Kanak Jha is having quite a year. He spent nine months playing professional table tennis in Europe and he’s heading to the Rio Olympics in August.
Back in April, when he was still 15, Kanak became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history.
“I’m happy that I’m the youngest, but I don’t think about it so much,” he said.
Kanak is competitive during a match, but easy-going away from the table.
“He has a good fighting spirit,” said US Olympic coach Massimo Costantini. “Sometimes at that age, [players] get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match.
“You need a strong mental balance,” Costantini added. “It’s not just managing success, but failure.”
Olympic-level table tennis is certainly not your basement ping pong. Its quick best-of-seven singles matches played to 11 points are intense and high pressure.
The US has never won a medal in the sport, and Kanak knows he has his work cut out for him against Team China, led by gold-medallist Zhang Jike, who will defend his title in Rio.
“[The Chinese players are] very strong, especially in the first three shots of the rally – serve, receive and third-ball attack,” Kanak said. “They really dominate the rally.”
Kanak, who started playing ping pong at age five, spent the last year living in Sweden with his 19-year-old sister Prachi, who played on the national team but didn’t qualify for Rio. He kept up with his school work – although he did it through online courses, rather than physically going to class.
Kanak said he uses positive imagery and self-talk before and during matches.
“It’s kind of a ritual,” he said. “I just keep reviewing strategy and say some motivational things to myself. I talk – silently – to myself a lot. More than other athletes.”
The personal pep talks and affirmations seem to be working. His coaches think that Kanak’s trip to Rio will help prepare him for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Kanak is ready to bring his best to the Games, but he’s also excited just to experience being there. He’s looking forward to the athletes’ village and mingling with players from all over the world.