The Way of the Nervous Official: A Table Tennis Story

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we just wanted to let you know that some of tonight’s finals will be umpired by Mr Peter Goatly, who is being assessed as part of his Level 1 umpiring certification. We would like to wish Mr Goatly luck.’

We’re at the Maidenhead Closed Table Tennis Championship (ok, i mean tournament!) on a Sunday night in February and it’s the final stages, encompassing – in this order- the Girls and Boys Singles Finals, the Mixed, Women’s and Men’s Doubles and the Women’s and Men’s Singles finals. The event is being staged at that hotbed of total Table Tennis, Altwood School, and the atmosphere is electric (as are the lights, despite the suspect wiring!). Mr Goatly is a locally-known league player and one of those curious oddballs that seem to inhabit the world of Table Tennis. He tends to say strange things, but as far as anyone knows is not prone to handling pressure particularly badly. He is observed to have not eaten or drunk anything for a few hours before the match and he fidgets slightly as he sits in the chair waiting for the first event. So, the Girls Singles Final starts, contested by Anna Graham and Emma Thomas. As well as having by far the most generically-named competitors, this final is also one of the most spectator-friendly, both players having fast attacking styles and with no need to employ the between-points delaying tactics of other players. The warm-up goes well for Mr Goatly and after the correct amount of time he calls them to start the match. The coin is tossed and called and away we go. Now, one of the rules of Table Tennis is that the ball must rise 6 inches during a player’s service. Miss Graham has a slightly suspect action in this regard, though not as obvious as some non-competitive ‘ping-pong’ players who serve almost directly off the hand. She raises the ball but it is often debatable whether the throw reaches the requisite height. Most umpires in the pre-finals don’t pick up on this or take any action, but the esteemed and impressively-bearded umpire Robin Lockwood, who is assessing Mr Goatly, is something of a stickler for rules and has been known to call fouls on services in the past. Anyway, Miss Thomas is serving first so the first 5 points shouldn’t cause any problems, time enough for Mr Goatly to get in the swing of things.

The first point is an exciting one and a taste of things to come. Miss Thomas wins it. 1-0. Second point to Miss Graham. 1-1. Miss Thomas’s ball-toss is higher than most and clearly adheres to the six-inch rule but Mr Goatly, perhaps with this general issue on his mind, inexplicably calls ‘foul’ on her third serve. There’s a moment of puzzlement and a feeling of slight unease at this inappropriate call which reverberates around the room, rather like that which would happen if someone had suddenly let out a loud burp. The assessor Mr Lockwood, despite his officious tendencies, decides to give the assessed the benefit of the doubt and the call is not reversed. 1-2. On the 4th point, Miss Thomas tosses the ball higher than normal, no foul is called and a collective sigh of relief is heaved. Miss Thomas wins this point and the next with impressive forehand drives to the backhand of Miss Graham, clearly her weak spot. The service changes to Miss Graham but unfortunately Mr Goatly calls the score as 4-1 instead of changing the order of the scoring to server first, which would make it 1-4. Mr Lockwood graciously declines to make a correctional call himself but whispers to the by-now-clearly-flustered Mr Goatly the correct score. The umpire calls ‘err sorry, 1-4′. Was the apology appropriate? I know for a fact that train announcers, when doing their training, are instructed never to say sorry when they announce stations incorrectly as it seems to show vulnerability and lack of confidence, qualities which shouldn’t be displayed by a person in authority to those he is serving. The next point goes to Miss Thomas. 2-4. Oh dear!, it should be 1-5, and this time Mr Lockwood does intervene. The next 2 points go to Miss Graham and are scored correctly. 3-5. Miss Thomas wins the next point against the serve with a quite stunning backhand winner which draws applause from the 60 or so spectators, who sit rather like an audience in a small theatre, occasionally reacting to moments of interest but mainly sitting attentively. This theatre metaphor is quite appropriate as the match, or more specifically the scoring, begins to take on the qualities of a tragicomedy. After the applause for Miss Thomas’s fine winning stroke dies down, Mr Goatly calls it 4-5. Mr Lockwood corrects it to 3-6, professionally refraining from any show of exasperation in his voice. If this were a comedic play, it would be written in such a way that Mr Lockwood’s voice would gradually show a build-up of annoyance with each bad call, the scene probably ending with an uncharacteristic explosion of emotion and perhaps even a punch directed at the nose of Mr Goatly. But in reality, Mr Lockwood’s experience and professionalism prevents anything of this nature. It is easy to tell from his poker-faced demeanour and his impressive beard with its Father Christmas fuzz that he won’t be letting emotion take over. It should also be noted that the Maidenhead Table Tennis fraternity, in common with many other small-town sporting communities, takes itself rather seriously. In the eyes of many stalwarts of the local leagues, the finals of this tournament are a big deal, the showpiece of the season. The match goes on and unfortunately so do the bad calls. At 8-6, Miss Thomas produces a clever serve short to her opponent’s forehand and punishes the high return with another sweetly delivered winner, this time on the forehand. The point is called for Miss Graham! Lest these bad calls be considered some kind of conspiracy against Miss Thomas rather than a result of the pressure of the big occasion, Mr Goatly later makes 2 outrageous judgements against Miss Graham, almost as if to balance things out. Without going through the painful details, suffice it to say that the umpire continues to flounder but not enough to make his removal from the umpire’s chair a serious consideration. He tends to call the shorter points correctly but becomes nervous if the points go to more than about 10 strokes, and seems to forget where he was before the point started. There is a flipchart being used so that the spectators can follow the score visually, but Mr Goatly’s attention is squarely focused straight ahead at the match so he doesn’t think to utilise it.

The spectators by this point do not know whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, they feel genuine embarrassment for both the umpire and players and the need to restrain themselves from overly emoting, while they are also gripped by the rather heartless human tendency to laugh at others’ misfortune, probably fuelled by too many British sitcoms and the national tradition of the celebration of failure. Gradually some sniggering and giggling intrudes into proceedings, and the atmosphere becomes rather like that of a school classroom where all the pupils have suddenly realised that the teacher has his flies open. At this point, i am reminded of an incident that happened when i worked in a nondescript office in Reading some years ago. One of the newly-appointed executives of the company, Mr Roberto Pozzi, came to the office to do a slideshow presentation and ‘meet his people’. He was young and very personable with soft features and a pleasant, non-intimidating smile. He was genuinely liked by all but also respected and slightly feared due to his position of power. His English was excellent, but in common with non-native speakers who have never lived in an English-speaking country, he made occasional common mistakes and was not in full awareness of the subtle nuances of the language. His presentation was the usual mixture of business cliche and relevant information, but the big finale came when he told us that the final slide outlined his entire philosophy, that of openness and transparency. He pushed a button and on the screen came the words, TO SUCCEED AS A COMPANY AND A TEAM, WE MUST EXPOSE OURSELVES!! A quiet but palpable gasp came upon those in the room as their minds involuntarily conjured images of long raincoats, boiled sweets and inappropriate behaviour. This was followed by a peal of childish laughter, not callous but obvious. Mr Pozzi looked rather bewildered but perhaps told himself that the underlings were laughing at what a wonderfully fresh approach he had.

The Girls Singles Final comes to a conclusion with some of the most free-flowing rallies of the match, with Emma Thomas triumphing in 2 close sets, 21-17, 21-16. For the last part of the match, Mr Lockwood is observed slipping a piece of paper and a pencil to Mr Goatly, presumably for the umpire to write the scores down as he calls them. He looks relieved but forlorn at the end of the match, his hands wet with sweat as he shakes those of the competitors. However, a lesson has been learned and the spectators smile with amusement and their own sense of relief that no real damage has been done. It is not clear how many matches Mr Goatly is required to officiate as part of his assessment, but for the next match he is mercifully relegated to the flip-board, and Mr Lockwood takes the chair for the Boys Singles Final.

Now, let’s look at the phenomenon of nerves. I remember hearing about a drummer from a Welsh rock band who was talking about his experience playing at a Summer music festival. His band had previously played to a maximum audience of around 500 but were now given the opportunity to play to over 20,000. They weren’t headliners so no huge focus of attention was on them, and they would enjoy all the benefits of the collective energy of thousands of music fans. The band were all geared up, sounding better than ever and totally ready to take this wonderful opportunity. The soundcheck went fine and backstage they were all geared up when suddenly, in the drummer’s own words, ‘we started to approach the stage and i heard the roar of the audience, and the enormity of the occasion suddenly hit me. I hit adrenaline overload and suddenly felt tired, very tired. My arms, so vital for a drummer, lost strength and at that moment i remember thinking that i just wanted this to be over and i wanted to be at home resting in a comfortable chair watching the festival on the telly. The flood of chemicals to my head made my mind fuzzy and i couldn’t remember the parts for the first song or any of the others. Thank god our singer and frontman was a calm sort of guy and we changed the order of the songs so we could do the slowest and easiest first until my nerves settled. Luckily, i recovered my composure and the gig went off ok. I’ve never really suffered from nerves since but that’s still a sharp memory and i suppose a nice reminder in case i ever get too complacent and over-confident.’ Anyone having to make speeches, teach classes or give presentations will recognise this feeling, and tennis fans will probably remember Jana Novotna’s famous ‘choke’ in the 1993 Wimbledon Final, when she surrendered a 4-1 lead in the final set to lose 4-6. Although she didn’t fall apart completely and was still hitting some nice strokes, when it came down to the big shots she started hitting the ball directly into the net or sometimes hitting wild shots way past the baseline and sidelines. In 1985, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor played the most famous World Snooker final ever. The 35th and final frame of their match was undoubtedly great television and high drama, but the snooker itself was comically bad, the frame taking over an hour to complete. Both players later admitted that ‘my mind had gone’, and only instinct and sense memory was telling their bodies what they had to do. As Steve Davis got out of his chair to try to pot what would normally be a routine black ball to win the championship, ‘i realised that my legs didn’t seem like my legs, and my arms the same, and it wasn’t even my cue, i was playing with a different cue and a different body and i cracked up and missed the pot and then sat stunned in my chair as Dennis potted an even easier black (after taking a remarkable amount of time to set himself up) to win.’

Back to The Maidenhead Closed. It’s the Boys Singles Final and Peter Goatly has a fairly simple task operating a flip score board while Robin Lockwood does the umpiring. All goes well until the score reaches 13-11 in the first set. The next 5 or 6 points go by but some of the spectators start to notice that the flip board hasn’t changed and still reads 13-11. This continues until someone makes a gesture to Mr Goatly, who appears to be in some kind of trance, perhaps dwelling on his previous troubles. The sniggers of some of the spectators start again but thankfully Mr Goatly manages to refocus himself on the fairly simple task in hand and after that match is over his work for the evening is done.

Why exactly did Mr Goatly’s misfortune happen? Why do the pressure situations cause our head to flood with chemicals and our pores to open up, allowing sweat to engulf our body and our formerly lucid thoughts to fall into confusion? Basically, it comes down to the fight-or-flight mechanism honed in the hunter-gatherer days of perpetual danger from wild animals and other potential threats. When we get nervous or scared, our central nervous system goes into high response. Our heart starts beating faster as well as our breathing and the sweat glands secrete more fluids in order to cool our body. This of course affects performance, but another thing which happens is that the performer of whatever task it is, if he is normally skilled at it, actually has to switch to a different brain system, and often the greater the expertise the bigger the switch, hence the greater the potential for disaster. If you have practised a skill for hundreds of hours, it becomes effortless and becomes encoded in your implicit memory, causing what is called ‘expert amnesia’. In pressure situations, the performer often seems to forget what normally comes naturally so he/she suddenly has to switch to their explicit memory and relearn the highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious, using neural pathways last used as a novice. In the most basic terms, we have to suddenly start learning again what we haven’t had to for years, including how to construct sentences when we speak! It is quite rare however that these implicit skills are totally forgotten, so most top sportspeople, for example, will still know how to do the basics. However, at the top level where margins are so small, it only takes a small performance drop to completely lose a gained advantage.

And what about solutions to overcoming this. Well, breathing exercises and focus are definitely helpful, and a theatrical person might well quote a famous joke about the famous New York concert venue, Carnegie Hall:

Q- How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A- Practice practice practice, my dear!

It really is the best way unless you’re blessed with a rare natural calm in these situations

You may be wondering what became of Peter Goatly after this evening? Did he give it all up and run away to the circus? Throw himself off Beachy Head? In fact, the truth was nothing as exciting as that. He took some time off to regroup and then successfully completed his umpiring certification, always remembering that February night in Maidenhead.