10,000 Hours – Is that all it takes?

10,000 Hours. Is that all it takes?

Counting the hours. Photo by Andreas Rodler

10,000 hours of practice is the magic number that’s been kicked around in the popular media as the requirement for achieving the highest level of performance in one’s given specialty, sport or otherwise. Books like Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Bounce by Matthew Syed have really pushed the notion that top performance is achieved simply by putting in your time. Lots and lots of time. It can’t be that easy, can it?

The idea that all you need to do is spend 10,000 hours to become an expert is catchy, to be sure, but it also happens to coincide with about 10 years of specific training within your area of expertise. A lot happens over 10 years developmentally that isn’t attributable solely to the 10,000 hours, especially when you consider that most athletes start their training pre-teen. Even those who begin as adults experience a lot of “maturing” over 10 years that can affect their performance regardless of the time they put in actually training for their sport.

Now, I’ve heard athletes mention that they need to get cracking on their 10,000 hours so that they can master a certain skill for an upcoming competition. However appealing it may be, trying to speed up the process by piling on the training hours just won’t work. As best as we know, there are no short cuts. By doubling the number of hours you train in a year, you will be on a pace to reach 10k in half the time, but chances are, you’ll burn out before you get even close.

Deliberate Practice

At the core of the 10k hour rule is the idea that the more you practice, the better you perform. This is the theory of deliberate practice. To this point, the 10,000 hour rule has been very good at predicting which athletes attain the top most levels of accomplishment within their given sport. But it comes with a caveat. Only deliberate practice counts towards your total.

So what is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is any activity or task that is specifically designed (usually by a coach or teacher) with the explicit purpose of improving a certain aspect of performance.

Deliberate Practice is characterized by:

  • activities that are highly relevant to your performance
  • activities that require full concentration
  • activities that are physically effortful
  • activities that progressively challenge you

Deliberate Practice is not:

  • competition
  • watching someone else perform the skill
  • inherently enjoyable
  • leading to social or monetary rewards (e.g., a job)

So take a look at how you spend your time practicing. How do you choose what drills to do? Are you fully engaged in each training session? Does every session feel like a workout? And finally, are you pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone?

The theory of deliberate practice takes the stance that innate talent plays absolutely no role in determining the ultimate level of performance an athlete will achieve. It’s controversial and still a very hot topic in sport science. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Is there a role for innate talent or can anyone become a top performer if they practice deliberately, long enough?

Leave A Reply (7 comments so far)

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  1. Mike Gooch
    7 years ago

    Deliberate practice is what we do when noone is looking. :)

  2. Eric Crash
    7 years ago

    Agility is unique in that it happily mixes the serious competitors with those who want to be just good enough to participate. And a given team sometimes switches back and forth between these groups over the years.

  3. Marco
    7 years ago

    Interesting article. I definitely believe that innate talent
    helps a lot. That’s not enough of course but one of our best
    agility competitor has been at the top for many years thanks to
    her innate talent. Now to be able to stay at the top she needs
    deliberate practice but her innate talent still plays a big role.

    Maybe innate talent defines the speed at which we are able to
    progress. Some people practice more and progress slower than
    others with the same training.

    • John Cullen
      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comment Marco. I definitely think that there is something innate when considering how much work a person is willing to put in to develop their skills. What type of characteristics do you think top agility handlers are born with? What puts them apart from your average handler?

      • Marco
        7 years ago

        I think almost all the skills can be learned through patience and
        determination. But you know that better than me. The person I’m
        talking about has, among other things, innate feeling when
        running a course. She can’t always explain why she does that or
        that but most of the time it is the right choice if not the
        best. Also that’s amazing to see her wait a split of a second to
        save an off course to his dog and yet winning the class. Even
        with a new maneuver she always manages to get it roughly right
        from the beginning. She has a wonderful connection with her dog
        and guess what? She can’t explain what she does because she only feels
        it when she runs.

        For the other top agility handlers who are not blessed as she is,
        strong mental skills are the most precious characteristics to be
        able to reach that level through training. To be able to be
        knocked down and then stand up and keep going is invaluable as well.

        I’ve also heard a long time ago from a top agility handler that
        from his opinion people who had played a field game, e.g.,
        soccer, are often better handlers because they are used to
        analyze the space around them and to position themselves in an
        effective way.

  4. Minerva
    7 years ago

    “Deliberate practice is what we do when noone is looking.”

    I feel this fits perfectly for my singing, as I think that can be very much compared to any other skill you’re trying to improve. As for dog sports: not so much, simply because I view it more as a game rather than a serious thing.

    • John Cullen
      7 years ago

      Interesting that you brought up your singing. The original work on the theory of deliberate practice was done with musicians (violinists and pianists). For those skills, working alone was the best predictor of performance success. In sport, it’s a little different (especially on teams), but working on your own or with others, as long as it meets the criteria for deliberate practice, will translate to improved performance.

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