Is Intra-Team Competition Beneficial in Table Tennis?

intra-team competition in table tennisDo you ever feel like your table tennis team mates are actually your most significant opponents?

Or are you a coach or club owner struggling to manage the dynamics of your players in regards to team or squad selection.

Table tennis is a little strange because despite it being an individual sport we also are united with other players in clubs and teams and academy’s.

We need them to practice with but at the same time, when push-comes-to-shove, we are desperate to beat them in tournaments and we want to make sure we are selected ahead of them to play in our teams. Making sure this level of “competition” stays friendly can be quite difficult!

And this is true at all levels of our sport; whether you’re an intermediate player competing for your club in a local league, an advanced player fighting for a place in the club’s national league team or an international player trying to keep your place in the national team. Competition for spaces in the Chinese National Team, for example, is incredibly fierce and players are often put up against each other in televised national trials to gain selection for major tournaments.

Mark Simpson is a table tennis player currently studying for a Masters degree in Sports Psychology in Sweden and Germany. Intra-team competition is an area that he has studied in detail and he was kind enough to write a guest post for us on the subject. If you remember the name, it’ll be because Mark wrote another post for the site a while back on deliberate play.

In this post he has some advice for players, and in particular coaches and team managers, on how best to use competition within teams to ensure all players remain happy and playing their best table tennis.

I hope you enjoy it…

mark simpson table tennisAs a coach, should you encourage competition between your players?

Competing against players from other teams is normal in table tennis, since national leagues are team against team. The concept less discussed is competition within teams. A lot of national leagues make teams determine their order based on ranking, however, leagues that don’t impose this rule hand the decision over to the coach or manager.

Whether it is openly acknowledged or not, players within a club are competing against each other for the few spaces on the team, and unlike football, we don’t all have different positions to play. The question is… as a coach, how do you make sure this natural competition between players is beneficial to the team, both as a whole and individually?

Top-level coaches, in other sports, often talk about the advantages of having competition for places. They attribute this to the removal of complacency in training that is possible if your place on the team is more assured.

Although a debated issue amongst sport psychologists, I personally am for the encouraging of inta-team competition. I think it can be very motivating and give that extra ‘zip’ in training.

But what could go wrong?

Intra-team competition motivates people with the goal of getting that spot on the team. If they, therefore, do not achieve this goal it can lead to a lot of frustration, which could lead to less motivation in the long term. Also if the player sees his chance of taking that position as unrealistic, then they are at risk of giving up the battle mentally.

Another thing that could go wrong is that players will become selfish and focus on getting the most out of training for themselves, even if it is to the detriment of the other club members, or at worst they may even try to hinder the training of their main rivals in order to gain the upper hand in the battle for places.

Intra-team competition can also strain the social relationships between players, which can affect the training atmosphere and also affect interactions in matches. For instance, if two of those players need to play doubles, or one is coaching the other, then if they have fallen out it will not work as well. Obviously this is less of a consideration than in team sports but it’s still worth mentioning.

So how can we stop this happening?

The first couple of problems focus on motivation, which is best dealt with using effective goal setting techniques. The key is to encourage competitive goals within the range of the players realistic capabilities.

Another important thing here is to ensure that the players all believe the team selection is fair. This means that the selection of the team is not always on reputation but always on who is in the best form at that moment, and perhaps more importantly, who is putting the most effort in when training. There isn’t much more demotivating to players than to see positions given to people they don’t believe deserve them.

The next problems are to do with team cohesion, both socially and on task. This is a key issue if you are aiming to use competition within your team or club. One way to combat this is to build a strong club identity. If you can make the players proud to be a part of the club, even if they are just warming the bench, you’re on the right track. Encourage the wearing of club kit, for example, all players must wear it on match days. Encourage players to turn up to the matches whether playing or not (I am thinking, in particular, of the European leagues, where there are home and away matches). Don’t forget the other benefits this could have, with increased support for your team also making it a more intimidating place for opposition teams to play.

The other thing is to ensure that the players place the team goals over their own. This is best done through joint goal-setting for the team.

Finally, as a coach you always need to be aware of what is going on within the team. If there are players who have fallen out, you need to be aware and help mediate this. If there is one player feeling left out socially, you need to have spotted this and (subtly and sensitively) rectify the problem.

Ensuring competition is a positive thing in your squad is a difficult thing to do! If this seems too difficult, which is perfectly fine (after all some sport psychologists disagree with within-team competition), then look to eliminate this element wherever possible, for instance utilise a fixed, equal squad rotation system for matches. Or, if you still really want to use intra-team competition, then contact a sport psychologist and they will be able to help out instigating this and/or equip you to control this with more confidence.

A big thank you to Mark for that post.

As a coach I definitely understand the issues around using competition between team mates and the struggle to have it lead to positive results. If you have any comments, questions or experience in this area then please leave a comment below, I’d love to chat to your about it.

If you enjoyed this post then have a look at Mark’s new website for more posts on a range of topics within sport psychology and details of how to contact him if you would like to find out more.