Spectacularly Failing to Become an Expert in a Year

In December 2013, my friend Ben talked me into taking up what he called the Expert in a Year challenge:

“Do you fancy playing table tennis every day for a year? I think that if you do the right training you can get into the top 250 players in the UK – a level that hardly anyone who doesn’t start playing as a kid ever achieves. Ohh and we’ll film it as we go and post it online so everyone can see if you fail”

I spent the next 12 months training hard. On top of the daily coached sessions, my ‘holidays’ for the year involved intense training camps in Hungary, Denmark and Middlesbrough. As time went on the intensity ramped up and by the final 8 weeks I was sacrificing every weekend to travel and play in tournaments. Then after all that work…

I failed.

The challenge ended a week ago and I am still nowhere near the top 250. I wasn’t even good enough to get an official ranking. Worse it was the most public failure ever – I told everyone I met what I was doing and posted it all over the internet. And now everyone has seen me fail!

So what does that mean? Have I completely wasted my year? Does everyone now think I am looser? Should I just go curl up, cry and eat pizza and Ben & Jerry’s?

I hope not. Despite the call of the Ben & Jerry’s and the an on-the-book failure I am actually feeling really proud of myself.

The Power of Naivety

The challenge was almost unachievable, and I’m pretty sure Ben knew it.

I mean, would I have done it if he had said:
“Do you fancy playing table tennis every day for a year, and when you finish you’ll probably be a bit better than you are now.”

I would have told him where to go. After all, if your dream is uninspiring, you will quit – or never start.

When you aim high enough it’s hard to fail completely

I may not have reached the high goal we set, but I still got pretty darn good at table tennis.

Mastery is Tough; Mastery is Possible

I saw it all the way through! For me that is a massive result in itself, I really don’t have a good record of persevering when I get bored or think that I am not improving. And there were definitely times in the year when the going got tough, really tough.

I learnt a lot from the challenge. Not just about table tennis, not just about myself, but I think most importantly I learnt that there are no shortcuts to mastery. You need to put in the work. But if you put in the work, anything is possible.

This is such an important lesson that has meaning far beyond table tennis.

The value of hard work is just as true in business. While I was starting from a poor position in this challenge – being an uncoordinated computer geek who throws like a girl – I actually have a pretty good foundation to now put in that hard, persevering work and master business.

Happiness is the Quality and Quantity of Your Relationships with Others

We got so much support during this challenge. Support that only grew as our goal got less and less likely. Someone wrote in a comment on one of our videos:

“If you had actually succeeded at getting into the top 250, I would have felt terrible. I have been trying to improve myself over all these years and haven’t yet reached that level.”

Instead of making him feel terrible, the challenge has shown that learning correct technique and dramatically improving is possible for anyone – but at the same time it has really shone a spotlight onto how hard working and how deserving those who are experts at table tennis really are.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill.

See you at the next failure!
Ohh, and I am not giving up on table tennis just yet. Expert in a decade anyone?

  • Rich

    I don’t think you failed.. as I don’t think you really knew what the actual target was that Ben had in mind. It is very hard to comprehend what top 250 actually means, unless you can closely observe top 250 players for a period of time. It’s a bit like being asked to climb a mountain without even seeing it or knowing what it looks like. Overall you did really well. We followed your progress and sometimes it looked like you had made a good step forward. Though you had a lot of individual coaching, what you perhaps really missed was daily practice with other players in a good club. There was too much of jump from the practice in to GP tournaments.

    • Yeah that is true. I had no idea what top 250 actually meant. I have so much respect for everyone who plays at that level now that I know how much work is involved in getting there.

      Interesting video. I wonder whether that means that in sports like table tennis, where practice and learning seems to be more important than genetics, is there any reason why girls should be worse at table tennis than boys?

      • Rich

        one of the reasons why I love table tennis is that it is quite a level playing field where acquired skill generally wins over a “given” physique. As you probably saw in your training at the camps, if you watch the best young girls play, 11 to 13 years old, they can very easily compete and win against the men you were facing in the GP’s. The main thing is that they may play the game a little differently to compensate for having less available power.
        The video was actually a bit of a hint to think about the comment you made in your original post.. “being an uncoordinated computer geek who throws like a girl”. Trying to get girls to continue playing sport is actually pretty hard, so creating some positive stereotypes rather than typical negative ones is much more helpful. Just something to think about 🙂

        • Hint taken :-). Will be careful in future. And yeah, I have lost to plenty of 13 year olds of both genders

          • Robert

            Seeing this now, just gotta say, you seem like a good chap and a good sport.

        • asodkas

          “Trying to get girls to continue playing sport is actually pretty hard, so creating some positive stereotypes rather than typical negative ones is much more helpful”

          I’m sorry, how is this a stereotype? Isn’t this just biological reality? Women are, on average, weaker than men, and girls are, on average, weaker than women. The simile conveys that pretty accurately.

          What about the other stereotype in his comment? That of the “uncoordinated computer geek”… trying to get computer geeks to be coordinated is pretty hard, we need to tackle this stereotype as well!

          • Rich

            Hi, don’t be sorry because it’s really amazing that you can
            see this blog from 1975. How are you doing that on an Altair8800? Is that
            because you are good with computers as I didn’t think the internet was switched
            on until about 15 years after you are writing this? The deep insights you have about
            men and women being biologically different are a big revelation and so it’s
            something I will make a careful note of.
            We gradually lost that sort of valuable information and eventually women were
            stopped being treated and perceived in an adverse way to men. Thank you for
            putting the record straight. Much appreciated.

          • asodkas

            Sorry if I hit a nerve. I was only asking for my own edification.

            I’m still not sure how stating a simile grounded in biological truths is treating women in an adverse way to men, or preventing girls from playing sports. I hope you can answer this for me – you might be helping one old time traveling geezer learn the error of his ways.

          • Rich

            No nerves were damaged and the skin is thick. I thought you
            were saying it tongue in cheek because I have never met anybody who has
            interpreted such a saying in that manner. It has always been a bit of a silly
            insult and doesn’t have any justification grounded in biology or sport sciences. It’s now had it’s time and has no relevance in sport.

            Physical performance or physical literacy isn’t something
            you are born with. So when somebody uses the phrase “you throw like a girl”, they
            are not considering the average stature of a boy and comparing it to the
            average stature of a girl. They are basically saying you are physically illiterate
            which implies that girls by definition are all physically illiterate. Physical
            literacy is acquired through life like numeracy and language skills. For
            example the athletic skills such as throwing, catching and jumping are not available
            from birth. They are all very complex motor skills which become developed over
            a long period of time by doing and learning the activity. So stature isn’t a factor
            on how a ball is thrown. So the phrase “throw like a girl” is about lack of coordination
            and skill, not height and weight. Encouraging people to develop physical
            literacy through youth enables them to always access these skills later in
            life. In the same way people who never learn to read and write at school age
            find it very hard to learn when adults, the same thing goes for physical activity
            and sports. Quite a lot of girls give up on sport in teen years and this is a
            shame for them.

            Bringing it back to the blog for examples sake, I assume the
            writer is about 26 years old and weighs about 80kg. Despite training hard for a
            year, a girl half the age and half the weight could easily destroy him at table
            tennis by being quicker and hitting the ball with much more power and precision.
            They get more power by using every muscle in perfect coordination that happens
            in fractions of a second. This is achieved because they have trained longer and
            children generally learn the required fine motor skills quicker than adults. So who is weaker, the 40kg girl or the 80kg

            So, saying playing a sport “like a girl” or “like a man” is
            basically a meaningless way to describe a player’s performance.

          • asodkas

            “No nerves were damaged and the skin is thick.”

            Then I’m not sure why it provoked such a hostile reaction.

            “I thought you were saying it tongue in cheek because I have never met anybody who has interpreted such a saying in that manner”

            I’ve never met anyone who’s interpreted such a saying so literally, either. That’s why I alluded to the other stereotypes invoked in the above conversations.

            For example, you mention that it is implicit in the statement “throw like a girl” that all girls are physically illiterate. Is this true of the other stereotypes? Are all computer geeks physically illiterate? Are all ancient geezers computer illiterate? And why is this not damaging to say, whereas with girls it is?

            It’s something that’s boggled my mind for some time; how generalizations, instead of portraying a general trend, somehow portray ALL of a given thing. Saying “men are stronger than women” doesn’t equate to saying “all men are stronger than all women” just like saying “trees are tall” doesn’t equate to saying “all trees are tall.”

            “Physical performance or physical literacy isn’t somethingyou are born with.”

            I agree, though obviously the extent of the performance is influenced by genetics so in that sense you kind of are born with your potential limits. However, if men and women differ to the extent that they pursue physical performance or literacy, then their outcomes will be different. In other words, if men and women make different choices then they will have different outcomes in the realm of physical literacy.

    • Monika Khandelwal

      and I was compelled to come and post when I read the jarring :throw like a girl” in an otherwise very compelling post. happy to see this video here.

  • Michael Martin

    Great experiment – very inspirational! I’m looking forward to following you year 2 so I hope you post your game videos. You might be closer than you think if you add a lot more variation to your game – reliable drop shots, change of pace, side spins, misdirections, disguise, etc. Best of luck in 2015.

    • Appreciate it. I’ll definitely upload my progress

  • François T.

    And why not ranking at the end of this year by maturing what you have just learnt ! Congrats !

    • Thank you. That’s the plan! Some more low key regular play and I think it will all slip into place.

  • Mark Short

    I agree the task set was impossible. I’m very impressed though by the hard work you both put in for the whole year. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing you well, and I hope table tennis isn’t just a one year project for you. The secret of any success is hard work, so as far as tt is concerned you’ve definitely started brilliantly.

    • Thanks, I will definitely be continuing – although not at such an intense rate. I’m really looking forward to winning some stuff this year 🙂

  • Knotwilg

    Heroic! Even if you quit table tennis, you’ll have learnt a lot from this.

  • Katia Mifsud

    I admire your perseverance Sam. You managed to stick through a long and intense year and you have learnt many lessons through this.

    • Thank you Katia! Both for the support and some great coaching. Next time in Malta I’ll definitely pop in and visit you all again at the Hi-Impact Table Tennis Academy.

  • Deepak Rai

    Sam, as they say, it takes a lot of practice, patience and perseverance to master this game. Learning it over a year is an extremely difficult task. May be a younger Sam would have picked it relatively quickly but then as Ben had mentioned it is never late to start. Through eiay journey, both Ben and you have inspired many people. This itself is an amazing achievement. I also picked this game over a year ago and my learning curve had a lot of crest n troughs. After many losses, frustration and repeated failures, I learnt the importance of pure confidence ( besides a bit of game temperament, technique, skills and hard work). Please continue to build your confidence the way you have been consistently doing over the past months and the results will slowly follow.

  • Lyndsey Simpson

    This is quality!! Following the story, just shows there isn’t a short cut to success, but if you work hard enough, the impossible is possible:-)!! Well done Sam! You’ve done such a good job, so has Ben!! Onwards and upwards

  • Matteo Neviani

    I’m trying to learn programming and web mastering because i’m unsatisfied with my job and many people said me that i’m too old, at 36 years old, to do it. I made good progress until i got discouraged and almost dropped it, but your video was of great inspiration for me and i’m starting again now. Thanks a lot.

    • Thank you Matteo, I really like to hear when we’ve encouraged someone! Don’t give up on programming, I did a degree in computer science so have been through the same struggle. You’re not too old and now is the best time in history to learn, there are so many good resources around now that everyone who learnt “at the right time” didn’t have.

  • RichardMahony

    ‘Does everyone now think I am looser?’

    Yes – in the final video footage, it is evident that you are far looser, more fluid, more relaxed in your movements around the table, in the way you respond, the way you attack and defend. In no sense of the word would it be fair to describe you as a ‘loser’, however, nor would it be fair to conclude that you failed in any absolute sense.

    Yes, if you like, you did ‘fail’ to make the top 250, and you did ‘fail’ to get a ranking. Nevertheless, this was only failure (and quite possibly only temporary failure) in the sense that Sebastian Coe failed to get the double Gold he sought in the 800 m and 1500 m in the one Olympic Games.

    Anyone who sets their sights high enough must eventually fail. Not failing then becomes merely the consequence of not being courageous enough or outrageous enough to seek to do what no man or woman has ever done before.

  • Oscar Ph Nieto

    Hi Sam!

    Esto que hiciste fue realmente inspirador, al mismo tiempo que pone los pies sobre la tierra.
    Fue un proyecto retador, con altas expectativas, Ben y tú pusieron a prueba un plan con una meta muy alta.
    Y se atrevieron a hacerlo.
    Por este simple hecho ya están muy por encima del promedio y ya es inspirador.
    No conseguiste el resultado. No estás en los 250. Pero progresaste enormemente siguiendo un plan como éste.
    Muchos simplemente se quedan sentados en su sillón viendo la tele, admirando a unos y criticando a otros.
    Uds salieron a vivir, a aprender, a crecer. Así es como son posibles las cosas.
    El éxito y el fracaso en este proyecto llegan con una enseñanza grandísima, sobre el establecimiento de metas, el entrenamiento diario, el tenis de mesa como deporte, etc. Esto es invaluable.
    Te admiro por llevar a cabo este reto, te admiro por publicarlo, procuraré tomar todos los aspectos posibles (tanto los positivos como los negativos) para aprender de tu experiencia.
    Muchas felicitaciones y muchas gracias

    • Olla Oscar!Muchas gracias. I am afraid I only speak bad Spanish (although I am currently learning) but luckily google translate came to my rescue. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Robert

    “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

    ― Bill Gates


    Hello. I have just watched your video where you play table tennis for a year. However, I think there are loads of other more beneficial and usefull skills you could better master in a year.Now, you became better in table tennis. So what will you use it for? Are you a fan of table tennis?