This blog post is a collection of thoughts I’ve had this week about the importance of carefully selecting both our training partners and our tournament opponents.
You may think that you have little choice in these matters. After all, for most of us our training partners are simply whoever happens to turn up at our club and the opponents we have to face at tournaments are chosen randomly by the draw. While this is certainly true we must realise that we can choose the environment we play in and therefore we do have some degree of control over who our peers and rivals will be.
We can choose to join the super strong local club, filled with all the best players from the area, or we can choose the smaller club which is mainly comprised of beginners and intermediate-level players. Even within our club we can choose which training sessions to attend, on which nights, and often who we want to play against.
If we play in a local league we can choose, at the start of the season, which division to play in. Do we want to play in a lower division where we have the opportunity to win the league or try going up a division into a stronger team to test ourselves against a higher level of player?
When we enter tournaments we can usually get a good idea of the average standard of player that will attend. Sometimes the events even have rating limits. Do we choose to enter tournaments where we will probably be among the strongest players or do we enter tournaments where we know we will have little chance of winning, because of the strong field, but it’ll be good ‘experience’?
We have more control over our environment than we think.
Mike Tyson vs 16 ‘Tomato Cans’
I’ve been reading a lot recently about Mike Tyson and his trainer, Cus D’Amato. I will be writing more about those two in the future because they are really interesting. One thing that really stood out to me was the way in which they select their opponents. It’s slightly different to table tennis because once you become a professional boxer you no longer fight in tournaments and instead train for individual fights. However, the psychology and reasoning behind their selection of opponents is still very interesting.
Look at Mike Tyson’s early professional fights (between March 1985 and January 1986) when he was still just a teenager. In his first 16 fights he was undefeated (this actually continued for 37 fights before he was beaten in 1990 by Buster Douglas) and he actually won every one of these by knockout or technical knockout. Not one of them went the distance. Of those 16 first fights Tyson won 12 in the very first round and 6 in the first minute of the first round! I’m no expert when it comes to boxing but if you are able to knockout someone out, and win the fight, in about 30 seconds then that makes me think that you are probably leagues above your opponent.
And boxing has a name for these kinds of opponents; ‘bums’, ‘stiffs’, ‘tomato cans‘. They are easy opponents. Guaranteed wins.
But why would Tyson be fighting ‘tomato cans’ and ‘bums’? Fighters that believe they have no realistic chance of beating him and therefore aren’t even going to put up a fight. What is Tyson possibly going to learn by knocking out some ‘bum’ with a single punch just 30 seconds into the first round? At first I couldn’t really get my head around it. It would be like putting one of the countries top junior table tennis players into a random local league tournament and having them beat everyone 11-1 and 11-2.
Then I started watching more videos of Tyson, and in particular his trainer Cus D’Amato. Slowly the logic became clear. Tyson was developing the habit of winning. He was becoming a winner. A champion.
Winning is a habit
You don’t become a winner by losing over and over. That sounds obvious but I think in table tennis we often fall into this trap. We are constantly going up against opponents who are much better than us, losing (as we expected to), and then having people tell us it was good ‘experience’ and we shouldn’t get upset because “He’s a really good player!”
I’ve definitely fallen into this routine with Sam too. He has reached the stage now where his game is solid enough that he is ready to start competing. So, what did we do? We entered him into loads of tournaments where we knew that realistically he had little chance of beating the players he would come up against. We’d be happy if he won just one match, or got some sets against people, or hung in there, or felt like he played well.
This is not helping Sam to develop the habit of winning! If anything he has probably started to get used to losing. At this point he has played three ranking tournaments (the Bristol GP, the Cippenham 1-Star, and the Nottingham GP). Between them he has played 21 competitive matches and won just two. He hasn’t played badly. Lots of those matches have been against players who have been playing for years and are ranked very highly. But still, he has slowly been getting used to losing. This is far from ideal.
My coach when I started playing table tennis was Mike Pantin. He coaches at Crusaders Table Tennis Club near Croydon in South London. He was a master at helping young players develop the habit of winning. At the time I didn’t realise what he was doing. I thought he was just really keen to win Division 4 (the bottom division) of the Sutton League, for some unknown reason, and therefore would always make sure Crusaders had a really strong team of young players in it.
Looking back now obviously that wasn’t what was going on. The Crusaders team in Division 4 was Mike Pantin’s way of giving kids that he had coached and taught the game to the chance to use what they had learnt against weak opponents who they should be able to beat. It meant that they were able to feel like they were good. That all the practice had been worth it. They developed confidence and could play in a relaxed way because they believed they were going to win. It also gave them the chance to be able to attack freely and not worry about missing because you could always win a few points back later playing conservatively if you needed to.
They have some of the old results on the Sutton & District League website so I am going to list a couple below to show you what I mean…
- In the 2010/2011 season top of the Sutton League Division 4 averages was a 15 year old Mickel Miller. Mickel is now 19 and ranked #41 in the U21s despite concentrating more on his football than his table tennis. The point is, back in 2010/11 Mickel was way too good to play in Division 4 of the Sutton League but winning 54/54 matches in a season must do wonders for your confidence and also give you opportunities to try out loads of new tricks, techniques and tactics without the pressure of worrying about losing. The following season (2011/12) Mickel finished with 82.5% in Division 1, the top division!
- The year before that, in the 2009/2010 season, it was Liam Grant who was top of the averages in Division 4 with 92%. Probably lots of the other players in the division thought that Liam was too strong to be playing in it. Afterall, he was ranked #37 in England at the U13 level, despite only being an U11! But he was only 10 years old, still in primary school, and had never played in a local league against adults before. Sure he probably could have been put straight into Division 3 (or even perhaps Division 2) and he would have done okay but instead why not put him in the bottom division and let him gets some wins, build confidence, and develop his own style of play in a safe environment. That’s the key!
Mickel and Liam we’re given the chance to play competitively against players who were clearly much weaker than them in the same way that Mike Tyson was given plenty of fights against pretty useless boxers to get him started. They were allowed to develop the habit of winning.
A big fish in a small pond
Usually we use the term ‘a big fish in a small pond’ to describe someone who thinks or acts like they are a big shot because they are surrounded by less experienced, knowledgeable or skillful people. It has negative connotations. But when you are just starting out being a big fish in a small pond can be the best thing for you.
Malcolm Gladwell touched on this idea in his book David and Goliath and he believes that jumping into a highly competitive space too soon can have long-lasting psychological effects. Here is a really great short clip from an interview where he shares his thoughts.
The problem with ‘Expert in a Year’
The problem with the Expert in a Year challenge is that there simply isn’t the time. We are trying to cram everything into 12 months. The further along we go with the challenge the more I think there are better ways to do things. Slower ways.
Year 1: It would have been better to have Sam practice with me and at clubs for 12 months straight before playing any ‘competitive’ matches.
Year 2: Then he could have entered Division 5 of the Central League and spent the next 12 months continuing to train regularly and also getting 100% (or close to it) playing in the bottom division of his local league.
Year 3: By that point he would have a really good game and also have experience and confidence when it comes to competing. After 24 months it would then be a good time to move him up to a more competitive division locally (probably division 2 of the Central League so that he could still get plenty of wins) and also to start on the tournament circuit playing in Grand Prix’s and other ranking tournaments.
Year 4 (and beyond): He would probably be ready to move up to the top division of the Central League and also to start moving up the Bands at Grand Prix events.
If you are in a similar situation to Sam (an adult beginner who is serious about becoming an expert at table tennis) then this is roughly the route that I would suggest you follow. Get your fundamentals correct in the first year and learn the game properly. Then develop the habit of winning in your second year by competing in the lowest division in your local league. Then move on to national tournaments and worry about trying to get a ranking.
The key is thinking long-term. Before I started this challenge with Sam I thought that it might be possible to ‘hack’ table tennis. To find shortcuts that could be exploited to improve much faster than everyone else. Now I am convinced that it is much more effective to focus long-term and becoming a true expert at our sport takes many years. I am even going to change the tagline of my site from, ‘Become an expert at table tennis… FAST!’ to something else because I just don’t believe that looking for shortcuts or trying to rush/do it quickly is the way to go.
Take your time. Be patience. Plan the next few years. Spend plenty of time getting the fundamentals right and then don’t throw yourself into the deep end right away. Start at the bottom and develop the habit of winning. This is the message I am going to be sharing from now on. It’s more like, ‘Become an expert at table tennis… SLOWLY!’