One night a few weeks ago, I was playing ping pong. On a whim, I decided that I would use topspin on every ball. Something really cool happened.
I’ve played ping pong since I was a kid, the way a lot of people have: casually and occasionally. In short, I’m nothing fancy! Some high school friends I played with were really good, so I at least knew about fancy things like putting spin on the ball, but I never really got good at it. I had tried over the years to get better, but only half-heartedly while playing the occasional game.
Then I did my little experiment the other night. Within about 10 minutes, my ability to use topspin improved more than it had in the last 30 years of me playing. It felt like magic.
Doing it on every shot helped me tweak my movements, getting better at basic execution of topspin. I might have predicted this result, but I would have expected it to happen less quickly. I wouldn’t have expected to learn how the topspin was affected by factors like speed and spin of the ball, position of the ball relative to the table, and my position relative to the ball and table. I was also surprised to learn that in addition to making it harder for my opponent to return the ball, topspin also greatly increased the chance that I would get the ball on the table in the first place. In those 10 minutes, I went from winning about 50% of the points to winning about 90% of them.
Remember: it’s not like I never tried to improve my use of topspin before. So what was different? I have a few guesses.
First, I think that isolating the skill had a lot to do with it. Practicing it again and again was like drilling any skill (multiplication tables, dribbling a basketball, piano scales), allowing more fluent application when integrated into a real-world situation.
Second, removing the skill as a variable made it the focus of my experimentation. In my normal game I would vary my spin from stroke to stroke (left spin, right spin, backspin, topspin, and no spin) in addition to other variables. No wonder that I was not learning from a series of experiments where I constantly changed multiple variables. Switching to “topspin every time” turned this into a simpler experimental model which focused on topspin itself. This allowed me to learn about how other changes affect the behavior of topspin.
Third, the contrived nature of “topspin every time” led me to try topspin in situations where I would not have otherwise. There were many shots where it felt awkward at first because I had probably never used topspin in that position. Quickly, I got over that, stretching the range over which I applied the skill.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me how little we do focused practice on the many things we do each day. What if one were to pick a skill or behavior, no matter how small, and apply it to every single situation in a given day or week? The skill or behavior might not fit in every case, but would one learn just as quickly as I did that night playing ping pong? What if I said “this week I will work on improving listening by never being the first person to respond to a point/question in a group meeting”? Or “today I will not send any emails longer than 200 words”?
I’ll report back on applications of this approach, but I welcome comments from any of you who try your version of putting topspin on every ball.