Expert practice — Table Tennis

My personal view on the right way to learn and improve

This article is a special add-on to my other article “Expert Practice”. It is a table tennis application of that generic article. This article gives my personal table tennis oriented examples of expert practice.

I’ve chosen table tennis as the expert domain, although I will never be an expert in table tennis myself. I only practice table tennis on my free time as exercise. The expert practice principles apply to effective learning even if you never will be an expert.

I hope these real world examples might help to make each point of my generic article more clear. My intention is to help you imagine corresponding examples from your own world. Or if you play table tennis, help you reflect on how to improve your own table tennis training.

1 — Aimful practice

In my table tennis club, our coach gives us practice exercises. My group is about 14 players of similar skill level, and we work in pairs selected by the coach. The pairs are exchanged either at each session or even at each exercise. Sometimes all tables get the same exercise, and sometimes we may individually choose our exercise from a list on the whiteboard.

I am not always sure about the aim of the exercise. I don’t know when I am supposed to have achieved anything. Or how I know that. And when I should choose, I have no clear idea how to choose, so I just do whatever exercise that seems the easiest one to perform.

As it takes time figuring out the exact aim of the exercise, all exercises are far too short in time for me. As soon as I start to get the hang of it, the coach switches over to another exercise.

This is of course not acceptable! This way I will for sure never become an expert.

The first thing I need to do is to put requirements on the coach to inform and instruct better so that I understand and can get the full effect out of each exercise — I need to understand the purpose and objective, what exactly I practice, how to perform the exercise in the best way, what the goal is (that is suitable for me) and how I measure goal fulfillment. Table tennis is complex, it is about footwork, strokes, and game schemes, for example, and the exercises for all these things might look very similar. And sometimes focus is on attack, sometimes on defense. Sometimes on speed, on placement or on spin. And so on. It is easy to get confused about the aim.

Besides, I need to work out my own plan. I need to know exactly what I need to practice on. Then it should be easy for me to choose the right exercise.

I don’t think I am the only one at the club with these thoughts.

2 — Deliberate practice

Our exercises and training matches are challenging and demanding, so I would say they are on the right level for me. At least technically and physically. Perhaps not tactically — I lack theory lessons in tactics.

I need these technical drills. I know that the key to improving and achieving expertise is consistency and carefully controlled efforts. Practice puts brains in your muscles. I know it won’t be any better with a new racket, as some of my mates seem to believe.

What really can be improved in my practice, is that I’d heedfully select the exercises where I practice on things I can’t do, or can’t do well. It is what I can’t do well I primarily should focus on when training at the club. Consistency training I can do a lot of at home, with my robot.

I should use the training matches at the club to test out different game systems and different tactics. It is at the training matches I can take large risks. At the competition matches I need to use what I already master, and only take some, calculated risk.

I believe that few of my training partners actively practice what they can’t do, or systematically test out approaches to win. I’ll try to enlighten them.

3 — Practice context based mental representations

For table tennis, these mental representations are about game systems or game schemes, game perception and anticipation.

To have mental representations of rallies and to be able to predict spin, placement and speed of the next ball is a key success factor in table tennis.

I’ll have to put a lot of focus and effort on this. In my own matches where I meet opponents with different styles I will observe the context and outcome of points and train my brain to remember. The objective is to eventually get this knowledge instinctive. I can also watch and analyze more games on internet (ITTV, ETTU, Youtube, Laola1, and others).

I think this is something that come natural to most people by experience, but that can be actively accelerated.

4 — Practice with focus

It is sometimes difficult to stay focused when training is late at night after a long day, or when training matches don’t seem to matter.

I know that I should play the training matches as if they were for real and important (although some more risk taking is allowed here at the club). And that I always should focus my best on every exercise.

Here I can improve by discipline. Discipline is underrated in the western world.

I have some kind of long-term plan, but this can also be improved.

I believe most of us have rather bad discipline, are able to focus better without reducing the joy factor, and could improve their planning.

5 — Practice with qualified feedback

It is difficult for me to know that I do something wrong, and then what I do wrong. To know how it should be done. And if I really do it right when I think I have corrected the fault.

As I started at old age, I have never had any beginner lessons. Everyone else just assumes I know it all already. I really need to receive qualified feedback. But mainly the kids get it.

For sure, I will have to use the coach and my mates much more. Especially my training partners. They’ll have to bear with me.

6 — Tutored practice

It is in the club I have access to the coach, who I could and should ask more questions. I will also ask him for more advice, and to actively analyze my play and correct the errors I do.

I have considered buying private lessons with very experienced coaches, genuine experts, both at table tennis and at coaching table tennis. These lessons would be including video analyses and multi-ball practice (box training). I will give it a try when I’ve improved one level more. But to have a real PT (continuous coaching) might get expensive.

7 — Willpower

I am an exerciser. Of course, I anyway have dreams, a vision, long-term goals and short-term goals, related to my development.

I do have a strong drive. For me it is not at all about championships. It is about health and joy in life. To live long and have fun. And I am curious on how good I can become.

For others, well, I believe too few have actually confronted themselves with what they want with the sport. Do you want to become the best in the world? Do you want table tennis as your profession? Are you willing to struggle and sacrifice other things in life? If not, what is the purpose with your training, what are your goals? What is your drive? As a parent, have you asked your kids? I think anyone need to be clear with what they want to have the right willpower.

8 — Family support

This is very important to me. Training takes a lot of time. My family gives me passive support but they still support me in the way required. I am very grateful for that. It wouldn’t work otherwise, having a wife and three kids, and too much of houses, gardens, vehicles and other stuff to maintain.

For the kids at the local clubs, well, I can see that almost all of the best kids have at least one parent that is, or have been, a high level table tennis player themselves. Especially so for the girls. The parent gives emotional motivation and qualified feedback, explains the theory, gives tips and tricks, controls a balanced development and provide resources (time, money, transport). Family support is a key success factor.