There’s been a huge surge in interest in table tennis this week, thanks to the ‘Expert in a Year’ challenge attempted by London coach Ben Larcombe and his friend Sam Priestley.
The challenge has been getting plenty of attention in table tennis circles, but over the past week it has gone viral. It was featured on homepage of social media sites Reddit and Digg and covered in numerous media outlets around the world. One of the videos produced by Ben and Sam has been viewed a million times in the space of one week.
The challenge was to turn Sam from a complete beginner to an advanced player (top 250 in England) in the space of one year.
Ben, a top 250 player himself, gave Sam several hours of coaching every week. Sam also attended several coaching camps and received 1 to 1 coaching from other top coaches in London. After accumulating hundreds of hours of practice, Sam was ready to play in tournaments.
So, how did he get on? In short, not very well. Sam achieved a couple of victories, but mainly he suffered a lot of defeats. Even though he improved a lot of the course of the year, Sam wasn’t able to get a ranking, let alone get in the top 250.
I followed the challenge throughout the year. The dedication shown by both Ben and Sam was hugely impressive. But what the challenge really showed was how difficult table tennis is to master. To go from beginner to top 250 in England in one year is pretty much impossible.
There are examples from other sports, where athletes have achieved great success in a short period of time. At the beginning of 2008, Helen Glover had no rowing experience. Two years later she had a World Championship silver medal. In another two years she was Olympic champion. In 2006, Donald Thomas took up high jump. A year later he was World Champion.
But whereas rowing and high jump requires mastering one basic technique, table tennis requires mastering lots of different techniques. To play at a highest level, you have to master a push, drive, topspin, flick, smash, block, chop, lob – on both forehand and backhand. You also need to master many different serves – backspin serves, sidespin serves, no spin serves, topspin serves. And you need to master how to return these serves. You have to master match tactics and how to play against players with unorthodox rubbers. And what makes table tennis extra tough is applying all of this technique and tactics when you are only a few metres from your opponent and the ball may be coming towards you up to 100 miles per hour!
So you can start to see why Sam found the challenge so hard. I don’t actually think he failed – he improved massively over the course of the year – it’s simply that the timeframe for the challenge was too short for a sport as difficult as table tennis. There were too many things Sam needed to master.
How long does it take to master table tennis?
If you want to master table tennis very quickly, you will have to practice 10-20 hours a week and even then it’ going to take years, not months. At my club in Cambridge, we have five very good juniors, all ranked in the top 50 in England for their age group. They practice as much as Sam has over the past year, and receive coaching from a former England head coach and former England number 3. It has taken them four years to reach their current level.
It takes an enormous amount practice and match play to master table tennis. But that’s what makes it a great sport. If it was easy to master, it would be boring. And no matter how good you think you’re getting, there’s always better players who can make you feel like a complete beginner. You never stop learning, practising and trying to improve.
So, don’t worry about trying to master table tennis too quickly. And don’t get disheartened if you don’t progress as quickly as you want. Table tennis is a very difficult sport to master, but it’s a sport you can play all your life, so you have plenty of time!
For more information about the Expert in a Year challenge, go to www.experttabletennis.com/expert-in-a-year/
You can also buy the book about the challenge Expert In A Year: The Ultimate Table Tennis Challenge