Last Updated: August 19th, 2022
Why are some performers better than others? Is it because they are more talented than their peers, or is it because they practice more?
One school of thought claims that talent is relatively unimportant, and that what distinguishes elite performers from the rest is the amount of accumulated practice. Advocates of this view cite the 10,000 hours rule, which is based on the findings of psychologist Anders Ericsson, and was then brought to wider public attention in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers. Matthew Syed’s book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, also made heavy use of Ericsson’s research.
The 10,000 hours rule claims that elite performers in any domain – from playing guitar to computer programming or football – are distinguished from the rest of us by having accumulated a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. This idea has been widely misunderstood, and the misunderstanding has achieved the status of received wisdom in some sporting quarters.
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In this post I want to discuss some new research which looks specifically at accumulated practice in sport, and casts doubt on the 10,000 hours rule. The research is discussed in three contributions recently published in the journal Perspectives on Psychology: a paper by Brooke Macnamara, a commentary on her findings by Anders Ericcson, and a rejoinder by Macnamara. Since most people don’t have access to this material I thought it would be useful to summarize the findings.
Origin of the 10,000 Hours Rule
The origin of the 10,000 hours rule lies in Anders Ericsson’s brilliant research paper published in 1993. Ericsson found large differences in the practice habits amongst musicians of varying ability. The least accomplished musicians had engaged in fewer than 5,000 hours of “deliberate practice”, the good performers an average of 8,000 hours, and the excellent performers an average of 10,000 hours.
But as Ericsson himself pointed out, this finding by itself does not prove that talent is irrelevant. It does not rule out the possibility that talent and practice are correlated – in other words it may simply be that more talented individuals practice more. The conclusion that practice, and not talent, determines performance rests on other arguments.
Nor are Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers anecdotes particularly convincing, because they neglect counterfactuals. Sure, the Beatles performed on stage for 10,000 hours in Hamburg and afterwards became world-famous. But were the Beatles the only band playing long hours in Hamburg and other European cities in the 1960’s? What happened to the others I wonder? And although Bill Gates practiced coding for 10,000 hours and rewrote the history of computing, how many other computer nerds are still sitting in front of their screens in lonely bedrooms, their dreams of fame and fortune unfulfilled?
Nevertheless, Ericsson does have some persuasive arguments. Although he dismisses the notion of “talent” – i.e. a genetically programmed degree of innate ability in a particular domain – he emphatically does not dismiss the notion of individual differences at all. Contrary to popular belief Ericsson does not suggest that anyone can succeed at anything simply by practicing sufficiently. He writes: “It does not follow from the rejection of innate limits on acquired performance that everyone can easily attain high levels of skill”
Rather the constraint on achievement is the tremendous amount of effort, dedication and motivation required to sustain a program of “deliberate practice” over long years. Only the few who have the single-minded commitment and dedication to pursue this path survive to attain the goal. The vast majority of us do not. There is no need to do a study. Just ask yourself; how long do my New Years’ resolutions normally last?
Deliberate Practice in Sport
The talent-practice controversy is obviously of huge interest in sport. Now new evidence on the efficacy of practice in sport has emerged in a paper by Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues at Case-Western University. They combined the results of 63 studies on the effect of deliberate practice in sport. Contrary to what would be predicted by the 10,000 hours rule, they found that deliberate practice accounted for only 18% of the variance in performance, leaving 82% of the variance unexplained.
Several other notable facts emerged from the research. First, highly-skilled athletes did not tend to begin their sport earlier during childhood than lower skilled athletes. That is course interesting in a football context, where promising kids now join the academies of major clubs as young as eight.
Next, there was a difference between internally-paced sports such as golf or gymnastics and externally-paced sports such as volleyball or football. Practice seemed to be more strongly associated with enhanced performance in internally-paced sports than in externally-paced ones.
As expected, amounts of practice did distinguish between elite and sub-elite athletes. However, in studies involving only elite performers, there was virtually no discernible effect of practice at all. Within this group, deliberate practice explained only 1% of the variation in performance. This is of course completely inconsistent with the claim that deliberate practice accounts for performance differences among elite performers.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the existing research base, especially of elite athletes is still quite small. And I can tell you that calculating the number of hours played by a football player or a team does not help to make a bet. However, a bet can be made by non Gamstop bookies.
The 63 studies examined 2,375 individuals in all, of which only 228 were elite athletes (i.e. national to Olympic levels). This is simply too small a sample on which to base definitive claims.
There seems little doubt that extensive practice is vital for achieving and maintaining high-levels of performance. But in the light of the latest research, practice looks a bit less powerful, and talent a bit less mythical than it used to, especially when it comes to differentiating amongst the very best.
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.
Macnamara, B. N., Moreau, D., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2016). The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports A Meta-Analysis.Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(3), 333-350.
Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Summing Up Hours of Any Type of Practice Versus Identifying Optimal Practice Activities Commentary on Macnamara, Moreau, & Hambrick (2016). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(3), 351-354.
Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Moreau, D. (2016). How Important Is Deliberate Practice? Reply to Ericsson (2016). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(3), 355-358.