What Do You Work On When Everything Needs Work?

Albert Einstein

From time-to-time I convince Sam to write a blog post about his experiences of the Expert in a Year challenge. This time I didn’t have to. He came up with this idea all by himself! It’s clearly something he has been thinking about a lot recently.

I’ll hand you right over to Sam now, and I hope you enjoy reading some of his thoughts. He wanted to start off with a few quotes…

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” – Albert Einstein

“The better I get at table tennis, the more I realise how much better I need to get.” – Sam Priestley

“That was really useful. I’ve identified three new things you really need to improve on.” – Ben Larcombe (after every match I play)

When everything needs work

If you were to record everything that was said in one of our table tennis sessions, it would probably sound a bit like this;

  • You didn’t swivel your hips.
  • That was too much shoulder.
  • You pivoted on your right foot.
  • You’re too stiff.
  • You didn’t use your wrist.
  • You snatched at that.
  • You took that too late.
  • You need to get lower.
  • Stick your bum out.
  • You didn’t move your feet.
  • You moved in the wrong direction.
  • You should’ve stepped in.
  • You should’ve stepped back.
  • You need to get more side on to the ball.
  • You need to stay more square to the table.

The thing is, if you recorded a session a couple of months ago it probably would have sounded exactly the same, except that the list would have been half as long! Am I just getting worse?

I’m not, every week I have improved but at each step we discover more problems, problems that only appear because I’m getting good enough for them to matter.

Table tennis is just really hard to perfect. Just knowing a problem exists doesn’t mean that it’s solved. Table tennis movements and anticipations aren’t natural. They may look natural to the top players but that is because they have spent so many hours practicing them that they have overwritten the body’s natural programming. You can’t just watch a YouTube video and expect to replicate what you see. You need to practice, practice, practice (and practice some more), forcing the improvement into your muscles until your natural reaction is to do the shot correctly.

Let’s take and examine just one of the problems I have;

I tend to throw my shoulder when doing a forehand rather than snapping from legs, hips and elbow.

This is something I have been working to fix for a couple of months now. It is a problem that has caused me injury (I have lost probably about a weeks worth of training due to shoulder complaints). I know how to do the shot correctly, and I don’t throw my shoulder most of the time now, but in the heat of a match or when responding to an unexpected shot my body betrays me and I ‘naturally’ throw my shoulder.

We might spend a session working on the problem, and it gets a lot better, but then in the next session we move onto something else and a week later the problem is back. What we really want is to be able to spend 20 hours forcing each technique adjustment into muscle memory. But we can’t spend 20 hours on everything!

So, what can we do about a growing list of problems? How do we fix everything?

  1. Accept you will always have stuff to improve. While in Denmark this summer, Lei Yang, the German team’s technical coach, told us that Timo Boll’s forehand is “little bit wrong”. If Timo Boll still has flaws he is trying to work on then how many more will we have?
  2. Prioritise which flaws will have the greatest impact on your game.
  3. Work just on the top three flaws. Research suggests that working on two or three things helps the brain learn better than if you just focused on one.Even when you think they’re fixed keep thinking about them and working on them! It takes a long time to for movements to become truly automatic.
  4. Reprioritise your flaws and repeat.

Here is my current priority list:

  1. Receiving long, slow spinny serves to my backhand.
  2. Transferring my weight when I play a forehand shot.
  3. Digging.

(and another 127 things that also need work)

I have probably 30 hours (only!) of training time left between now and the end of the challenge. Let’s see if that’s enough time to dramatically improve these three.