New Study: The Relationship Between Practice and Long Term Athletic Development

From The Archives - I’m going back through the old blog and reposting some of the best articles.

A couple of posts back I talked about the importance of challenging oneself when practicing as a strategy for enhancing motor learning. I also mentioned briefly the ongoing work of Anders Ericcson in the area of expertise and peak performance. At the risk of being a flip flopper on the imporance of practice remember I did say Cognitive Dissonance goes with the territory as we tease out the actual mechanisms of performance from study to study.

Yesterday there was a report on a study by Psychologist Brooke McNamara et al of Case Western Reserve University. The study, a meta analysis of the available scientific literature on practice and high performance, calls into question the high value we have come to place on practice as the sole means to develop expertise. Practice is important, the study concludes, but "Human performance is incredibly complex," says McNamara. "Multiple factors need to be considered, only one of which is practice."

The concept of the 10,000 Hour Rule of Deliberate Practice was put forth by Florida State University Psychologist Anders Ericcson in the 90s and popularized by such books as "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. The popular notion of the 10,000 hour rule has played a role in causing otherwise well meaning parents and coaches to create our current epidemic of early sports specialization that according to McNamara has lead, " physical or mental burnout before it's clear that a child even has a penchant for that sport."  

The study also suggests that most elite athletes actually don't start specializing in their chosen sport any younger than non-elites. If anything, general, diverse physical motor skill development was the rule for thoseyoung athletes that went on to become high performers. Delaying sport specialization is supported by sports science athlete development expert Istvan Balyi and sports orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, whose book "Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them for Athletes, Parents and Coaches" should be required reading for every parent and coach of young athletes.

To echo McNamara, practice is important. Skill acquisition absolutely requires putting in the reps. And Ericcson's notion of Deliberate Practice is a valuable one especially for us duffers. But practice itself won't replace other factors such as genetics. Roughly 82% of the differences bewteen athletic performances are due to factors other than practice. "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein is a reality check challenging the idea that with early specialization and with enough hard work anybody can become elite: it's just not the case. "...the American ideal of hard work and dedication leading naturally to excellence," is something of a myth.

As for those athletes who chose their parents well and are competing at the elite level, McNamara's study shows that practice accounts for only about 1% of performance differences. That doesn't seem like much of a margin, but at the highest levels of performance that 1% can be THE difference. Maggie Callahan, one of our Hudson Elite athletes told me that this quote (attributed to High School basketball coach Tim Notke and popularized by pro player Kevin Durant) is on the wall in the University of Arizona varsity weight room, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."  

I think that is a relatively healthy motto to guide practice at any level.

Randy Hauer