The Power of Practice

Ever since I first read the book Bounce by Matthew Syed I’ve been a big believer in the power of practice. Actually, even before I’d read the book I had seen the dramatic effects regular deliberate practice can have on young players’ table tennis ability.

The problem is, it’s so easy to forget and start doubting. There’s that little voice in your head that likes to tell you that it’s easy for everyone else and you’re the only one having to work so hard just to keep up. When learning a new skill this feeling can be magnified. “Surely everyone else wasn’t this bad when they first started?!”

About a month ago Welsh table tennis player and coach Ryan Jenkins put a challenge up on his Facebook profile. It was a video showing him bouncing a table tennis ball 29 times on the end of his blade. It didn’t look particularly smooth as he lunged from side-to-side in an attempt to keep the ball in the air, but 29 felt like a respectable score. And apparently it was his first attempt.

ryan jenkins pink pong challenge

The videos began flooding in and soon my Facebook newsfeed was full of videos of players achieving 30, 50, even 100+ scores. “It can’t be that difficult”, I thought to myself. I like a challenge, so I decided to have a go.

Bounce, bounce, miss.

Bounce, miss.

Bounce, bounce, bounce, miss.

This was tougher than I thought!

I kept at it for about five minutes but didn’t get much better. I thought perhaps I had a bad bat for it. Perhaps the little Butterfly logo on the end of my blade was responsible for the ball shooting off in all direction. I tried a few different bats, but it didn’t make any difference. I also tried a few different grips, but they didn’t help either.

The video camera and tripod went back in the cupboard and I did my best to block what had just happened from my mind.

A few days later Rory Scott (from Episode #10 of the podcast) uploaded a video of himself trying and failing to get above a score of about three or four (big respect to him for actually uploading it and not just deleting it). A few guys were having a joke in the comments about it being proof that Rory was “untalented” and I even managed my own “This is brilliant!” comment – not technically claiming that I had done much better than Rory, but certainly giving that impression.

Practice begins

Then last week, a couple of weeks after my initial attempt, I was early to a league match and decided to have another go – I was the first to arrive and quickly stopped once the other team showed up. I think I managed a high score of about 10.

The following evening I decided to have another go, at home (to the annoyance of my wife Katie), and got a score in the high teens on my first attempt. I kept at it for about 5 minutes and was consistently scoring in the twenties.

The day after I had another go in the morning and found myself regularly hitting 30-40. It was good enough to upload to Facebook now, but I decided not to as I was weeks too late and I was also keen to keep practising until I could get over 100.

A few days later, after less than half an hour of total practice, I could pretty much do over 100 every time. I’m not claiming it’s super impressive to get over 100, but there was a stage when I would have been over the moon to get a score of 10!

Where’s the proof you say? Here’s a video shot last week…

Lessons from the struggle

Here’s what I learnt from bouncing a ball on the end of my bat…

  1. Even if you start off being totally useless at something that doesn’t mean you can’t improve significantly with just a little bit of practice. I’m sure that some people were probably able to score 30+ on their first attempt, but most of us who have now got videos showing decent scores have probably done a little bit of practice. It’s not cool to talk about the practice, though.
  2. The improvement seems to come in between the practice. This was really interesting. I would have assumed that during the five minutes of practice my typical score would go up from say 10 to 25, then the next day I would start off getting 20s but by the end of the five minute be getting 50s, etc. It wasn’t like that at all, though. I might spend five minutes on Tuesday getting 10-20, then pick it up again on Wednesday and achieve a high score of 35 on my first attempt. It didn’t feel like I was getting any better during the five minutes of practice but then, the next day, the effects would show immediately.
  3. I only got better using the grip I’d practiced. I did all of my practice using the penhold grip. I decided at the end of the video to have a go using a hammer grip and I was back to scoring 3-5 bounces again. That was a bit of a shock too. How different can it be? Apparently, pretty different!

So, I hope this blog post and video encourage you. Obviously, there are no prizes for being able to bounce the ball up and down on the bottom of your bat, but the same principle of practice applies to table tennis in general, learning a specific table tennis skill (such as a new serve), or anything else you are learning in life.

If you believe in the power of practice (or develop a growth mindset, as it is often called) you will be much more likely to persevere, put in the necessary work, and reap the rewards. Write yourself off as “untalented” at the first sign of struggle and you’ll give up. That was actually the main lesson I took from reading Bounce.

Perhaps talent does exist, but if it does it’s out of our control anyway so there isn’t really any point worrying about it.

Do the practice and the results will come. Even if it is just a little bit every day.

And don’t get too stressed out if you feel like you’ve done a whole training session and you aren’t any better by the end than you were at the start. Perhaps the transformation won’t become apparent until the next time you pick up a bat.