Can Anyone Become an Expert at Table Tennis?

10000 hoursOver the last few years there has been a lot written about the roles of talent and practice in the process of skill acquisition and the development expertise.

The majority of this (Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Bounce by Matthew Syed, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle etc.) has made the following suggestion…

“We used to believe that the experts and masters of certain fields possess certain God-given gifts that separate them from the rest of us. However, the current academic literature suggests that these individuals have simply spent longer engaging in deliberate practice and working on perfecting their skills. Therefore, greatness is possible for all of us in whichever field we choose, provided we apply ourselves, receive adequate instruction and feedback and put in the effort to constantly improve our performance.”

I have to admit that I agree with a lot of this, and the authors of this message have made some pretty compelling points to back up this view.

I don’t agree with it completely though.

In this post I will lay out my beliefs on the topic and look to answer the question, “Can anyone become an expert at table tennis?”

If you are a regular reader of Expert Table Tennis you should have noticed a recent change to the subtitle of the site. It now reads…

Become an Expert at Table Tennis… FAST!

I think that recently my blog posts have become a little random in their content, with my writing simply about whatever happens to takes my fancy. I don’t believe this is the best way for me to help you improve your table tennis as we lose the sense of purpose, the goal that we are striving for.

Therefore I have decided to refocus my efforts on the goal of helping you see improvements in your game and this tagline will act as a reminder (to me and hopefully you too).

I believe that anyone can become an expert at table tennis, as long as they want to.

That means YOU but also any of your friends, your siblings, your grandma.

I strongly believe that age, gender, occupation, nationality, location or any other factor is not a barrier. If you want to become an expert at table tennis there is nothing stopping you.

Here are a few points that will guide us through the process…

Expertise is relative

How do we define expertise?

There can only be one player ranked #1 on the ranking list. A tournament may have hundreds of entrants but there can only be one winner.

The first step to becoming an expert at table tennis is to understand that expertise is relative.

In a PE lesson of 30 fourteen year olds, the one boy (Boy A) that has been going along to the local table tennis club once a week for the past 18 months is the “expert”. As far as the other pupils in the class are concerned he is unbeatable and the go-to person if they are looking for some tips to improve themselves.

When this “expert” boy goes to his table tennis club that evening he plays against another fourteen year old (Boy B) who is the best in his club and competes at some national tournaments. To him this boy is the real expert.

At the weekend an U15 national tournament is held and Boy B is knocked out in the second round by the eventual winner (Boy C) who is the best player in the country for his age group. Later in the year Boy C will represent his country international and lose to a fourteen year old Japanese wonderkid (Boy D).

Expertise is relative.

Even Boy D wouldn’t be considered anywhere near an expert when he attends his countries junior or senior training camps.

To become an expert at table tennis you simply need to improve to a level where you stand out among your current group of peers. To stand out from the general public you would probably only need about 20 hours of focused deliberate practice!

It’s all about deciding how much of an expert you would like to become. Setting a target and then planning a way to achieve it.

Expertise can be absolute

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t like all of this relative nonsense.”

Well, me too!

I like to deal in facts and figures, in success and failure. You’ll be pleased to hear that expertise can be absolute after all, providing there is a clear definition.

If you are familiar with Tim Ferriss (if you aren’t check him out) you’ll be aware that he has a specific definition of expertise. Tim Ferriss claims that it’s possible to become world-class (read: become an expert) at a skill in just 6 months. It’s possible because of his definition of expertise…

I define world-class very specifically; the top 5% in a given field. For Japanese, let’s say, it’s having greater conversational fluency than 95 out of 100 people who study Japanese. For the dead lift, a 650-lb pull from the knees at a body weight of 165 lbs puts me above 95 out of 100 male gym members. That said, I’d be laughed off the platform by competitive power lifters. But these power lifters are in the top 0.5%, and we’re aiming for the top 5%.

I like the fact that Tim is clear about his definition of expertise but I’m not sure that the top 5% of active participants really “cuts-it” as true expertise. Here’s my take on it.

I define an expert as… a member of the top 1%, of active participants, in a given field, in your country.

I contacted the ETTA to ask them how many player members there were in England this season. The answer was roughly 25,000. So there are currently 25,000 people in England playing some level of competitive table tennis.

That would mean that the top 250 players are the top 1%, the “experts”.

I believe that this is a pretty good definition of expertise as it includes enough players to make expertise attainable but at the same time maintains a high enough level of performance.

Is the 10,000 hour rule true?

The problem with the 10,000 hour rule is that it is interpreted in so many different ways. I take from it the general idea that if you are able to clock up 10,000 hours of deliberate table tennis practice then that is going to turn you into a pretty darn good table tennis player. 10,000 hours is an awful lots of practice and I struggle to believe that anyone could do that much practice and not reach a very high level of performance.

What I don’t believe is quite correct is the view that anyone can become the next Jan Ove Waldner, if only they were able to go through the exact same training routine as he did. I don’t believe that anyone can become a top 10 player in the world, if only they start early enough and do all the practice etc.

As far as I can tell we are not all created identical and therefore we can’t expect everyone to respond in the same way to training. There must have been something special about Waldner. It wasn’t just nurture.

However, does everyone have the ability to reach the top 1%, of active participants, in table tennis, in their country? Absolutely!

Follow the direct path

This is my final point.

So, we’ve established that often expertise is relative but it can also be absolute. If we define an expert as being part of the top 1% in their country then we have a specific and attainable goal to aim for.

The question now is how long will it take to reach this top 1%?

I started playing table tennis at the age of 9. I reached the top 250 players in England (the top 1%) only a few years ago in 2010, aged 22. It took me 13 years and roughly 2000-3000 hours of practice.

Why did it take so long?

Well, I think the problem is that most of us (me included) aren’t following the direct path, the quickest and most efficient route to our goal. Instead we are winding around from side to side, clocking up loads more hours than we need and not focusing on exactly what we need to be working on.

Deliberate practice is all about working on your weaknesses to make sure you are improving day-by-day and practice-by-practice.

A direct path to the top requires a clear plan of action and a lot of purposeful practice.

What’s next…

From now on my posts will all be revolving around this primary goal of helping you become an expert and reach that top 1% of players in your country.

I believe this is achievable for every single one of your regardless of age or any other factor.

I’m very excited to get started and I hope you are too!

If you’d like to find out more then please join my email list which is the best place to communicate with me and receive exclusive advice not available on the blog. You can subscribe using the form in the sidebar up on the right.