Be an Athlete in Everyday Life
Olympian & Paralympian Melissa Tapper shares her experience as an elite table tennis player and how she uses the traits she’s developed as an elite athlete in everyday life.
For the best part of the past 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of being a professional elite athlete in table tennis playing in both able-bodied and para-sport. Table tennis is a sport that I believe is equal parts one of the hardest in the world, yet also, the most fun. I would assume that more than 90% of readers would have played it at some stage in their life, whether it be at home in the garage, at school, a friends’ or at a local club. It’s soothing rhythm of hitting your bat and bouncing on the table can put you in a trance. The fun of putting a bit of muscle behind the ball and giving it a good smash is exhilarating while confusing your opponent with the different spins that can be produced on the ball. The best way to explain table tennis is that it requires the speed of a 100m sprinter, the poise of a golfer and the mentality of a chess player. Now with all that, how can you not love the sport?
The best way to explain table tennis is that it requires the speed of a 100m sprinter, the poise of a golfer and the mentality of a chess player.
Like anything in life that we apply ourselves to and set big goals around, it is in this space where we learn and grow. Through the highs and lows of my sporting career to date, I’ve been taught a magnitude of lessons along the way which have helped me foster success on and off the sporting field.
Throughout my years as an athlete, I’ve seen different personality traits develop, influenced by my experiences in sport, as well as growing up with a physical disability. It is these traits that have supported me in achieving 3 Paralympic Games, 2 Olympic Games and 2 Commonwealth Games. What I have come to learn is that the way in which I apply myself in sport, can also be seen in the way that I apply in my everyday life.
I am very driven and stubborn (the drive comes from my parents, stubbornness comes from being the youngest of 3). There is a deep desire in me that makes me want to be better than the day before and do it at my best. All of us have a fire in our hearts for that something we’re passionate about, it’s our mission to find it, to keep it, and to love all of it.
This ‘high performance’ nature of elite sport is an area I love. That push to be better than the day before is what drives me and entails a lot of different pillars. I’ve chosen 3 that I believe are the most important to get started.
All of us have a fire in our hearts for that something we’re passionate about, it’s our mission to find it, to keep it, and to love all of it.
Persistence builds Resilience
Having the ability to be able to continue pursuing a particular task despite its difficulty time and time again. You have set your goals, so now the awareness of what areas you need to continually focus on is a vital piece to the solution.
As a child in primary school more than 7 years old, my friends were capable of doing their hair and shoe laces themselves. I really wanted to learn to tie my shoe laces, I was getting tired and embarrassed of asking friends or teachers to do them for me, so one day I went home after school and sat on my brothers bedroom floor with a pair of his rollerblades that had the really long laces, not the cool buckle ones. From here, I sat, for 5-6 hours being unsuccessful, just about tying myself in knots, frustrated when it seemed I had succeeded but then would fall apart. Until I found a way that I could tie them. I may do it differently, it may take me longer, but as long as I can achieve the same outcome, that’s all that matters to me. This was the moment when I realised to keep up with everyone I needed to put in the work, to do it well, and try to do it better.
When it came to table tennis, I identified what area of my game needed improvement, and that was in serving. Every day for a period of years I would turn up 30 minutes before the squad and focus on my serve, trying to find a way that I could minimise the variation of my ball toss from my right hand. This was the largest obstacle I faced, but with the creation of a hand brace and a lot of hours and repetition, I believe I now have one of the best female serves in Australia.
Build routines and habits with the ability to be flexible/adaptable
When starting anything in life, it’s so important to have a routine in place to help build on your consistency. You then begin to start forming healthy habits that help move you towards your goal. Sometimes the routine you may have isn’t necessarily fun or exciting however it’s generally an integral part of your cog in achieving success.
Getting a good sleep, and waking up and having a good breakfast (just about always overnight oats, YUM) are two important elements for me in my daily routine. Then the less enjoyable of an evening, whilst watching some tv before bed to unwind, I will begin the 45min process of stretching, foam rolling and spikes ball to look after my body, help it recover from the heavy workload it’s had and prepare it for the day tomorrow. It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s painful, nobody sees me doing it, but it’s one of the most vital pieces to the puzzle, without a healthy body, I cannot perform.
Identify what doesn’t help you and either eliminate it or adjust. Bad habits are like a good bed. Easy to get into, hard to get out of.
Solution mindset and having fun with it
Having the attitude that works towards finding a solution rather than getting stuck when a challenge arises. It requires less energy and is way more fun to problem solve than it is to be hard and negative on yourself.
We are human, we can all fall into the trap of getting ourselves down, but again, having the awareness of what is going on, how your emotions are being played with and then turning the situation to your favour. As a table tennis athlete its the pillar of my profession, every point, every match I must find a way to outplay my opponent. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
In 2018 at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, after 9 days straight of competition in both the able bodied and para program, I made the final of the para singles. I won’t lie, here I was, a 28 year old, full of fear and nerves, playing in front of 2 thousand people against a girl I had never played before. Being the number one seed I felt the pressure of being ‘expected’ to win and was still on the hunt for a para medal. The fear and doubt that overcame me in that moment where I needed to perform was crippling. I lost the first set 6-11. This is where things can go 1 of 2 ways. Freak out, tell myself it’s over, it’s too hard, everyones watching and going to see you lose. Or, flip my mind set and think through what I can change. Here is where the professional in me stepped in. This was an opportunity to change the narrative, to be brave and pull on that desire to improve. What things are in my control that help me play well, and when I stepped back onto the court I remembered ‘ enjoy the challenge’! The match was over 15 minutes after that, that was the golden moment. I remember as I walked away from the court, letting all the tears out. They flowed like a river - pure happiness and pride in myself and my ability to hold strong and believe in myself to stick to my process and find a solution, even when I was nervous as hell, and fearful like crazy, I did not fold. And for that I am proud.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
Be vulnerable. It’s where we grow the most. On the sporting field, in the office or wherever you may be in your life. Every time you put yourself out there, you show a strength in yourself. Work hard on a daily basis with good routines and habits, find joy in the challenge and celebrate your achievements.
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