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The 10,000 hour rule – fact or fiction?

If you’re involved in sport at any level (particularly grassroots) then you’ve probably come across the 10,000 hour rule, developed by Anders Ericsson. In simplest form, this “rule” suggests that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve “mastery”. Since this suggestion has become widely publicised, it has become the foundation of the talent development models of many sporting National Governing Bodies.
However there are a few things we should consider before accepting this idea blindly:

  • What exactly is the 10,000 hour rule?
  • How does this apply in the real world?
  • How can I use this in my role?

What exactly is the 10,000 hour rule?
Prior to Ericcson’s research around the 10,000 hours, some other researcher suggested it AT LEAST a decade’s intense preparation to become a grand master. It was also suggested that it required 11.7 years if you started learning chess after 11, or 16.5 years if you start after the age of 11. Other’s suggested that it took around 10 years to master musical composition, poetry and science. So why all this talk of chess and music when we are interested in sport? Well this gives you an idea of the background of the research – originally it wasn’t completed in the domain of sport.
One important thing to note is that the practice of these areas was considered to be “deliberate” – that is the direct desired outcome was learning and progression, subjects were required to exert effort to improve performance. Researcher’s made a specific effort to clarify that this type of practice is different from daily activities in which learning may be an indirect result. Additionally they suggest that in order to create deliberate practice, practice tasks should be structured in such a way that subjects prior knowledge is accounted for, immediate feedback should be given to subjects and they should have knowledge of the results of their performance. Subjects should also repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks… Doesn’t really sound like much fun does it? As a friend of mine says ” I’ve been running for 10 years, doesn’t mean I’m any good!”
So along comes Ericcson’s work. The study¬†looked at violinists and pianists, requiring them to recall the practice time since they commenced practicing. The best violinists had accumulated 7410 hours, the average had 5,301 hours (on average). The expert pianists had 7,606 hours and the amateurs 1,606 (on average).
This is pretty problematic… Can you remember how much you practiced or trained each day over the last 10 years? Or would you just estimate? Also the hours reported are an AVERAGE – some players would have more, some less… For example – all the expert pianists had >14 years, whilst the amateurs had 5-20 years…A further complication is that it was found that the pianists overestimated their practice time by 5.2 hours per week for the CURRENT YEAR. If that was how good their memory was for the last 12 months – what about the years before that? It’s unlikely to be as accurate!! Probably worse!
The data from the study was compared with previous studies that suggested that masters of different domains spent 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day on their craft…which is where the 10,000 hours was developed from.
And the conclusion of that study was…“there is a complete correspondence between the skill level of the group and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin.” Not exactly that 10,000 hours or 10 years is the magic number to become an accomplished musician. However, it was compared to similar time spans required in other domains (including sport) and found to be similar.
How does this apply in the real world?
Well this is a tough one really. Essentially what we found is the complete correspondence of practice time alone to skill level. Again – deliberate practice time. So as coaches, teachers etc. we can only really influence our athletes to find time for deliberate practice… But perhaps what we can do is instill or inspire the passion, motivation and dedication to pursue the path to learning and improvement.
I think our primary take home is how can we instill in our athletes the desire and love of the sport, to want to improve, progress and succeed. Call it motivation, persistence, desire, passion or commitment – what we are really talking about is being prepared to dedicate time to improving – and to do it with intense effort. Then, we may instill in them the qualities required to accumulate the time needed to progress to an elite level.
How can I use this in my role?
Perhaps rather than focussing on accruing 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice, we should focus on conveying the love of our sport and the passion to grow and improve. After all, “monkey see, monkey do.”
Where does this come from? Ultimately it comes from the environment around them Рcoaches, officials, parents, other kids etc. Can we create a better motivational climate through an environment of loving the sport and a commitment to growing and improving.
At the end of the day, we must model that which we want to see:

  • a passion and love for our sport
  • a commitment to improve and progress as coaches, officials and parents
  • that persistence and perseverance are vital qualities

What is our motivation for being involved in sport? Is it to relive our glory days or unfulfilled ambitions – or to give back and spread our joy for the sport? Or worst case scenario – just to win a sunday league football match to boost our own ego? If that is your motivation – please for the good of everyone involved, just start playing FIFA on playstation and save everyone the aggravation…
Maybe we hold more keys than we realise to our athlete’s success, not through our knowledge or coaching expertise, but through our passion, motivation and commitment to our athletes, our sport and our pursuit of coaching excellence.
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The role of deliberate practice in expert performance

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