Play or Practice: Which Is Best For Table Tennis Development?

play vs practiceThis feels like a week of firsts for Expert Table Tennis. On Friday I released my first eBook (The Table Tennis Playbook), on Sunday I published my first interview (with Kristian Karlsson) and now I’m posting the first ever guest post on the blog. If you have something to share and would like to write a post for Expert Table Tennis please get in touch.

Today’s post is written by a good friend of mine, Mark Simpson. Mark, 22, is a top 30 table tennis player from England and has been playing table tennis since he was about six or seven. Mark has a degree in Psychology from Nottingham University and is currently studying for a masters degree in Sports Psychology at Lund University, Sweden. Over the years he has played in the English, French and Swedish table tennis leagues but he is currently playing in Germany for Leutzscher Füchsen.

So Mark, it’s over to you and thank you for taking the time to write the article and sharing some of your knowledge with us!

mark simpsonBen wrote a post a while ago about the importance of making practice deliberate. He also related the amount of practice to the level of performance players have achieved in their careers. This study is limited, in that it cannot guarantee the hours logged by the players were deliberate or even under the technical definition of practice.

He also, when looking at the Chinese players, noted the importance of a grounding for good technique at a young age and the need to specialise early in order to make it to the top.

I am going to introduce an idea that could counter that claim. Dr. Jean Côté and his team of researchers have put forward an interesting idea regarding the idea of play, in the purest form of the word. Play is carried out with the sole reason of having fun. Practice is organised, planned, purposeful and regulated, with the idea of improving. Play is spontaneous, adapted to fit circumstances and uses the creativity of those participating to ensure it is fun, which is the key to it.

Engaging in too much practice and too little play, as a child, has been shown to increase the chances of drop-out. Also, some studies have shown a higher amount of play as a child to correspond to a higher amount of practice as a teenager.

Outside of table tennis, the most obvious examples of play would be kids playing football on a field. There may be uneven teams, an uneven playing surface, and improvised rules but they are having fun, with no coaches or technical training in sight. The argument is that this requires incredible creativity and self-thought from the children, and also a great deal of adaptability.

The general “feeling” for the game (or ball) that is so often talked about in table tennis is exactly this; adaptability to the situations that arise. So, it would make sense that those who inadvertently practice this through unstructured play will become better at this than someone who just rigidly trains (think of the example of a player who is very good at regular exercises but when the exercises change to irregular, or they go into a match situation, they suddenly look like a beginner).

So should we abandon all deliberate training with children? No, that’s not what the research is saying, but there are a few key things that can be taken from all this…

  1. Fun is important: If kids do not have fun they are more likely to stop playing, making all those hours of training in vain however successful they were at improving their level.
  2. Adaptability is key: The ability to alter shots depending on the situation is arguably more important than pure technique, in table tennis. Playing the exact same shot twice, to two different types of balls, will have different results and will usually include one if not two mistakes.
  3. Creativity should be encouraged: Creativity and self-thought are what makes table tennis interesting and they should be encouraged in training rather than killed off! Creativity can also make the difference between winning and losing. Allowing the children to come up with their own solutions to problems is a good way of doing this.

Those points may make it look like I don’t see the need for training exercises, “just send the kids out to play, and they will become world beaters…” Again, this isn’t the point I’m making. However, so many coaches underestimate the need for open play in improvement. Skilled coaching is about enabling these opportunities for creativity but watching out for things that clearly don’t work. It is also important for some coaches to bear in mind the child is a human being, and not a machine for training, and the psychological well-being of the child should be of paramount importance when coaching.

It could be argued that table tennis is an early specialisation sport, as mentioned in Ben’s article on China, but this idea has mainly developed from coaches copying the model of success apparent in China. With the same resources and opportunities there is nothing to say that players couldn’t specialise later and still be as, if not more, successful! Also, which is significantly healthier for the athletes mentally?

Please leave any comments or questions below! What do you think about practice vs. play? Do you have any experience of this yourself? We’d love to hear from you.