Note: I have always been a student of ideas to improve performance. I was familiar with the concept of deliberate practice from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. I personally have wondered if years of relentless training to improve is enough for a young athlete to become a star athlete. I read a study recently that questions the role of deliberate practice in sports excellence. It seems to me that deliberate practice is necessary but not by itself sufficient to help a young athlete succeed at the highest levels. I did think it was an interesting concept, though, so I wrote about the study for my latest newspaper column.
It turns out that the 10,000-hour rule might not apply to sports. This could be bad news for some parents who dream of their children earning college scholarships and playing in the pros one day.
Deliberate practice and the 10,000-hour rule
The 10,000-hour rule is based on the idea of deliberate practice, or activities specifically designed to improve the current level of performance. Basically the more deliberate practice an individual accumulates, the more likely he or she will become an elite performer. Ericsson and his colleagues originally proposed the idea after studying violinists.
Parents might not consciously count hours of training or think about Anders Ericsson or Malcolm Gladwell as they stand on the sidelines and watch their children compete. This idea, though, can manifest in youth sports in a number of ways.
Pushing young athletes to train and practice more
A father might push his son to play only baseball starting at seven years old. A mother might hire a private coach to work with her son outside of his football team’s practices. Parents might pull a young tennis player out of school and enroll her in online school so that she can practice 4 to 6 hours each day.
Those efforts to increase a child’s intense training might seem reasonable if they actually worked. A new study questions the role of deliberate practice in sports performance.
Questioning the role of deliberate practice in sports performance
Brooke N. Macnamara and others performed a meta-analysis of 52 studies that looked at the number of hours athletes practiced and the effect on sports performance. In total, the training of almost 2800 athletes was included.
First, there is some good news for parents who believe that more training is better. Nearly all of the studies in their analysis showed a positive correlation between deliberate practice and high levels of performance.
Unfortunately, the amount of deliberate practice alone accounted for only 18%, on average, of the variance in sports performance among athletes. This finding held true for athletes in both team sports and individual sports, as well as for adult athletes versus young athletes. For elite athletes, deliberate practice accounted for only 1% of the variance in sports performance.
Deliberate practice can help athletes, but it loses its ability to predict which athletes will become truly elite at a certain point.
Does playing one sport at a young age help?
The researchers also found that more highly skilled athletes did not start playing their sports at earlier ages than lower skilled athletes. Many parents and coaches believe that the earlier a child starts playing a single sport, the greater his or her opportunity to train – and succeed – in that sport will be.
Sports medicine stats: Early sport specialization and burnout
Sports medicine stats: Early sport specialization and the risk for overuse injuries
Sports medicine stats: Age of single-sport specialization
Opponents of early sport specialization argue that playing a variety of sports allows children to acquire coordination and core motor skills that will improve later sports performance. Plus, it might decrease the risk of overuse injuries and burnout often seen when a young athlete plays one sport year-round without breaks.
Other factors that could impact sports performance
If only 18% of the difference in sports performance comes from practice, what accounts for the other 82%? The researchers suggest that mental and psychological factors could help some athletes succeed. The ability to overcome performance anxiety and negative outcomes, confidence, intelligence, attention and more could be involved. Even genetic differences could explain why some kids become stars and others don’t.
I’m not at all suggesting that practice is bad. It’s important to learn and develop skills and strategy. I just don’t think most athletes need thousands of hours of practice every year. Especially at eight or nine years old.
Macnamara BN, Moreau D, Hambrick DZ. The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2016 May;11(3):333-50.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the July 8, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.