Deliberate Practice and Table Tennis Performance

This is my first post for ExpertTableTennis.com so I thought I would make it a good one. I graduated university last summer (July 2011) and my dissertation was on deliberate practice and table tennis. I thought I would use that as my first post and publish my results online.

I’m not going to copy and paste the whole thing (because it was over 10,000 words long) but I’ll give you the important bits. I hope you enjoy reading it.

I guess I should start with the participants. I interviewed 36 senior male English table tennis players. Their mean age was 21.2 years and they ranged from 18 to 26 years of age. They were all currently active on the English circuit and had a ranking.

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The table above shows the 36 players split into three ability groups, based on their English ranking (players in the top 50, players from 51-200 and players from 201-400). You can see from the data that in the first few columns that there was little difference in the age players starting practicing, their current age or the number of years they had been involved in table tennis training.

However, there were clear differences in ranking. Players were asked for the highest ranking as an under 15 and under 18 player. The current top 50 players had a mean U15 and U18 ranking of about 6 or 7 in the country. This was much better than their top 200 or top 400 counterparts. You can also see the mean current rankings for the three groups of 18.4, 108.6 and 286.5.

So, if all players began playing table tennis as ten or eleven year olds and are all in their early twenties now, then why is there such a big disparity in their current and past rankings? Well the following graph gives us an idea…

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Players were asking to retrospectively recall how many hours of deliberate practice they had completed for every year since they started playing. These were then added together to give an estimated total hours of practice for each player. I then plotted this data against the players current English rating points.

It’s not a thin straight line but you can see a general trend. The players that have practiced more, generally have more rating points. This method of collecting data is not perfect and we can’t be sure how accurate these total hours of practice are but it gives us a rough picture. It seems that the quantity of deliberate practice, the total number of hours you do, does have some effect on how good you are at the sport.

But I think that the next graph is more interesting…

dissertation3

I took the same data from the previous graph but looking just at practice hours completed during the past three years. There was little to no correlation. It seems that recent deliberate practice doesn’t have much of an effect on table tennis performance, or ranking at least. Some of the highest ranked players had done very little deliberate practice in the past three years and some of the lower ranked players had done much more.

I concluded from this graph that deliberate practice in table tennis seems to stick with you somehow. Sort of like riding a bike. Once completed it is banked somewhere and stored up, so that even if you seriously cut down your practice, you can still compete at a high level. There doesn’t seem to be much drop off. Players may even be able to maintain their high level with only one ¬†practice session a week.

table tennis deliberate practice

When split into their ability groups there was a clear difference in the hours of deliberate practice. The graph above shows the mean accumulated hours of practice for the three groups. The current top 50 players had completed a much larger quantity of deliberate practice than the other groups. The top 200 players are done noticeably more than the top 400 players as well. This graph make a clear case for the importance of deliberate practice in table tennis.

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This line graph is really interesting. The first thing you’ll notice is that the current top 50 players did way more deliberate practice as junior players than the other two groups. At 13, the top 50 players were already practicing table tennis for an average of 6 hours a week. The top 200 and top 400 players didn’t reach the level of practice until they were 16-18 years old.

Something else which is interesting is the similarity between the top 200 and top 400 players. We know that there was a big difference in the two groups mean ranking as under 15’s from the first table I showed you. So what is it that made the current top 200 players have a higher ranking than their top 400 counterparts if they pretty much did the same quantity of deliberate practice as juniors?

Well I’m not really sure. The data says that the current top 200 players took the sport more seriously as seniors, whereas some of the top 400 players seriously cut down their deliberate practice when they left school. But that doesn’t explain the differences at a junior level. Was it quality of practice? Maybe it was competitive experience? We can’t be sure.

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The final table I would like to show you displays the average ages players first entered certain types of tournaments. I am not really that interested in Junior British League, Senior British League or Grand Prix’s because I think that these results could merely be showing that better players were chosen to play in these type of events earlier. They were simply more ready to play due to their ability. What I am looking for is if entering these tournaments could have had an effect on development.

I am particularly interested in things like playing in a local league. Top 50 and top 200 players seem to have been entered into a competitive and adult, local league much earlier than current top 400 players. Could this have helped their development?

Another interesting event is junior 4-star competitions. Current top 50 players were entered into these from the age of 11. As all players started playing at about 10 years of age I think that they were probably all of a relatively similar standard at 11 years and therefore being entered into such high profile competitions at such a young age could have had a big effect on development.

The players who started early at these big tournaments would have been spotted and invited to extra training with better coaching. This could all lead to improvement in development and performance. Top 400 players waited until they were out of the under 15’s age group to enter four stars, by which time they were probably too old to be ‘talent IDed’ by a coach or scout.

The same is true for the English National Championships. The top 50 ranked players now, were entered into this big-time tournament and encouraged to meet and compete against the best in the country from a very young age. The top 200 and top 400 players entered this tournament much later.

My conclusions from my research are as follows…

  • Practice as much a possible, clock up those hours of deliberate practice!
  • Enter national tournaments from a young age, meet and compete against the best players your age.

It’s not groundbreaking research and it’s kind of common sense but it might be a lot more important than we realised. It’s worth saying that this is a very summarised and ‘dumbed-down’ version of my research. If you would like to talk to me about this further, leave a comment. Or you can drop me a message. I look forward to hearing from you.

And lastly a big thank you to the 36 players that let me ask them an awful lot of questions last year to make this research possible.