How to control the external flow of play

Fake it ’til you make it. This phrase summarizes most of the following article and if this particular hint and manipulating the time frames is old news to you, you might not have to read this post any longer. However, if you are interested in a few words of explanation and how you could use these simple statements to improve your game by a few points please go ahead.

As motivation, have a look at the TED talk below:

After reading this article you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • In what types can we divide the flow of play?
  • Which elements are summed up to external flow of play?
  • How and to what extend can and should we change it?

Do you need any prior knowledge from an other blog article to understand this? No.


The flow of play can be analyzed on several levels. The inner flow of play is characterized by the spin and speed changes during a single point. The external flow consists of your behaviour before, during and after the game, but not during the point itself. Finally, the psychological aspect is covered by  Mihály Csíkszentmihályis concept of flow. A separate blog article about the application of this concept on table tennis will be linked here soon.

Let’s focus on the external flow of play.

Behaviour of winning players

A recent article spotted some similarities between the behaviour of all winning and all losing players.

Players who win often:

  • form a fist
  • do little jumps between the points
  • touch their blade
  • shortening time between points
  • trotting while they pick up the ball

So why do players who win often show these patterns? It’s quite simple. By forming a fist we signal the enemy that we are confident and ready to fight, our animal brain or instinct are still there, even if we play a ‘civilized’ game like table tennis. The little jumps between each point relax our muscles and additionally let our opponent know how much energy we still have.  The last aspect also partially counts for the trotting point. If we touch our racket with our left hand before we hit, we increase our information about the exact angle and position of the racket which our right hand can’t deliver. Please remember that we used this trick of additional information in our article about the non playing arm usage aswell.

Exploiting the given time frames

Shortening the time between points and trotting deserve a special mention. If you are confident to win and think the game goes in your way we automatically try to speed the game up by letting our opponent less time for regeneration and building countermeasure plans. To put it in a bigger picture, we speed the game up if we are winning and slow it down if we are losing. Of course there are several reason to slow the game pace down, let’s say if we lost our focus or need time to regenerate. However losing focus is an error and often leads to losing itself. Being tired can be also accounted as an error, because we physically prepared ourselves not good enough beforehand. The only reason to slow the game down if we are winning occurs if we know that the enemy is really impatient and loses his focus this way.

Now the question arises, which times can we manipulate? Fortunately there are many, e.g. :

  • when we pick up the ball
  • how fast we pass the ball to the opponent if he serves
  • between the games
  • timeout time
  • before we serve
  • before we signal that we are ready to receive

We saw that we indeed have many possibilities to stretch or shorten the given time frames. A short note on how we can influence many enemies to shorten their given time frame. People in general want to be liked and don’t want to offend anyone. In particular they don’t want people to wait for them. So if we return faster to the table than the opponent most people will shorten their time frame and return faster to the table so you don’t have to wait. We keep in mind that if we take more time than given or overdo it we risk a yellow card or a verbal warning. However, this doesn’t harm our game as long as we don’t overdo it again.

The animal in each of us

We already touched this topic with the fist bump behaviour and want to extend it a bit more. We increase our change of winning if we properly control our body language because if it influences the opponents behaviour if he like it or not. A straight posture and positive attitude even if we lose ground will cause our opponent to receive contradictory signals and will finally confuse him. And by faking the behaviour of a winning player we might become one, so fake it ’til you make it. additionally we should show our confidence by playing looking him into the eyes. This has the positive side effect that we also have a high change do gain information from his facial expression about his current mental state.

Since most of the behaviour which losing players often show suits this paragraph heading, here the typical behaviour of losing players:

  • practice the stroke motion
  • touching of certain body parts
  • bad attitude
  • head nodding

A few words why this behaviour occurs at losing players and why we should avoid it.

Practising the stroke motion show the enemy that we are weak and technique needs a correction. It’s like a gnu signalling the hunting tiger please don’t hunt me I have a broken leg. An advanced might even spot flaws in our correction motion  and will use this extra knowledge against us. On the other side it’s not wrong if we mentally analyze our error, find the solution and focus on the next ball.

Like any book about body language will tell us, touching certain body parts unconsciously is a sign of insecurity and therefore weakness. We shouldnt send this kind of signal to our enemy.

Showing a bad attitude like verbally insulting ourself or blaming everything but us for mistakes are signs of weakness aswell. Again, if we consult the usual books on rhetoric we will read everywhere that this obvious loss of control is counted as weakness again. The only positive side effect of let’s say shouting is that certain enemies might be intimidated by it. Since this not a good sporting manner most referees will punish us for it. However, there is a way out. We can use our urge to shout by positively channeling it into shouting “Cho” or something similar if we make a point.

Side note: Protecting junior players from common manipulative behaviour of older opponents

The responsibilities for this topic are equally distributed on everyone’s shoulders. First of all, older opponents should not use it. Secondly coaches and umpires should immediately indicate and punish it. Finally the junior player is responsible to know and understand how these methods below can influence his game and how he can avoid it.

Here are some common manipulative strategies of older opponents versus junior players:

  • abuse their strength during  a too firm handshake
  • if the game is umpired by the junior he questions his decisions and way to count
  • he abuses his louder and deeper voice
  • he often personally goes to the net to display his advantage in height and strength from near distance (same: he picks up balls from the juniors side)
  • he shows an play it easy attitude once he is losing to break the juniors focus, he even might start talking to the junior
  • he simulates the old men / friendly grandpa, close to death, just to rip the next ball


  • just go for an high five exchange
  • stay focussed, play your game
  • no false indulgence, he decided that he is fit enough to play this game
  • be confident in what you do
  • ignore his ape like behaviour, don’t show him if you are intimidated

Legal disclaimer

As always, there is a not so fine line or margin for following the rules and how they are applied. Table tennis rules are like any other law. Made with a good intentions but people will quickly find ways to exploit them legally like tax laws for big companies. This discrepancy is surely known among programmers who often face the difference between what they intended the code to do and what the computer makes out of it by actually following what they have written and not their hidden agenda.

If we just consider the table tennis serve, we could probably fill books regarding each added word in the corresponding rules and how to interpret it and how referees should umpire it. The choice on how far we are willing to stretch the definitions or even cross it, lies in our responsibility. However since table tennis is just a game for most us who not earn a living with playing it, we should treat it as such and focus on our good sportsmanship. On the contrary every professional player has to go up to the edge of every given rule to gain a small partial advantage which is crucial the higher he climbs the ladder up. As Schwarzenegger put it, break the rules, not the law. If you look at several professional players, most of them stretch or cross the line. They make clear illegal services or serves very close to it in the hope to be rarely or not punished at all. Sadly the current tournaments suggests that this is the way to go, if you want to have an advantage.

Interpretation regarding boosting by the player himself or pretuned rubber sheets is a similar topic.

Finally excessively shouting or moaning like Ovtcharov are similar examples of bad sportsmanship but give the applying player an advantage. (Sidenote: Moaning decreases your performance aswell but not as much as it distracts the opponent.) Let’s hope this tennis and porn inspired behaviour doesn’t get viral in table tennis.

I hope I made my point clear and you don’t choose the dark side, even if they allegedly have cookies, but remember: the cake is a lie.


Fake the given behaviour of winning players until you are one (and continue doing it). Simultaneously avoid the given patterns of losing players and be a good sportsmen.


4 comments on “How to control the external flow of play

  1. There’s already too much of this in table tennis. I know few sports where establishing dominance over the opponent is so important. It would be good if we all foster sportsmanship again instead of psychological warfare. In real life though, your article is insightful.

  2. Hello i do have some focus trouble in TT ,during a point (90% time in tournaments) if someone is near me or a ball seems to go in my direction i lose immediately my focus.
    When i play video games i do not have this trouble .Do you have some hints except playing in deaf and blind mode ?

    • Hi Jonathan,

      try to emulate the difficult situations in your typical training environment (noise, proximity to other players) and/or train it directly in more tournaments.

      Additionally you have to be honest to yourself, if the loss of focus is purely a matter of lacking focus or some fears regarding losing in tournaments in general; which then leads to a busy(afraid) mind which can’t focus properly during your fight or flight situation.

      It may or may not help to keep your mind busy by focussing rather strictly on your game and individual point plans to keep your mind busy in a positive way. For some people this works, for some not. A classic example of ‘Don’t think of a blue elephant’.

  3. Pingback: Major breakthrough in rubber design! Up to 40% speed and spin increase possible. | thoughtsontabletennis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s