Early Specialization in Table Tennis: Part 1 – Top 20 English Men

table tennis babyFor years, players and coaches have believed in the importance of early specialization in table tennis. In my dissertation, one of the most common answers I heard from players, when asked “Which factors do you think prevented you from reaching a higher level of ability in table tennis?”, was that they started too late or didn’t take the sport seriously enough until they were older.

We generally think that in order to become a top table tennis player you need to start playing between the ages of six and nine, and that by the age of ten to twelve you need to be taking the sport very seriously and clocking up lots of hours of practice. Then between the ages of thirteen and eighteen you should be competing nationally, and even internationally, winning titles, if you are going to have a chance to make it as a senior.

But is this really the case? Can you reach a senior international  standard having specialized relatively late? Is it good to play many different sports as a child or do children need to specialize early, in order to ever have a chance of reaching a high level of performance? Are ‘early-specializers’ more likely to get injured or dropout from the sport? There is a debate ongoing in the scientific literature and these are some of the issues being discussed.

In this series on ‘Early Specialization in Table Tennis’ I will be investigating a number of these question.

The Top 20 English Men

I decided to start by looking at the top twenty male players in England. I asked each player their age and final ETTA ranking for cadets (U15) and juniors (U18). I was interested to see if all the current top players had followed this early specialization route and excelled at a junior level or if any had developed later in life.

I was only able to obtain data for 16 of the current top 20 English table tennis players. I will update this chart if I manage to get the other four.

early specialization in table tennis

You can see from the scatter chart above that the majority of the current top English players were the best juniors and cadets in their day. The average final cadet ranking was 4.1 and the average final junior ranking was 3.5. It’s interesting to see that, in general, the current top senior players today, were the ones who improved their ranking between cadets and juniors. Even if it was only from #3 in cadets to finishing #2 in their last year of juniors.

There are two outliers. Two players that have significantly lower cadet and junior rankings compared to the rest of the top group. They had cadet rankings of 15 and 18, and junior rankings of 12 and 14, respectively. These players were not the top crop of English table tennis, as juniors, but they have managed to make it to the top of the English senior game.

england table tennis teamAnother interesting point, that emerged from the data, was that the average age of players in the group was just 23 years, 11 months. Only five players were over the age of 25. Either this is great, as it means that the standard of top-flight English table tennis is on the up and these players are yet to reach their peak. Or, it’s not so great and highlights the early dropout age of English table tennis players. From the current data you could guess that the majority of top English table tennis players dropout at about 25 years of age. Is this true? I guess only time will tell.

Is Early Specialization Vital in Table Tennis?

This is a very hard question to answer. The data I collected clearly shows that all of the current top 10 English table tennis players were top cadets and juniors, involved in the England set-up from an early age. None had made it to the top 10 of the English senior game without first excelling as a junior.

However, the two outliers give a glimmer of hope to any late developers out there. Neither players were involved in England cadet or junior teams, or even in the top 10 players for their age group, but both have managed to find a way to break into the top 20 senior players today.

But what about the real late developers? Despite not being England standard, our two outliers were still competing with the best in the country by 15. They would probably admit that they were still relatively early to specialize. Is it possible to reach a high level of performance in table tennis if you didn’t even start playing until you were 15? Do you need to make those first technical improvements at a certain young age (9-12), as some experts suggest, or can you clock up the important hours of deliberate practice at any age and experience the same effect?

Well the brief data I’ve collected here really can’t answer those questions but I’ll be on the look out for any exceptional case studies I can investigate.

There’s some food for thought. I hope that’s given you a bit of an insight into the development of the current top English players. It seems that early specialization in table tennis is pretty important. It’s very rare, in our sport, for a player to appear from out of the blue as a senior and do any real damage at a high level. I wonder if this happens more in other individual sports such as athletics or team sports such as football. I assume it does, or at least more than in table tennis.

There’s more to come

I’m very interested in the concept of early specialization at the moment and this is just part one. I promise there’s more to come, so stay tuned for that.

If you’ve enjoyed this post then please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter and help spread the word about Expert Table Tennis. It really does mean a lot. You also might be interested in reading the posts about my table tennis dissertation on ‘the development of expertise’. You can view part one or part two of that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on early specialization in table tennis. Drop me a line below and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!