Trying to preserve your lead

Table Tennis Mental Preparation

Last updated 6 years ago

Jean Balthazar

Jean Balthazar Asked 7 years ago

Hi Jeff and Alois,

Table tennis performance has a lot to do with what goes on in your mind. When things go wrong, it's tough, but when things go well, paradoxically it's not always easy either, at least for me! Id' like to ask for your thoughts regarding the following situation, which I see happening way more than it makes sense from a pure probabilistic point of view (and not only to me!):

1) You're playing against an opponent of more or less comparable level to yours.

2) You're leading with what statistically looks like a pretty decisive margin, say like 8-5.

3) You think that in this position, it would be a shame to not be able to close the deal.

4) You play like your grandmother and you blow it.

Statistics say that at 8-5, if each player has equal chances to win a point, the chances of success for the leading player are 71%. Practically, I see most of these games end up being very tight. Of course, to reach that score of 8-5, you must have had a good series of successful points yourself, and it can happen to your opponent to, so he ends up levelling up, but still, I can't help thinking that psychologically this should be a good situation, one in which you should have the upper hand, while actually I feel the opposite. When I'm trailing behind, I know that, lost for lost, I have to give it all. No big questions. When I'm leading, I know that I will blame myself much more if I take risks and miss, so I don't. I tend to freeze and play passively, exactly at that time when my opponent is all pumped up and has no choice other than taking initiatives.

I realize that this attitude is mostly counter-productive, but I still don't know how to avoid it, other than:

- becoming much better than all my opponents (I don't think that can happen),

- ignoring the score totally (can't help watching it, plus umpire errors are not that rare at my level),

- not caring about the match result at all (can't do that when it's a team event, and can't really afford to give up the boost of motivation).

The only improvement I was able to implement so far is to be aware of the danger of this situation for me, and of my usual bad reaction to it. When it's a decisive game in a match, I will now take my time out quickly and before my lead has melted away. I will try to take more time to breathe between points. I may try a "spare surprise serve" if I can, exactly as if I were on the verge of losing. Actually, I try to trick myself into thinking that I am the underdog at that point. It's weird, but other than that, I don't know.

Any ideas?



Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario Answered 7 years ago

Hi J-B,

Big question...

Your mind plays a huge part in the results of games.  I think it is breaking the game down into points that may help you here.  

You need to develop a routine for each point and try to keep the routine before each point no matter what the score.  It is difficult to trick yourself into what the score is or the importance of a particular situation.  Firstly accept that you will feel this way in that situation.  At 8 -5 you are going to get anxious.  Also realise that from the opponent’s point of view they are not in a happy situation either.

At the start of the game where would you rather be??

Don’t think about preservation, rather about how you are going to win the next point.  Unfortunately Table Tennis is not a game where you can just milk the clock and not do anything for the rest of the game and preserve your lead.  You actually have to go out and win some more points to win the game.

You need to practice your routine in training as well so that it becomes very familiar to you.  Then in a match use it consistently no matter the position of the match, 10 - 0 up or 9 -9 in the deciding set.

In training as well, put yourself in that position more often.  Play practice games where you start at 8 - 5 up or whatever the score is that really troubles you.   The more times you are in the situation, the easier it gets.

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Thoughts on this question

Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 7 years ago

You should of course always listen to Alois and ignore the rest of us would be coaches but I can't help adding my own piece of advice since we seem to be of similar kin.

You mention statistics. You could try looking at things exactly that way. With 8-5 in your favour, chances are 70% for you to win the game and 30% to lose. If next, you still lose the game, you can blame it on having been in the wrong part of the stats this time, rather than you being a moron and screwing up the odds. So, at 8-5, make yourself responsible for the next point and make the stats responsible for which part of the odds you'll end up with.

That's how you can combine fatalism and sharpness.

Another way to help yourself be at peace with statistics is to actually do the counts: keep track of how many sets you effectively lost when 8-5 ahead against equal opponents. My bets are that it will actually be close to 70% and that your bully of a mind is blowing up those 30% to feel more like 50%.

Good "luck"

Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 7 years ago

(well obviously I should say "effectively won" or the problem would even be worse foot-in-mouth)

Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 7 years ago

Jean, on my way home I did the math - nothing like a bike ride for some good math - and I think the odds are rally 85,5-14,5

For simplicity, assume play goes on for 7 points. Then either the favorite or the underdog gets 11 or more, or it's 10-10. The distribution for the 8 outcomes is binomial with sum 2^7 = 128

The underdog's odds are:

  • favourite makes no point 1/128
  • favourite makes 1 point 7/128

The odds for 10-10 are when the favourite makes 2 points: 21/128. The underdog gets half of that.

In total this gives the underdog 37/256=14,4%



shea kiely

shea kiely Posted 7 years ago

forgetting the score,relaxing,telling yourself you need 3 more points,moving to every ball and trying not to choke by breathing slowly all seem to help.

Jean Balthazar

Jean Balthazar Posted 7 years ago

Probabilities: Sorry, I didn't do that properly. It's been too long since I had to use maths for anything more complex than a cross-multiplication... You're right Dieter, it's actually 85-15%, and it makes my point even more bitter! :o) But I don't think maths are very relevant here. 85-15% is definitely not what I observe in real life, and not only in my own matches. The outcome of a point is never really random, and wining a point at 10-10 will never be the same as wining one at 7-2 or at 3-6. Some people manage those situations much better than others, and this makes a really big difference in their match winning ratio. I know other players who are really strong in friendly matches, but are unable to produce nearly as good results in actual competitions.

Negativity: You're right Jeff (video response), the sole use of the word "preserve" denotes a loser's point of view. More precisely in my case, I'd say it's an "much more afraid to lose than eager to win" attitude. That's one big part of the problem. I don't like losing, but I don't really strive to win that much either. I don't want to "beat" my "opponent" (the only exception is when he behaves like an a##hole). I played most of my life with my father in his garage and all we cared about was to make the best possible shots, not to kill the game to score points. That's the dilemma: I want to play at a competitive skill level, but I have a recreational mindset.

As a consequence, I never developed the skill of spotting my opponent's weaknesses and exploiting them (or to shoot with wide angles since those were impossible to catch in our playing environment). So when I'm up 8-5, I don't really know why, and I don't know how to proceed and deal with my opponent's expectable increasing urge for a comeback.

Looking forward towards the finish line instead of looking back to check the distance with my opponent, trying to think only about the next point and implementing a routine to focus on the present moment are definitely good advices. Thanks for that Alois.

I'll also try to enter more individual competitions to gather more match experience without being stressed by the obligation to score for the team.

But again, most importantly, I think I have to decide what's important to me in the game (winning or playing), and deal with the good and bad sides of the two options.

Thanks again to all of you.

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario from PingSkills Posted 7 years ago

I am glad that it is helping.

Daniel Bibeau

Daniel Bibeau Posted 6 years ago

Mr. Balthazar, you sound just like me - I choke a lot of leads (today's was 9-2 in the final deciding set and lost 11-9 / felt it happening when it was still 9-5!!! total breakdown)  I'm sure you realize or have seen an equally common occurrence - when a player wins the first game by a landslide like 11-2 or whatever and goes on to lose every other game in that match.  

Good luck with your situation and if you find something that you feel has helped you out, please share - I'm in need of all the extra help I can get.

Marcin Lonak

Marcin Lonak Posted 6 years ago


I find myself often in the situation that when I'm leading with a seemingly comfortable score, I tend to overdo my shots and play more risky, but when I'm some points behind, I play definitely more controlled and save. Those are for me very reasonable arguments how easy the own psychic allows us to loose a comfortable lead, but also be humble to why we actually are able sometimes to close up, seemingly effortless, if we are in the situation to be 5-8 behind. 

Marcin Lonak

Marcin Lonak Posted 6 years ago

I definitely play at my best TT when i play point by point as The Supercoach suggest to you. I know it since long time, but due to this I tend very often to forget the actual score during the game. By plaing point by point, i can play risky, but not too risky, and also save and quite controlled but not cowardly.

Daniel Bibeau

Daniel Bibeau Posted 6 years ago

yeah, I think that's very sound advice and will try to remember this.  I used to play a lot of poker and from studying the mental game for that purpose a couple years back a lot of the similar advice was given... "don't count your chips and stop worrying about whether you are winning or losing - just play the situation as best you know how and let the results speak for themselves - stop stressing the variance."  

Actually a very good sports psychologist (golf) turned poker mental coach Jared Tendler has books and youtube videos that could help many players improve their mental game.

Control what you can control and just perform in the moment.  It's interesting to note that this kind of phenomenon happens in team sports as well, especially in the NBA - teams are often up by what seems to be an insurmountable margin only to have to sweat it out late in the fourth quarter.  

Thanks again for your input, I'm hoping this will help me out as I try to make this a daily habit during my training sessions.  Cheers

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