There is a pervasive misconception that talent makes or breaks an athlete’s success. Unfortunately, this misconstrued belief places an unnecessary limit not only on athlete’s performance but ultimately on themselves.
Yes, talent plays a role, but certainly not the only role. Work ethic, decision-making, maintained focus, and a support system all contribute to an athlete’s success. However, talent cannot be meaningfully expressed without two closely-related skills that are paramount, not just specifically for athletic achievement, but also more broadly to maintain mental health and to cope with life’s challenges. Adaptability and resilienceare these key skills that play a tremendous role in sport and life.
Adaptability In Table Tennis
Adaptability is the ability to adjust to different conditions, and it can be expressed in a host of situations within the realm of sport. Let’s explore how players typically learn and improve in table tennis, including what goes into cultivating flexibility in response to the challenges within the game.
When a player first learns table tennis, they engage in the basic task of getting the ball over the net. As many can attest, this is easier said than done. During practice players learn techniques and form muscle memory to establish consistency. When training with particular drills, variability of play is often reduced in order to focus on one or more aspects of the game. In other words, drills simplify the game to help develop a solid foundation.
However, the simplicity of drills does not reflect the variety of play that exists in competitive matches. Within a match, achieving desired results involves making several adjustments. Seemingly small changes in movement enable players to be in a position to hit the ball while modifications to the racket angle, racket speed, spin, and timing all help control the ball’s trajectory. This body control must be executed all while responding to the variation that the opponent provides in ball placement, speed, and spin. Never mind the complication of playing conditions (e.g., humidity, elevation, air conditioning, and alike).
Winning points and matches positively reinforce a player’s style of play, but can bring up feelings of frustration and confusion because those same techniques and strategies that were effective against lower-level opponents can break down against more advanced players. When facing a higher level of players, there can be a feeling of plateauing and an overall lack of progress. This feeling of plateauing is often a signal indicating a need to adapt!
Adapting both within a game and between games can often determine who wins and who loses a match, but also more importantly how quickly and significantly a player improves over time.
Progressing in table tennis, as is true for improving in many sports, involves recognizing the tension between the pros and cons of preserving an established game versus the pros and cons of adapting.
Maintaining technique and strategy usually leads to relatively consistent results, which can be helpful when a player is satisfied with the degree of mastery they have achieved. However, everything on the road to achieving that level of mastery centers around the ways in which a player adapts to different styles of play as they improve. In short, there exists a divide between the consistency developed in practice and the adaptability necessary to successfully navigate the problems posed in a match. With the recognition of this tension between consistency and adaptation, a player can gain insight into what drives improvement over time.
Adapting in Mental Health
As it pertains to mental health, adaptability is the capacity for an individual to adjust to their circumstances using coping skills. Coping skills are strategies that people can implement in their everyday lives to manage negative emotions in the face of adversity. For example, individuals may use coping skills like humor, repression, and intellectualization to adapt to situations in their lives.
Mental health issues often arise when there is a mismatch and/or imbalance between an individual’s coping skills and the kinds of stressors in their environment. Sometimes, individuals may turn to maladaptive coping strategies to navigate difficult circumstances, which can lead to psychological distress. For example, instead of recognizing the patterns of a play an opponent is using to win a match, a player might respond by engaging in negative self-talk in response, leading to possible feelings of frustration, difficulties with emotional regulation, and even acting out.
Any particular coping skill can be adaptive in one situation, but maladaptive in another. Therefore, a variety of coping skills, like tools in a toolkit, are needed. For instance, a hammer can be excellent for nailing in a board but might be problematic for cutting a board in half. Likewise, a saw is excellent for cutting a board in half, but not for putting a nail into a board.
With a lack of coping skills (e.g., using a hammer for all situations), it is difficult to apply the most advantageous ways to solve problems, practice emotional regulation, or successfully navigate adverse events. However, having a wide variety of coping skills (e.g., an entire toolkit) allows individuals to select the strategies that are most effective relative to the particular context.
A person’s ability to navigate everyday challenges depends on their adaptive strategies, mental well-being, and goal-setting skills. Adapting is the combination of recognizing what occurred in a situation, developing a hypothesis for an alternative strategy, and attempting that alternative strategy to judge its effectiveness. By setting realistic goals about what a person wants to achieve, individuals can adjust their expectations and improve their ability to adapt to better align with those goals.
In recent decades, the biopsychosocial approach has gained traction as a leading understanding of human health and mental health. The biopsychosocial approach considers the biological, psychological, and social factors, as well as their complex interactions in understanding health, illness, and health care delivery.
While biology cannot be changed, meaningful influence can be exerted over psychological and social factors. The word resilience is defined as a person’s ability to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, or life’s challenges, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Therefore, resilience implies both accepting the strengths and limitations of biology while making meaningful changes in psychological and social spheres in response to perceived negative events. Resilience is all about understanding the locus of control—or, more specifically, the two kinds: 1) the internal locus of control and 2) the external locus of control.
The internal locus of control is the belief of having influence over the outcome of events (e.g., hitting a forehand), and the external locus of control is the belief that the outcome of events is largely outside of one’s control (e.g., whether or not it is raining the day of the tournament).
The internal locus of control implies two choices: to stay the same or to make a change. In the above example, the choice is whether or not to continue to hit a forehand. This is as opposed to the external locus of control, where the two choices are to accept or reject the state of affairs as they exist. For instance, choosing to accept or be in denial that it is raining.
Psychologists have identified factors that appear to make a person more resilient, such as a positive attitude, optimism, emotional intelligence, a growth mindset, and the ability to see setbacks as a form of helpful feedback. In many ways therapy can be seen as a meaningful way to build resilience through the recognition and development of coping skills. The more willingness a person has to accept the things they cannot change and be proactive about the things they want to change, the more likely they are able to be resilient.
Resilience in Table Tennis
Although losses are a normal part of life, they can be significant sources of stress. Spending hours practicing, putting in maximum effort, and still losing can be demoralizing. Losing, like other hardships, can bring up a variety of negative emotions, including anger, despair, disappointment, and even shame. In extreme scenarios, losses could result in burnout, losing one’s sense of purpose, or worsened self-esteem. In short, losses can create countless new challenges that impact your quality of life both on and off the court.
So, what’s the next step? What do players do to bounce back after experiencing a stressful event like a loss? How do they cope in the short run and how do they move forward in the long run? The psychology of resilience plays a significant role in perseverance.
Emotions are important signals to tune into because they indicate what is meaningful. While there might be an impulse to avoid negative feelings by avoiding competition or not trying out new strategies, that will not help players avoid the sting that comes after losing a match. If a loss hurts, it means that it matters! So, if it matters, what actions can be taken to cope with these feelings and improve moving forward?
The first step is to take a deep breath and accept what cannot be changed. It is natural to mourn expectations, reflect on what has occurred, and exercise self-compassion. There can be several meaningful reasons why a loss occurs on any given day. By maintaining a growth mindset—one that focuses on self-improvement—players can reframe the short-term pain of losses into new opportunities, new skills, and continuous improvement.
Breaking down and mapping out what is within one’s internal locus of control and external locus of control can be crucial in accepting a loss and making meaningful changes going forward. Some questions for self-assessment include:
What did I do that contributed to the loss?
What did my opponent do that gave me trouble?
What was my preparation like?
What are the factors about my opponent that helped them to succeed?
What did I do well?
What did I like/not like about the play conditions?
Did I give the match my all?
If I played worse than my normal level, what factors led to me not playing as well?
It is after this kind of self-analysis and constructive criticism that a player can differentiate between what they can do to improve moving forward and what they must be willing to accept about the day, the conditions, the opponent, and themselves that they did not have control over.
In essence, when an opponent wins, they are providing a free lesson to improve IF a meaningful retrospective is performed. Recognizing those lessons can contribute to true adaptability and resilience from difficult losses and taking significant steps toward improvement. At the end of the day, your quality of resilience and adaptability competency can give you a competitive advantage over your opponents.
Adaptability and resilience are important traits in both sport and life. They involve coping with stressful situations and navigating life’s challenges with mental toughness, a willingness to change, and creative thinking. Progress is only possible by adapting, internalizing the loss or disappointment without it becoming overwhelming, using the loss or disappointment as a way to reprioritize goals, and learning and applying important lessons from past experiences.
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About the Author
Adam Formal, PhD, CASAC is a licensed clinical psychologist and credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor working in private practice out of the New York City area. His areas of specialization include anxiety, interpersonal relationships, trauma, substance abuse, motivation, and athletes. He is also an NCTTA alumnus, a 2x Maccabi Games bronze medalist (1x doubles, 1x teams), a 4x NJ State Champion (2x doubles, 2x mixed doubles), and a former USATT club umpire.