The “original” Expert in a Year Challenge took place in 2014 and followed the progress of novice table tennis player Sam Priestley, as he attempted to go from beginner to expert in just one year and break into the top 250 players in England.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Ben Larcombe. I’m the guy behind the Expert in a Year idea, and I was the one acting as Sam’s coach for the entire process. The concept behind the project was something that I’d been thinking about and planning for a few years before the Expert in a Year challenge actually came to life in 2014.
To watch all of Sam’s Expert in a Year table tennis videos on YouTube, click here. I’ve made a playlist.
If you’ve stumbled across this page by chance and don’t have a clue what I’m talking about then please watch the following introductory video. Otherwise, you’ll the story story of Sam’s year of table tennis below, in chronological order.
2013 (Before it began)
At this point Sam had been playing recreational ‘ping-pong’ in his kitchen with his flatmates for a few months. He asked me to recommend him a decent bat so I pointed him in the direction of the Palio Master, and they all bought one.
He then decided to buy himself a table tennis robot to practice with. I hadn’t realised he was so serious about improving! My wife, Katie, suggested Sam as a possible participant for the ‘Expert in a Year’ project I’d been telling her about non-stop for the past few months.
I had a chat with Sam and he decided he was up for the challenge. We set a start date for January 1st 2014 and decided to film a few ‘before’ videos.
- The Introduction: What is “Expert in a Year”? – VIDEO – POST
- Sam the Novice: The Before Video – 10/12/2013 – VIDEO
- Ben vs Sam Matches – 10/12/2013 – VIDEO
We began daily training on the first day of the year and began working through the four basic strokes and the other fundamentals of the game. We spent the whole month working on the basics.
Sam’s technique improved massively but by the end of the month he was still losing comfortably to his flatmates, especially Toby.
- Session #1: Forehand Drive (and Sidestep Movement) – 01/01/2013 – VIDEO
- Session #2: Forehand Drive & Backhand Drive – 02/01/2013 – VIDEO
- Session #3: FH & BH Drive Regular Movement with Robot – 03/01/2013 – VIDEO
- Session #4: More Forehand & Backhand Drive – 04/01/2013 – VIDEO
- Week 1 Diary – 1st-4th January 2014 – POST
- Week 2 Diary & Video Compilation – 6th-12th January 2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 3 Diary & Highlights – 13-19/01/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 4 Diary & Highlights – 20-26/01/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 5 Diary & Highlights – 27/01-02/02/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Sam vs Toby – 31/01/2014 – VIDEO 1 – VIDEO 2 – VIDEO 3
We began to work on a few more advanced strokes such as the topspin, loop and open up. We were still taking things very slowly, trying to develop a solid technical foundation.
We visited Swerve TTC in Middlesbrough for a three-day training camp. This was Sam’s first experience playing table tennis outside of the kitchen.
- Week 7 Diary & Highlights – 10-16/02/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Sam’s Diary (Swerve Training Camp) – 17-19/02/2014 – POST
- Sam vs a 10 year old – 19/02/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 8 Diary & Highlights – 17-23/02/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 9 Diary & Highlights – 24/02-02/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
Training was getting much more serious by this point. Sam had all of the gear and was training hard both physically and technically. We spent much of the month working on Sam’s topspin/loop strokes and turning him into an attacking player.
Sam received an hour of private coaching from Sherwin Remata working mainly on footwork and his loop technique.
- Week 10 Diary & Highlights – 03-09/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- A coaching session with Sherwin Remata – 10/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 11 Diary & Highlights – 10-16/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 12 Diary & Highlights – 17-23/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 13 Diary & Highlights – 24-30/03/2014 – POST – VIDEO
This was the final month of the first phase of training (How to Play: January – April). We were trying to make sure that Sam’s technique was adequate for all of the different strokes.
We also started playing a lot more friendly matches at the end of our training sessions. Sam was doing his own physical training and service practice pretty much every day by this point.
We managed to get back to Swerve for a couple of days and also spent two days with top coach Eli Baraty on his Easter training camp.
- Week 14 Diary & Highlights – 31/03-06/04/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Sam vs Ben (left-handed) – 02/04/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Ben (mini bat) – 02/04/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 15 Diary & Highlights – 07-13/04/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Our coaching session with Eli Baraty – 07/04/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 16 Diary & Highlights – 14-20/04/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 17 Diary & Highlights – 21-27/04/2014 – POST – VIDEO
We began the second phase of our training (How to Win: May – August). The focus was now on how to win points and we were thinking much more about tactics and less about technique.
Sam went to Malta for a few days for work but was able to train at the Hi-Impact Table Tennis Academy and received a private session from head coach Mario Genovese.
- Week 18 Diary & Highlights – 28/04-04/05/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 19 Diary & Highlights – 05-11/05/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 20 Diary & Highlights – 12-18/05/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 21 Diary & Highlights – 19-25/05/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Sam training in Malta with Mario Genovese in – VIDEO
- Week 22 Diary & Highlights – 26/05-01/06/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Sam Priestley vs Daniel Lim (his flatmate) – 27/05/2014 – VIDEO
June saw us doing a lot of training in the kitchen as we approached the half way point of the challenge. We also began going regularly to ISH table tennis club on Sunday nights to give Sam some match practice. As the challenge progressed this match practice against local players became more and more important.
We filmed an Ask Me Anything video towards the end of the month and allowed readers to send in questions for the two of us to answer.
- Week 23 Diary & Highlights – 02-08/06/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 24 Diary & Video – 09-15/06/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Highlights from Sam’s Match at ISH – 15/06/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 25 Diary & Video – 16-22/06/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 26 Diary & Video – 23-29/06/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- The Expert in a Year AMA (Ask Me Anything) – 27/06/2014 – VIDEO
July saw us take our first trip abroad for the challenge as we headed to Denmark for the famous B75 International TT Summer Camp. It was a brilliant camp and we both trained hard for nine days and learned loads from the plethora of expert coaches.
The focus of our training really began to shift to primarily serve and receive, to give Sam the best chance of winning matches in a few months time. We were both pretty happy with his technique in general by this point so decided not to spend too much time trying to improve it further.
- Week 27 Diary & Video – 30/06-06/07/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 28 Diary & Video – 07-13/07/2014 – POST – VIDEO
- Week 29 & 30 (Denmark) Sam’s Diary & Video – 14-26/07/2014 – POST – VIDEO
August was a strange month because I was away for much of it on different holidays. Sam was still training hard though. He had a bit of a break after Denmark and then had quite a few one-to-one sessions with other coaches in London. When I was away on my second holiday Sam went on a training camp in Eger, Hungary for a week.
We reached the end of our second phase of training and began approaching the final four months. The focus switched almost entirely to match play. It was vital that Sam was getting plenty of experience against a range of local players with different techniques and styles. Our training became based around his results/performances in those matches.
- Week 31 & 32 Highlights Video – 27/07-10/08/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 33 (Eger) Highlights Video – 11-16/08/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 34 Highlights Video – 17-24/08/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 35 Highlights Video – 25-31/08/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam Priestley vs ‘Glen’ Larcombe – 26/08/2014 – VIDEO
- August Overview – POST
Sam had a week off from training in September and had a bit of time away on holiday. I think it was really needed and helped him to regain his drive and motivation for the training when he returned.
We spent the month doing loads of training, particularly focusing on match situations, and going along to local clubs in the evenings for some extra match practice. We also went along to watch the Medway Grand Prix to give Sam an idea of what he’d be up against in November.
- Week 36 Highlights Video – 01-07/09/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 38 Highlights Video – 15-21/09/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam Priestley vs Left-Handed Ben – 23/09/2014 – VIDEO
- Week 39 Highlights Video – 22-30/09/2014 – VIDEO
- September Overview – POST
October saw us continue going to lots of local clubs (ISH, Highbury and Finsbury TTC) to give Sam more experience against different types of players. It was kind of like the calm before the storm because we knew that November meant the start of tournaments, which would mean a very busy time and lots of weekends away.
In our one-to-one sessions we were working lots of short serve, pushing and forehand open up. We also spent a lot of time working on Sam’s return of serve, both learning how to read the spin and also practising attacking long serves.
- Sam’s Match at ISH – 05/10/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam’s Confidence & Imagery Video – 16/10/2014 – VIDEO
- October Overview – POST – VIDEO
Sam’s first official Table Tennis England ranking tournament was the Bristol Grand Prix on 15th November. The week before he managed to go along to a local tournament organised by Rory Scott in Horsham to get a feel for competing. Then on Saturday 22nd November we went to Cippenham for their 1-Star tournament.
It was a tough start for Sam at all three. He came up against a lot of experienced local league players, and a handful of senior county-level players and top juniors. It was always going to be difficult for him to put everything he had learnt from practice into his matches when facing such tricky opponents. However, it was encouraging for him to win a match in his Band 6 group at Bristol and also to win a match in the first round of the consolation event at Cippenham. Lots was learnt and we still felt like Sam had plenty of time to get more used to competing.
- Sam vs Jason Morley – 08/11/2014 – VIDEO
- Bristol Grand Prix – 15/11/2014 – POST
- Sam vs Mathew Pearce – 15/11/2014 – VIDEO
- Pushing-Only Game – 20/11/2014 – VIDEO
- Cippenham 1-Star – 22/11/2014 – POST – VIDEO
December was another busy month for competitions with Sam playing in the Nottingham GP, a local Central London league tournament organised by Highbury TTC, the Cardiff Grand Prix, and then just after Christmas, a BATTS Super Series on the 28th.
The highlight of the month was probably Sam reaching the semi final of his event in the Central London league tournament. He played quite well on the day and was feeling rather uncomfortable being one of the favourites to win (not a position he usually finds himself in at the ranking tournaments). It was tough going in the other tournaments with Sam coming up against a number of very strong players and doing well simply to pick up points against them.
- Nottingham Grand Prix Review – 06/12/2014 – POST
- Sam vs Billy Shilton – 06/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs James Lennard – 06/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Michael Starzyk – 06/12/2014 – VIDEO
- When Everything Needs Work – 15/12/2014 – POST
- How to Develop the Habit of Winning – 19/12/2014 – POST
- Sam vs Mark Burridge – 20/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Stefan Jeczalik – 20/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Theo Achampong – 28/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Paul Nicol – 28/12/2014 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Josh Dye – 28/12/2014 – VIDEO
We played for a week and a half into 2015 because it coincided nicely with a couple of tournaments. Sam played in the Sussex GP on the 3rd and 4th January and again put out some great performances against a number of very good players, including Team GB Paralympian David Wetherill! He was very happy to get a 3-1 win over Steve Hirst (who had been on the B75 summer camp in Denmark with us in July) in the restricted event on the Sunday.
The Expert in a Year challenge officially ended on Sunday 11th January (a year and 11 days after it began) once we had finished playing in the Cippenham Teams 2-Star competition. It was a great way to finish as we (Ben & Sam) were able to play together as a team and have a lot of fun. We came 16th out of 24 teams and despite not winning any matches Sam put out some really great performances against Ed Slot, Steve Smith and Neil Wright.
- Sam vs Casey Mansfield – 03/01/2015 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Steve Hirst – 04/01/2015 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Ed Slot (a real top 250 player) – 11/01/2015 – VIDEO
- Sam vs Steve Smith – 11/01/2015 – VIDEO
A couple of days after the end of the challenge I finished a ‘1 Second Everyday’ video of Sam’s transformation over the year. It begins with twenty seconds of him rallying back in December 2013 and ends with a couple of his best points against Ed Slot (a real top 250 player).
It was released on YouTube and went viral in February 2015 receiving over 1 million views!
I then wrote a fairly comprehensive blog post (4,000 words) reviewing the challenge, talking about how I came up with the idea, the theory behind it, some inspiration from other challenges and authors, and why I think Sam was unable to achieve a top 250 ranking.
Sam also wrote an article, on his own blog, about his experience of the challenge.
A couple of weeks after we finished the challenge we filmed a Q&A session and asked for questions about the challenge. We answered ten of the most popular questions. You can watch it here.
Finally, I released a video to end the Expert in a Year challenge. It was filmed on the last day of the project and shows Sam’s level after a year of table tennis. It also displays the number of hours he spent practicing and a few other stats about what we got up to over the year and people we would like to thank.
It was a brilliant year. An awful lot of hard work (for both of us) but lots of fun too. Most of all, it was a learning experience. It taught us so much about not only table tennis but also learning and mastery in general. We learnt that…
“Mastery is tough, but mastery is possible”.
In 2015, and beyond, Sam and I will continue our table tennis journeys separately.
I am going to start training and competing again (with the aim of breaking into the England top 100) and Sam will continue to play a couple of times a week at some local clubs (and for ISH in the Central London League).
I am certain that Sam will continue to improve as he gains valuable match experience in the local league. And maybe one day, if he keeps up the table tennis, he will achieve the top 250 ranking we were striving for.
Can he stick with it? I hope so!