Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule

Some practical thoughts on talent and practice

In the past few years popular literature has swung from 10,000 hours of practice being the secret to success in sport toward a renewed emphasis on the possible genetic links to sport performance. Over the past few months researchers, pundits, and general know-it-all's have delighted in the fact that new studies question the value of the so-called 10,000 hour rule.

The 10,000 hour rule is a metaphor that I wrote about previously in Young single-sport athletes suffer more injuries and do not reach their full potential. Here is the relevant quote:

The 10,000 hour rule is a convenient metaphor that illustrates how developing talent takes a lot of time. And that's all it is -- a metaphor. Anyone who interprets it literally as a rule is missing the point. But some do believe that its literal implementation is necessary to reach an elite level of performance.

Taking this rule literally is a mistake. Fortunately it's the commentariat that normally gets the message wrong, those truly involved in sport development understand that of course there is more involved in creating talent than merely practicing a lot. Researchers know that no matter how much the 10,000 rule is discredited practice time, and lots of it, will always be part of talent creation.

Often lost in any 10,000 hour discussion is the type of practice required. The rule requires a special kind of practice called deliberate practice. Athletes in metabolic sports like running, swimming, and cycling easily accumulate practice hours but the majority of these hours are not deliberate. They consist of activities designed to improve various metabolic processes. While there's no doubt that this training is necessary to success in these sports in terms of deliberate practice these kinds of hours don't count.

Deliberate practice is intentionally aimed at improving performance. It's designed to challenge the athlete's current skill level. It must be combined with immediate feedback, and the athlete must have the opportunity for constant repetition. The point: It's not just practicing that matters, it's the kind of practice that makes a difference.

The reason ideas like the 10,000 hour rule capture our imagination has a lot to do with what we wish were true. Swim like Michael Phelps, play golf like Tiger Woods. It's fun to think that practice time alone would produce such a high level of performance. If all it took was 10,000 hours of practice to get to where Phelps and Woods are then that level of performance would be commonplace.

But it isn't, and here's why:

Practice is the great equalizer in sport since it is the one component that we have the most control over. Some athletes may be more genetically gifted than others but if they are not motivated properly, or don't practice enough then their performance might not be as good as a less gifted athlete who practices more often and more effectively.

There's no doubt that genetics play a role in athletic performance. Tall players have an advantage in basketball. Gymnasts tend to be shorter than normal. Most sports have some physical or metabolic traits that favor high performance. If two athletes practice with the same amount of passion and motivation then the one with genetic advantages is likely to be the better athlete.

Genetics only tip the cart in favor of performance though. Just like the 10,000 hours, genetics are only part of the talent story.

Opportunity to participate in a sport is necessary to improve. For example, it's rare when equatorial countries field teams in the Winter Olympic Games. Indoor ice rinks are becoming more common all over the world but let's face it, Malaysia is never going to have the same winter sport culture as Canada. The lack of opportunity to practice winter sports means that tropical countries have few winter sport athletes, if they have any at all.

Opportunity also applies in more subtle ways. Youngsters in communities lacking local organizations to set up and run youth programs suffer from reduced or no opportunities to practice. Without the opportunity to practice and receive feedback from coaches a large part of the talent equation is missing. Countries with a dominant youth sport culture have a huge advantage.

Creating talent is like making sausage: We like the outcome but the process is messy and a lot more complex than the 10,000 hour rule would lead us to believe. The 10,000 hour rule is an attractive idea. It's fun to think that we've cracked the question of how to develop expertise but on closer inspection it's clear that we haven't. So when headlines proclaim that 10,000 is not the magic number of hours one should ask, so what?