Are You Doing What You Think You’re Doing?


In a nutshell, I’m using today’s post as another opportunity to convince you of the power of filming yourself playing table tennis. But I’ll also go a bit more into the reason why you need to start filming and analysing your own game.

I’m always shocked when I go to a tournament and there are only a handful of players filming their matches. We train regularly throughout the week, travel up and down the country on the weekends to play competitively but don’t actually record any of our performances. Why are so few people filming?

I think the main reason is that we have this assumption that we already know what we are doing wrong, we know what we need to improve. I’ll often hear players say after a game, and I’m often guilty of this myself, “Yeah, I know what I need to do. I’ll sort it out in my next game. I just couldn’t get in going in this game. My shots weren’t working today.” We like to think that we have a pretty good understand of what is going on in the game and where the problems are. We did the right things it just didn’t work out in this match. You can’t win them all after all!

I think we give ourselves too much credit. Actually, scratch that. I know we give ourselves too much credit.

The key question is…

Are you doing what you think you’re doing?

It’s easy just to answer, “yes”, and assume that there is no difference between how you think you are playing and how you are actually playing, but from my experience that is rarely the case. More often that not we think we are doing things much better in our heads than in reality. Our body, and specifically our mind, is lying to us. Or it’s distorting the truth at least.

When we play a forehand loop in a match, using our standard technique, it feels perfect and we see in our heads a perfect shot. When we serve our favourite serve we can imagine how it looks to our opponent, the crisp contact, the deception that makes it difficult to read, the way we let it drop low so that we contact it at close to table height. This is what we see and feel as we perform these actions but is it what our opponent sees? Is it realistic to what we are actually doing or is our brain sugar-coating it for us?

“Everybody look at An Shu”

When I was in Denmark this summer Lars, the organiser of the camp, invited me into one of the coaches evening meetings. Once all the coaches were sitting down and the seminar had started Lars stopped and said, “Everybody look at An Shu” (An Shu was one of the Chinese coaches on the camp and also a player in the top Swedish table tennis league). We all looked over at An Shu for a few seconds to see if he was going to do anything. Then Lars said, “Why is this impossible?”

“Why is this impossible?”

Some of the coaches in the room didn’t speak much English so translator coaches were translating the question into Chinese and French whilst everyone else looked a little confused. We were all looking at An Shu. It’s not impossible because we are all doing it right now. Is this some kind of trick question?

Then Lars said, “because An Shu cannot look at An Shu”.

He continued the meeting and spoke all about the role of the coach and how they much both understand their players and help their players to understand themselves.

I took a huge amount of notes in the meeting, and Lars had so much great information to share, however this is the idea that has stuck with me more than anything from that session.

“Because An Shu cannot look at An Shu!”

Everybody else in the room can see An Shu. We can see exactly where he is in relation to the room (Is he in the centre of the room? Who is next to him? Behind him?). We can see how he is sitting (Is his posture good? Does he look relaxed in his seat?). We can see his facial expressions (What emotions is his face displaying? Does he look happy? Confident? Tired? Bored?).

An Shu may think there is nobody behind him, but I saw a coach come in late a sit behind him on the kitchen counter. An Shu may think he is sitting up straight in his chair, but actually he looks a little stiff and uncomfortable, especially now that he has become the centre of the meeting. An Shu may think he looks confident and composed, but in fact he looks a little anxious.

We did quite a lot of filming our training sessions, especially multiball training, in Denmark. We would do a multiball drill, film it, watch it back, discuss it with a coach and then have another go. I was shocked at the disparity between what I thought I looked like when I played at what I actually looked like.

Was I doing what I thought I was doing? No!

  • I thought I was crouched down really low throughout the drill, but after the first few shots my back straightened and I played from then on in quite an upright position.
  • I thought my wrist was in quite a neutral position, but actually it was bent open (favouring a forehand fade/down the line shot) from the word go. I still struggle with this.
  • I thought I always did a good job at transferring my weight from my right foot to my left foot on all my forehand topspins, but it turns out on any wide balls I pivot on my right foot and end up getting very little power.

This is why we need to start filming, practice and matches. If you aren’t getting accurate feedback on your faults then you won’t be aware that you need to make any changes. I think we all have a tendency to picture ourselves looking much better than we actually do. It appears to be common among everyone.

When I watch back a match or training session with a player for the first time they are usually embarrassed by how bad they think they look when they play. I don’t understand it. I’ve watched them play many times and to me they don’t look like they are playing particularly bad in this video. The thing is that what they thought they were doing isn’t what they are actually doing, and watching themselves on video for the first time has made this painfully obvious.

They always thought that they rotated their hips on their forehand shots but here they can see the truth, right in front of their eyes, they don’t really. Their hips barely move. They thought they had loads of wrist in their backhand shots to generate a snappy spinny shot, but the video clearly shows that their backhand shot has a lot of shoulder and elbow in it and very little wrist. No wonder they always struggle to play a quick backhand when they are rushed for time.

Sam knows about this all too well

We have used video analysis and feedback heavily in the Expert in a Year challenge. Just this week we had a tripod and camera set up under the table to film Sam’s footwork on a regular drill. To me, as the coach who is watching Sam move, it looked like Sam was barely moving as he moved across to play a forehand topspin from his wide forehand. To Sam, the one actually doing the moving, it felt like he was doing a huge movement and when I kept telling him he needed to move his feet further and faster he thought I was being ridiculous. Then we watched it back on the camera…

“Oh yeah, my feet are barely moving” says Sam.

This is just the way it is. Our mind plays tricks on us. We think we are doing one thing when in fact we are doing something else entirely. This is why you need to be filming your practice and matches. This is why it’s so important that you review that video and adjust your training accordingly.

Football has been onto this for years. The professional clubs employ whole teams of people to video and analyse the matches for them. The manager used to just watch the game from the sidelines and then tell the players what they were doing wrong. But then some people looked into it and realised that even the manager couldn’t remember most of what had actually happened in the game and was seeing it all through his own lense.

The video doesn’t lie.

Are you doing what you think you’re doing? Probably not. But start filming yourself regularly and you are bound to notice a whole array of things you can begin to work on and improve to make your actually game look more like you think it does.