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How I will beat my daughter’s boyfriend at table tennis: by deliberate practice

February 9, 2015

I try to be open-minded, honestly I do. I’d like to think that I will consider opinions that don’t necessarily jive with mine. To a degree. If you’re a blathering idiot, then all bets are off. If you’re reasonable, maybe I’ll listen. Maybe. Over half a century of lived life is tough to reverse. Especially when it comes to my theory on my daughter and her boyfriends.

My daughter Katie, Princess of the Universe, is dating Conor. He seems a decent, pleasant and caring chap, although maybe my ‘first meeting handshake strategy’ – breaking fingers if possible, cracking knuckles at minimum – did scare him a little, as I eye balled him for 30 seconds. And squeezed.

Making an earnest effort to be open-minded, when I had him on my own at the bar in the pub, I asked him, ‘What do you like about my daughter?’ There is only one response, and to be fair, he nailed it: ‘Sir, I worship the ground your daughter walks on. She is the beacon of light in my otherwise horrible, miserable existence.’

I resisted the temptation to attach a GPS tracking unit to him, and got talking about his hobbies. He claimed to be a decent table-tennis player. Subsequently, judging by the photos of his collection of trophies at home he’s a very good table tennis player, and so we’re set up for a challenge game when he comes over next month.

I’ve always loved table tennis myself, it’s a great family game or one to get the laughs going when larking around with your mates. It’s thought that the game was first developed by British military officers in India and South Africa, who brought it back to the UK. They officers used cigar box lids as bats, rounded wine bottle corks as balls, and books for an improvised net. From there, early rackets were often pieces of parchment stretched upon a frame, and the sound generated in play gave the game its first nicknames of ‘whiff-whaff’ and ‘ping-pong’.

The name ‘ping-pong’ was trademarked by British manufacturer Jaques & Son in 1901, when the name came to be used for the game played by their rather expensive equipment, with other manufacturers calling it ‘table tennis’. A similar situation arose in the United States, where Jaques sold the rights to the ping-pong name to Parker Brothers, who enforced their trademark.

Years later, James W. Gibb, a British enthusiast of table tennis, discovered novelty celluloid balls on a trip to the US and found them to be ideal for the game. This was followed by E.C. Goode who invented the modern version of the racket by fixing a sheet of pimpled, or stippled, rubber to the wooden blade, enabling more spin to be put on the ball.

Into the 1970s, and players found that using bicycle tyre repair glue to put rubber on a blade dramatically increases the speed and spin that can be produced. This discovery is often credited to Dragutin Surbek of Yugoslavia, and Tibor Klampar of Hungary. This discovery is called speed glue.

I tell you, read my blogs and you find out my head is a veritable google of information you’ve never heard of – or want to hear again.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my tactics to beat this young buck and assert my fatherly control over the relationship with Princess Katie of the Universe. I’ve re-read Matthew Syed’s book Bounce in preparation. so here are my thoughts so far:

Mix up serves of different length and spin I’ll use examples of advanced serves include medium-long, deep, short, down-the-line, pure spin, pure speed, etc. Serves to the elbow tend to be very effective, since the receiver must quickly decide (and often does not in time) to use a forehand or backhand.

Develop a third-ball attack This is where you serve, the receiver receives, and you nail one in for a winner. An example is a short backspin serve, followed by a long push, then a powerful loop. He won’t see it coming.

Keep your eyes mostly on the opponent’s bat when receiving a serve If you have ever seen World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner play, you can see that he makes a quick glimpse at how high the ball is tossed, then watches back down to the racket. If you keep your eyes on the ball, the server will baffle you with his deceptions.

Mix up your returns when receiving Most players too often tend to push, allowing their opponents to start the offense. I’ll be mixing up loops, drives, pushes, chops, etc. provides for excellent variation and a bewildered opponent.

Find some cool serves to experiment with. Examples in my repertoire include a high, heavy backspin serve that bounces on my side near the net, on the opponent’s side near the net, and goes back over to your side. Or you can go about 20 feet to the side of the table and, standing sideways, nail the ball on the side so that it arcs back to the table and opponent.

I’m going to be using Inside-out off-the-bounce sidespin forehand counterloop – say that fast five times – and my forehand pendulum serve from their backhand corner in game two. The serve is usually a mixture of backspin and sidespin, using the ball’s direction and spin to attempt to force the receiver to return to the server’s backhand court, where the server is waiting. Game over.

Watching the table tennis pros on You Tube, it is certainly possible to learn a lot about high level techniques and tactics, and I’ve done my homework and I’m ready for Conor, just going to practice, practice, practice now.

Fortunately, it’s not down to talent. Successful sportsmen have long understood the value of time and practice in perfecting their skills, and the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is the process required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits.

Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit, then set up triggers to help you remember the action, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition on this action with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking, around for some time, was reinforced by research by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson who added a crucial tweak – Deliberate practice. It’s not a minor change. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately – whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill – you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a dutiful daily commitment to long hours of practice is not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough. Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentlessly focus. Results are carefully monitored and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

I know from may years of academic study myself, clumsy efforts to learn musical instruments and a passion for chess, that you have to do the same thing again and again to hardwire it into ‘long-term muscle memory, which I’ve found out is stored in the cerebellum. It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it once you’ve hardwired it into the skill centre of the cerebellum through practice.

Leonardo da Vinci coined the word cerebellum in 1504 when he was making anatomical wax castings of the brain. The cerebellum is the size of a kiwi fruit and tucked under the much larger cerebrum in the base of your skull. The average cerebellum only weighs one-quarter of a pound but ounce-for-ounce packs a walloping punch. Although the cerebellum is only 10% of total brain volume it holds more than 50% of the brain’s neurons.

Anyway, back to Ericsson, he studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

This success led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorising is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information, and the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s famous formula for genius: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Matthew Syed picks up on the 10,000-hour rule in his book Bounce, recalibrating it to 10 years but he also argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in the field. Those that start their pursuit as children have a head start and an advantage — plenty of time to get those 10,000 hours in, and Ericsson showed this.

Closer analysis of success stories prove that the element of innate talent plays a lesser role in achieving expert status than one might think. Neither did Ericsson find ordinary people who worked harder than anyone else, and yet never made it to the top.  In other words, he never found people worked hard and never made it. As Alexander Fleming remarked of his penicillin bacillus: It didn’t just stand up and say, ‘I produce penicillin’, you know. It was all that advance preparation with the Petri dishes. It’s blood, sweat and tears.

Finally, it also goes some way to explaining why England’s footballers don’t achieve more. We’ve only just introduced the Academy training system for our youngest, most capable players, whereas in Spain and Holland it’s been in place for years. Barcelona’s La Masia is founded on the principles of Ajax’s Toekomst Academy where youth teamers will have five contact hours a day, four days a week over up to 10 years. You do the maths. (Hint: it’s about 10,000 hours).

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in deliberate practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

Conor has got his 10,000 hours badge for table-tennis, with his gluttony of fine trophies standing proud on the sideboard at home. He’s earned his stripes, maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance, to be regarded as a table tennis expert.

For me, I’ve two weeks until the gladiatorial exchange. My goal is to practice at the edge of my current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too, and I think I can get him nervous with some subtle psychological mind games. First up, I’m going to tell him that my deliberate practice makes me a better player than Forrest Gump, and my Inside-out off-the-bounce sidespin forehand counterloop will knock him sideways.

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