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Secrets of the Chinese - The Fastest Way to Learn a New Table Tennis Skill

Make Haste Slowly?

By

Photo of Table Tennis Coaching Session

Are the Chinese Coaches Correct?

© 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Chinese table tennis coaches are notorious for insisting that their students master one stroke before learning another, while Western coaches tend to favor allowing their students to work on several strokes at once. Is there a scientific basis for the Chinese method of coaching, or is it just an tradition that is blindly followed? As it turns out, it appears that Western science may in fact support the Chinese method of focusing on learning one technique at a time.

The hard science behind it all can be found in more detail in the articles referenced at the bottom of the page, but I'll summarize what's relevant for table tennis purposes below. I'd recommend checking out the articles though - they aren't all that long or hard to wade through, and they are an interesting read.

The Three Stages of Learning a New Table Tennis Skill

  • The first stage is the first six hours after a motor skill is learned, which is a window of vulnerability when the skill can be impaired or even lost by attempting to learn a second motor task. During this time the central nervous system is adapting neural pathways that control the motor skill, and moving the pathways from one part of the brain to other areas of the brain at the same time.
  • Even without more practice, after 5 or 6 hours, the motor skill is pretty much hardwired into the brain.
  • The second stage of memorizing a motor skill occurs while you sleep - and only while you sleep. During this stage your brain will enhance your motor memory from the previous day.
  • The final stage of memorizing a motor skill is the recall phase, where a stabilized memory can now be modified. Once a motor skill has been stabilized after 5-6 waking hours, and then enhanced by a night's sleep, the motor skill becomes modifiable by further training.
  • A 90 minute nap allows two motor skills to be learned on the same day, provided one skill is learned before the nap and one skill is learned after the nap.

Implications for Table Tennis Players and Coaches

OK - this is all well and good, but what are the implications for us table tennis players? Here's a few that spring to mind.
  1. You might be better off learning a new skill or technique in the morning or early afternoon, so that you will have 5-6 hours awake before going to sleep. This should give your brain enough time to successfully complete the first stage of memorizing the new technique. (Although it does appear a 90 minute nap does the same thing, so maybe late night training sessions are still OK?)
  2. Don't try to learn two new techniques in the one day - the second motor skill may interfere with your brain's attempt to lay down it's neural pathways for the first technique. Perhaps this is what makes the Chinese method of mastering one stroke at a time, before going on to the next technique, so successful? Are Western coaches hampering our table tennis students' progress by attempting to teach them several techniques at once?
  3. Get a good night's sleep after learning a new table tennis technique. Give your brain its best chance of enhancing your newly learnt motor skill.
  4. If you are trying to improve a long established technique (or get rid of a bad habit), stick to one improvement per day. Trying to improve more than one technique at a time is likely to be inefficient.
  5. Your bad habits and poor techniques are not set in concrete after all. So even if you have had a dodgy backhand for over 20 years, you should still be able to improve it, provided you stick to only trying to fix your backhand technique each day, until you are happy with your progress.
  6. Serving techniques - if you have always trained several different variations of serve at once, and your serves are still not as good as you would like, you might want to consider practicing one serve variation only, until you have mastered that serve. Then move on to learning the next variation, while just maintaining the serves you have already mastered.
  7. The articles didn't mention whether you could learn two very dissimilar techniques at the same time - such as a forehand loop and a new service. Would very different motor skills still conflict with each other?
  8. If you absolutely must learn two new techniques in the same day, take a 90 minute nap between learning each technique, to minimize any interference.

Conclusion

We Westerners live in a "now" society, and it's human nature to try to improve all our weaknesses at once, as quickly as possible. But despite what we want, perhaps with the way our brains work, the best and fastest way to make real progress is to master one thing at a time? Perhaps it is up to us coaches to find new ways of keeping our students interested while they master one stroke at a time, instead of trying to alleviate boredom by allowing students to train several strokes at once?

Sources
1. Motor Memory: Skills Slip Most Easily in First Hours After Learning
2. Stages of Memory Described in New Study
3. Naps Help Your Memory, New Study Suggests

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