Practice makes Perfect?

Rowden 2011

Practice makes perfect! This is a phrase we hear quite often, especially in sport and in various learning processes. But is it true? Surely it is more accurate to say ‘Practice makes Predictable’! Practice in fact usually makes us more rigid and inflexible in our thinking. We perform the same action time and time again, until we no longer need to think about it, until it becomes completely ‘automated’. This is exactly what we do when we are learning table tennis; we train until we don’t need to think about what we are doing and react automatically.

But surely this is good? Table tennis is an extremely fast sport and to respond in the ‘right’ way we cannot afford to take time to think about what we are doing; responses must of necessity be instinctive. For a start the automatic reaction is much faster, we only slow things down by introducing the conscious, thinking process. When we start to think about the strokes and especially about technique, we introduce problems, the thinking part of the mind interferes with the subconscious execution of the shot or serve and performance is affected.

The problem of course is that instinctive reactions are inflexible and predictable! What happens when we encounter the situation when we have to adapt? Unfortunately we can’t. We start to use the conscious part of the brain and to try to change instinctive reactions we have ‘automated’ over the years. The result is usually total disaster!

So what is the answer? Quite simply the solution is to change our methods of training so that the automatic reactions we need, cover a much wider range of possibilities. Also we have to work with procedures and systems which enhance the development of adaptive intelligence and render our styles of play more flexible and responsive.

How do we do this? It is so vital for coaches to ensure that their players, right from the formative years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for him or her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training assume rather more importance than we may have initially thought, especially in the early years.

Methods of training must change to be much more professional if we in Europe are to make any inroads into matching the Asian and especially the Chinese players. We should particularly target exercises which help our players value and assess the incoming ball and which look at alternatives and variations in responses. We must as a matter of course use more random and irregular exercises. Only in this way will we develop adaptive intelligence and broaden the ‘automatic reflex’ base. At all costs we should avoid patterns of training which reinforce primarily rigid and inflexible evolution.

‘Situational training’ is another aspect we should explore and this describes a specific type of drill. The player’s objective is to find the best possible solution within a given exchange of shots. In the early stage of a rally the ball direction/placement will be pre-arranged. However at a certain point during the rally one of the players has to decide about changing the placement of the next shot. The essence of situational training is that this decision should be carefully weighed with reference to the quality of the incoming ball. Thus, one expects the player to weigh up very quickly what needs to be done, whatever the situation may be, advantageous or disadvantageous or almost even.

In this situation a player, who faces a good shot by his opponent, will choose to play say alternative A. But if there is an incoming ball of poor quality, the player will choose alternative B trying to profit from the weak stroke of his opponent. Both alternatives of course should be specified prior to the drill. Thus situational training is a specific type of drill with its very own intention and this is to improve the athlete’s self-reliance, judgment and adaptive intelligence.

The prime criterion is that players develop an understanding of their own style of play as early as possible in their career. Bear in mind that tactical development is based crucially on technical abilities. If the player doesn’t have the technical weapons to play his/her own game most effectively then the performer never reaches full potential. Throughout Europe there has to be a great deal more attention payed by coaches to the individual development of the player and to maximising his/her own personal strengths.

The judicious and directed development of automatic responses together with the individual focus on personal strengths, will in the long run produce players of real quality.

However we must be aware that part of the problem in the production of young performers is in the way and the length of time it takes for the adolescent human brain to mature. The brain normally only attains its full levels of ‘hard-wiring’ between 24 and 26 years of age, which explains many of the poor decisions taken by teenagers and young 20 years olds – often in their formative period they are just not ready to listen or to learn, they want to do things their way.

To become champions at an early age young people need to be working, sparring and training with older players who have more experience. It helps enormously to be able to look up to role models who have already been there and done it! Having young adolescents of similar ages and experience levels training together often only both undermines and solidifies crucial aspects of the learning situation.

This is highlighted by the fact that the countries in Europe which still have older stars currently involved at world level (countries such as Germany, Sweden and France) continue to develop young players of real quality, players currently in or capable of reaching the top 50 – 60 in the world. Most other Associations in Europe only aim to produce players in the top 100 to 250. The value and impact of the national ‘role models’ and their vast experience cannot be underestimated.