March 11, 2011

Talent versus hard work

There's much debate these days about whether table tennis players need talent to reach the highest levels, or if hard work will overcome it. The debate is often dominated by those who believe something toward the extremes as dogma. To be the very best, most seem to believe one of the following:

1) You have to have talent, and if you have that, hard work will pay off; or

2) There's no such thing as talent; it's all about working hard, plus proper circumstances (starting early, good coaching and competition, etc.).

Some look at just the best players, see that they work hard, and conclude it's all about hard work. They are not looking at the people who work hard who don't become the best. Others see that some are more talented than others - we've all seen this type of thing in grade school - and conclude it's all about talent, and that if you don't have it, you can't be great. 

Here's my take (short version). There's no question that there is such a thing as talent. Some kids simply pick things up very fast, others struggle. We're not all born with exactly the same brain structure. As early as a kid can crawl you can see differences in their skills - just toss a ball at them and you'll see some can grab it, others can barely hold onto it. Even the book "Bounce" by former world-class chopper Matthew Syed of England, which argues that players reach the highest levels by hard work and proper circumstances, doesn't argue there is no such thing as talent. It simply argues (roughly speaking) that hard work and proper circumstances will overcome that. It might be right.

Can those with low talent become the best? I've coached kids and seen kids coached who were so low on the talent spectrum that I just don't see them ever becoming world-class table tennis players, no matter what they did. I can't think of a single example of someone like this who eventually became a truly elite player. But I have seen players like this struggle for years, work at it, and eventually become very good. (You often read of elite players who apparently struggled for years before reaching the highest levels, and then you realize that when they were "struggling," they were already among the best, and that their struggles were against the very best.)

I can think of many examples of top players who didn't work hard for years and still pulled away from much harder-working peers - apparently, they were simply more talented. But they would often fall behind their harder-working peers in the long run, and in the end, the very best players were always hard workers. Probably most important, those who believed that hard work would overcome talent in the long run tended to put in the hard work - and so reached their maximum potential. Those who thought talent was more important didn't work as hard, thinking they could never be as good as the more "talented" ones. 

Having said all this, I tend to think that if you start early, work extremely hard, have good circumstances (start early, coaching, competition, etc.), you can become extremely good - maybe even the best in the U.S. The jury is still out for me on whether you can be the best in the world (which is a few levels above best in the U.S.) at table tennis without talent - and I mean that as I said it; I'm really not sure, though I'm doubtful for those who truly start out on the lower end of the talent spectrum. But who knows? Far too many people are sure of the answer here when there's no basis for such certainty.

What is talent for table tennis? Roughly speaking, I'd say it's a combination of the following - and I'm sure I'm missing other aspects:

  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
  9. Speed (fast twitch muscles)


Send us your own coaching news!

I'm fairly new to TT, but once played (alas, decades ago!) tournament-level racketball and also semi-pro baseball until about the age of 28 when job and family finally put an end to my athletic "career." I also umpired high school and NCAA baseball for many years.

Now, Larry, I'd say your list of athletic attributes would apply down the line to almost all stick-and-ball games! 

I've always believed that talent must come first for all elite players. I simply can't imagine that any professional athlete in any sport made it to the top on hard work alone! In my baseball experiences, I've seen players at the university level who would never be professionals and who probably got as high as they had by working very hard with a strong dose of enthusiasm and love for the game (perhaps item #10 for your list?). But their lack of "talent" (as defined by the attributes on your list) simply made it impossible to move to a higher level.

On the other hand, I've seen very talented players who were scouted and signed by professional teams just because the athletic attributes are so quantifiable and yet these players lack the #10 attribute and just don't work hard enough to overcome the competition of all of the other talent out there who works harder. If you look at the roster of, say, a major league baseball team most of them have at least one "utility" player. These players often seem to fit the stereotype of a guy with minimal talent but more determination and willingness to work than others. But everything is relative. If you look at the playing histories of these guys I'm betting that almost 100% of the time they were still the best player on their high school squads. 

To apply this to table tennis, look at China. The TT academies are packed with hard-working children with all the benefits a cultural system such as theirs can offer successful players. In that country, all the incentives for success are in place and the environment is ripe for the inculcation of hard work. So even a lot of the less-"talented" there are likely to be better than most here in the U.S. can ever hope to be. But what separates those players from the others who become world-ranked players? Talent.