Hard Work and Confidence

A few days ago I was playing table tennis at a club. I played a guy who I would of lost to comfortably when I first joined. Last night I played a best of three games and came away having just lost to him. In reality if my serves (which I changed last week) were more consistent then I would of probably won. I was happy with my performance and after the game the guy came up to me and said "you have really improved, your game has come on massively, how long have you been playing for now?". I replied "I have been playing just over 6 and a half months now but I have been playing a lot in that time". His next words were the most pertinent "oh, well at least you are getting there". He suddenly went from a guy who thought I was incredible to have come so far to a guy that was unimpressed that I was just like everyone else. He is not the first person to look at me that way. If you play more than everyone else you obviously should be better, right? Even if your total time on the table isn't as much as anyone else. The truth is dedication isn't impressive its just too close to obsession and obsession has negative connotations. You also aren't born special if you work hard. It isn't some innate, god given, talent that will make you a table tennis master. Basically, if push comes to shove, anyone can do it.

That isn't quite true though is it? I am outside on my table I have had for the past few months every day. I do a minimum of a box of 120 balls in serves every single day. Usually, it is more and probably averages out at about 2.5 boxes. So nigh on 300 balls a day are served by me. That is since April, which was about 2 months ago so I've probably stood outside and knocked just under 18000 balls. I also attend four table tennis clubs and I am coached before one of them by Karl and I also have a separate session with Ben. I also do three gym sessions along side my table tennis. So no, my improvement is not magic. It is basically a ton of sacrifice and a bit of luck that I have the flexibility to do this. It is also psychologically tough because progression doesn't quite work how you hope it will. It is basically a case of diminishing marginal returns. I might play four times more table tennis than I guy who plays once a week at his local club but I don't become four times better. Some of the time I am actually going backwards in performance while they go on a continually upward trajectory.

Take my serves, for example, I can put spin on a ball all day long now. I can put side spin, top spin and, usually, backspin. I can do that forehand and backhand. That came within 2 months of when I first started. I then realised there were serves that I could do that made me even better so I tried to do those. I suddenly found out, two weeks ago, that my serves were going to cause me to hit a giant ceiling. Long term, I would need a different serve. For two weeks I have served into the net. I have lost games pretty badly. Then, as quick as I changed my serve, I started to get the serves on the table and, closer to how I wanted them. If you go back to the guy who plays once a week. Sure, he found out he could get his serves a little better over time. Sure, he improved his spin. However, he will never manage to disguise his serve. He will never get quite as much spin. He will eventually be left behind. The psychologically tough part is that I have to wait to leave people behind. What has started happening is I will get beaten in games, then I will hammer someone for a game or two but lose the overall match. It is a combination of my lack of relaxation (I am working on it still) and my inconsistency. Yet, when it all comes together I do finally look like a decent table tennis player.

A few nights ago I had a few friends over for a bit of a party, everyone gradually moved towards the table, taking advantage of a sunny evening. Ironically, when I bought the table I had no idea how social it would prove to be. Every single gathering we have had at our house has had some sort of table tennis game attached to it. The fascinating thing about this gathering was there was various levels of experience at this gathering. The main players where: myself, as the experienced player, my friend Ollie who plays with me a reasonable amount, Mark and Charlie who had never played before, Josh, who had played a fair bit but had, had no coaching and Sam who hadn't really played much table tennis but had clearly played racquet sports. I terms of results I dropped one game and didn't lose which was to be expected but I was pushed by Josh. Sam beat Ollie and Charlie. This is important because even though I did eventually win, I lost the first game against Josh and found it hard. Ollie lost to Sam which he shouldn't of and Charlie improved so quickly in the first hour.

When Charlie first got on the table he reminded me of the first time I played table tennis. He couldn't hit the ball. He used the bat to hit the ball into the air vertically. It was pretty painful for 5-10 mins. Then, after a couple of pointers, the bat angle started to change, the bat became more vertical to the table. The ball started to come back in a flatter way over the table. His serve, which started as a ball being tapped by the bat onto the table gradually increased in speed until it became a quick "no-spin" serve. It was actually incredible watching someone learn the fundamentals in just under an hour and, at least, hold his own against people who were much more experienced.

Ollie, by contrast, knows the basics of table tennis. Granted, he has virtually no arm movement in his shots and, like many people, he has developed his own unique way of playing table tennis but he is usually decent enough. He serves with a reasonable amount of backspin, serves consistently and attacks when he sees the opportunity. However, he lost to a guy who has virtually never played table tennis. Granted, Sam clearly has played racquet sports and has proper strokes that create a reasonable amount of topspin. However, he cannot serve and makes lots of mistakes. Usually, Ollie would punish every single serve Sam did. When I played Sam I won 11-3 three points I served into the net. I just punished everything Sam did wrong. Ollie would usually do the same. So why didn't he? It all comes down to expectations. It is the same reason I have losses against people I shouldn't. I expected Ollie to win, Ollie expected Ollie to win, even Sam expected Ollie to win. So Ollie wanted to make sure he won. Ollie went for the big hits. The shots that show "I am good at this". The forehand smashes, the loops, backhands. Everything was a winning shot. Some came off, lots didn't. Sam just had to play his game and Ollie forgot how to play his. As pressure mounted the shots got more erratic. Ollie didn't stop to think that Sam was never going to punish a more conservative shot or a less quick but better placed return. Not every attack needed to be a smash, yet, as I have experienced myself, expectation often leads to failure.

If we look at myself in my game against Josh. I was close to experiencing the same thing. I knew what sort of a player Josh would be. He would be fairly consistent, play with no spin, hit the ball hard and punish high balls. He would be able to deal with some spin but not heavy spin. I actually approached the first game a bit too "chilled". I thought I would walk it fairly easily, like I saw right through him. I also had been playing with everyone else prior to this and that had cause a slightly undesired effect of changing bits of my game. Obviously, you change your game depending on who you play. If you play a low level player they play in a different style to a top quality player a Robbie Savage vs. a Zidane if you will. However, the Robbie Savage will still be dangerous given the opportunity and can cause you to make mistakes. Zidane will always be dangerous but in a different, slightly more graceful, way. I thought at first, that an inexperienced player made me worse. However, this is not the case. It just causes you to use certain aspects of your game more and other aspects less. At first I wasn't given the luxury of adapting to playing Josh who as a "flat" player is not my favourite anyway.  Expectations didn't play too much of a part at first as I thought I would win so easily that I was quite relaxed. I didn't even play my usual serves I under hit them like I was "giving him a chance". In reality it gave me and excuse that if I lost that would be why. In the second game I remembered what I was doing and played far better. The third game brought expectations firmly back into my mind. I should of won comfortably, I should of broken away but its hard when all your mates are laughing at your missed points!

In summary, the party exposed two or three things related to the hard work I put in. Firstly, psychology can wipe hard work away in a blink of an eye. Secondly, a crisis of confidence can wipe it away even quick and thirdly, the basics can be learnt quicker than, even I, had realised. However, the nuance, the skill and the technique are so slow that it feels like you often drift backwards before you take the next leap forwards.


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