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Players vs Improvers

The long-term effect of devotion to table tennis skill improvement

I wanted to quantify the effects of devotion in table tennis. By devotion I mean consistent, year-after-year, active participation in regular practice and competition. I see a small community of people that are devoted to table tennis on a weekly basis, or more frequently, at our four or five local clubs. They play and practice quite regularly. They are my friends, my local role models in the sport of table tennis.

So I did a small statistical study of these devoted, advanced-intermediate club players, at and above my level, in my region of Washington State in the USA. I eyeballed the charts generated by the USATT website's ratings pages for each of them, discounted an initial rapid improvement phase in their numbers if that occurred (I wanted to see how regular practice improves you over time, not how you can get a lot better quickly at the beginning), and counted up rough numbers for the number of years of active, devoted table tennis play and the USATT ratings level improvement during those years. I excluded both wimps, who do not compete regularly so their numbers are not reliable and their results are also not of interest here, and stars, super-high-level players like Fan Yi Yong, who are bouncing off the ceiling. And I split the players into Players, who play around once or twice per week and play an occasional tournament, versus Improvers, who are devoted to the sport and to their improvement in it.

Here are the data and results, with a short discussion below.

The lesson of this data, representing many decades of active and devoted participation in this sport, is that table tennis players improve over the course of a lifetime of play at a very, very, gradual rate.

Once stabilized after an initial spurt of improvement, table tennis skill level, improves on average at the remarkably slow rate of only about 50 points per year -- and only does so if you are quite active in the sport. Occasional spurts of faster improvement do seem to occur, primarily when a player is receiving coaching and also plays a lot.

But many players, even high-level players who play recreationally and less frequently, rather than with a focus on improving their level, stay at their level, or gradually fall, despite their level and despite their weekly participation. It takes a very significant effort to improve your level.

So, to imagine you will get to 2000 right away is to set yourself up for disappointment. It would be realistic to set a goal of 50 points better by the time next year's tournament comes around. Then you can be happy if your commitment to improvement raises your level more than that. You will see your commitment in your rating changes.

And when you watch a relatively high-level, mature player playing this game and still learning and improving, you can try to appreciate what has really gone into their skill development: many years of devotion to this miraculous sport.

Me? I'm impressed.


Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: July 22, 2004