One of the most impressive manifestations of the power of practice can be seen in table tennis player Desmond Douglas. For a long time, he was the top player in the UK, famous for his lightning-fast reactions. Yet, when scientists ran tests on the reaction speeds of all the English national team players, Douglas turned out to be the slowest. So how can someone with long reaction times, in general, react quickly when it comes to ping-pong?
The answer lies in the two changes that intensive practice brings about in the way your brain handles a specific task.
First, after years of experience in a field, an expert’s brain has learned to “read” complex situations typical for that field. It has been primed to quickly extract the relevant bits of information from this familiar setting.
Therefore when playing table tennis, Douglas’ brain could instantly spot the relevant visual cues to predict the ball’s trajectory. This left him with more time to react than a less experienced player.
Second, an expert uses different parts of the brain to perform a task than a novice does. This is because when you learn a new skill like table tennis, you need your conscious mind to monitor your every move in an unfamiliar setting. Thus a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, responsible for conscious control, is very active.
Once you’ve mastered the skill, conscious control is no longer required as the various actions have become automated. This means that in your brain, control of the movements has been turned over to other areas.
In the realm of table tennis, this would mean that when a player has mastered the wrist movements necessary for forehand topspin, his mind is free to concentrate on things like legwork or tactical considerations.
Now we understand how Douglas became a fast player with slow reactions: intensive practice changed the way his brain functioned in table tennis.