Table tennis coach Ben Larcombe has challenged the ‘expert = 10,000 hours practise’ rule.
Authors such as Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Matthew Syed (Bounce), and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code( have demonstrated that throughout history all ‘experts’ have performed 10,000 hours of practice in their respective fields before their expertise was eventually recognised.
It means that geniuses are made not born. It also means there are no shortcuts. Anyone wanting to become pre-eminent in their field just has to do the work.
Larcombe disagrees. He believes that in some fields shortcuts can be found. In table tennis, for instance, the perfecting of winning shots over volley returns yields higher pay-offs when it comes to winning games.
To put his idea to the test he set out to take his friend, table tennis novice Sam Priestley, from novice to champion in a year.
England’s table tennis governing body, ETTA, said there were 25,000 people currently playing the game competitively. To become an ‘expert’ meant Sam would have to be ranked in the top 1% (250 or higher).
Sam, a 25 year-old from London, described himself as ‘un-sporty’ and well behind the average adult when it came to balance, agility, and fitness. Nonetheless the two friends decided to give it a fair go and see what happened.
Coach Ben soon realised that not all competitive sports were the same, however. A closed game, like golf, is very different to an open one like table tennis. In the latter when your opponent notices a weakness they will exploit it. While in golf there is nothing an opponent can do.
In response to this Sam had to become reasonably proficient in all areas of the sport rather than just concentrating on perfecting winning shots. This meant he had less time to practice his game-ending shots.
Nonetheless Sam improved week by week. He said the one-on-one coaching was a real luxury enabling him to correct mistakes before they became habits.
After one year and roughly 500 hours practice Sam became a very good player, though not quite in the top 250.
But Ben hasn’t given up. He still believes it is possible to go from novice to expert in one year. He’s looking to try again with another table tennis novice. This time, he says, he’ll double the practice hours and start with someone who has some degree of natural talent (a mandatory prerequisite according to the above-mentioned books).