Nerves of Steel

I’m no ping pong expert.

I’ve played it a handful of times in my life, enough to have had a basic life experience, but not enough to be of any significant deal. But being challenged to an impromptu match by a good friend? I couldn’t say no.

The trouble with ping pong however, is that it handles almost the polar opposite of what you’d expect. The light, airy nature of the ball means that it is very easy to hit, but as any player quickly learns, exceedingly difficult to control. One must simultaneously hit the ball hard enough to outmanoeuvre your opponent on their side, but soft enough to not overextend your hand and lose a point by missing the table entirely.

Nevertheless I ping-ponged back and forth with my friend, noting his generosity as he toned down his hits, sensing my relative inexperience. After a few games, I picked up the rhythm of the constant back and forth and improved enough to maintain a consistent game.

This rhythm however, was hypnotic, and in this trance-like state I felt the slow creep of boredom. In maintaining the back and forth exchange, I felt a desire for change inside my mind get stronger. I was itching for for something different, I was desperate for something to happen.

So what did I do?

I drastically changed my technique. Instead of maintaining my safe, reliable, trusty hits of the ball and hoping for eventual victory, I tried a risky, rash, over-ambitious move to change the status quo and gain a surprise advantage. Surely, I thought, this would lead me to certain victory.

And yet, on every single one of these occasions, I failed.

Not only did I fail however, but either by a complete miss of my shot or a well-timed counter hit, I cost myself the game. Every single time.

After a few of these instances, I recognised the harm my rash behaviour was causing. And it was at that point my friend gave me some advice. He clearly saw that I was succumbing to my desire to lash out and disrupt the flow due to my impatience.

He mentioned that the whole game was one of maintaining composure and keeping your cool for just a single moment longer than your opponent, then seizing the opportunity from their inevitable frustration to win the game.

His precise advice hit me like a brick. He described exactly what I was doing, my frustration and loss of composure, then his seizing of the opportunity to win the game.

We finished the game cordially and I felt something linger in the air. It was the wisdom of what I had been advised, and I knew that it was worthy of further introspection.

In the days that followed, I pondered over this advice. It burrowed its way into my mind, provoking me to seek its underlying wisdom.

Nerves of Steel

It was simple, true and as I contemplated it in the days since, universally applicable. That advice extended beyond the wooden confines of the ping pong table and into the realm of life, death, war, debate, games, diplomacy… everything I could think of.

Indeed, in any competitive engagement, victory is sure to follow the one who maintains his nerve longer than his opponent.

It is easy to get lax, to let go, to let chaos spread. Disorder and chaos comes naturally when things are left to themselves, much like weeds to a neglected garden. It is only with the iron rod of discipline that order and composure are maintained.

While playing the same game of ping pong with my friend, I took the hypnotic back and forth for granted. I grew tired of the state of equilibrium I was in and sought to tip the scales in my favour. I thought that the constant back and forth was delaying the real game, but little did I know that the back and forth was the game, and by losing my cool, I lost the game too.

Keeping yourself in a state of mental equilibrium is fundamental to victory. Being as invulnerable as possible against any desires to ‘change things up’ or to change the status quo is a requirement towards success. As long as you maintain your composure, your focus, your opponent is sure to eventually falter. When they do, you can seize the opportunity to ensure their defeat.

One must also be aware that his opponent may also try to provoke his sentiments in order to throw him off this balance. Many tactics are focused on precisely this. Triggering a person’s emotions is often an effective tactic in this regard, this is why Sun Tzu says that being disposed to insults is a dangerous trait (among others) for an Army General:

“There are five dangerous faults which may affect a General… a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults…” [1]

We see a similar emphasis on maintaining composure by famed Japanese Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi:

“In both everyday and military events, your mind should not change in the least, but should be broad and straightforward, neither drawn too tight nor allowed to slacken even a little. Keep the mind in the exact center, not allowing it to become sidetracked; let it sway peacefully, not allowing it to stop doing so for even a moment.” [2]

This may apply to almost any competitive venture. A debate, chess, boxing or even a board meeting.

The reverse is also true.

Indeed, if we want to cause the failure of our opponent, we simply encourage the collapse of composure in him.

Musahi says:

“Causing Confusion means acting so that your opponent’s mind becomes uncertain.” [3]

It is clear that to unsettle a mind – or to have one’s unsettled – is the forerunner of failure itself.

A Lesson Learned

And so it was that an uneventful session of ping pong with a friend had become the dawn of realisation of a matter so simple that many take its effectiveness for granted.

As long as you are able to maintain your nerve, the chance that your opponent will slip up or make a mistake due to their own impatience increases exponentially. When that happens, it is your turn to strike and attempt to seize victory.

To borrow a final thought from Miyamoto Musashi:

“Collapse is common to all things. The collapse of a house, the collapse of a body, the collapse of your opponent—all of them, according to the moment, are collapses from a discordance of rhythm.” [4]

It is this rhythm that we must seek to capture in our daily lives and activity. We must strive for it and find pleasure in it, for it is only within its firm embrace do we defend ourselves from erratic behaviour while seeking the collapse of the patience of our opponent.

These simple principle is one that took me a mere moment to hear, but I am sure will take an entire lifetime to truly implement.


[1] – The Art of War by Sun Tzu
[2] – The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
[3] – ibid.
[4] – ibid.

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