My Mindset Towards WTT Macao

Reimagined. Reinvented. Reconceptualized. These words reverberated constantly throughout WTT’s marketing outreach. Plastered all over the flooring in competition throughout 2019, hyped with endorsements from the best players in the world, announced through news of groundbreaking collaborations with massive corporate brands, WTT was finally going to host its premiere in Macao. And despite all that we had glimpsed of the future of our sport; I was still unsure of what to expect going in.

But first, let’s take a step back. After the Women’s World Cup, I flew to Zhengzhou for the 2020 ITTF Grand Finals. My World Ranking wasn’t high enough to actually participate in the competition, but because I needed to stay in the bubble in order to remain safe and Covid-free prior to the debut of WTT, I resided with the rest of the players and staff for the duration of Finals. While it was a particularly constructive experience to watch and learn from the top players in the world, even gaining the opportunity to commentate some exhilarating matches for ITTF, I couldn’t help but feel a constant nagging sense of wanting to play. To experience the adrenaline, the electrifying emotions of nervousness, excitement, and tension all rolled into one jumbled mess before a match.

That being said, I could hardly wait by the time WTT Macao came around. The hugely anticipated moment was finally upon us. It’s fair to say we witnessed what we were promised. A freshly designed arena, a sleek black table and flooring, surrounded by an octagon-shaped ring with orange tinted LED lights, truly emitted the feeling of a futuristic action movie.

Just to summarize the structure of WTT Macao briefly and simply, 16 men and women from all around the world were invited to participate in Macao. The first 4 seeds compete against one another for seeding positions. Positions 9-16 are drawn randomly to compete in Battle Round 1 and earn a spot against positions 5-8 in Battle Round 2. All matches thus far are best of five. The victor of these subsequent matches then face the top 4 seeds in the quarterfinals. These matches start from best of seven all the way until the finals, where it transitions into the ultimate best of nine match.

Utilizing the novel draw format, I was drawn to play against my good friend and JOOLA teammate, Petrissa Solja (WR #19) of Germany in Battle Round 1. I had previously lost in our last two encounters in the German Bundesliga last year, so I knew it was going to be an uphill battle.

JOOLA teammate Petrissa Solja (WR #19) of Germany
JOOLA teammate Petrissa Solja (WR #19) of Germany

Furthermore, I’m a slow starter. It takes me a game or two to really get in the groove. The moment I begin to find my rhythm, it’s often too late by then. And now with WTT’s new implementation of a best of five match formats, it’s all the more vital to start positively. I knew I had to be prepared thoroughly and extensively- there was no room to just “feel it out” during. So that’s exactly what I did. I analyzed her matches the night before. I talked with my coach about strategies; I established a clear and stable mentality, reminding myself that I should be the one fighting out there, not defending.

That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous. As we waited backstage for the walk-ins, my hands were freezing, yet sweaty; my knees knocked impatiently against one another, my heart raced at a million beats per minute, ready to jump out my chest at any given moment.

These (normal, I might add) bodily reactions subsided as soon as the first point began. I came out strong, executing the strategies discussed prior with my coach. Peti was also clearly a bit rusty in the beginning, as I took an imposing lead to 2-0. In the third game, she finally began to shake off the nerves and played much more to her standards, but with some luck on my side, I was able to close out the game and match 3-0. The be perfectly honest, I felt good and quite proud of my performance. The match unmistakably reflected my comprehensive preparations and clear mindset.

Lily Zhang closes out the match 3-0 against Petrissa Solja
Lily Zhang closes out the match 3-0 against Petrissa Solja

The next match – well, let’s just say oh, how the tables turn… I faced Feng Tianwei (WR #9) of Singapore in Battle Round 2 – a rematch of our meeting at the Women’s World Cup, just less than a few weeks ago. I had prevailed in that encounter, only narrowly escaping a comeback. But then, I heard it.

“Wow, you literally got the best draw you could’ve gotten.” Words that I tried to filter mindlessly through one ear and out of the other, but still somehow managed to crawl and lodge their way into my brain. Yes, it’s true. I had won in the last match, but this was still Feng Tianwei we’re talking about. Former World Champion, Olympic Bronze medalist etc, etc. The list goes on…

I’d have to be irrational to believe that I could easily take this match. Yet somehow, my relentless old friend – the insecurity of not being enough – resurfaced, nipping at my thoughts and forcing me to doubt my abilities. I didn’t want to seem like a fluke or a one-trick pony – just being able to perform well in one tournament. The duality of wanting, even expecting, to win again just to prove myself to the world, while also being terrified of failure, greatly clouded my approach to the match.

It showed. Feng Tianwei rocketed out to a 9-3 lead in the first game. It was pretty much an accurate foreshadowing of the rest of the match. She entirely took control of the pace and the rhythm, forcing me far back from the table – away from my comfort zone. I felt as though I was desperately clawing for air, just for a moment to breathe, to catch up. At one point, I even thought, “this is humiliating.” And, just like that, the entire match was over before I had even processed what was happening. 3 nil.

That’s how fast it can happen. When you compete with unrealistic expectation, with the fear of losing, and with a mindset worrying about what others may think, the nerves can just as easily take control. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have goals or the confidence that you can win, but there is a fine line between belief and expectation.

2020-WTT-Macao-Day01_01

Your mindset, your outlook determines your reality. Subtle, even subconscious, changes in the way you think dictate the way you feel emotionally. The things you pay attention to. They deeply affect the way you perform on the table.

There’s a quote I heard year ago – from where and who I cannot recall, but it says, “We are more hurt by our expectation of others than by their actions.” We often worry about the ways others will react; we overthink; we twist reality. But external validation will NEVER be beneficial. It may manipulate you to accomplish something in the moment, then ultimately rear its ugly head to bite you in the long run.

I absolutely fell victim to allowing my mindset to be governed by what I thought others would perceive of me. The irrational thought that others would be greatly disappointed of me if I lost, festered in my brain. There was not a moment in this particular match where I felt clear and calm, ready to stay in the moment and enact my own game. But as with every match, this is a learning experience, a time of observation and understanding. Recognizing this becomes another moment of growth that I can readily reflect back on.

All in all, these competitions were unbelievably valuable experiences. The 1.5-month timespan of the #RESTART bubble seemingly flew by, while somehow simultaneously feeling like a lifetime of remarkable moments. And not just in table tennis. At the risk of sounding exceedingly cheesy, I truly do feel as if I made lasting friendships with so many of the players and the staff. There was an unspoken bond in us all to get through this difficult time together. To work towards the same goal, to bring back and showcase the beauty of the sport that we all love so much. Thank you to the ITTF and to CTTA for going through (logistical) hell and back to even pull this off, to my sponsor, JOOLA, who fully backed this rollercoaster of a journey, and finally to my friends and family unconditionally cheering for me from afar.

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