If you had enough practice, advice and expert training, could you become a success at anything? How much is achievement based on natural ability and how much hard work?
For instance, could an “unco-ordinated computer geek” become a table-tennis star in one year?
In an international experiment, a table-tennis coach gave an “unsporty” adult an hour’s coaching every day for a year in a bid to make him one of the top table tennis players in Britain.
Ben Larcombe, a young coach from north London, gave 24-year-old Sam Priestley more than 500 hours of personal tuition and took him to elite training centres in Hungary, Denmark and Middlesbrough.
He predicted he could make Sam one of the 250 highest-ranked players in Britain within 12 months.
That year has come to an end.
“I became interested in the idea that you can achieve mastery by the quantity and quality of your practice, not innate talent,” says Ben.
To test the theory, he needed someone without experience of table tennis or natural aptitude for the sport. Perhaps unflatteringly, he turned to his childhood friend Sam, a budding entrepreneur who describes himself as an “unco-ordinated computer geek”.
“I was always one of the worst at any skill-based sport at school,” says Sam. “No one would call me sporty.”
In the book Bounce, former Commonwealth table tennis champion Matthew Syed supports the research of K Anders Ericsson which suggested that to become an expert in anything you need to put in an average of 10,000 hours of “purposeful practice”.
There are not 10,000 hours in a year, so Ben focused on the quality of Sam’s training.
“If you go to a table tennis club you see lots of people who have played for many, many years, but they are just hitting balls mindlessly and playing matches,” says Ben.
“Sam and I were always thinking about what we should do with the time we had. Everything we did was focused on Sam’s improvement.”
Most lessons were held in the kitchen of Sam’s shared flat on a table which also served as a dining table.
Ben recorded every session and made a video compilation which shows one second of Sam playing on every day of the challenge. The result is a modern-day Rocky montage in which the streets of Philadelphia are replaced by a cramped flatshare in east London.
Worse than an 11-year-old
The video shows Sam improving dramatically. After six months he was holding his own against seasoned club players. But he was still a long way from his target when the year ended.
Rory Scott, a coach who has trained juniors who later played for England, watched Sam in a recent tournament.
His verdict? “He is nowhere near the standard of the top under-11 player in the UK.”
Why did the project fail? One reason might be that Ben chose the wrong sport.
“It is probably the most difficult sport to pick for this challenge,” says Steve Brunskill, head coach at the Swerve Table Tennis Centre in Middlesbrough.
“Table tennis has the smallest court, the smallest ball, the smallest bat, the quickest reaction times, the most spin, and it’s the only sport where you play on one surface but stand on another.
“You have to play so much to develop the skill, co-ordination and timing, and you have to learn to cope with different styles of opponent.”
‘Natural gift’ versus practice
Ben is still convinced the challenge is achievable. He thinks a lack of practice time was the main obstacle to Sam’s success.
“The idea of showing people what the average Joe can achieve by squeezing in table tennis training after work was a lovely one, but to be successful someone would almost certainly need to do the challenge as a sort of gap year and play full time,” Ben says.
“It’s clear that talent matters and perhaps results would have been quicker with a more natural sportsman who has better movement and anticipation, possibly a tennis player.
“But I can still see no reason why anyone who works hard in a purposeful way cannot achieve their goal, in table tennis or any field.”
Matthew Syed is excited by Sam’s progress.
“It debunks the idea that when you watch somebody who is good at something, they must have been blessed with a natural gift,” he says.
“Most people have to train for a minimum of 10, sometimes 15 years, to reach mastery, but even by being committed for one year there has been a very big change in Sam’s ability level and this is because the human brain is very adaptable.”
Mr Syed says this is an important lesson for anyone involved in education.
“In subjects like mathematics, if young people are not very good at the beginning they tend to give up because they don’t think they have got a brain for numbers,” he says.
“Whereas in places like China there is a very widespread cultural belief that you get better with training, so people tend to persist longer.
“The very belief about how success happens shapes the behaviours that we adopt.”
This is a view supported by OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] education expert, Andreas Schleicher, who has argued that attitudes to natural ability are key factors in test results.
Mr Schleicher says in western countries failure to succeed in maths is frequently attributed by students to an innate lack of ability, arguing that success depends on being naturally gifted.
In contrast, studies of top-performing Asian countries have shown pupils attribute their success or failure to their own efforts and the ability of their teachers.
Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at Stanford University in the US, agrees that changing students’ attitudes is important.
“The problem is the motivation to practise, as any child who has learnt the violin or piano will tell you,” he says.
“The real challenge is that practice is hard work, and the challenge for contemporary culture is that it is too dependent on immediate gratification.”
Michael Reiss, professor of science education at UCL Institute of Education, argues that dividing school pupils by ability encourages this idea of differences in talent rather than application.
“We should avoid putting students into sets according to attainment as much as possible and we should promote the message that effort matters,” he says.
As for Sam, he has not given up hope of reaching the top 250.
His housemates should prepare to eat their dinner off a table tennis table for another year.