Practice makes perfect. It’s a mantra we hear all our lives, from simple refrains in kindergarten to the more nuanced versions that populate self-help books. It’s everywhere at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, as athletes credit the long hours they spent working with coaches and trainers for their success. It leads us to believe there’s a chance that each of us could be an Olympian, a concert pianist, or an expert computer programmer — if only we put the work in.
In popular culture, this idea was probably best publicized as Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule,” which says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any skill.
That rule was in turn loosely based on a 1993 study of accomplished violinists in Berlin, which found that the most accomplished students had spent 10,000 hours practicing by the time they were 20 — far more hours than the less accomplished students had spent practicing. Gladwell estimated that the Beatles and Bill Gates had also put in 10,000 hours of practice fiddling with guitars and computers, respectively, by the time they went big.
There’s one problem with this idea: Research suggests it isn’t true. Practice is helpful in improving performance in a variety of fields, from athletics to chess. But it plays a surprisingly small role in determining whether people become virtuosos.
One of the most vocal critics of Gladwell’s theory has been David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated writer who critiqued the 10,000-hour rule in his book “The Sports Gene.” Epstein argues that 10,000 hours is just an average and that averages are highly misleading (e.g., a person who takes 20,000 hours to master a skill and someone who takes zero hours will together average out to 10,000).
Epstein insists that biology and genetics determine how long you need to practice to acquire a certain skill. Speaking to Outside magazine, he said, “genetics is continually finding now that one person’s hour of practice isn’t as good as the next person’s hour. Talent isn’t something preceding you trying something, but your biological setup that allows you to benefit more than the next guy.”
New research published earlier this summer in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science and recently written about in New York Magazine supports Epstein’s argument. The researchers performed what’s called a “meta-analysis,” in which they re-examined 52 independent samples of data from other previous studies. That data comprised a pool of athletes who competed at levels varying from local clubs up to the Olympics, some with as little as four hours of practice, and some with as many as 12,839 hours.
The researchers found a positive correlation between practice and performance: Those who had practiced more definitely did better, and athletes at higher levels of the sport had typically spent more time practicing than those lower down the ladder. But the effect of practice on performance was surprisingly small. They found that deliberate practice accounted for only 18 percent of the variation in sports performance.
Among elite-level performers, those who were competing at a national or international level, the proportion was much lower. Deliberate practice accounted for only 1 percent in the difference in their performance, a statistically insignificant difference from zero.
Practice accounted for more of the variation in performance in what’s called “internally paced sports” — those where the athletes get to determine the timing when the skill is executed. It explained about 41 percent of the variance in performance in internally paced sports, like the javelin throw, compared to only 17 percent in externally paced sports, like basketball or soccer.
Practice also explained slightly more of the variation in performance in individual sports compared with team sports, in ball sports compared with non-ball sports, and in “closed skill” sports (where the environment is stable and predictable, like archery) vs. “open skill” sports (where the environment is dynamic, such as receiving and passing a puck in hockey).
The analysis also showed that athletes who reached the upper levels of their events did not begin practicing their sport at an earlier age than lower skill athletes did. Some have argued that starting to play a sport very young gives athletes an advantage, in part because they have many more years to train. But the researchers found that the mean starting difference in age for different sports between high skilled and low skilled athletes was only 5.6 weeks.
The collective data suggested that a whopping 82 percent of the variation in performance was due to factors other than practice. So what were they?
While some of that figure might just be due to measurement error, the researchers say a large part is probably due to biology and genetics. Some people’s maximum oxygen uptake will increase sharply with training, for example, making them particularly suited to athletics. Other people may have more ability to gain muscle mass or better motor control. Others may benefit from certain psychological traits, like confidence, a lack of performance anxiety, a high level of focus or a fast perceptual speed.
This is not to say that we should get rid of practicing altogether. Especially if you’re a beginner, practice is important. But for most people, practice won’t bring you anywhere near perfection.
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