I was really excited to visit the Bay Area for several days last week. I attended a wedding where my dear friend and former doubles partner (we finished third place at the US Open in 2009) and Olympian, Jackie Lee, just got married to Jonathan Nielson.
Jonathan and Jackie have an amazing story. They met in Denmark in 2008 while Jackie was playing table tennis professionally. Jonathan was playing during that time as well. They only spent two months together in the same city and managed to keep a long distance relationship going for three and a half years. They made it! They overcame many challenges inherent in a long distance relationship. They are an inspirational couple and a strong team that can achieve whatever they want together.
During their wedding, I met Matilda Ekholm again. She is a very good friend of Jackie’s, a pro table tennis player from Sweden, and currently ranked 67th in the world. We had a match back in 1999 at the European Championship and we haven’t seen each other since then. 15 years! Matilda remembered me, since I had the victory over her in our match ;). During our conversation, she shared how she how her performance peaked at a later age than other players. It was really nice to catch up with her and reminisce our childhood memories during the time we competed against each other.
Also in attendance were Sean O’Neil, Jackie’s former coach, Director of Communications for USA Table Tennis and USA Paralympic Table Tennis and Avi Schmidt, the head coach and founder of the Alameda Table Tennis Club. The three of us had a great discussion about the subject of talent. The question was raised: which matters most to become an elite table tennis player, talent or personality traits?
Sean stated, “As a coach I focus on gritty skill sets, talent is useless and often counter productive.” Sean looks for certain personality traits and the first thing that he does with a potential student is to sit down with him/her and with the parents for 1.5 hours to discuss the student’s motivation and to see the larger picture.
Avi saw it a bit differently and wasn’t that extreme. He stated, “Yes, personality traits matters but you need some hand eye coordination skills as well”.
I believe that everything starts with a coach or teacher because it has a huge impact on a kid’s life. When coaching sports for kids in their early childhood we educate them not just about the sport, but also building up their character as well. Kids can learn so many different skills through sports and most importantly how to have grit.
My first coach was all about having fun and he was really cheerful. In my opinion the most important thing when we start teaching a young kid is to have fun and make her/him love the sport. Then we can focus on techniques and teaching discipline. I believe that we need a motivated a kid to create the appropriate circumstances to empower and to bring out his/her best. This can only be accomplished if we cooperatively work together with the parents.
We all concluded that personality traits, parents and practice hours matters the most.
Here are some of the takeaways from the conversation:
- Talent doesn’t really exist, we have to put 10,000 hours in everything if we want to be exceptional
- Focus on the fun part when we start teaching a really young kid
- Motivation and passion matter the most in the long run
- Working with the parents is very crucial, be on the same page. Understanding cultural differences is very important.
- Create an optimal motivation climate that empowers the athlete and matches the player’s personality. Everybody is different and different personalities react differently to the same situations. This is driven by personal history, temperament and cultural differences.
Great books to read on the topic:
Share your comments and email me if you have any questions. Also, read my new book about how to handle high level pressure situations in table tennis and develop life style choices to achieve peak performance in table tennis! Be a Champ For Life!