August 14, 2013

Talent and Table Tennis

There's a lot of online debate and many books (from The Sports Gene to Bounce) and articles out about talent versus environment. How much are top athletes born and how much is made? There's no question that most of it is made, but is there such a thing as talent? Well, yeah. And remember that this is a blog, not a scientific study, so much of what I'm writing is based mostly on my experiences as a table tennis coach. I've also discussed the topic several times with my uncle, who chaired the neurology department at Johns Hopkins for many years.

Some say there is no such thing as talent, and that's nonsense. No two brains are identical, even at birth. There are many studies that show, for example, that IQ is mostly genetic, and yes, intelligence helps in table tennis. (It's a bit more complicated than that - there are different types of intelligence - but I'm not going to get into that here.) The brain is a complex organ that's evolved many built-in areas of specialization (verbal areas, spatial skills, facial recognition areas, etc.), but just as there are variations in the rest of the body, there are variations in these areas of the brain because of the variations in the DNA. Some of these areas help in sports such as table tennis, meaning some players start out with at least an initial advantage.

The real question is how much difference does it make? I'm pretty sure anyone who starts out very young, with top coaches and lots playing time, will become a top player, even a great player - but can they become the very best? I'm not sure. I've seen many players train and train as single-mindedly as anyone, and not get anywhere, while others do far less work and pull ahead. Perhaps an "untalented" kid who starts at age 5 can seem to be a "talented" kid by age 7. But what about the "talented" kid who also starts at age 5? However, the law of diminishing returns is how the "untalented" one can catch up. As the years go by, the amount and quality of the training becomes more and more important and where the player started in terms of "talent" becomes less important. So the question is how much, in the end, that initial "talent" mattered? Hard to say.

Oh, but what is talent you ask? It is a natural aptitude or skill for a particular activity. Since table tennis involves a number of diverse activities, the talent that makes up a top table tennis player is a combination of many of these. There is also a difference in mental versus body talent. If someone is born with more fast-twitch muscles - which you can't really increase afterwards - that's body talent. If someone is born with more hand-eye coordination than others, that's brain talent. (Don't believe that a brain can be born with natural hand-eye coordination? Then how is a chameleon born with the ability to snatch flies out of the air with its tongue? Okay, that's tongue-eye coordination, but same idea. There are many other examples, such as monkeys and squirrels that can almost flawlessly jump from tree branch to tree branch.) Here are just a few of the skills needed for table tennis:

  1. Hand-eye coordination
  2. Ability to control body
  3. Ability to make smooth and controlled movements
  4. Ability to track the ball with the eyes
  5. Mental skills (many)
  6. Ability to mimic
  7. Ability to repeat a motion
  8. Reflexes (big topic here - this is mostly sport specific and learned.)
  9. Speed (fast twitch muscles)

The chances that a player hits the jackpot with all of the above, and just happens to not only be a player but have the right circumstances to become a top player, is minute. However, of the pool of players who do have these circumstances, some will start out ahead in most of these attributes.

Some elite players refuse to accept the idea that talent does count (at least at the highest levels), for several reasons. First, they became highly successful because they often believe they will be the best if they outwork the others. So there's an inherent bias toward believing that, even if it's not necessarily true. No coach wants to tell a player that he's not as talented as this other guy, but if you work hard, you can be second best!!! So they don't, but often it is true. (On the other hand, the less-talented one will usually come out on top in the long run if he works hard simply because the more talented one doesn't work as hard.)  Second, those who are successful would rather attribute it to how hard they worked than on being lucky to be talented. Third, elite players train with other elite players, and rarely work on a regular basis for years with a non-talented player. Those who have quickly see the different in inherent talent among junior players, just as the juniors themselves do.

On the other hand, since the players that start out more talented are usually the ones that stick with it and work hard, since they have more noticeable improvement when they do, while the less talented ones get frustrated and tend to leave. This skews the stats, leaving us with fewer untalented ones who trained for years alongside the more talented ones. It can become self-perpetuating, as the more talented ones work harder and get ahead, thereby "proving" that the harder-working ones get ahead. Or the reverse, that the more talented ones get ahead, since the ones who started out better tend to end up better - but that's because they were both more talented and worked harder - but the hard work often comes about because of their initial talent.

The kids in our camps this summer are good examples of differences in "talent." Here's a listing of some younger beginning players I worked with who said they had never played before, though of course we don't really know their backgrounds. (These are the more interesting cases that stood out in my mind; there were many more.)

  • Player A, age 5. He picked up forehand and backhand very easily. Strokes were smooth from the very start. By end of week was smacking in shots as well as kids nearly twice his age, and beating most of them in games.
  • Player B, age 6. He picked up shots very quickly, and was smashing in forehands from day one. Not a lot of control - only about 20% of his smashes hit, but he was very athletic and liked to go for shots. Spent all week trying to get him to focus on consistency. Picked up good technique easily. Moved well like a natural athlete.
  • Player C, age 6. Could barely hit the ball. It took most of the week before he was able to hit two shots on the table. Very little hand-eye coordination. Tried hard most of the week, but sometimes got frustrated since others his age were obviously better.
  • Player D, age 7. Everything he did was jerky. I spent all week trying to smooth out his strokes, but after five days he still tended to jerk into every shot, so many of his shots were almost slap shots. He was probably the most frustrating one to work with because he so obviously wanted to learn, but didn't, at least at this stage, seem to have the ability to do so.
  • Player E, age 8. His shots were smooth, but he seemed to have little timing at the start. He was also almost unable to play when others watched - painfully shy. At the end of the week he was actually pretty accurate with his shots, but only if given the exact same feed. He seemed unable to react to any changes in shots, and so couldn't really rally with others.
  • Player F, age 8. She picked up the shots almost from the start. Very smooth shots. It took all week to get her to hit hard, but on the final day she finally let loose and was smacking in shots.

It sure would be interesting to get all these players, and many others, together to train regularly for the next ten years and see where they end up.

Olympic Eligible Rankings

There's an online discussion about the USATT ranking lists and why they don't have a listing for both top players and top USA players, so I did some quick research. And here it is, the minutes from the May 2003 USATT Board Meeting! Here's Motion #1:

MOTION I: Moved that the Board implement a Standing Rule to highlight, in a separate list in the Ranking section of the USATT magazine, the Olympic Eligible players.
Proposed by Barney Reed; seconded by Robert Mayer.
Passed: 11-0.

USATT has little organizational memory, and so what is passed at one meeting is often quickly forgotten, as was this motion. I was USATT editor at the time and maintained that list for many years. At some point after I left they stopped doing so.

Around the Net Shots

Here's a video (1:08, with replays) of a rally ends with what looks like three consecutive around the net shots!

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