Talent versus hard work
There's much debate these days about whether table tennis players need talent to reach the highest levels, or if hard work will overcome it. The debate is often dominated by those who believe something toward the extremes as dogma. To be the very best, most seem to believe one of the following:
1) You have to have talent, and if you have that, hard work will pay off; or
2) There's no such thing as talent; it's all about working hard, plus proper circumstances (starting early, good coaching and competition, etc.).
Some look at just the best players, see that they work hard, and conclude it's all about hard work. They are not looking at the people who work hard who don't become the best. Others see that some are more talented than others - we've all seen this type of thing in grade school - and conclude it's all about talent, and that if you don't have it, you can't be great.
Here's my take (short version). There's no question that there is such a thing as talent. Some kids simply pick things up very fast, others struggle. We're not all born with exactly the same brain structure. As early as a kid can crawl you can see differences in their skills - just toss a ball at them and you'll see some can grab it, others can barely hold onto it. Even the book "Bounce" by former world-class chopper Matthew Syed of England, which argues that players reach the highest levels by hard work and proper circumstances, doesn't argue there is no such thing as talent. It simply argues (roughly speaking) that hard work and proper circumstances will overcome that. It might be right.
Can those with low talent become the best? I've coached kids and seen kids coached who were so low on the talent spectrum that I just don't see them ever becoming world-class table tennis players, no matter what they did. I can't think of a single example of someone like this who eventually became a truly elite player. But I have seen players like this struggle for years, work at it, and eventually become very good. (You often read of elite players who apparently struggled for years before reaching the highest levels, and then you realize that when they were "struggling," they were already among the best, and that their struggles were against the very best.)
I can think of many examples of top players who didn't work hard for years and still pulled away from much harder-working peers - apparently, they were simply more talented. But they would often fall behind their harder-working peers in the long run, and in the end, the very best players were always hard workers. Probably most important, those who believed that hard work would overcome talent in the long run tended to put in the hard work - and so reached their maximum potential. Those who thought talent was more important didn't work as hard, thinking they could never be as good as the more "talented" ones.
Having said all this, I tend to think that if you start early, work extremely hard, have good circumstances (start early, coaching, competition, etc.), you can become extremely good - maybe even the best in the U.S. The jury is still out for me on whether you can be the best in the world (which is a few levels above best in the U.S.) at table tennis without talent - and I mean that as I said it; I'm really not sure, though I'm doubtful for those who truly start out on the lower end of the talent spectrum. But who knows? Far too many people are sure of the answer here when there's no basis for such certainty.
What is talent for table tennis? Roughly speaking, I'd say it's a combination of the following - and I'm sure I'm missing other aspects:
- Hand-eye coordination
- Ability to control body
- Ability to make smooth and controlled movements
- Ability to track the ball with the eyes
- Mental skills (many)
- Ability to mimic
- Ability to repeat a motion
- Speed (fast twitch muscles)
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