11 Mental Toughness Tips for Table Tennis Players – by Werner Schlager

It’s the final day of Werner Schlager Week here at ExpertTableTennis.com! So far we’ve covered; service and service returnstroke developmenttechnique and tactics, and physical training. Today’s quotes look at the area of mental toughness for table tennis.

I don’t often get a chance to write about the mental side of table tennis, despite the fact it’s vitally important to competitive success in the sport. I hope you enjoy these golden nuggets from Werner.

These 11 quotes are taken from Werner Schlager’s fantastic book Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion. It’s a great read that you can buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. I highly recommend it. In my opinion, it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring table tennis players!

For more table tennis tips please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips. Now let’s get into the good stuff!

Mental Toughness Tips

Thus, they are the famous “training world champions”.

This quote is taken from a paragraph where Werner is talking about players that are world-class in the training hall but can’t do it when it matters. I’m sure we all know players that look great in practice but never seem to get the results at tournaments.

I’ve said this many times before but in table tennis there are no points awarded for how good you look. Nope, it’s all about points won and lost. Chasing technical perfection is a distraction, as is staying in your comfort zone. If you want to improve your performance you need to push yourself technically, tactically, physically, and (perhaps most important) mentally!

You should always focus as quickly as possible on the next rally. That means a short technical analysis and then full concentration.

It’s human nature to want to dwell on the past. After winning an epic rally you may find yourself replaying it in your head and congratulating yourself on being awesome. I guess that’s ok for a couple of seconds, but then you need to forget about it and think about the next point.

This is even harder to do after an unforced error. Particularly if you’re a perfectionist – and I know a lot of us are! Missing an easy smash can sometimes distract you for the next three, four, or even five points if you let it. Don’t let it! Analyse what just happened and then move on as quickly as possible.

You shouldn’t allow yourself to become frustrated. If frustration is there, it is very difficult to get rid of it again.

Table tennis is a flipping frustrating sport at times! I’m generally a pretty chilled out, placid guy but there have been times during a match where I’ve wanted to smash up the table into tiny pieces.

Frustration is a massive downward spiral. Once you lose the ideal feeling of calm, positivity it’s really hard to get it back. That’s why it is so important to recognise the first signs of frustration creeping in. Find a way to stop it in its tracks. Perhaps take a timeout if you need to. Go to your “happy place”. Breathe deeply.

I have butterflies in my stomach before every match. I think it helps you to focus.

Something that I’ve noticed from studying hundreds of high-achievers is that they almost all associate subtle signs of nerves with positive emotions. Here, Werner acknowledges the fact that he believes having butterflies in his stomach helps him focus.

I don’t know whether these players truly believe that or not. Perhaps they have just told themselves a lie so many times that it has become true. After all, what’s the alternative…

“I have butterflies in my stomach before every match. I think it shows that I am a scaredy-cat coward who is probably going to lose because I bet my opponent doesn’t have butterflies.”

That kind of thinking is no good!Instead, elite athletes recognise that everyone gets anxious – but they feel the fear and do it anyway. They turn it into something positive.

Instead, elite athletes recognise that everyone gets anxious – but they feel the fear and do it anyway. They turn it into something positive.

If it is 10:10 in the 7th set, it is 5:5 in my head.

There is always the temptation to change our game/tactics when the scoreline is close at the end of a match. Some players turn into complete maniacs trying to kill every ball and get it over with. Others, probably the majority, consider playing a safer, passive game and hoping their opponent makes an error.

What’s Werner Schlager’s advice? If you find yourself in a tight spot – such as 10-10 in the final game – tell yourself the score is something like 5-5 instead. Worrying about the scoreline isn’t going to help you to play any better so you might as well pretend you are at a less stressful point in the match and just play your game.

The fist is an expression of willpower and strength.

When I was younger I used to hate celebrating at the table. It made me feel silly. I would play my matches quietly – occasionally giving myself a telling off from something – but never shouting or “choing” after winning a point.

Then, in my second year at Grantham Academy, coach Alex Perry got us playing training matches where if you didn’t “cho” after winning a point, you lost the point. I found it really awkward at first, but after a while, I got more used to it. It didn’t change my personality completely, but I certainly became more vocal on the table.

“Choing” (or raising a fist) in celebration after a big point is a way to show your opponent that you mean business. That you want this match. That you’re not going down without a fight. And that’s very rarely a bad thing.

I don’t make eye contact with my opponent very often.

Mental toughness doesn’t mean strutting around like you are a god and then staring out your opponent at every opportunity. Instead, it is more about having a quiet confidence in your own ability to win the match. A belief in yourself.

Don’t get the two confused. There’s a fine line between confidence and over-confidence.

You become a champion through hard work. Mental strength must also be trained. Talent alone hasn’t been enough for a long time to get right to the top.

Here, I believe Werner is saying that in new and less competitive sports talent can be enough to succeed. However, once a sport matures and people start intensive training then success becomes much more complex.

Some players are naturally mentally tougher than others. But whether you feel pretty strong in the head, or worry that you always choke at key moments, you can (and should) work to improve your mental game.

Experience helps a lot too. Older players that have been playing for many years are usually tougher than juniors. They’ve been there before. They know the deal.

My key piece of advice is to push yourself outside of your comfortable zone as much as possible. Try to create additional pressure in your training. Find ways to challenge yourself mentally and see if you are able to hold your nerve.

Naturally, I am aiming for total control over my body language during the course of a tournament. I am working on it.

If ever you watch the professionals playing in a big tournament once thing you notice is how calm and in control they appear at all times. Compare that to a regional tournament where players are shouting and swearing, and breaking their rackets, and it’s quite a stark contrast. I’m sure that professional players get just as frustrated as we do, but they’ve learnt to control their behaviour on the table.

Slapping your leg after a rubbish shot, for example, is a bad habit. It shows your opponent that your head is going. Perhaps it would be worth filming some of your next matches and looking at your individual responses to frustration.

Don’t think you have any? You might be surprised!

I take a time out when I lose control completely. That happens very rarely.

I’ve seen a lot of table tennis players “lose control completely” during my time but if my memory serves me right they very rarely choose to take a time out. Sometimes their coach is standing up and waving his arms about trying to get their attention. Typically, they pretend not to notice at first and then rudely tell their coach that they’re fine and don’t need a timeout a few seconds later. Yeah, right!

Maintaining control over yourself and your decisions, at all times, is surely one of the real cornerstones of mental toughness on the table. That and controlling your thoughts – which Werner is just about to get to…

Talking to myself in between points is very important. I say things like, “Place the first ball to the middle” or “Stay calm and focused”.

Sports psychologists call this positive self-talk. It’s basically just encouraging yourself and acting like your own personal coach and motivator. It all sounds pretty straightforward and common sense, but you’d be surprised how many players do the complete opposite – engaging in negative self-talk.

At your next match or tournament pay attention to how many times you catch players berating themselves during a match or saying things like “I don’t know why I even bother playing”. And pay even more attention if you find yourself succumbing to the same fate!

Buy the book

That’s it. We’ve reached the end of the road. #WernerSchlagerWeek is over. I hope you enjoyed it!

Here are the links to all five posts in this series…

I would like to use this opportunity to give Werner Schlager’s fantastic book one final plug. There are hundreds of brilliant tips in it and if you are serious about improving your overall game I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy!


Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion is available in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon. Please use the links below to buy…

To check out all of my favourite table tennis books please read my popular blog post, The Best Table Tennis Books.

And if you are looking for some more table tennis tips from professional players and coaches please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips.