Friday 18 July 2014

Expert in a Year Shows Great Progress at Half Way Mark!

Expert in a Year is a new project created by Ben Larcombe to take a beginner level table tennis player and turn them into an expert in just 12 months. Ben, already writing on his site and now also the expert writer at table tennis page has this year been putting his efforts into Check out the video below if you want to know more about this awesome undertaking!

Hi Ben and Sam. Thanks for taking a little bit of time to answer some questions for me about Expert in a Year. Congratulations Sam on your progress so far and well done on keeping your great commitment to this half way point of the challenge!

Ben: What was your inspiration for the Expert in a Year Challenge? Where did the idea come from and what made you want to dedicate a whole 12 months of your time to this project?

Well it was something I’ve been thinking and planning in my head for quite a few years now. I guess when I moved to train at Grantham Academy (2007-2009) I really realised, for the first time, the astonishing power of practice in table tennis. I became convinced that high quantity and quality of practice was the biggest factor in becoming a top player.

Then I continued to study the topic of deliberate practice and expertise at university during my coaching and sport science degree. I read all the pop culture books on the subject, dug into the academic papers and then spent a year investigating ‘The role of deliberate practice in table tennis expertise’ for my final year dissertation. You can read a blog post on my results from the dissertation here (

I started coaching full-time in 2011 and my biggest frustration was how difficult it was to create a top player purely down to logistical reasons. There simply wasn’t enough time, money and resources available to give players the quantity and quality of practice they would need to see really dramatic results. I began to dream about what the perfect environment and player would look like and then came up with the idea of the Expert in a Year challenge, high quality practice every single day for a year with the goal of becoming an “expert” player by the end of the year. Achieving in a year what it took me about ten years to achieve!

I assumed there was a good chance I’d never have the opportunity to actually put the theory into practice but then a good friend of mine Sam got into table tennis recreationally and it all just kind of came together. I asked him if he was up for it and he said “why not”.

Ben and Sam undertaking a great table tennis challenge. Expert in a Year!

Sam: Similarly, what made you commit to 12 months of this challenge and wanting to learn this level of table tennis?

Naivety! To be honest I didn’t really have a clue what I was getting myself into. I thought that 365 hours wasn’t very long and I was lured in by this “shortcut” to getting very good at table tennis. I’d thought for a while that I’d like to become world class at something. I’m quite good at a lot of things, but there’s nothing I can really point at and say “I’m an expert in that”.

On top of that my personality is one that gets easily excited by potential projects, and I’m very quick to dive in and give them a go. But I almost always completely underestimate the amount of work involved. In reality it is 365 hours of one-one training, but once you add in all the admin, travelling, self training, matches, video watching, training camps it ends up being 3-4 times that amount. Plus all the training is very high intensity mentally. I need a lot more sleep than I did before I started, I’m eating more and I still have to do all my other work. My social life has pretty much been wiped out, when I finally have some free time I have no energy left. Plus table tennis is so much more complicated than I thought it would be!

Don’t get me wrong, it’ll all be worth it when in January when I look back!

Highlights from Week 2. Lots of videos to follow the progress!

Ben: How difficult did you think the goal you set would be to achieve when you started this challenge and how do you think your progress so far sits so far in line with your goals?

So originally we were going to aim for a ranking inside the England top 400. I saw that as quite achievable and also I think it is a similar level to the 2000 rating in the US, which Alex Polyakov ( achieved in two and a half years. Perhaps it is just below 2000, it’s hard to compare the two systems. I spoke to Alex extensively about his project and became convinced that with enough practice near enough anybody could achieve that kind of level of play.

Then I contacted Table Tennis England out of curiosity to find out how many players they had registered in clubs and leagues up and down the country. They told me that there are roughly 25,000 active, registered players that compete and about 100,000 if you include people that play regular recreational table tennis. I think they call that “basement” table tennis in the States.

So I bumped up our goal to top 250, as this would technically put Sam in the top 1% of registered players. As I wrote in a status recently, I think to achieve this in a year is ‘nearly’ impossible. But that’s what makes it so exciting.

It’s really difficult to tell if we are currently on track to achieve anything like that kind of a ranking by the end. We are aiming to turn Sam into a super aggressive player who attacks as much as possible. That means that at the moment if he is missing all his shots he can lose to anyone. I’m judging his performance more on his decision making and technique than the results. We are hoping at some point, before the end of the year, it’ll all click together and he’ll be able to get the majority of his killer shots onto the table.

Sam: Did you think the goal was reasonable at the beginning of the challenge? How has your perception of Ben's goal for you changed over the months?

Again I really didn’t know what being a top 250 player meant! I didn’t follow table tennis, I didn’t know anything about the sport and I certainly didn’t realise just how much skill was involved. Ben said it was possible and so I believed him.

Once we started everyone we spoke to said it was impossible, or if they were too polite to say so just have us a strange look. And after learning a bit about table tennis I’m inclined to believe them. It’s a tremendously complex sport played at such fast reaction times. As time has gone on it has got more and more daunting but Ben says he still thinks it’s possible. I’ve played a couple of people around the 500 mark and thought to myself “my technique is better than theirs!”. If only I could read their shots and serves while getting my own shots consistently on the table I could beat them. That’s a big if, but we still have 6 months of training, a few camps and lots of practice matches ahead of us.

Ben: How has Expert in a Year shaped and developed your ideas about coaching table tennis? What do you see is the most significant thing you have learned so far?

I guess my principles have pretty much stayed the same. Place importance on learning the fundamentals from the start, work heavily on correct technique and then progress to irregular drills, serve and return stuff, working on decision making and finally match play.

I’ve learned loads of specific tools and drills that I’ve never used before though, especially things that work during the early stages of table tennis development. The biggest things for me have been;

  1. The importance of mastering the correct stance and balance from the very beginning
  2. The importance of learning movement patterns from the start and away from the table.
  3. The benefit of shadow play, for all shots and movement and in front of a mirror if possible.
  4. The effectiveness of feeding yourself balls to hit when learning strokes.

I feel like my ‘coaching process’ of how best to take a complete beginner and teach them to play has improved massively over the last six months.

Sam's highlights from week 18 of the challenge.

Sam: What has been the biggest challenge for you so far during Expert in a Year?

Being motivated to put in time when Ben isn’t around. I find it difficult to get motivated when he is around, but if I can’t be bothered or slack then I’m letting him down and wasting the time he’s putting in. It’s a lot easier to disappoint/let-down myself than to disappoint Ben...

Ben: Essentially the first 6 months focused on developing important techniques, now looking ahead you will focus on point structuring and tactics and matchplay. Do you think Sam has an adequate base of skills to move forward and complete the challenge?

I think we are very close. We are still doing a bit of work on technique still because I think it’s so important and Sam still has a few things he needs to change on certain strokes.

Sam is going to be away at a few training camps over the summer getting some really intensive training, in Denmark and Hungary. I know that there will be some more technical improvements made on those camps so the plan is to keep the door open until the end of August. From September-December, the final third, we will just do the best with what Sam’s got. We will need to focus all our energy on how to win points, tactics, the psychology of the game and just winning in general.

As I always say, there are no points for looking good. You have to find a way to win!

Sam: Which techniques in the past 6 months have you found most enjoyable to learn and alternately most difficult to learn?

I suppose least enjoyable and most difficult are probably the same! It’s really tough to continually fail and mess up shots. On the flip side there is a lot of enjoyment when I pick up a new shot quickly and efficiently. Most enjoyable is probably the backhand flick. It feels quite natural and is very satisfying when it comes off.

Blocking is my least favourite activity. I’m rubbish at it and constantly getting my fingers battered by the ball, little bits of pain to remind me just how crap I am.

Ben: So far we have seen a great level of dedication to learning from Sam, how did you think Sam would go with the challenge when you began?

Yeah, Sam has been brilliant. He’s managed to fit all the training around his other commitments and makes sure that we find the time each day to get the sessions in.
I have to say, before we started, I had no idea how dedicated he would be. I knew for sure that he had no idea what he’d got himself in for. I knew how much work it was going to be for him. I don’t think he had a clue! I thought there was a chance that a couple of months in he might say he just didn’t have the time to continue with it, or something like that, but he’s stuck with it to the halfway mark now so I’m sure he’ll see it out.

Sam: What has been your biggest goal for this challenge aside from Ben's main goal for you?

My biggest goal? Well I suppose I want to get to the level when I can beat any of my friends or anyone I meet at table tennis. If I get to the end of the 12 months and someone can waltz up, having only played recreationally and beat me I’d be pretty disappointed. I’d also like to be able to give Ben a good game.

Recent highlights of week 27 uploaded July 9th!

Ben: Now that Sam has begun his matchplay phase, how do you feel his level is sitting and how have you planned out the next few months for him?

We’ve been going down to a few local clubs so that Sam can play matches against some of the regulars there. I’m very happy with how he is playing.

He looks really good knocking up compared to most players so when he asks to play games I think a lot of newish players are a bit hesitant. They assume he is going to wipe the floor with them. When we first started going down to clubs in May Sam was really struggling. He knew what to do he just couldn’t do it. Everybody plays so different and it was really hard for him to adjust to whatever they were doing. He’s got much better now though and it’s great watching him play from week to week and seeing such massive improvements in such a short space of time.

As I said earlier, July and August and very busy with training camps and other training. Sam will continue to go to as many local clubs as possible however and just learn to play against different types of player.

From September onwards we will get very serious with tactics, filming all his games, and analysing what he needs to do in certain situations etc. Practice will be completely based around things we’ve spotted in the matches that need to be worked on.

Sam: How do you feel in matches with your new skills compared to before? Do you think the amount of hours you have put in to Expert in a Year has been worth it for you?

To be honest it’s not really coming out yet. I still lose to some very average recreational players, (in fact if it wasn’t for some tricky servers I’d probably lose to a lot more!). I reckon this is for two main reasons:
  1. I’m trying to play like an ultra aggressive top 250 player, which means attempting shots I don’t have the skill or feeling to execute consistently.
  2. I’ve only really played against Ben and now that I’m starting to play other people, and their ever varying styles. Their shots have different amounts and types of spin than Ben’s, which really throws me off and means my shots than in training are so beautiful and elegant, look awkward and always miss.

We’re at the stage now though where I’m very quickly getting noticeably better at matches. In a couple of months I reckon it’ll really show!

Ben: What kind of obstacles have you run into with Expert in a Year? What has been the biggest challenge to overcome so far?

It’s actually been relatively smooth sailing. At least I think so! We have both been surprised to see a consistent and significant improvement to Sam’s game week-by-week. Obviously we were expecting him to improve but we were worried that we might have weeks and perhaps even months when it seemed Sam wasn’t improving or had hit a plateau. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened at all.

There have been a few minor challenges. Sam has had issues getting his wrist movement correct on the backhand. I think that is pretty much 100% sorted now but it was one of those problems that seemed to drag on forever back in March and April. Sam has also had a few back problems and we’ve missed training because of injury. There doesn’t seem to be much we could have done about that and it always seems to have flared up quite randomly instead of after stretching for a shot or something.

One final thing that we have discussed together a few times is simply fitting in this level of training around work and life in general. It’s not easy! There is always a ‘good’ excuse for missing training. And I’m not even talking about needing a rest day or not feeling very well. We have pretty much just ploughed through whenever we’ve felt like that. It’s things like weddings, holidays, family meals, birthdays, anniversaries, days out etc. etc. If you took the day off and skipped training every time one of us had one of these we’d never get anything done! It’s really tough. It means that both of us have had to leave parties early, or rush back from somewhere late at night, in order to get the training in. We’ve both been late to things we shouldn’t have been late for and woken up at the crack of dawn to get other work done. As far as I can see this is the biggest obstacle to seeing significant results and progress as an adult in a sport like table tennis.

Some of Sam's thoughts during the challenge.

Sam: If you were to start the last 6 months again is there anything you would try and do differently?

Well what I mainly did was to listen and do what Ben tells me, if I started again I’d still do that. What I think I should have done more of in my own time was to keep a diary, watch more YouTube table tennis videos and focus on service practice. They’re all pretty boring and I find it hard to motivate myself when Ben isn’t here, but they do make a very big difference.
Ben: What will be the most important things for Sam in moving forward so that he can reach the goal which the challenge has set for him?

I think that ‘winning’ is a rather strange thing. Why is it that some people seem to always win whilst others hardly ever win? In order to get a top 250 ranking Sam will need to beat a number of very good and experienced players. He’ll also have to not lose to players ranked 300th, or 400th, or 500th.

I see learning to win, whatever that means, as being the most important thing for Sam, from September onwards anyway. He needs to beat people. I’m not sure whether it’s best to be desperate to beat them, to focus exclusively on winning and not even think about the prospect of losing, or if he should just focus on playing his best and try winning as a side effect. It’s a really tricky one. We need to work out the best way to win and how best to turn Sam into a ‘winner’.

Sam: How confident are you that you can make it through to the end of the challenge and do you believe there is a realistic chance of you fulfilling the goal of the challenge?

Yeah I’m very confident we’ll see it through and finish the year. The only reason we wouldn’t is if something really significant happened in Ben or my life that made it unfeasible, such as an injury. I’m not going to just give up. Partly because I’d miss out on the match winning part of the training! What use is spending 6 months to look good technically and not be able to win matches?

Best of luck to you both, it is great to see Sam working hard for this and I really hope you can achieve or get as close as possible to the big goal at the end!!! :D

Thursday 17 July 2014

What Helps Table Tennis Skills Off the Table?

It's been a little while since I had any questions but this was asked by a friend of mine, what can help improve table tennis skills off the table? Not many players outside the international stage take as much time to develop off the table as they perhaps should and of course there are players out there who don't have as much access to table tennis facilities and so hopefully a few tips here may help. See more from my Coaching Blog.

William Henzell is a player who is no stranger to the international stage and also no stranger to the importance of physical training. In his buildup to the 2012 Olympic Games, William worked intensely off the table in his physical sessions. See the video below of his training session.

Henzell who has had his share of wins and close matches against top 50 ranked players in the world rates squats and lunges among the core of important exercises and also emphasises shadow play as a strong option especially for players who don't have as much access to a table.

William is also a strong mental player and you can find mental and concentration exercises on his website and blog at Using the promotional code MHTT you can get access to 3 videos free when you sign up (basic signup is free!).

Developing Table Tennis Skills Off the Table
Liam Pitchford, England's number 1 player also puts his off table focus on physical training, noting running and squats as two key exercises of importance. Building stamina and leg strength are two big areas to build in order to perform and focus well through long match days and also to build explosive power and good weight transfer, balance and footwork.

Shadow Play is often a type of practice which most people would scoff at, but the benefits are proven. Building correct technique and muscle memory over many repetitions of the right stroke will help build technical consistency. You can also further your shadow play into shadow drills. Remember being off the table doesn't mean you can't do proper exercises. Shadow footwork drills are great for building explosive movements and also fast reactive footwork speed, also combining correct footwork with strokes.

Of course there are exercises to help with your general sports skills, some more specific to table tennis. You can work on your hand eye coordination, anticipation and reaction speed. Chinese players in the national team can be seen with a coach throwing balls to the left and right of them while they react and try to kick the balls. This not only helps with their balance and ability to move with a low centre of gravity, but also helps their reaction timing and focus.

It's also noteworthy to mention that playing other sports can also help with your table tennis development as a lot of mental and physical principles are interchangeable between sports. Learning to be an athlete and develop athletic habits are crucial to succeeding in any sport, table tennis included. Playing other sports, and even mind-based strategy games like Chess or Chinese Checkers can help you expand your thought process.

The important thing about competing in other sports and activities is evaluating what skills you learn of value and how you can implement them into your table tennis development.

Of course there is a limited amount of development you can do off the table and nothing will top your on-table practice, but why not use all the time you have available to keep learning and improving your abilities. These are just a few examples but with some larger ideas of what to develop. Hopefully it helps those of you who need it! :)