Is 10,000 hours of practise really enough?

As recently as yesterday, the BBC journalist Ben Carter wrote an article (I’m tempted to write yet another article!) about the theory of deliberate practise (http://tinyurl.com/ourq6fc), often referred to in the talent development literature as the ’10,000-hour or ten-year rule’. Describing a man’s attempt to go from complete novice to expert golfer by completing 10,000 hours of practise, even giving up his job in pursuit of this goal (go to http://thedanplan.com to see how he’s getting on!), the article presents some of the contrasting views on this ‘magic number’. Popularised in contemporary books by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code) and Matthew Syed (Bounce) amongst others, the theory of deliberate practise describes the methods by which experts are created.

In summary, the theory answers the question of ‘how much practise is enough?’. Early work in this area, primarily in chess players (Chase and Simon 1973) and concert musicians (Ericsson et al 1993; http://tinyurl.com/2dvmuf) found that many of the differences between experts and novice/intermediate performers was as a result of the type of practise that they completed, coining the phrase deliberate practise in the process. Much has been made of this in sport, with researchers such as Starkes and Ericsson himself exploring the same ideas in the coaching literature. After all, what sports coach wouldn’t want to know how to increase the speed of development of their athletes? Of course they do!

It could be argued that much of the popular literature has perhaps over-interpreted some of the original authors’ findings. Indeed Ericcson, the lead author on the research that led to the 10,000-hour rule being conceived, has said so himself. However, despite this, there is still much confusion as to how this theory can be communicated and translated more effectively. So, what do we know? What isn’t conjecture from our knowledge of sport and preparing athletes for competition?

First and foremost, there are always athletes who will reach the top of their sport without completing 10,000 hours (or 10 years) of practice. For example, our very own Lizzy Yarnold. Yes, she was already a talented and trained athlete (in Heptathlon), but she’d never participated in the Bob Skeleton prior to 2008 and was an Olympic Gold medallist within five and a half years! Clearly, there are always going to be examples of prodigies that don’t ‘fit’ into a theory, but delving into the literature more deeply would suggest that 10,000 hours is the minimum number of hours for expert performance. As such, I would contend that the premise behind the theory is flawed on this evidence alone.

Secondly, the theory of deliberate practice suggests that practise should not be inherently enjoyable! Who doesn’t enjoy training for their sport? I thought so! The cathartic effects of exercise, physical activity and sport training are widely-documented. Comparing scales on the violin or piano to practising a golf swing or doing a passing drill in rugby just doesn’t seem to make too much sense to me. I don’t disagree that other important aspects of the definition of deliberate practise, such as intent to be successful and not practising for practice sake, are really important but enjoyment is the over-riding reason why we take up sport, we practise hard and we aspire to be successful!

Finally, and something I don’t feel has been adequately explored and/or explained to date, is that two very different types of training are required for success in sporting endeavours. Physical training, …the ‘hard yards’ in the gym, on the track etc., …are an absolutely essential element of success in sport. Without being physically ready, not to mention being resistant to injury, an athlete wouldn’t be able to develop technical skills and tactical understanding (i.e. the very essence of deliberate practise). The jury is still out…

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3 comments

  1. This is the second time I’ve seen Malcolm Gladwell mentioned this weekend, seems an interesting chap.

    I guess that skill transfer further complicates applying the theory to sport, team sports in particular where you see both positive and negative skill transfer. Defining expert performance might also be a little more contentious in sport as there’s often more to success or reaching the highest level than expert skill.

  2. What’s especially interesting about the BBC article is the obvious animosity created between Ericcson and Gladwell, as a result of Gladwell’s interpretation of the deliberate practise research. My take on it regarding team sports? Interestingly, the research on team sports (I recall Helsen did some work in football, although I might be wrong with the name) suggested that 6,000 hours of deliberate team practise were required BUT they didn’t catalogue/measure the amount of other types of practise. My educated guess would be that that amounts to around 12-15 years of practise, when you consider the time spent in team sports doing the other types of training that I referred to in the blog!

  3. Yeh, looking at some of his other work Gladwell clearly likes being the provocateur which might irk Ericcson if he’s more stat driven and probably seen less limelight because of it.

    Very interesting, 6000 hours of team practice still sounds a lot for deliberate team practice presuming they’ve put in enough of the other training as you mention. Then again, some team sports are much more complex than others which you’d think would take longer to become truly exceptional at.

    I wonder if they find that playing instruments takes more practice than sport for instance because the expert level is that much higher due to the fact that we’ve been deliberately developing those techniques and teaching methods for decades if not centuries longer?

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