From time to time I like to highlight the progress of a member of The Expert Table Tennis Academy. Today’s post is all about Harrie Austin-Jones, a 26-year-old guy from Maidstone, England who has been playing table tennis for almost nine months. Conveniently, Harrie lives just 20 miles from me. So, for the past couple of months, I’ve been able to work with him a bit one-to-one.
Harrie is blogging about his table tennis at epictabletennisjourney.blogspot.co.uk and I’m sure that many table tennis newbies will enjoy following his progress and reading about the highs and lows of learning one of the world’s most challenging sports.
The Epic Table Tennis Journey
In this article, I’ll be using quotes from Harrie’s blog to summarize his journey so far and then adding some of my own thoughts at the end.
During the Rio 2016 Olympics, Harrie decided he wanted to have another go at learning/mastering an Olympic sport. He narrowed his options down to; archery, badminton, canoeing, and table tennis.
Canoeing was out of the window – my back really hurt in the boat. So was badminton – my knee kept me out of action. And archery never replied to my e-mails. So, finally, last but not least, I decided to give table tennis a try.
Harrie joined his local table tennis club in September. Fortunately, the customary baptism of fire didn’t put him off.
I basically sucked. I could hit the ball, but only on the backhand. I played a guy in his 40s who had been playing since he was six, a guy who was about 70 and I think he basically thought I was a moron, and a kid who battered me. The week after consisted of playing a wide variety children, all of whom were better than me.
By October, Harrie had realized that if he wanted to see some big improvements in his game he would need to seriously up his training. He bought himself a table tennis table for the garden.
In my first few weeks of practice one thing became clear. One day a week is nowhere near enough.
To further increase the quantity and quality of his practice, Harrie joined four different local table tennis clubs. Each club was different and had something different to offer him. Some were better for receiving coaching. Others gave him plenty of match practice against different styles of player.
As you know from my previous blog posts, I have been trying to maximise my play time. Therefore, I have now joined two more clubs with the fourth club starting this Friday. This gives me around 10 hours of pure table tennis against competitive opposition each week.
There wasn’t much table tennis for Harrie during November due to a knee operation. From the sounds of it, he spent most of the month lounging around and playing a video game called “The Witcher 3”?
The next few days were spent on the chaise lounge chilling and completing The Witcher 3 – as well as doing (a bit) of work. I plan on returning to table tennis tonight. I don’t know how much I will be able to do but I will have a little go. Recovery, if I am honest, hasn’t been as quick as I might like and I am still feeling more sore than I would expect.
As Harrie slowly returned from his knee injury, table tennis began to occupy more of his day-to-day life. This added a different dimension to his new hobby; the pressure we put on ourselves to perform well.
My knowledge that I need to learn a sport I have zero knowledge of, both quickly and accurately, has led to pressure of a different kind. I have thrown all my eggs into the basket of table tennis and it has gone from being a joke to being part of who I am.
By January, Harrie was back to training regularly at his four local table tennis clubs. He even attended a training camp and got to play seven hours of table tennis in one day.
I was placed in the bottom group. In reality, this is where I wanted and needed to be as I need the basics taught to me. The first four hours of play (it was a seven-hour event) were all forehand work. I got taken to the table and made to “stroke” forehands with topspin. No doubt, did this make me better.
Unfortunately, table tennis isn’t the easiest sport to learn in your 20s. The majority of “good” coaches only want to focus on teaching kids and the average age of players in local clubs and leagues is probably about 60. Harrie, an athletic 26-year-old looking for serious coaching and training, was struggling to find a group of peers to help him improve.
At my age and ability level, it is no surprise that coaching isn’t exactly forthcoming. But coaching is missing in general from most of the clubs I attend and the coaching that does exist is from unqualified coaches. This can create multiple narratives with everybody giving different advice, which is quite confusing.
In March, Harrie played in his first local table tennis tournament. He entered the “novice” event – an event he had the chance to win – so that added some extra pressure and nerves into the mix.
Our event was split into four groups of four. This would create a round robin group stage followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the final. I won my group – I was unbeaten. My quarter-final match was against a lady in her 60s. I barely dropped a point. I played the corners and made her move. It was a great game and I was through to the semi-finals. My next opponent turned up in a green Joola t-shirt. I knew it would be a battle. From the first ball it was obvious that the guy was better than me. I managed to win the second game but he ultimately won the match 3-1.
I started coaching Harrie one-to-one in April – we had our first session on Saturday 15th. Since then we’ve managed to meet up roughly once a week. I try to focus heavily on one or two areas during our practice and then give him a few things to work on throughout the rest of the week as well.
For nigh-on 2.5 hours, me and Ben went through my forehand, my backhand, my looping, and my movement. Fundamentally, movement is my weakness. Ben broke everything down into chunks and rebuilt it. I also got drills to do at home, without the ball (shadow play).
During May, we placed a big focus on regular footwork drills. This was great for Harrie because it forced him to sort out his side-step movement, while at the same time improved the technique and consistency of his forehand and backhand strokes.
My movement is improving, particularly in drills. The drills focus solely on these basics. A lot of it is movement based, helping me make the transition from forehand to backhand or be in the correct position for forehands all over the table.
Harrie is starting to look like an actual table tennis player. His stance is much improved and his basic technique isn’t far off now. He’s even gone and bought himself a proper pair of Stiga table tennis trainers.
What has started happening is, I will hammer someone for a game or two but then lose the overall match. It is a combination of my lack of relaxation (I am working on it still) and my inconsistency. Yet, when it all comes together, I do finally look like a decent table tennis player.
How good can Harrie get?
I’ve probably coached Harrie eight or nine times now – I’m seeing him tonight as well – and his improvement over that time has been very impressive. When he first came down to my club (St John’s TTC) I could tell that he’d played a fair amount of table tennis, and had fairly decent hand-eye coordination, but he had some pretty shaky table tennis foundations.
His footwork, in particular, was very poor. This wasn’t Harrie’s fault – he hadn’t had any proper coaching – but it needed to be addressed immediately. On top of that, his basic forehand and backhand drive technique wasn’t quite right. His forehand had a bit of a “Superman” movement and his arm would finish straight and up in front of him.
A couple of months on and his fundamentals are definitely coming together. It’s important that we continue to focus on his mastery of the fundamentals for a while yet. Learning to play table tennis isn’t easy, but it is simple. I give an outline of the 10 fundamental skills in my How to Play Table Tennis in 10 Days guide. We will keep working on the four basic strokes, footwork (via regular and irregular drills), and the serve and serve return until Harrie is proficient.
It will be interesting to see how Harrie gets on in September, once he starts playing in the local leagues. This will be his opportunity to put everything he’s learned in practice into a match situation. He’ll also have to start thinking tactically about his opponent’s weaknesses and how best to play to exploit them. I’m optimistic that by then, with another four months of training under his belt, he’ll be able to comfortably beat most of the players he comes up against in the bottom divisions.
From chatting to Harrie, it certainly sounds like he is in this for the long haul. He has me spoken about having an 8-year plan for his table tennis and, for now at least, he seems fully committed to the sport. So, how good can Harrie get?
In my opinion, if he continues to practice five times a week and at the same intensity as he is now, I think he could get himself onto the bottom of the England ranking list (the top 600 players) after 2-3 years of training. That would make him a top division player in his local Maidstone table tennis league. The goal would be to achieve that by the end of the 2018/19 season. Harrie would be 28.
I know, from speaking to Harrie, that he is keen to then work his way up the England ranking list. I would guess that given another 2-3 years of training it would be possible for him to reach the top 250 level (which was the goal of The Expert in a Year Challenge with Sam Priestley). That would make Harrie one of the best players in the Maidstone league. The goal would be to achieve that by the end of the 2021/22 season. Harrie would be 31.
I think those are some realistic targets. Certainly not easy, though. Very few adult beginners ever reach that high a level/ranking in table tennis. The main obstacle in Harrie’s path will be his ability to stay dedicated and committed to the sport. If he keeps training hard (and smart) and doesn’t quit, I believe he will be able to achieve those goals. But that is easier said than done. Sometimes life happens and, for whatever reason, table tennis has to stop being a priority.
I’ll try and update this post every six months to let you know how Harrie is getting on. And, if he lets me, I might upload some video footage of him to my YouTube channel, with my analysis added.
And don’t forget, you can follow Harrie’s progress via his blog at epictabletennisjourney.blogspot.co.uk!