Table Tennis Mastery

Can you master a skill – any skill – just by practicing it until your fingers bleed?

A few years ago writer Malcolm Gladwell speculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice, give or take, to master any skill. Writing music, playing football, running a business, walking a tightrope, you name it, it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

Talent, in other words, is only one part of the mix. An enormous amount of hard work and well-directed practice is equally if not in most cases more important.

Now a ping-pong coach has put his hunch – that anyone within reason could achieve expertise in ping-pong with sufficient, well-directed training – to the test. He spent the whole of last year training his very un-sporting friend, Sam Priestley, table tennis, one hour at least every day – he estimates roughly 500 hours (not 10,000 hours) of training. How well did Mr. Priestley do? See for yourself. In this film there is a second of film for every day he trained.

So in the end, it seems, 500 hours is not enough. Experts looking at his performance suggest he is still well below the level he aspired to – among the top 250 players in the country. They are of the opinion you have to start younger, attain a certain flexibility, develop your speed of reflexes from a young age, and so on.

But I am not convinced. Who’s to say what another 9,500 hours wouldn’t achieve (and remember, there are only 8760 hours in one year)? And it strikes me that table tennis coaches are the worst people to ask about Sam’s relative skill level, since they have a vested interest in his failing. We all like to retain a professional mystique, after all, a bit of the voodoo, even when what we are doing is fundamentally guesswork. For example, all teachers know deep down that students either teach themselves or they don’t, and there’s not much that teachers can do about it.

So if I were Sam I would keep plodding away in my kitchen. Only another 19 years, and he could be the 250th best player in the UK.

Read about the experiment here.

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