By Carl Danner

High-level players often look relaxed and fluid, especially when dominating weaker opponents. You might imagine that the game becomes relatively easy once one reaches a certain level — alleviating some of the hard work and struggle that improvement seems to require.

You would be mistaken to think so. The truth is really the opposite. At higher levels, opponents are more talented, better trained, and tougher. They don’t give away points so easily, their strengths are better, and there are fewer holes in their games to exploit. Their competitive world may appear more relaxed to watch, but it’s often a far more difficult place than is yours.

So how do top players deal with their own stresses? There are several keys. First, hard training helps a lot. If you are fully practiced and fully fit, it becomes easier to deal with many playing situations by falling back on your training. Few tournament players ever train at all, in the true sense of the word, and fewer still work hard systematically both on and off the table.

Second, top players have a coolness under pressure that many people lack. Whether due to their basic personality or experience, they are not paralyzed by pressure or the importance of the moment. This lets them take the shots they should most of the time, without excessive tightness or fear. Of course, there are levels of this ability as well, and the star who copes well with (say) a regional final may still have difficulty with an important Olympic or World Championship match.

Finally, top players relish the fight rather than shy away from it. Most are highly competitive people, whether or not they come across as such in ordinary conversation. They also keep coming back for more despite whatever frustrating thing might have happened last year, last week or in the last point. A kind of excessive optimism (or perhaps amnesia) allows them to press ahead regardless. They know, paradoxically, that a kind of no-regrets attitude will work best in the long run in minimizing regrets due to poor performance.

Any top player or experienced coach will tell you that the keys to success include important mental and emotional dimensions. By improving on this short list for yourself, you may convince some future spectator that high-level play looks easy, too!