1987 World Championships. (Matches were best of five to 21 back then.) China's Jiang Jialiang (the defending Men's World Champion) was up 2-1 in games to Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, but down 16-20 game point. He scored four in a row to deuce it. Then, in a highly controversial move, he walked around the table, cutting right in front of Waldner, while pumping his fist up and down! Jiang went on to win the game and match, 24-22, for his second straight title. Here's video of the match, starting with Jiang serving at 19-20. People still argue over the sportsmanship of this move.

  • The Ugly: I've played and coached matches where an opponent couldn't handle a specific serve, and so whenever he saw it coming, he'd suddenly stand up straight and catch the serve, saying he wasn't ready. Or he might complain about the legality of an obviously legal serve, just to keep you from using it. A horrible example of this is one strong player I know who, if he's losing, will suddenly catch your high-toss serve - which the server tossed over his head - and claim the toss was less than six inches! This will often irritate the server, which is exactly what he's trying to do. When someone does these things, call for an umpire, a referee, or both.

    Another ugly mind game is intentionally calling the score out wrong. Suppose it's 9-all in the fifth, and your opponent, who is serving, calls out, "10-9." You immediately correct him, there's an argument, and it goes one of two ways. If he's really a cheater, he'll stick to his guns, and you'll have to call the referee - and things can get nasty. But just as often the opponent will condescendingly agree to play it at 9-all, even though he knows he's up 10-9, which of course irritates you - and that's exactly what he's trying to do, right at 9-all in the fifth!

    The single worst example of ugly gamesmanship that I've seen took place many years ago at the Southern Open. I was coaching a high-ranked 13-year-old against a much higher-rated player. (It was best of five to 21.) The 13-year-old won the first two games. The opponent, a big, muscular six-footer, won the first point of the third game. He then walked over to the kid I was coaching (who was barely five feet tall and skinny), put his fist right in his face, and screamed, "Yeah!" I called the referee and demanded a default, but he wouldn't do it - and my kid was literally done, couldn't play after that, and lost three straight.