The Myth of Practice

practice2The Myth of Practice

Guest post: by education specialist Micheal McArdle

Many popular psychology books over the last few years have sold us a simple message about what it takes to be perfect at just about anything: practice. You may have heard or read about the “10,000 hour rule.” The idea being, if you spend 10,000 hours practicing an activity (approximately 7 years), that becomes the estimate of how long it takes before you’re an “expert” or “elite.”

There two problems here:

  1. There is no sustainable research that supports this theory. In fact, recent research actually disproves the entire 10,000 hour myth. First, let’s deal with the obvious: practice is important. People do not generally get better at any activity without practice. The surprise is that the research shows practice only accounts for 18% of individual differences in performance in sports. Put another way, in the world of sports, 82% of the difference in performance is not related to practice. This flies in the face of everything parents, coaches and “good” athletes believe.
  2. What most people fail to understand is the difference between being “really good” and being “elite.” For the most part, “elite” athletes come from genetic makings.

I’ll give you two illustrations:

  • One small tribe in Kenya’s Rift Valley, has produced eight of the Top 10 fastest marathon times ever recorded. This clearly indicates geography has a greater impact than “practice.” A hot and dry climate causes the evolutionary adaptation of very long, slender body types. These runner have long legs proportional to their body size, which is good for running, and they are all very thin at the extremities, (that’s an adaptation for cooling). Thin legs mean it takes less energy to run. Growing up at high altitude produces great endurance. (There is your 82%).
  • A 2012 study of world-class sprinters, including 15 Olympic gold medalists and the eight fastest runners in United States history, found that every elite sprinter, male or female, was recognized as exceptionally fast prior to beginning formal training. This contradicts the deliberate practice model, which assumes that initial performance and final performance in a domain are unrelated. Secondly, contrary to the 10,000 hour rule, most sprinters achieved world class performances in less than 5 years, and more than half of the Olympic champions reached this level in 3 years or fewer.

Is practice valuable? Yes, but not for the reason most people think. Practice is the development of individual skills by performance in isolation. Its sole purpose is to create automaticity. That is, we are attempting to repeat both gross and fine motor skills to a point where the brain requires less focus and uses less energy during the activity. It is mistakenly referred to as “muscle memory,” when in fact, the technical explanation is myelination. (This is the process by which a fatty layer, called myelin, accumulates around neurons, which enables nerve cells to transmit information faster, with less effort thereby allowing for more complex brain processes to occur during competition.)

Is there similar research on specialization? Year round activity in one sport?

Yes, but no one currently doing this with their kids wants to hear the facts. Specializing is proving counter-productive, even in the relatively narrow field of acquiring skills. A 2011 study of 243 Danish athletes found early specialization to be either entirely irrelevant or actively detrimental. When young people are still growing and muscles developing, the evidence clearly suggests that they are better off having a broad sporting education—just as their minds develop better on a varied diet of academic subjects.

Tennis star John McEnroe and NBA great Kobe Bryant were both exceptional youth soccer stars. Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Tom Glavine was a potential hockey professional. The 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, lettered in baseball, basketball, and track during his high school career and was the state champ of Wisconsin in shot-putt as a senior. As great as he was in those sports, his first love was hockey, which he played for 10 years before quitting to “try something different.”

Is it wrong for parents to have kids specialize?

There is very little parents do that can be considered “wrong.” I prefer to see specialization as limiting over-all development because 20 hours a week of any one activity is way too much for a young person. The best practice is what we call “distributed” practice: shorter sessions spread out over time with alternative activities woven in.

Let’s be realistic here: can anyone with desire, a good coach, and good circumstances get very good at something? I have to say, yes. Elite? It’s not my place to say to anyone you can’t be elite, but that level is for people in the top 0.001% of their field. I mean NOT the cream of the crop, we’re talking about the thin layer of air on top of the top part of cream of the crop itself. The real goal is to become very good at as many things as possible. This cross-training provides far greater benefits than laser-focused youth sports.

Michael McArdle is a Learning Research Specialist and the former Executive Director of the non-profit Learning Patterns Corporation. He writes, lectures, and conducts workshops on a variety of subjects dealing with the development of the human mind.