It’s been over a month since I last wrote a blog post! That’s pretty shocking. The Christmas and New Year period is always a busy one but this time it has been even more hectic due to it coinciding with the climax of the Expert in a Year challenge. I have been at a table tennis tournament, either coaching Sam or playing myself, on every single weekend since Saturday 6th December (which was the Nottingham GP for those that are interested).
Only now do I feel like the dust has settled enough to begin writing about the challenge in detail and further exploring the intricacies of expertise and what makes a great table tennis player. And that is what I am going to be writing about today. This blog post will cover some of my thought regarding the concept of the challenge as a whole, and touch on ideas such as the 10,000 hour rule, rapid learning, talent, and anything else that pops into my mind.
But before I start…
Sam has written a really great summary of the challenge from his perspective on his blog. He’s called it ‘Spectacularly Failing to Become an Expert in a Year‘ and it contains some key life lessons he’s learnt from a year of playing table tennis. I highly recommend you check it out!
Now it’s time for me to do the same.
The #1 Problem with the Expert in a Year challenge
Looking back, it’s clear to me that above all there was one big problem with the Expert in a Year challenge… my lack of a clear hypothesis.
I had loads of ideas flying around in my head and I’d read loads of books about mastery, expertise, deliberate practice, talent and rapid learning. They all kind of had a similar message but were approaching the issue in very different ways. Instead of picking one theory and testing it out exclusively I kind of just jumbled them all together and we ended up with the Expert in a Year challenge.
Here are some of things I read before the challenge and the key messages I took from them…
- Bounce by Matthew Syed – A top table tennis player is a top table tennis player because of the quantity and quality of their practice, not because of their innate talent for table tennis. Therefore, anyone can become a top table tennis player provided they have access to lots of good practice.
- Breaking 2000 by Alex Polyakov – It’s possible for an adult beginner to start playing table tennis, take it very seriously, and quickly reach a level that the majority of players never reach unless they started as a child. Therefore, you don’t need to start playing at a young age in order to reach the top.
- The Dan Plan by Dan McLaughlin – If you do your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice you will reach ‘expert’ level. It is impossible to dedicate 10,000 hours to trying to improve your table tennis and not be awesome by the end of it. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how good you are before you start.
- Dream On by John Richardson – It’s possible to achieve something that pretty much everyone else thinks is impossible in a year. Just because the top players and coaches don’t believe anyone could do it doesn’t mean you wont. Therefore, big goals aren’t just wishful thinking.
- The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss – The majority of people practice the wrong things. You need to apply the 80/20 principle to your training and concentrate on the 20% of things that produce 80% of the results. Therefore, there are shortcuts you can take in training to significantly speed up progress.
I read a load of other books and articles too (and I’ve watched pretty much everything on YouTube that touches on practice and talent) but those five give you a good overview of what’s out there.
From all of that I put together the concept of trying to master table tennis in 12 months. That was my idea from the start. Trying to become an expert at table tennis in a year. I guess really what I wanted to call it was… ‘If I pick someone at random, and coach them every day for a year, how good will they be by the end of it’. That wasn’t very catchy though.
Could someone go from beginner to top 250 in a year?
Before we started the challenge I genuinely believed this could be done. I spoke to a good friend of mine, Mark Simpson, and he agreed theoretically it was possible. We were pretty sure it would be impossible to go from beginner to top 100 in a year but where is the line between what is possible and impossible? Is top 200 possible? Top 300? Top 500? We settled on top 250 being close to the upper limit. Players ranked around 250th in England, despite being very good, still have plenty of weaknesses in their game and make a good number of unforced errors.
Even after spectacularly failing the challenge with Sam, I still believe it’s possible, in theory, for a beginner to go from nothing to top 250 in a year. I just think that there are six factors that need to all line up in order for it to be possible…
- Talent – The participant would need a ‘talent’ for table tennis. Whatever that means. As much as I hate to admit it, I must acknowledge the fact that we do not all start playing table tennis as ‘blank slates’. Some people seem to have better hand-eye coordination and motor control than others. Some people seem to pick things up quicker than others. Some people seem to natural move around the court, quickly and staying balanced, whilst others find it much more difficult to develop this graceful movement. Whether this is genetic or down to previous sporting experiences in up for debate but it doesn’t really matter. If you take two 25 year olds; one has never played any sport and the other has played tennis and football at a high level since the age of 5, it really doesn’t matter if they were genetically identical at five years old because they are now two very different people. In order to have a chance of competing at such a high level, with just a year of practice, you would need to begin with a solid base of ‘sportiness’ and competitive experience.
- Time – Even a super talented athlete isn’t going to have a hope of going from beginner to top 250 if they only manage about 500 hours of table tennis in the year. They would almost certainly need to play full-time (two training sessions per day, six days a week, plus extra stuff) in order to have a hope. That would be 1,500+ hours of table tennis. You can’t do that and have a job. You can’t do that and be at school or university. Actually, perhaps you could do it as a fresher at university (but they’re a lazy bunch). You would probably need to do it as a sort of gap year, or just take a year out from work. Not many people have that luxury.
- Training – The quality of your practice is really important too. There are plenty of local league players who dream of reaching the top of their league’s premier division, and have clocked up thousands of hours of table tennis over the years, but haven’t had the quality of training to see any real results. It’s difficult to find really good coaches and really supportive clubs to play at. There is a good chance that you simply don’t have local access to either. You need to be working with a coach that knows what they are doing and you need to be surrounded by other players that are also trying to improve. That way you can be pushing each other and learning from each other. You must master the fundamentals of the game and then build from there.
- Motivation – In order to play that much table tennis, and do all the extra stuff (reading books/articles, watching videos, service practice etc.), you need to be pretty highly motivated. Motivation is a strange thing. The more I read about truly great sportsmen the more I notice underlying similarities. They are almost all perfectionists and have addictive personalities that cause them to become completely obsessed with a certain activity or goal. This personality feature appears to be vital for achieving greatness in a field and it is very difficult for a coach to instill this into an athlete. To succeed in an ‘Expert in a Year’ style project it would almost certainly need to be the participants original idea/mission, not the coach’s.
- Mindset – A players mindset is a funny thing. It is certainly something that you can work on but at the same time some players seem to be natural more confident or aggressive or tougher than others. If you are constantly doubting yourself it is going to be hard to reach the top. If you crumble under pressure, and can’t play your best table tennis when it matters, it is also going to be very difficult. Your mindset is something that you need to take seriously. All those negative thoughts and self-doubt are getting you nowhere. You need to believe you will achieve your goal and when you play your matches you need to 100% believe that you will beat your opponent. Otherwise, all that hard work has been for nothing if you cannot perform when it matters. It’s easier said than done!
- Money – Finally, playing that much table tennis is going to be expensive. The player is going to need to join clubs, pay for coaching, travel expenses, tournament entry fees, buy books and DVDs. They are also going to need to have money set aside to live off (as they wont have time to work). It’ll be a very expensive year. Perhaps if you were to market it correctly you would be able to get some sponsors to support the challenge but I’m sure you would still need to have a decent chunk of money in the bank to keep yourself going.
So those are the six key factors; TTTMMM – talent, time, training, motivation, mindset and money. You need all six in order to have a hope of succeeding.
- If you lack talent, you are probably unlikely to manage it in a year. That doesn’t mean that you can’t it just means that it may take you longer to reach that level than some other people.
- If you lack time, you are also unlikely to do it in a year. You need to get the hours in and if you can only do it part-time it is probably going to take you two or three years instead.
- If you lack training, your improvement will definitely be slower. The quality of your practice will be less optimal, you wont get as much benefit out of each hour you put in, and it will take you longer to reach the goal.
- If you lack motivation, you will probably just quit. As brilliant as it is at the end, when you reach your goal, it’s a lot of hard work getting there and unless you are highly motivated to continue you will probably just bow out early.
- If you lack mindset, you will be fighting an internal battle with yourself. If you do not believe you can do it, or do not believe you can perform your best when it matters, it could be a very frustrating year.
- If you lack money, you are also going to struggle. Your only hope is to convince someone to sponsor you or to team up with someone who can fund you. Progress is expensive. Without money your development will be slower.
Why it failed with Sam
Being realistic, it was never going to work with Sam. If we look at the TTTMMM (talent, time, training, motivation, mindset and money) it’s almost as if I tried to do the opposite of everything I have just advised to make our chances of success even slimmer.
- Talent – I had assumed that Sam was not going to be a ‘talented’ table tennis player. I’ve known him since we were 14 years old and he’s not a natural sportsman. I really believe that even if you are ‘unsporty’, and haven’t had success in other sports, you can still achieve success in table tennis with enough quantity and quality of practice. However, this lack of natural talent doesn’t fit well with trying to achieve expertise in a very short time frame. There were plenty of fundamental sport and movement skills that Sam needed to learn along the way that other ‘sportier’ participants would have already mastered years ago. I also took some things for granted that I shouldn’t have and they came back to bite us later on.
- Time – I knew that we weren’t going to be able to spend much more than an hour a day, on an average weekday, playing table tennis. When we started the challenge I was still coaching at a school in South London every day (and commuting 90 minutes each way from North London to get there) and Sam was busy with his own multiple work projects. I was also keen to show people that even with such a busy schedule you can still fit in daily table tennis practice if you want to. They always say that if you want something done ask a busy person, and that was definitely true with Sam. This idea of showing people what the average Joe can achieve (squeezing in table tennis training after work etc.) was a lovely idea but not ideal for trying to get super good in a year.
- Training – I knew that the quality of training Sam would be getting was going to be alright, but not brilliant. I have been coaching table tennis for about three years, and playing for about 15 years. Compared to the kind of training the average player gets Sam was very fortunate. He was have one-to-one sessions with a coach. However, I’m not that experienced as a coach. Someone in a forum pointed out that they had never heard of me and asked if I had a track record of creating top players. I hadn’t. There are certainly plenty of coaches that I’m sure would have done a much better job than me! Also, playing 95% of your table tennis with me is far from ideal. Sam missed out on the group training atmosphere where everyone is improving and pushing each other that is so important (and also almost impossible to find as an adult beginner). He didn’t get enough exposure to different styles of play or different abilities of player. The quality of his training wasn’t bad but in many ways it was far from ideal.
- Motivation – I knew that this kind of challenge would work best if a player came to me with the idea. Ideally, you’d want a super enthusiastic player who is desperate to become a top table tennis player and will do anything to achieve it. They can’t wait for their one-to-one session. They go to table tennis clubs every night of the week. The sit up late at night watching YouTube videos. They buy all of the table tennis literature and subscribe to all the popular blogs and forums. But the way the EIAY challenge worked was that I approached Sam with the idea and convinced him that it would be a good thing to do. He certainly bought into it but it isn’t quite the same. For at least the first six months the dynamics definitely felt like he was doing me a favour by doing his hour of table tennis each day, and not quitting, which he was. I would be trying to get him to do some extra service practice, or gym work, or to read a book. I would be telling him I thought he might improve faster if he watched some videos. This was my thing, not his. By the second half of the year this began to change but it took a while for Sam to take control and want to do it for himself. Ideally, the coach will be the one helping the player achieve their goals and not the other way around!
- Mindset – I actually had a sneaking suspicion that Sam might have quite a good mindset. As an entrepreneur, and generally very positive person, I knew he would be better equipped mentally than a lot of people for setting a goal, believing he can achieve it, and then actually doing the work necessary to make it happen. The only area I had doubts about was dealing with competition and pressure. To some extent it’s easy doing all the practice. What’s difficult is having the confidence and mental toughness to then put it all together and play your best in your competitive matches. Plenty of players choke or freeze up in tournaments, reverting to their ‘safe’ game or generally just playing scared and passive. This effects me a lot. Sam certainly struggled with this in some matches, as we all do, but in general I would say that his mindset was probably one of his greatest strengths. I think it was more a lack of experience and a lack of understanding for his own game (how he likes to play) that lead to him under-performing a handful of times in competitive matches.
- Money – We had some money for the challenge but at the same time we didn’t want to spend loads on it. I probably could have spent a bit more time at the start getting a sponsor of making some deals with people for free equipment or free training. This kind of goes along with what I mentioned earlier in the time section. I kind of wanted it to be low budget, playing in a cramped kitchen, starting out with a £35 Palio Master beginners bat, keeping costs down so that the average player could relate to it. Obviously Sam got all his coaching for free, so that saved a lot of money, but even so club fees, equipment costs, tournament entries and travel expenses all add up. We cheaped out a bit really and it still cost both of us quite a lot of money.
Sam lacked talent and time. This is probably the main reason why we failed to achieve the top 250 ranking. His training and motivation were so-so. They certainly weren’t bad but they could have been better. I don’t believe that a lack of a positive mindset or money really held us back much.
What would Syed, Polyakov, McLaughlin, Richardson & Ferriss say?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Alex Polyakov and Dan McLaughlin via email on occasion but I haven’t quizzed them in detail about their thoughts on the challenge. The other three I haven’t been fortunate enough to chat with, yet. Here is what I think they’d have to say…
I think Syed would mention the 10,000 hour rule to us and work out that a top 250 level is somewhere along that journey, perhaps at the 2,000-3,000 hour mark. He would probably say that Sam could reach that level but that he must do the hours (I estimate that Sam did somewhere between 500-600 hours of table tennis during the challenge). He would tell Sam to keep going at this rate for another two or three years and then he should be close.
I think Polyakov would start by pointing out that is took him two and a half years to break 2000 USATT ranking points and to also remind us that when he started he was beating some recreational level players without any practice. He would probably also point out his background in sports, including martial arts and volleyball that gave him an advantage/head-start over Sam.
I think McLaughlin would give a similar response to Syed. He is currently over half way through his 10,000 hours of golf experiment and I’m sure he understands that progress takes time but if you keep putting in the hours you will continue to improve. He would probably also mention the fact that, like Sam, he was not ‘sporty’ and had no golf experience before the challenge.
I think Richardson would emphasise the massive sacrifices he made during his year of golf (where he went from being a pretty poor player to breaking par in a round). He would point out that for much of the year Sam’s life was only slightly effected by the table tennis and in order for him to have succeeded he would have need to dedicate three times as many hours playing and all his free time studying, reading and watching videos.
I think Ferriss would probably tell me that we didn’t really follow his protocol of ‘hacking’ a skill properly. We started with the idea of ‘hacking’, and deconstructing the skill down to its most essential parts, but in fact spent most of the year training Sam in the traditional way to be a complete player. He probably would have told us to look to exploit a loop-hole, or to have used ‘funny’ rubbers like long pimples, or to have made Sam’s game massively one-sided (for example working only on serve and return and accepting that you can’t master everything in a year).
It would be very interesting to follow if somebody did a 10,000 hour table tennis experiment (like The Dan Plan), but I know that is a massive sacrifice for someone and golf is very lucky to have Dan doing it for them. I have no idea how good someone like Sam could be after 10,000 hours of practice but I reckon he would be pretty awesome!
It would also be great to see if talent-transfer could work in table tennis. To take a very high-level tennis player, or boxer, and see how quickly they can pick up table tennis. I would assume that they would be able to pick it up much faster than somebody starting completely from scratch.
It would also be interesting to see if a true Tim Ferriss approach to table tennis could work. He talks about hacking a skill in 6 months. It would be brilliant to see if you can ‘hack’ table tennis and create someone who can beat a top player even if it is largely by ‘tricks’, good serves, and other awkward stuff. They would probably be pretty ugly to watch, and not even able to keep the ball on the table during a normal forehand-to-forehand, backhand-to-backhand style knock up, but maybe they could get very good at wins points in a couple of different ways.
I didn’t intend to write another 4,000 word essay! Once I start sometimes I can’t stop. I hope that now you have a much better understand of the theory behind the Expert in a Year challenge, and in particular, why our attempt was pretty much always doomed to failure.
But is it even possible to fail when you are trying to master something? Even though we failed to turn Sam into a top 250 player I know we both feel like we achieved a great amount last year and we are glad we did.
Now it’s over to you!
I doubt I’m going to have the chance to do something like this again… but someone out there can. It would be brilliant to track the progress of other players trying their own ‘EIAY’ or ‘10,000 hours’ or ‘Tim Ferriss-style’ table tennis challenges. I’d be more than happy to help, assist and promote it. An most of all I’d probably be your most loyal follower.
Thank you for reading this article. Thank you for following the Expert in a Year challenge. Now I’m passing the baton to the next willing guinea pig.