• Henry Arthur

Novice’s guide to table tennis: A five-part series to help you on your table tennis journey.


Table tennis is an easy game to pick up and play at a beginner and social level but what happens if you wish to take it more seriously and start playing competitively? There may be many questions that you have, and I will attempt to use this five-part blog series to pass on some advice to make your entry into the sport a little less nerve-wracking! Points I will cover include:

Is there a table tennis club near you? How do I find a club? How do I know it is the right one for me?

How much practice does it take to become “good”? How much will it cost? How to find a coach and what should I be looking for in a coach? Group coaching or 1 to 1 coaching?

What equipment do I need? What type of competitions can I play in? Is there a pathway to elite performance?

This guide is aimed at adult players who are new to the sport as well as for the parents of youngsters who have just taken up the sport.

In today’s episode we will look at how much practice it takes to be a ‘good’ player, how much it will cost, how to find a coach and what you should be looking for in a coach and finally what are the pros and cons to group and 1 to 1 coaching.

A common question that table tennis coaches get asked is “how much time will it take me to become a good player”? To me it is impossible to say as each person will have their own idea of what a ‘good’ player is. Does it mean you are the best in your household? Or in your school? Perhaps the best in your club? Or your County? It might be that you define good as being a top player in your Country or maybe a top 50 player in the world? So ‘good’ has many different definitions. There is quite a well-known theory called the 10,000-hour rule which states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. This theory can be traced back to a paper written by Professor Anders Ericson from the University of Colorado titled ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ (sounds like a riveting bedtime read doesn’t it?). Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers brought this 10,000-hour rule into popular culture and former Team GB Olympic table tennis player Matthew Syed covers the topic extensively in his book called Bounce. Interestingly, Ericson was not pleased with Gladwell’s thoughts on the 10,000 hour rule theory as he noted that Gladwell did not mention the concept of deliberate, quality practice which he states means that it would take substantially less time than 10,000 hours to become an expert. There is also a debate on whether people are born with natural talent which will aid their development. I will leave this nurture vs nature debate for another time as this blog is not supposed to be about academia and the theory behind everything! But for those that are interested here is piece on the BBC website that you might find interesting:

So, onto the question about how long will it take to become a good player? My interpretation of ‘good’ for this example is being able to play in the top division of your local league. An absolute beginner might start out playing just once a week for a couple of hours. At that rate it will probably take at least 10 years to reach that level, although many will never reach this level as they might well be playing two hours a week, but that two hours is not deliberate practice. In my experience, if a new player trains (deliberate practice) for five hours a week plus plays in their local league once a week and also plays some of the tournaments on the national circuit (perhaps two tournaments a month), then they can reach the top division of a relatively strong local league in about three to four years. Of course, other factors would have to come into consideration too. Is the new player a ‘sporty’ person who could transfer prior knowledge gained from playing other sports for example? Working on my calculations, a player training an average of five hours a week would have committed 1040 hours of deliberate practice in those four years. Add in the competitive play which would be roughly about 200 hours over the four years and my rough calculations suggest it takes 1440 hours approximately to become a ‘good’ player using my definition of the term. For reference the top players in England are training about 20 hours a week and most start doing this from about the age of 13 (and some from a much younger age)!

So, we now know how much time it takes to become ‘good’ but how much will it cost? If I base it on my calculations in the previous paragraph of five hours a week of deliberate practice plus local league competition and national competitions, then here are some potential costings:

Four hours per week of group coaching @£20.00 per week=£960pa (based on 48 weeks)

One hour per week of one to one coaching @£25.00 per week=£1200pa (based on 48 weeks)

Local league match fees @£5 per week=£100pa (based on 20 matches per season)

Tournament entry fees @£25 per tournament= £600pa (based on entering two tournaments a month).

Add this all together and you are looking at an investment of £2860 per year or £11440 over the four-year development timings that I suggested above. Of course, this does not include other costs such as equipment (a topic in part 3 of this five-part series), travel costs, food costs and potential accommodation costs.

If this expense has not put you off, you may now well want to search out a coach who can assist you in reaching your goals. But where can you find a coach and what should you be looking for in a coach? The answer to the first question is the same answer as I gave in my previous blog about how to find a club……………………………..Google it! Many table tennis clubs will run group coaching sessions, often run by qualified coaches who run the sessions on a voluntary basis. These sessions tend to be slightly cheaper as the coach is not getting paid to run it. This does not mean that the sessions are not particularly good, or the coach is not at the same level as some of the paid coaches. Indeed, there are many great volunteer coaches out there who provide an excellent service and should charge for it! Some of these coaches may also offer additional 1-1 coaching either on a voluntary or paid basis. Many coaches work on a self-employed basis and will have their own website and various social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn). And finally, Table Tennis England have a database of qualified, licensed coaches which can be found by clicking on the link below:

As for the answer to what you should be looking for in a coach, this can come down to a personal choice. Some coaches specialise in working with junior players whilst others are more at ease working with adults. There are some coaches who are fantastic coaches at grassroots level and other coaches whose expertise is more at the elite level of the sport. And of course, there are some coaches who are great with all ages and level of player! Some of the questions that you need to ask yourself when searching out a coach are how far are you willing to travel and how much can you afford to spend? Whilst most coaches might charge £5ph for their group sessions and perhaps £25-£30 for their 1-1 sessions, there are some coaches who can command £200+ for a 1-1 session!

It can take time to find the ‘right’ coach for you so if you are lucky enough to live in area where there are several coaches, do your research, ask other players and arrange interviews with the coaches to talk about what you want to achieve and how they think they can help you. Remember, just because someone is an excellent player it does not automatically mean they will be a good coach. Similarly, just because someone is a highly qualified coach does not necessarily mean they are a good coach or the right coach for you. If you are looking for a coach to work with your child, then I do recommend that you ask to see the coach’s up to date DBS (Disclosure and Barring Services) certificate. All Table Tennis England licensed coaches will have a current (less than three years old) DBS and will also have been on a Safeguarding and Protecting Children workshop within the last three years. It is also worthwhile to ask to see a coach’s insurance policy. Again, all Table Tennis England licensed coaches have public liability insurance. Some coaches may have expertise in certain aspects of sports performance, for example they might be experts in strength and conditioning, nutrition, fundamental movement or sports psychology in addition to their table tennis knowledge and these unique selling points (USP) are something to look out for. Do note however that these coaches may charge more than a regular coach, but you are paying for this additional expertise. If you are not concerned about these types of USPs then you may not want to spend the extra money it could cost to hire them. A final point of note is that as you improve then you may need to change your coach as they may not have the knowledge and expertise to assist you as you move up the table tennis talent ladder.

And finally, onto the question about the pros and cons of group coaching or 1 to 1 coaching. You will find that most coaching is done on a group basis with 1 or 2 coaches working in tandem with a group of between 8-16 players. Group coaching allows for players to get hours and hours of quality practice time under their belt for a relatively low cost as well as giving the player the opportunity to play with numerous other players and styles and of course to make new friends. The major downside with group coaching sessions is that it becomes difficult for the coach and a player to work on improving the specifics of an individual’s game. And that is the main area that 1-1 coaching can be beneficial to a player. The coach and player can develop a training plan and really work on the aspects of the game that the player needs to improve. One to one coaching can also help to develop a better athlete/coach relationship which can help player develop faster too. Of course, one to one coaching is more expensive so if you do decide to go down this route you should make the most of the time with the coach by arriving early to the session and do your own warm-up prior to the session starting. For the aspiring player who is dedicated to improving their game, I would recommend a mixture of group coaching and 1-1 coaching. Some coaches will also attend tournaments and corner coach a player but this will usually come at an additional cost which can be agreed on a tournament by tournament basis or it might be agreed that there is an extra charge for the 1-1 sessions on the proviso that the coach attends a certain amount of tournaments each year with the player.

I hope you have found this blog helpful and it has given you some idea of the time and costs involved to become a ‘good’ table tennis player as well as a little bit of information on how to find a coach and what you should be looking out for in your own, personalised search for a coach. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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