Measurement Tips From Table Tennis

by Stacey Barr - Date: 2007-03-21 - Word Count: 794 Share This!

Recently I have been spending some time with my husband playing table tennis in our garage after work. I'm new to table tennis, so it's a steep learning curve. And even though a lot of my attention was on hitting the ball back and landing it on the table instead of skewing it off toward the tool rack or up into the fluorescent lights, I couldn't help reflecting on how similar the experience was to any kind of performance improvement in business. In fact, here are the six tips that learning table tennis (or trying anything new) can teach us about improving the performance of anything:

Tip #1: Be very clear what result you want.

When you start out with something new, aiming to be the best at it straight away is not what I call realistic goal. So rather than set my immediate sights on thrashing my husband by the end of our first table tennis match, my focus was more modestly on just hitting the ball back and having it land where I intended it to go. With such a clear goal in front of you, it's so much easier to reach it, one logical step at a time. (Your eyes know exactly what to look at and what to look for.)

Tip #2: If you're not good at it yet, expect high variability in your performance.

With little skill or knowledge about table tennis, I could only expect to have little control over where I put the ball, and with little control I could only expect to have little predictability in my results - the distance between where I intended the ball to land and where the ball actually landed fluctuated randomly and wildly. Understanding (and measuring) your variability is your baseline - understand this natural variability before you attempt to improve anything.

Tip #3: To really improve, change only one thing at a time.

As simple as table tennis is, there were many things that I could have changed to try for a better result. How I held the paddle, how I positioned my feet, how I moved my wrist, how hard I hit the ball, how accurately I read the spin that my clever husband put on the ball (in his wicked attempts to make my returns even more unpredictable). I found I improved best (very satisfying) when I thought about just one thing to do better, like holding the paddle consistently and at the right angle. Improvement happens so much faster when you bed down one improvement at a time. Trying to figure out the complex interactions among several changes at once is confusing, exhausting and takes many times longer to get results.

Tip #4: Performance will probably grow worse straight after you start improving something.

The moment I became more conscious of how I was holding the table tennis paddle, things got worse. The ball seemed to grow a mind of its own for the next 10 to 15 hits. Yes it did more often land where I intended it to, but it would also unpredictably ping off at the most obscure angles. However, it didn't take long to get a feel for the new grip on the paddle and - lo and behold - the ball began doing mostly what I wanted it to. I had more control! Any kind of performance improvement can have a 'bedding in' period, but then things can grow better almost in an instant.

Tip #5: Keep focused - if you take your mind off it, you lose control again.

Pumped by my quick success at bossing the ping pong ball around, I thought I could let go and relax into the game a little. Big mistake. A few fast and furious returns from my loving husband's paddle made me instantly aware that holding a table tennis paddle wasn't yet second nature. The ping pong ball 'pertwanged' out my control and was at the sole mercy of my husband. So remember, if you take your mind off an improved change before it becomes second nature, you risk losing control again and the variability widens once more.

Tip #6: Get feedback regularly, and don't misinterpret it.

"You're hitting down again!" My husband was sounding like a broken record (now there's a metaphor that's losing relevance!). So again I lifted up my swing to correct for the mistake. "You're hitting down again!" (He's a very patient man.) What?! Then I asked him what he meant and it turned out that his idea of hitting down meant my paddle was at the wrong angle, but I interpreted it to mean my swing was at the wrong angle. Assumptions! So make sure you track the changes made by your improvement frequently enough that you can correct things if they go askew - but make sure you know what the feedback is telling you.

Related Tags: metric, business goals, kpi, balanced scorecard, performance measure, key performance indicator

Stacey Barr is the Performance Measure Specialist, helping people to measure their business strategy, goals and objectives so they actually achieve them.

Sign up for Stacey's free mezhermnt™ Handy Hints ezine at to receive your complimentary copy of her e-book "202 Tips for Performance Measurement", and make your business goals more achievable.

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