So, you would like to become a professional table tennis player, or at least learn how to make some significant improvements to your current standard. We’re all after that massive trophy really, aren’t we?
In this article I will be investigating the most important factors for achieving table tennis expertise and making some recommendations to help you take some action.
This post is taken from the second half of my university dissertation, which I wrote in April 2011. It was entitled ‘The Development of Expertise in Table Tennis’ and was based around questionnaires and interviews I conducted with some top English table tennis players.
I wrote a post a couple of months ago about the first half of my research on Deliberate Practice and Table Tennis Performance. If you haven’t read that yet I recommend you have a look at it first before coming back to this post, as it will give you a bit more of the background.
The interviews that I conducted with table tennis players asked them three questions;
- Which factors do you think were most responsible for preventing you from attaining a higher level of ability?
- Which factors do you think were most responsible for your current level of ability?
- Which factors do you think are generally the most important for developing table tennis expertise?
I will use these questions as a framework for answering the question’ “how do I become a professional table tennis player?” In my dissertation, players answers were split into four categories; genetics, training, psychology and secondary.
Q1: Constraints to development
Genetics: Although many people believe ‘talent’ to be vital to achieving excellence in sport, it was interesting to see that no players mentioned a lack of talent or unfavourable genetics as a factor that held them back from reaching a higher ability.
Training: Players identified a lack of quantity and quality of practice. Many believed they had started ‘serious table tennis practice’ too late to ever be able to achieve true elite performance. Table tennis is well known as an early-specialisation sport. Others said they just hadn’t been able to practice for enough hours per week, often due to school or work having to take priority. In terms of quality, a few players cited the lack of high standard practice partners as a limiting factor in their development. Others said their practice wasn’t specific or focused on improving enough.
Psychology: A handful of players listed psychological factors, such as poor mental toughness or motivation, as reasons for their lack of improvement. Issues such a laziness, a lack of commitment and a poor mental attitude to training were mentioned.
Secondary: The answers relating to secondary factors were very varied. Players highlighted the lack of good coaching or clubs in their area, the lack of investment in the sport, injuries and a lack of finances to pay for private coaching.
From speaking to the players it became apparent that there were many factors players believed had held them back from achieving a high level of performance. Some of these were in the control of the player (such as a lack of motivation to train) and some were in the control of their parents (such as a lack of finances for private coaching and school taking priority, leading to less time for practice).
However many factors seemed to be completely out of control and based on pure luck. Was there a big club in the area? Did they get injured? Did they happen to find their way into the sport at a young age or not? Were there decent practice partners nearby? It seems that luck has a big part to play in becoming a professional table tennis player and this was mentioned by Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, when talking about the circumstances leading to his own professional career in the sport.
Q2: Assisters to development
Genetics: When asked which factors had helped the players achieve their current level, many mentioned a natural ability for the sport. This is funny because none listed it as a limiting factor. Maybe all the players I spoke to were natural gifted and that is why they are ranked seniors in England, but I doubt that is the case. Instead it seems that being naturally gifted is some sort of ‘ego-boost’. It’s mentioned when we think we have it but disregarded if we think we lack it.
Training: This was the most mentioned category. Most players mentioned the importance of their coaches, especially if they had received good coaching at a young age. Many put their current level of ability down to the sheer quantity of practice they had done, several times a week, over many years. The highest ranked players said that playing full-time or every day had lead them to become an elite player. The quality of practice was mentioned too. Good practice partners and getting the most out of every session cropped up quite a few times. Finally players listed their extensive tournament experience. Either playing a large quantity in local leagues and tournaments or playing very high standard tournaments such as the national events or playing abroad, and being surrounded by other top players.
Psychology: Answers were split again, about 50/50, between mental toughness and motivational factors. Having the ability to completely believe in yourself and focus everything on table tennis was mentioned by some of the top players, as vital to their development. Other players put their love of the sport as an important factor that stopped them from dropping out and therefore kept them improving. A hunger to win and a deep personal desire to improve were also frequently mentioned as important. Many top sportspeople have been found to be ‘perfectionists’ in general life and are never happy with being average.
Secondary: Despite being mentioned extensively when looking at factors that held players back from further development, secondary factors didn’t feature as much in answers to this question. The one exception was parental support. Almost every player mentioned the importance of parental support in helping them reach their current level of ability. It took various shapes such as; money, time, transport, the initial introduction to the sport, encouragement, early coaching, management/organisation of practice and tournament schedule and parents being former players themselves.
I guess the biggest finding from this question was the role of the parent in the development of table tennis expertise. Most of the players were happy to agree that they wouldn’t have been able to do it without their parents driving them around to coaching session and tournaments, paying for everything and generally helping to guide them.
But the parents can’t do it all! The ideal situation seems to be a child completely focused on getting better at table tennis and a parent happy to help and support them achieve. This was certainly true of Ariel Hsing and her parents, both of whom played table tennis and supported her enormously!
If the parent is keen but the child is not interested, then they may start but will likely drop out or not have the dedication in training to really get the most out of it. Similarly, if a child is dedicated to living, breathing and sleeping table tennis but their parents are not very supportive they will likely struggle to really improve. They will find it difficult to get to practice sessions and tournaments and will not have anyone to guide their development, unless they get lucky and find a nearby ‘parental’ coach.
Q3: The most important factors (according to the players)
My final question asked players generally what they thought were the most important factors for developing expertise in table tennis. I tried to get them to pick one or two main things. Here are some of the most common answers, in no particular order;
- Good physical attributes: Speed, agility, power, fitness, balance etc. All of which can be trained.
- Early specialisation: Starting practice at a very young age, the younger the better?
- Large quantity of practice: Clocking up the hours, each and every week.
- High-level opposition: Both in practice and tournaments. The idea of being a small fish in a big pond.
- Professional set-up: Organised sessions, good facilities, current equipment.
- Good self-discipline: Working hard, focusing completely on table tennis and sacrificing other areas of life.
- Intrinsic Motivation: A love of the sport and a desire to continually improve and reach new goals.
- Committed Coach: Private coaching, multiball and corner coaching at tournaments.
- Supportive NGB: National governing body. Getting spotted by your country and involved in talent sessions etc.
I think that’s a pretty comprehensive list. The players did a pretty good job at nailing down all the important factors for developing well as a table tennis player. However, they missed one thing. Parents?! Almost all of them acknowledged how important a role their parents had played in their own development but when asked generally what they thought was important, they missed it altogether.
I think that’s a good place to wrap up. What conclusions can I draw from this? Well, I think that the role of the parent is one that is seriously undervalued in elite sport, in generally and in table tennis. It’s clearly very important, the players said that themselves, but then they forgot all about it when they stopped thinking about their own development and started thinking more generally.
We need to find a way to get parents more involved. As a coach, maybe that means just communicating with them more. Many parents may feel that it’s not their place to get involved, especially if they have no background in table tennis but really it’s vital that they do. We need to get the ‘buy-in’ from the parents just as much as we do from the young players.
It’s not all about parents. This post has highlighted all the other factors that are important but I don’t think there were too many surprises there. The parent issue is something that I think particularly stands out and needs to be addressed.
The other, was the luck issue from earlier on. What may seem like luck can also be described as secondary factors or even a constraints-led approach to understanding the development of sporting expertise. This is another factor that I would like to look into further. What ‘situations’ did the elite players just happen to find themselves in and what effect did this have on their future performance. I think the findings would be interesting.
I hope that’s given you something to chew over. There really are a huge combination of factors necessary to come together to create a professional table tennis player. I also don’t really buy into the early-specialisation thing as much as I previously did, but more about that in a later post!
What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion. Have the players missed anything out? Have you had any experience of factors holding you back from your own personal table tennis development? Leave a comment below.
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