The 10,000 hour rule: "Not for the faint of heart nor for the impatient"

Ever since the publication of The Making of an Expert in 2007 Anders Ericsson has been credited, or blamed depending on how you look at it, for creating the so-called '10,000 hour rule' which says that to be good at something, really good, requires about 10,000 hours of practice. Though not guaranteed such devotion to an endeavor can lead to expert status in the chosen activity. Since then it has captured the imagination of everyone from music teachers and sport coaches, to parents looking for a pathway to success for their precocious offspring.

Ericsson didn't actually create the concept though. The 10,000 hour rule became part of talent lingo in the 1990s after a longitudinal study of teenagers and talent development conducted by Benjamin Bloom. It was then known as the 10-year rule, and the study, involving 200 teenagers, examined what caused the subjects to commit to developing individual talent, or to disengage. The authors identified several environmental factors that had a profound effect on whether or not a young person would commit to developing their talent:

  • The skills being learned must be useful in their culture.
  • The person must possess personality traits that allow them to concentrate, understand, and persevere.
  • The person must have learned habits that are conducive to talent cultivation.
  • The student's environment must be supportive and make the endeavor enjoyable and challenging (both family and teacher).
  • There must be rewards, both internal and external, for development of the talent.
  • If the talent provides peak experiences then youngsters are more likely to stick with it.

Among the results was the need for practice. And while the researchers were not trying to actually quantify the amount of practice that would lead to expert status, the 10-year rule, nevertheless, became part of popular culture. But whether it's 10 years or 10,000 hours the meaning is clear, becoming an expert takes a long time!, and as Ericsson would say it is "neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient."

Practice time is only part of the equation though, the kind of practice is also important. Ericsson makes the point that practice must be deliberate i.e. where attention is focused intensely on the activity, where active evaluation is taking place, and where self-awareness guides the athlete's movements from moment to moment. This "deep" practice is where the mind and body are engaged in learning skills and strategies that the athlete hasn't already mastered.

This type of practice is especially hard to accumulate in linear sports that focus on improving some kind of performance attribute such as speed, strength, and endurance. Linear activities are sometimes referred to as CGS sports because of how they are measured (centimeters, grams, and seconds). While practice sessions in these activities are usually long and frequent, accumulating deliberate practice time in these kinds of sports is very difficult.

Strict adherence to this rule might also interfere with the development of physical literacy and lead to early specialization since accumulating 10,000 hours of practice in some activities encourages premature commitment to a single sport. The allure of the "10,000 hours" is hard to escape though. It provides a concrete goal, something parents can wrap their heads around, thus when the sporting zeitgeist of single-sport participation and getting an early start on the competition meets the 10,000 hour rule the evidence seems overwhelmingly in favor of early sport specialization.

Thinking this way is a mistake. Mastering fundamental movement skills occurs over a limited period of time and participation in multiple sport activities is a recognized way to develop them. Furthermore, except for a small number of skill based activities, the majority of sports require late-specialization; specializing too early in these sports can lead to burnout, dropout, and overuse injuries.

But simply practicing for 10,000 hours will not produce excellence. In addition to the hours of deliberate practice, those seeking excellence need strong support from friends and family, and the watchful eye of a master coach. While there is something appealing about a "formula" for achieving success, the process Ericsson outlines is not so much a plan as it is a description of what it takes to achieve peak performance.

The elements involved -- long term deliberate practice, a strong support system, and an expert coach -- are not common. And while some might see the 10,000 hour rule as dictating that sport training must begin at an early age, most programs for youngsters do not provide an atmosphere of excellence, nor are master coaches involved. The recipe for true talent development is rare.

Finally, there is the end result to consider. Exactly what will 10,000 hours of deliberate practice produce, if it produces anything at all?

The 10,000 rule is a metaphor about creating expertise but in pop culture it's interpreted as a formula for excellence or being "the best." Practicing anything for 10,000 hours will certainly raise one's level of competence in that activity and in some cases the person will reach a level recognized as "expert." But expertise is not the same thing as "the best," that level is reserved for those who have the talent and ability to rise to the top of the ranks in any given field.

Will 10,000 hours get an athlete to the top? We want to think that it will but the real answer is, maybe. There is always the possibility that an athlete is not the most talented one, that others possess more talent than they do.

In sport this is especially important because many activities rely on physical attributes in addition to all the other requirements for talent development. I could have practiced just as much or more basketball as Michael Jordan did in his career but it is unlikely that I would ever have become as good a player.

The 10,000 hour rule means that being good at something takes a long time. It is neither a secret to success nor a formula that should overwhelm parents, coaches, and athletes. Some have reached the top of their sport with far less than 10,000 hours of practice, some never reach the top even with much more. But when combined with other factors it helps explain the process of how a young athlete can progress from one level of a sport to another. Understanding the 10,000 hours in context with other development principles is what is truly important for success.