The Expert in a Year Challenge took place during 2014 and followed the progress of novice table tennis player, Sam Priestley, as he attempted to go from beginner to expert in just one year and break into the top 250 table tennis players in England.
His progress was incredible! Despite not reaching the initial target they had set, Sam started with nothing and, in just one year, turned himself into a competitive player.
Shortly after the completion of the challenge, a video highlighting Sam’s transformation went viral on YouTube and has now amassed over 4 million views!
Guy Plays Table Tennis Every Day for a Year sparked a huge amount of interest in the ‘Expert in a Year’ idea and inspired many others to try their hand at mastering a skill in a year. There’s even an active Expert in a Year subreddit on Reddit now where people from all over the world are sharing their own challenges.
To watch all of the Expert in a Year videos on YouTube, click here.
Expert in a Year: The Ultimate Table Tennis Challenge, released in August 2015, is the complete story of the experiment, written in Sam’s words. If you are a beginner/improver that is serious about developing your table tennis, this is a must read.
Here is the blurb…
Sam Priestley was never Mr Sporty. After failed attempts at rowing and running he had all but given up on the possibility of becoming a sportsman. That was until childhood friend, and table tennis coach, Ben Larcombe convinced him to act as the guinea pig in an experiment he had concocted – The Expert in a Year Challenge.
Starting 1st January 2014 novice Sam was immersed in the world of competitive table tennis. He began training every day and over the course of the year notched up hundreds of hours of practice in an attempt to reach a seemingly impossible goal. There was blood, sweat, tears, injuries, frustrations and moments of elation as the pair travelled up and down the UK, and beyond, in their quest for training, mentors and competition. Sam found potential he never thought he had, got better at table tennis than most people thought possible, and discovered what it feels like when 1.5 million people watch you fail. Here is their story, including all the ridiculous training methods and unreachable goals, and the surprising lessons they learnt from playing table tennis every day for a year.
If you would like to buy a copy of Expert in a Year: The Ultimate Table Tennis Challenge (by Sam Priestley & Ben Larcombe) you can do so on Amazon…
In the UK, you can buy it for £3.99 (Kindle) and £10.00 (Paperback).
In the US, you can buy it for $5.99 (Kindle) and $14.99 (Paperback).
The Expert in a Year Challenge
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Ben Larcombe and this is my website (ExpertTableTennis.com). I’m the guy who originally came up with the ‘Expert in a Year’ idea, and I was the one acting as Sam’s coach for the entire process.
My interest in the study of skill acquisition, rapid learning, talent and deliberate practice was sparked during my final year at university (2010-2011). I wrote my dissertation on the role of deliberate practice in table tennis expertise and read a number of really thought-provoking books such as Bounce by Matthew Syed, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss, The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman, and not forgetting the excellent Breaking 2000 by “zero-to-hero” table tennis player Alex Polyakov.
In short, I was inspired by these books to try out the theory in the real world. To listen to my original idea for the challenge please watch the video below…
So, the basic concept for my challenge was simple; with sufficient practice and coaching can a novice player become an expert at table tennis in just one year?
Fortunately, my good friend Sam Priestley quickly agreed to act as the guinea-pig in my experiment. As luck would have it, Sam and his housemates had bought a table tennis table for their flat in late 2013 and were competing fiercely against each other on a daily basis.
We set a start date for the challenge of January 1st 2014 and decided to film a few ‘before’ videos.
You can see that he had played a fair amount of recreational table tennis before I started coaching him. He could keep the ball on the table and he knew most of the rules of the game. Apart from that, he was a clean slate ready to learn all the correct techniques and skills.
We started Sam’s daily table tennis training on the first day of the year and began working through the four basic strokes and the other fundamentals of the game. We spent the whole month working on the basics.
Sam’s technique improved massively but by the end of the month he was still losing comfortably to his flatmates.
In February, we began to work on a few more advanced strokes; such as the topspin, loop, and open up. We were still taking things very slowly and trying to develop a solid technical foundation.
Training started getting much more serious in March. Sam bought all of the gear and was training hard both physically and technically. We spent much of the month working on his topspin/loop strokes and turning him into an attacking player.
Sam received an hour of private coaching from Sherwin Remata, working mainly on footwork and his loop technique.
April was the final month of our first phase of training; How to Play. We were trying to make sure that Sam’s technique was adequate for all of the different strokes. We also introduced more matchplay into our sessions. Sam was doing his own physical training and service practice pretty much every day.
We managed to get back up to Swerve TTC for a couple of days and also attended Eli Baraty’s Easter training camp.
In May, we began the second phase of our training; How to Win. The focus shifted more towards how to win points and we were thinking much more about tactics and less about technique. Sam was doing much better in matches against his housemates.
Sam went to Malta for a few days for work but was able to train at the HiTT Academy, receiving private coaching from head coach Mario Genovese.
June saw us doing a lot of training in the kitchen as we approached the halfway point of the challenge. We also began going regularly to ISH TTC on Sunday nights to give Sam some match practice. As the challenge progressed, this match practice against local players would become more and more important.
We filmed an ‘Ask Me Anything’ video towards the end of the month and allowed readers to send in questions for the two of us to answer.
July saw us take our first trip abroad as we headed to Denmark for the famous B75 Summer Camp. It was a brilliant camp and we both trained hard for nine days and learned loads from all of the expert coaches.
The focus of our training really began to shift to primarily serve and receive, to give Sam the best chance of winning matches in a few months time. We were both pretty happy with his general technique by this point so decided not to spend too much time trying to improve it further.
August was a strange month because I was away for much of it on various holidays. Sam was still training hard though. He had a bit of a break after Denmark and then had quite a few one-to-one sessions with other coaches in London, before attending another training camp (this time in Eger, Hungary).
We reached the end of our second phase of training and began approaching the final four months. The focus switched almost entirely to matchplay. It was vital that Sam was getting plenty of experience against a range of local players with different techniques and styles.
Sam took a week off from training at the start of September for a family holiday. I think it was really needed and helped him to regain his drive and motivation when he returned.
We spent the rest of the month doing loads of training, particularly focusing on match situations, and going to local clubs in the evenings for some extra match practice. We went along to watch the Medway Grand Prix to give Sam an idea of what he’d be up against once he started competing.
October saw us continue going to lots of local clubs (ISH, Highbury, and Finsbury TTC) to give Sam more experience against different types of players. It was kind of like the calm before the storm because we knew that November meant the start of tournaments, which would mean a very busy time and lots of weekends away.
In our one-to-one sessions we were working lots on “plays” such as; short serve, pushing, and forehand open up. We also spent a lot of time working on Sam’s return of serve, both learning how to read the spin and also practising attacking long serves.
Sam’s first official Table Tennis England ranking tournament was the Bristol Grand Prix on Saturday 15th November. The week before he managed to go along to a local tournament organised by Rory Scott in Horsham to get a feel for competing. Then on Saturday 22nd November we went to Cippenham for their 1-Star tournament.
It was a tough start for Sam at all three. He came up against a lot of experienced local league players, and a handful of senior county-level players and top juniors. It was always going to be difficult for him to put everything he had learnt from practice into his matches when facing such tricky opponents. However, it was encouraging for him to win a match in his Band 6 group at Bristol and also to win a match in the first round of the consolation event at Cippenham.
December was another busy month for competitions with Sam playing in the Nottingham Grand Prix, a local Central London league tournament organised by Highbury TTC, the Cardiff Grand Prix, and then just after Christmas, a BATTS Super Series.
The highlight of the month was definitely Sam reaching the semi-final of his event in the Central London tournament. He played quite well on the day and was feeling rather uncomfortable being one of the favourites to win (not a position he often found himself in). It was tough going in the other tournaments with Sam coming up against a number of very strong players and doing well simply to pick up points against them.
We played for a week and a half into 2015 because it coincided nicely with a couple of tournaments. Sam played in the Sussex Grand Prix and put out some great performances against a number of very good players, including Team GB Paralympian David Wetherill! He was very happy to get a 3-1 win over Steve Hirst (who had been on the B75 Summer Camp with us in July).
The Expert in a Year challenge officially ended on Sunday 11th January (a year and 11 days after it began) once we had finished playing in the Cippenham Teams 2-Star competition. It was a great way to finish as we (Ben & Sam) were able to play together as a team and had a lot of fun. We came 16th out of 24 teams and, despite not winning any matches, Sam put out some really great performances against Ed Slot, Steve Smith and Neil Wright.
Once the dust had settled, I wrote a fairly comprehensive blog post (4,000 words) reviewing the challenge, talking about how I came up with the idea, the theory behind it, some inspiration from other challenges and authors, and why I think Sam was unable to achieve a top 250 ranking.
Sam also wrote an article, on his own blog, about his experience of the challenge.
Then we filmed a Q&A session and asked for questions about the challenge. We answered ten of the most popular questions.
Finally, I released a video to end the Expert in a Year challenge. It was filmed on the final day of the project and shows Sam’s level after a year of table tennis. It also displays the number of hours he spent practicing and a few other stats about what we got up to over the year and people we would like to thank.
It was a brilliant year. An awful lot of hard work (for both of us) but lots of fun too. Most of all, it was a learning experience. It taught us so much about not only table tennis but also learning and mastery in general. The main lesson we took away was that…
Mastery is tough, but mastery is possible.
The only thing left to say now is, thank you for following the Expert in a Year challenge. It was great to have so many people leaving comments, sending us emails and messages, and saying “hello” at tournaments. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did!