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10,000 hours?

After the UKSEM conference a couple of weeks ago, I came away with a fairly large reading list. One of those books on the list was Matthew Syed’s Bounce which I was given by a friend to get into. I started this yesterday and it started me thinking, raising lots of questions mainly. Syed, I think is quite safe to day, is into the 10,000 hour rule. This was an area that came under the microscope at the conference with Ross Tucker covering his issues with the research leading to this ‘theory’ during his talk. In the opening of Bounce, Syed is quite fluent in his arguments expounding the 10,000 hour rule while I know many other coaches are very dismissive of it.

I think, if forced into either camp I would have put myself in the second, but this is what got me thinking. It’s all very well, discussing the amount of hours deliberate practice someone needs or the use and success of talent transfer schemes (which I have definitely talked about) or indeed issues with the original research. The fact is, in order to get good at something, you have to do more of it. As a general rule, those who practice more and better at whatever activity, get better at that activity. The more I drove while learning, the better I got. The more I played the piano, the better I got. The more I weightlift, the better I get. Simple.

The reason talent transfer probably works is because of some similarity between sports and those who make the successful transfer are excellent and intelligent athletes. They will likely have spent a lot of time practicing at being an athlete, in whatever sport, and developed good lunge, squat, brace, push, pull, run and jump patterning. No desk jockeys have and will ever transfer to become a top sportsperson. They will also have good cognitive abilities to learn the technical aspects of the new sport. Even then, talent transfer isn’t consistent, look at rugby league players crossing to union. OK Jason Robinson, Chris Ashton, Mat Rogers and maybe Lote Tuquiri have done well, but what about Iestyn Harris, Chev Walker and Andy Farrell, maybe they didn’t have enough practice at the skills or there was a poor transfer strategy.

In any case, I personally think it’s a pointless argument. Genetics are important, significantly in particular sports like rowing and horse racing where being tall or short are important. We see athletes who adapt more and quicker physiologically than others too, maybe that’s another important genetic aspect. But then, practice is important. I don’t think it’s too much of a push to hypothesize a trend towards those who practice more at rowing, among the tall guys, make better rowers.

So what does it actually matter if it takes 10,000 or 6,000 hours? If we could identify the types of people who only take 6,000 hours do we only select them to coach as it takes less time? (And how would we identify those people? By genetics? Now there would be irony!) Of course we don’t, people will take however long it takes. It’s the coach’s job to make sure they get there at all.

Neil Welch

2 Comments

  1. I tend to agree – I think we need to talk less about how many hours we need to practice (because it varies so much form one athlete to the next) and also the concept of deliberate practice (because the definition of deliberate practice is so vague), and instead talk more about techniques that we can use to design practice activities, provide instructions, and give feedback so that learning is maximised during whatever practice time is available.

    Great post, thanks Neil!

    Melissa Hopwood
    Lead Researcher – Pathways to the Podium Research Project

  2. Thanks Melissa, I think that maximising whatever contact time each athlete has with and away from their coaches is very important. It will be interesting to see what impact technology will play in this over the coming years

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