The 10,000 hour rule: is this really the only way to sporting success?

“10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness”- Malcolm Gladwell, 2008

In recent years, the 10,000 hour rule has been emphasised as the way to achieve sporting greatness, and that devoting 10,000 hours (or there about) of practice will lead you to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell coined the term ‘the 10,000 hour rule’ based on the research of Anders Ericsson who studied deliberate practice within a number of expert domains including memory recall, chess and sport. Gladwell believed that among all individuals who have achieved expertise in their domain (e.g. The Beatles in music and Bill Gates in computer technology see https://medium.com/@theImranLshow/what-do-the-beatles-and-bill-gates-have-in-common-58ecb81130a5), the one aspect that they had in common was the amount of time that they devoted towards practice, believing that 10,000 hours (a number obtained through vigorous research in different domains) was the number of hours required to achieve expertise. In no way does Gladwell argue that 10,000 hours is the only requirement for success, he notes the importance of innate talent and luck. However, he suggests that even if someone is innately talented, they would still require 10,000 hours of arbitrary practice to reach mastery. 

But, there has been a lot of backlash towards this 10,000 rule with various other researchers suggesting alternative explanations to reaching expertise. So, is this 10,000 hour rule really the only way to achieve sporting success? 

But, what exactly is the 10,000 hour rule?

Essentially, the 10,000 hour rule refers to the amount of hours that must be spent practicing to achieve expertise. Gladwell proposes for someone to reach this 10,000, they must practice for 3 hours every day for around 10 years. However, Gladwell doesn’t exactly explain what these hours of practice entail, just referring them to general ‘practice’. It is well known that all practice isn’t the same, and just simply stating that 10,000 hours of some kind of practice is enough to achieve success in a given domain is one of the major flaws in this theory. For example, if an individual wanted to get better at football, they wouldn’t spend 10,000 hours practicing penalty kicks then expect to be great at playing a football game. 

Granted they would probably be an expert in taking penalty kicks, this practice of kicking penalties doesn’t mean that you will be an expert at all aspects of football. Practice must be thought out and purposeful, and cover all the aspects of a skill. This is where Malcom Gladwell’s theory is inaccurate- it focuses on the time spent practicing, not the quality of the practice.

An alternative explanation of what leads to achieving sporting greatness:

The most prominent alternative explanation to achieving sporting success was proposed by psychologist Anders Ericsson. He believed that it wasn’t necessarily the time spent practicing that counted, but the type of practice that ultimately determined sporting success in which he coined “deliberate practice”. His theory of deliberate practice stresses that this type of practice is systematically planned and occurs with a specific purpose or goal in mind. This doesn’t mean mindless repetition of one particular skill, but careful execution of a skill which is purposeful and conducted with the goal of improving the overall performance of that skill. According to Anders Ericsson in his book “Peak”, the four main components of purposeful, deliberate practice are:

  1. It must be focused and motivated= You must give the task your undivided attention as you don’t improve at a significantly fast rate without giving it your full attention
  2. It involves constant feedback= You have to know whether you are doing the skill right or wrong so you can make adjustments accordingly. This feedback can either be from within yourself or from observers, whether that be coaches or another player. Without this feedback, you don’t know where your falling short so you can figure out what needs to be done to improve to reach your goal. 
  3. Purposeful practice should be uncomfortable= This means trying to do something that you couldn’t previously do and keep pushing to be able to achieve it. Finding ways around problems which prevent you from reaching your goal is a major part of deliberate practice as it allows you to develop different techniques to overcome the barriers. 

4. It has well defined, specific goals= Without a goal there is no way to judge whether the practice has been successful or not. Deliberate practice should involve many small goals which you eventually achieve which lead to an overall bigger goal, thus breaking the big goal down into smaller manageable chunks.

It is clear that deliberate practice is a very different type of practice as it stresses the importance of sustained bouts of effort towards skills you can’t currently do. This differs from normal practice where you often see individual practicing skills that they can already do perfectly well. Essentially Ericsson believes that practicing something you can’t do is what drives individuals to expertise. Although this type of practice revolves around building on skills that you can’t currently achieve, it also stresses the importance of developing skills you have further and pushing the limits of their potential. But these two kinds of learning involved in deliberate practice require extreme amounts of focus in order to see great improvements, which is a difficulty of deliberate practice. 

So, for those beginning to undertake deliberate practice, its important to build up the time spent in deliberate practice to ensure you are fully focused. Perhaps starting at 20 minutes deliberate practice, then building it to 30 minutes, then 40 mins etc… However, if, during these sessions, you begin to loose your focus, its a good idea to stop, refocus then continue. If you can’t refocus, then its best to stop the training session and continue another time. Focus is key for this type of practice. 

When to use deliberate practice:

Its important to note that deliberate practice is not for everyone. If you are performing a skill for sheer enjoyment and are content with the level your currently at, then deliberate practice is probably not suited to you. Deliberate practice is best suited for those performers who are pursuing skill performance at an extremely high level and are wanting to break out of their given limit. Therefore, its important to assess whether, or not, deliberate practice is suited for you and your goals before engaging in it.

Other explanations of what leads to sporting success:

Like all theories and explanations, there are many sides to an argument. The 10,000 hour rule proposed by Malcolm Gladwell or deliberate practice suggested by Anders Ericsson are only a couple of the explanations to why some individuals become experts and others don’t. Various other researchers have suggested alternative explanations including the science of epigenetic and how they play a role in different peoples abilities or how “Grit”, proposed by Angela Duckworth, is what drives individuals to push on harder and further than others leading to expertise. Whatever the real explanation to expertise in the many different fields, its important to understand that many factors play a role. 

Further reading:

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