Friday, 21 October 2016

Automatism and Servomechanisms: The Science of Training in Sports

This is a topic which can relate to any sport or task, it is a post on brain training and something which was part of a coaching course I did a few years ago and it has stuck with me since. Automatism and Servomechanisms are two brain functions which are activated during regular training leading to conditioned responses. Training in table tennis is very repetitive and here is why:

Servomechanism: The reason service practice is vital!
Image from www.pingskills.com
What is a servomechanism?

In literal terms a servomechanism is an automatic device which constantly uses error feedback in order to self correct. This is also a brain function. A prime example of why we practice simple strokes and basic so often is to master a number of things; timing, ball contact on the racket and the angle of our bat and swings in each stroke.

The more you practice these strokes the more feedback you are giving to your brain, you are conditioning automated responses by allowing the brain's servomechanism to make calculated corrections each time you make an error.

A prime example is bat angle. Say you are training multiball and someone is feeding you topspin to your forehand. Your first few strokes your bat angle is open too much and your swing slightly too vertical, as a result the ball goes over the end. By understand that closing the angle and driving forward more will create an opposite effect you will adjust your stroke accordingly. Over hours and hours of practice (they do say 10,000 hours of practice makes a well rounded player), these techniques become ingrained into your muscle memory and brain mechanisms and table tennis becomes second nature.

So as you can tell training techniques thoroughly and also dedicating time to practicing serves can have big advantages for your game.

What is automatism?

Automatism is the brain's default response system. This is the reason why you should always train to have good habits and good shot selection in matches, while in training. An example I always use is players who get into the habit of pushing too much in matches. Their automatic response has not been conditioned adequately.

Do you always push back long pushes or long/half long serves? Especially players with weak backhands tend to lack confidence to open with their backhand. Pushing becomes their default response. Why? Because it is a habit.

In order to condition your brain and create a new default response, you need to update your brain, through training. Instead of pushing the long ball back, practice pivot forehand and using your backhand opening. It is no different to training yourself to flip serves instead of always pushing them long. Being aggressive and taking initiative early on in points and making the most of opportunities comes from conditioning your responses.


Hopefully having a little more knowledge about these two concepts and how they relate to table tennis can help you build a strong foundation in your game. Sometimes players will look at international professionals and say "Hey, they make it look so easy", and that's because it is! They have trained countless hours and dedicated their lives to making their automatic responses of the highest quality and reliability!

While this is a bit different from my usual topics I hope you find it useful! :)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, very good post! Especially important is the part on the bad habits. They are very difficult to get rid of. My coach always chided us for an incorrect techniques even when we were just housing around (I was a swimmer). And that was almost 40 years ago :)

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