Reexamining deliberate practice, early specialization, and the 10,000-hour "rule"
Studies on deliberate practice approach it from a somewhat sterile perspective. What it looks like in reality is quite different from how practitioners understand the research supporting it.
The article below was first published in 2018 when I was trying to explain how the 10,000 hour rule did not require an early specialization model to develop expertise. You can judge for yourself if my argument made any sense. I'm republishing the article because in the years since I wrote it several things have occurred to me regarding deliberate practice and how there is a disconnect between the research and its implementation.
The context in which Anders Ericsson developed what he called the 10-year rule is often misunderstood (it didn't become known as the 10,000-hour rule until years later when several bestsellers on talent and expertise caught the public's attention). Ericsson wasn't talking about practice in general, he was talking about a special activity where the athlete is motivated to improve; where he understands why the skills he's practicing are important to the sport; where he has access to coaching that can provide meaningful feedback; and where he has many opportunities for repetition. You can read more about these requirements here, but the main point is that deliberate practice is rare and it's a skill athletes must learn, it’s a skill all by itself.
Two things are frequently overlooked when it comes to deliberate practice:
Just like any other skill, athletes have to learn how to do it
This may be the key skill to learn during youth sport years, the one skill to rule them all, so to speak. It takes several years to learn but not knowing how to practice effectively means that achieving elite or expert status is unlikely.
Not all practice is the same
Deliberate practice focuses on skill acquisition and improvement. It demands the athlete’s intense cognitive involvement. Metabolic training by itself is not deliberate practice. Each sport requires varying combinations of skill practice and metabolic training. These combinations make learning deliberate practice easier in some sports than in others.
In artistic sports like gymnastics or diving the skills themselves are the sport. Youngsters are exposed to constant repetition of skills with improvement as the clear goal. Training is usually conducted in small groups, so the coach's role in teaching and offering feedback is more easily targeted. Learning how to practice deliberately in this environment is easier than it might be in another sport that has a smaller skill set but higher metabolic demands.
In swimming, physical training often takes precedence over skill development because of the significant metabolic requirements for success, and because of the delivery model used by clubs and teams. This environment produces fit athletes but it is not conducive for learning how to practice effectively; thus, swimmers and other athletes in sports with high metabolic demands take longer to learn how to practice. Swimmers and gymnasts may practice for the same number of hours but the kind of practice is different.
Deliberate practice is usually seen as something athletes do rather than a skill they learn. Changing this thinking could have profound results on young athletes who have developed a passion for their sport and have learned how to practice it effectively.
Is the 10,000 hour rule really a rule?
No. The hype surrounding 10,000 hours in the early 2000s planted that number in the zeitgeist surrounding talent development. Researchers find a wide range of hours of practice whenever they look into the background of experts in various fields; thus, effectively dismissing the notion that it's 10,000 hours or nothing. Numerous studies on talent development report that rarely do practice hours amount to anything near 10,000, in many cases the total is far lower. And there’s no consistency relative to the activity. Some experts practice a lot, others in the same field, not so much although experts do practice more than non-experts.
The amount of practice is certainly important but it’s the kind of practice that actually makes the difference.
Anders Ericsson, himself, clarified that the 10-years of deliberate practice he wrote about in the 1990s was not meant as a goal. ‘It takes lots of practice to achieve expertise at anything’; this was the message of his 10-year-rule. The amount of practice is certainly important but it’s the kind of practice that actually makes the difference.
Originally published at sportkid.asia in September 2018:
Deliberate practice vs. late specialization
Sport development gurus familiar with the growing mountain of research surrounding athletic expertise have a hard time reconciling the time necessary to accumulate thousands of hours of deliberate practice with the negative effects of specializing in a single sport at too early an age. The literature largely ignores this conflict but luckily the big brains at Sportkid Metrics have considered this and we think we have a solution that resolves this problem.
The so-called 10,000 hour rule is a convenient metaphor that illustrates how developing talent takes a lot of time. Anyone who interprets it literally as a rule is missing the point. Although some do believe that its literal implementation, or close to it, is necessary to reach an elite level of performance.
Early specialization in a single sport has been linked to premature withdrawal from the sport, early burnout, poor development of physical literacy, and long-term overuse injuries, which is why most sport practitioners advise against it.
However, the 10,000 hour rule and the elements involved in deliberate practice seem to create a trap; if an athlete does not specialize early then others who do will have an advantage, and without early specialization the young athlete cannot achieve enough practice hours. Here's the relevant quote from that article:
“A youth sport coach should also encourage participation in a number of activities, thus taking advantage of cross-domain benefits while still performing deliberate practice. The coach should recognize that cross-domain participation is essential if problems associated with early single-sport specialization such as overuse injuries and burnout are to be avoided.”
Part of the solution is to redefine deliberate practice so that cross-domain activities are included i.e. other sports. At the youth level this makes sense because specializing early in only one activity limits the development of physical literacy and the depth of performance skills the athlete is able to call on later.
Typically we refer to this as athleticism. Early specialization can actually reduce the level of athleticism since the skills an athlete learns and practices are limited to only one sport.
Everyone has seen the occasional report of a football coach having his players take ballet lessons and it is reported as if there's nothing more amusing than a 150 kg linebacker prancing around a dance floor. But there's a good reason why the coach thinks this is valuable; dance in all its forms broadens one's range of movement skills especially those related to strength and dynamic balance.
Developing this kind of movement skill at later ages though is difficult, it's similar to learning a new language later in life. Imagine the depth of skill those players would have if they participated in dance, gymnastics, or almost any number of other activities as youngsters.
An athlete's style and grace comes not only from long hours of practice but also participating in a number of different kinds of activities. Becoming physically literate adds to the quality of later athletic performance, even though it requires youngsters to practice activities other than what they think is their 'main' sport.
The hype surrounding 10,000 hours of practice does lead to the feeling that there is not enough time to develop fully without early specialization. But focusing exclusively on accumulating practice in a specific skill set ignores how children grow and mature, and how different kinds of stimuli at different times are needed to fully develop physical skills.
Talent development is a complicated process and hours of deliberate practice (nobody really knows how many) is only a component, not the whole story.