I came across another interesting article on the BBC website today. It was temptingly titled Can you win at anything if you practise hard enough? It told the story of a young table-tennis coach from the UK, named Ben Larcombe, who attempted to take his lumpy and “unsporty” friend and turn him, over the course of a year, into a top competitive player. As part of the process of writing a book on the topic of training and improvement, the pair documented Sam Priestley’s transformation from a sort-of player to an impressively good one, at least to my eyes. You can watch the whole thing unfold before your eyes in this video. The article includes, however, a rather bubble-bursting comment from an English tennis coach and expert named Rory Scott:
“He is nowhere near the standard of the top under-11 player in the UK.”
So the BBC writer goes on to ask this question: “Why did the project fail?” What? Just because Sam didn’t meet his goal of getting into the top 250 table tennis players in the UK in one year of practicing every day, doesn’t mean it was a failure at all. It shows the potential for people to learn when they are persistent and work hard regularly with good strategies and feedback. The rest of the article goes on to explore exactly that potential, largely from a cultural viewpoint of different attitudes to natural ability and the need to persist versus instantaneous gratification.
I’ve been seeing similar sorts of studies a lot lately. The last few years have seen a plethora of books and talks on similar topics: how far does practice take you? You can read about Josh Kaufman’s attempt to learn something in 20 hours, or watch him tell about it at TED. Or you can read about Joshua Foer attempting to get better at memorizing things in his book, Moonwalking With Einstein. Or if you are really serious about the source of greatness, whether is comes from genes or training, try The Sports Gene by David Epstein. And don’t forget Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect, a book which has a focus on learning teaching.
Practice, I’m convinced, is important. But so are attitudes to practice, and so is the kind of practice you do and the the kind of feedback you get. If we can get these right, our learners will learn better and faster, which will lead to other benefits. Practice is a touchy issue in language teaching, a field still trying to come to terms with the “drill and kill” of the audio-lingual approach. But intense, focused practice with constructive feedback and repeated opportunities to incorporate that feedback and improve is something very important to the learning process. It takes a lot of time, to be sure, maybe even 10,000 hours (though see Mr. Epstein’s book for a good discussion on amounts of time), but impressive results are possible. That is something I want my learners to understand and buy into.
Mr. Larcombe has a website with more detailed info about the process of teaching table tennis. He is also currently preparing a book.