Fan Zhendong is 17 years old and has already achieved more in table tennis than most of us can ever dream of. Does this mean we should all just give up now? Are you too old to start playing table tennis? And is it even possible to master such a complex game as an adult?
These are questions that I think about a lot. I don’t have all the answers (and I don’t believe any of the top geneticists, psychologists or other ‘ists’ currently do either) but in today’s post I’m going to share my thoughts on the subject and encourage you not to worry about your age. I don’t often write personal posts like these but I hope that you find my story helpful.
I would like to start with a quote from the book ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho…
“It was my fear of failure that first kept me from attempting . . . Now, I’m beginning what I could have started ten years ago. But I’m happy at least that I didn’t wait twenty years.”
I really like that quote because I feel it sums up how many of us feel when we think about starting something or trying to achieve something.
I remember back to my time spent at Grantham, playing table tennis every day, between October 2007 and June 2009. I joined the table tennis academy there aged 18, fresh out of school. I felt young. I was young. I had these dreams about becoming really good at table tennis. Like really good. I was a senior now and I was thinking ahead, planning my steady rise up the England ranking list. I remember writing down all these goals for the next few years. When I started at Grantham I was ranked about 450th. I wanted to be top 250 by the end of my first year. Top 150 after my two years there. Then I wanted to continue training and get into the top 100 while I was still under 21. I’d look at all the professional players in their thirties and think, “I’ve got plenty of time to get to that level as long as I keep getting better year by year”. The plan was to keep training every day and by the time I was 25 I’d surely be one of the top players in the country. Back then being 25 was seven years away and seven years of dedicated training cannot result in anything other than being one of the best in the country.
That was what I thought back then. That was what I believed when I started at Grantham as an 18 year old kid.
And I was right!
Today I’m 25 years old and I’m ranked 226th in England. Hold on a second.
What happened? (2007-2010)
The training at Grantham was really good. I’d never experienced anything like it before. By the end of my first year there (2007/08) I had moved up to 279th in England. I was making progress. It felt good. I think I was the overall winner of Band 3 on the Grand Prix circuit that year, if I remember rightly. I was getting results at tournaments and I kept getting good wins against players ranked above me. Most months I’d be moving up the rankings. It felt like all the training was paying off and nothing could stop me.
My second year at Grantham was actually better than my first, training wise. Alex Perry took over as head coach and was really passionate about getting the best out of all of us. Lots of other players started training with us and the training environment definitely became more professional. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t getting the same results in my tournaments. I wasn’t doing terribly but my progress had slowed down. By the end of that second year (2008/09) my ranking had only improved a measly 31 places. I was 248th in England.
Mentally, my self-belief was fading away. The reason? I felt I was too old. I was 20.
My good friend Mark Simpson had had an amazing season. He was up to 26th in England and was a year younger than me. Then there were the kids who had started training with us, some of the top U13s in the East Midlands. People like Sam Mabey, Miles Chan and Adam Harrison. I was still beating them but they weren’t too far behind me, and they were seven years younger than me. Seven years! I saw the way that Alex would look at them. He was excited, especially by Sam. I can’t blame him. That little group of kids they had in the East Midlands at the time were super dedicated, training hard, and getting better every single month. They were sure to achieve and become the next crop of England players, but they made me feel old.
In September 2009 I moved from Grantham to Nottingham Trent. I chose Nottingham Trent because it was the closest university to Grantham. At one point, when I couldn’t get into any of the halls on campus in Nottingham, I even considered asking Grantham College if I could continue to live there and just travel over to Nottingham during the day for my lectures and seminars. That way I would have been able to continue training every day and working on my table tennis. In the end I found accommodation in Nottingham and moved there.
Alex had always said we could come to back to train as much as we liked, and I intended on trying to get over there most days. That didn’t really happen though. I got distracted by uni life and began playing less and less table tennis. I was still entering the tournaments but I wasn’t surprised anymore by my lack of results. I’d pretty much given up on my dream of achieving anything significant in table tennis the moment I left Grantham. I finished my first year in Nottingham (2009/10) ranked 261st. I’d gone backwards!
What I’ve learned since then
The biggest lesson I’ve learned since then is not to compare yourself to others. There will always be someone better. Someone younger. Someone who seems to pick it up much quicker than you do.
I used to go back to my home club, Crusaders TTC, in South London during the holidays and play with Michael Ho. He was six years younger than me. When I left to go to Grantham he was ranked #16 in the U13s (and he was an U12) but I was much better than him. His junior ranking was 157th and I was 76th. I remember he told me once that when I finished Grantham he’d be better than me. He was a pretty cocky 12 year old. I told him that would never happen. I think I was still better than him after Grantham but after two years at Nottingham I’m pretty sure he’d overtaken me. Back then he was just another kid making me feel I was too old to achieve anything in table tennis. I’d started worrying too much about everyone else. There are loads of great quotes about the importance of competing against yourself. Here is one of my favourites…
“When you compete with yourself you become better. When you compete with others you become bitter.”
For me that was so true. Looking at all the younger players around me had made me bitter. Even if I didn’t show it. I’d be thinking, “I wish I’d had Alex Perry coaching me when I was twelve like these guys do” or “I wish my parents had paid for me to have one-to-one coaching when I was younger”. I was looking at it in a messed up, back-to-front way. Worrying about other people and the past instead of staying focused on my present training and the control it would have on my future. I had lost my way back then, mentally.
The other big lesson I’ve learnt along the way is the power of not quitting. Most people quit. Look at any old ranking list and how many of the top kids are still playing, still training? I’m still technically on the ranking list, and playing table tennis occasionally, but really I quit back in 2009. I quit in my heart. I stopped believing that I could continue to get better and I pretty much stopped training seriously. I believe that so much of success, in any field, can be put down to simply not quitting. I love this quote…
“Don’t quit before the miracle happens.”
There are good reasons to quit something. I’m not saying never quit. If you don’t enjoy table tennis anymore, and want to do something else, by all means quit. I’m not saying you should be a slave to a decision you made however many years ago. Take someone like Zak Zilesnick. Zak was national champion for his age group when he was a kid, ranked #1 in the country. He quit as a junior, I think, after training full-time in France. But now he’s a musician and is doing the vocals on songs with Gorgon City. That was a good reason to quit! But don’t let your fear of failure cause you to quit, or worse, not even start.
Perhaps I quit for good reason, to concentrate on other things. Perhaps I quit because I was scared of putting all the hard work in and then still losing or not getting any better. The annoying thing is that looking back I’m not actually sure why I stopped trying. I’m also not sure if I regret it either. I love my current life. But I do sometimes imagine what things would be like now if I’d spent the last five years, post-Grantham, playing table tennis every day instead of doing whatever I ended up doing instead. But that’s enough moping.
I can never decide whether I want to make a sort of comeback to table tennis or not. Some days I feel like it would be a brilliant thing to do and others I feel like it would be a bit of a waste of time and selfish.
I haven’t spoken to him about it but I get the feeling that Matt Hetherington, another table tennis blogger, has similar conflicting thought and feelings. Somewhere inside him he desperately wants to realise his dream of dedicating himself to training and seeing the results but he’s also not 100% sure it’s worth it, or possible. That’s how I feel anyway. I probably shouldn’t be putting words into his mouth. I think I will wait and see what happens after we finish the Expert in a Year challenge.
But I encourage you, if you are serious about wanting to get good at table tennis (or anything really), to start now! That’s what the quote by Paulo Coelho from the start of this article is all about.
Are you too old to start playing table tennis? Not at all!
Sure it would have been nice if you’d started training seriously ten years ago, but you can’t do anything about that now. Be happy that you have the chance to start now and don’t wait another ten years before you finally muster up the courage and self-belief to get started.
Who cares how old you are. You can’t change your age. If you want to get good at table tennis then start working towards it, and start now. Don’t put it off. Don’t look at all the younger players around you and wish you were their age. “If I was their age then I’d take it seriously”, you tell yourself. There are probably just as many guys who are older than you looking at you and thinking the exact same thing. And don’t look at all the guys who are better than you and wish you were playing at their level currently. “If I was at their level then I’d take it seriously”. Don’t kid yourself. And just think of all the players that look up to you and think you are already a really good player. They would love to be at your level right now!
Remember Mark Simpson, who I mentioned earlier. He was ranked 26th in England at 19 years old in 2009. On the same ranking list I was ranked 248th and I was 20. I would have done anything to be at his level back then. Well, he pretty much gave up trying to become the best back then too. Around the same time I did! Yeah he still plays but he hasn’t improved much over the past five years. He could have been really good. I mean really good. But he probably didn’t believe it either. Or perhaps he was too worried about little Liam Pitchford who was already #8 in the country and was only 16 years old. I remember watching Mark lose to him at Senior Nationals, in 2008 I think, and he was gutted. It was on the TV table as well!
This, today, right now, is the youngest you will ever be from now. That makes now the perfect time to start. Don’t spend your time wishing you were younger, or better, or able to pick it up faster. Spend it training. And don’t stop until you’re an expert.