We all know the magic ‘p’ word needed to improve at table tennis. PRACTISE. The players who really improve, practise a lot.
But there is another ‘p’ word, which is also vital to improvement. PERSEVERANCE. Having the drive to keep trying, even if something is difficult and you are not initially achieving success.
I want to tell you about a player I coach, who is the embodiment of perseverance. Her name is Uma. I first met Uma in April 2019. She booked a coaching session with me and explained she was a beginner. Normally when an adult player claims to be a beginner, she or he usually has some experience – playing with family, friends or work colleagues.
But Uma was a complete beginner. She had never picked up a bat or hit a ball. In our first session, I showed her how to hold a bat and we worked on hitting some forehand and backhand drives. It didn’t come natural to Uma, but by the end of the session she was able to hit 10 forehands in a row and 10 backhands in a row.
Even though Uma was very focused in the session and eager to learn, I wasn’t convinced she would want to continue with more sessions. Maybe table tennis was fun to try, but not something she really wanted to get into.
But then she booked another session and another session and another session. Progress was slow, but Uma was very determined to learn how to play table tennis. And she didn’t just take coaching with me. She started to attend club training sessions, even though she was only a beginner and most other players had far more experience. And she practised a lot at work, especially with her colleague Pete.
But even with all this table tennis play, Uma was still finding many aspects of table tennis very difficult. Reading spin, adjusting strokes for different spins, consistent shot execution, serving with spin, returning serves, tactics – all of this is very hard for an adult learner with no previous experience of playing.
It is very common for many adult learners to quit at this stage. When they realise how much there is to learn – and how difficult it is to develop these complex skills – quitting seems like the more sensible option. But nothing seemed to deter Uma. No matter how hard the challenge – and how far she was behind other players – she just kept persevering.
After two years of learning table tennis, she decided she wanted to play in the league. This was going to be her toughest challenge yet. She would be competing against players with many years (in some cases decades) of league experience. And it was very tough. In her first league season, she played 18 matches and lost 18 matches. Every match she lost 3-0.
Again, at this stage, many players would quit. It’s not much fun losing all of the time. But Uma, whilst acknowledging her shortcomings, always seemed to find something positive in her defeats. This could be a good shot she played, a successful tactic she deployed or being able to win more points than expected.
Uma persevered. We continued our 1-to-1 coaching sessions. She kept on playing with Pete at work. She started to practise with her brother. She became a regular at club training sessions. She took part in club tournaments. And whilst Uma was making some progress, the progress was still slow. She still found many aspects of table tennis very challenging.
In her next league season, she played 12 matches and lost 12 matches. But she was starting to win more points and was able to win one game in one of her matches. Even though she still had no wins, she was making small improvements. Her hard work and perseverance was starting to have an impact.
What would you do at this stage? Imagine you have played two league seasons, with 30 matches and 30 losses. Maybe you would quietly slip away from the sport and find another activity to do. Most people would do this. Not Uma.
Now, we’re in the present. Once again, Uma is playing in the league. Not only playing, but also team captain. She lost her first five matches. But in one match she took a game off a very experienced player – her best ever performance. And then it happened. It finally happened. After four years of practice, and a heck of a lot of perseverance, Uma did it. She won her first match. An epic 3-2 victory, winning 11-9 in the fifth.
I am just so delighted for Uma. She has worked so hard and experienced so many big defeats. It would have been so easy to quit. But I don’t think quitting has ever crossed her mind.
In some ways, this victory is not a surprise. Over the past few months Uma has been playing with more confidence. She is reading spin better, moving better, serving better and attacking with more confidence. But winning her first match was still a very difficult hurdle to overcome. Having lost 35 matches in a row, it’s easy to get into a losing mindset. No matter how well you are playing, you still expect to lose. So for Uma to get this first win is some achievement. And all the credit has to go to Uma. My role as coach is to help steer Uma in the right direction. But the determination, the commitment to practise, the strength to keep picking herself up after defeats – that is all Uma.
Uma has gone from complete beginner to being able to win a league match. It hasn’t been easy at all, but that magic ‘p’ word – perseverance – has made all the difference. I have no doubt she will win at least another match this season and more matches again next season. She has done all the hard work – just getting to a level where she is competitive at local league – and now she just has to keep going.
Uma, you are an inspiration to us all!