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Willett make you a champion? We put the 10,000-hour rule under the microscope

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Danny Willett

COMETH THE HOUR: Jordan Spieth presents Masters champion Danny Willett with the green jersey, the ultimate reward for his tens of thousands of hours dedicated practice in his chosen sport 

In this blog, I examine the controversial 10,000-hour rule from every angle in a bid to discover why it is so unpopular with coaches. But there are two sides to every story. Try to keep an open mind as we investigate the theory’s bold claims.

  • The principle states that 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ are needed to become world class in any field.
  • Clocking up relentless hours of practice is the main factor that determines success, not innate talent, research has shown.
  • We each have the potential to be exceptional if the quality of practice matches the quantity.
  • The concept is at odds with the consensus in coaching that coaches should provide a multi-sport experience for children.
  • Critics say the 10,000-hour rule is ethically wrong and can lead to injury and burnout.
  • Repetitive drills are boring as well as potentially harmful and can lead to high levels of pressure and mental insecurities that result in children quitting sport altogether.
  • Critics say the rule only works with one-dimensional closed-skill sports. Advocates claim that is simply not true.

The brother of Masters champion Danny Willett sure does have a way with words.

As the build-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup gathered pace, Peter Willett managed to antagonise an entire nation with an article that was meant as a ‘loud rallying cry’ in support of the European team.

Unfortunately, ‘for crying out loud!’ was the prevailing response of those who read his outspoken rant.

The drama teacher from Birmingham managed to cram as many insults into each of his sentences as his sibling managed birdies in his entire four rounds at Augusta.

A transatlantic row ensued. It would do when, in a derogatory diatribe, you refer to US golf fans as ‘fat’, ‘stupid’, ‘greedy’, ‘classless’, ‘unwashed’, ‘obnoxious’ and ‘imbeciles’.

It was a case of the sublime to the ridiculous, as the previous article I read of Willett’s was an absolute belter, and inspired me to delve more deeply into the 10,000-hour rule, a topic that is as fascinating as it is controversial in coaching circles.

He painted a vivid picture of his brother’s gradual rise to fame, capturing perfectly the single-minded dedication and indomitable spirit, not to mention personal sacrifice, that are the fundamental characteristics of all top performers. It served as an astute exploration of what it takes to become a champion.

The moral of the story

The article focuses on a conversation he had with one of his students, who is begrudging of his brother’s success and resents his big-money pay days.

The student says: ‘I’m going to be a golfer. I’m going to earn millions just for walking around. He’s right lucky. Why didn’t you do it, sir? Earn millions just for walking around?’

Willett attempts to set them straight, explaining that making it in professional sport takes a lot more than luck.

He tells them: ‘At 12, Danny would chip golf balls into a bucket in the back garden. Piles of them, all over the garden, from every different angle. He would hit it from long grass, short grass, and use a patch of mud like a bunker. Hour after hour, just chipping.

‘He would spend every evening, and 20 hours of the weekend, at the course. When he couldn’t make it to the course, he would putt up and down the hallway, cursing every time the contact was not right. Hour after hour, just putting.

‘Whenever he was confined to the house, he had an infuriating habit of standing in front of the TV while repeating stages of his swing in slow motion, studying the reflection of his body in the window and adjusting where necessary. Hour after hour, just swinging.

‘He would hit more than 800 golf balls a day, every single day of the week; and when he wasn’t hitting balls, he was analysing which aspect of his game he could improve by hitting 800 balls in a specific way the following day. Hour after hour, just hitting.’

The story was interlaced with references to his own fanciful aspirations as he grew up, and how, as each and every one quickly faded and died, soon to be replaced by another, Danny’s goal remained constant.

The point of the story was lost on his blinkered student, but not me. Not by a long shot.

Fact or fantasy?

The 10,000-hour concept (it isn’t a rule at all) is, to put it mildly, not universally popular among the coaching contingent.

ConnectedCoaches members waded into the debate in a previous conversation thread and were highly critical of Anders Ericsson’s principle that claims 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ are needed to become world class in any field – a theory popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Tom Oliver wrote: ‘I couldn’t disagree with the 10,000-hour rule more, a concept derived from studies based on closed skills (chess and musicians). He has created a tide of belief that a way to improve our developing athletes is by monotonously drilling them in a particular sport. (10,000 hours over 10 years is approximately three hours a day!)’

James Turner added: ‘This idea that you can just create superstars by starting them early is a dangerous fantasy.’

Matthew Syed examined the 10,000-hour rule in exhaustive detail in his book Bounce, which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

I’m sure some critics dropped the book like a hot potato after the first few chapters, frustrated at Syed’s repeated insistence that practically every world-renowned performer who engages in an activity that involves a complex task has, to use his words, ‘compressed astronomical quantities of practice into a short period between birth and adolescence’.

Clocking up relentless hours of practice is the real factor that determines success, not innate talent, says Syed.

On the face of it, the extensive research carried out since Ericsson’s initial paper was first published in 1993 is every parent’s dream, and we should all rejoice at the discovery. We each have the potential to be exceptional, whether we are coaches, doctors, teachers, musicians or budding athletes. A free ticket to destination dreamland.

‘Son, you will make it to the top if you put the hours in. Knuckle down and study hard enough and you will be rewarded by A*s in all your exams. And if you want to be a professional sportsman, go get ’em, lad. Practice really does make perfect.’

Of course, there’s considerably more to it than that, as we will touch on shortly.

Driving range

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Phil Mickelson puts in the hours on the practice range

Feeding insecurities

Those who baulk at the simplicity of that approach argue that it brushes over a number of important ethical considerations.

Critics say it sucks the fun out of sport (and life), increasing the likelihood of children quitting sport altogether due to a distinct lack of variety as repetitive drills bypass creativity and quickly become boring and stale, while multiplying the risk of injury and burnout.

Crucially, it also adds undue pressure to a child when they are growing up. In an age when mental health issues affect a growing percentage of children, the personal, parental and peer group expectancy to perform is a heavy burden for children to carry on their shoulders from a ridiculously young age.

The iGeneration’s addiction to social media means children today already find it increasingly difficult to switch off. This social pressure, on top of the academic pressure children now deal with from as early as primary school, feeds their insecurities. Adding the pressure of three hours’ unstinting practice every day will create a poisonous mix.

And what if you do have the passion for a particular sport and throw your heart and soul into it? What will the negative psychological effect be on those who fail to make it to the top? Will they end up regretting wasting a large chunk of their life?

What of those who commit a major slice of their childhood to reaching the magical 10,000 landmark, and then go on to develop a new passion? There will be no room in their hectic schedule for a second activity.

And let’s hope too that an athlete’s academic studies aren’t compromised by their all-consuming zeal for their chosen sport.

As far as Dan Cottrell is concerned, coaches should be there, first and foremost, to help mould children into well-rounded individuals, not become hell-bent on helping them achieve a goal of success at all costs.

Coaches who entertain the 10,000-hour rule are ignoring a fundamental principle of coaching.

‘The more I coach, the more I read, the more I see, the more I understand that coaching should aim to help youngsters become better people,’ says Dan.

The general consensus among grass-roots coaches is that they have a responsibility to their performers to provide a multi-sport experience for them.

Standing in the way of progress

That’s a lot of negative side effects attached to one theory.

But the fact remains that purposeful practice distinguishes the best from the rest.

In my day, if you frequented a snooker hall more than once a week, you were told it was a sign of a misspent youth.

But name me a professional snooker player who hasn’t racked up a colossal number of hours’ practice in pursuit of their dream. And how many of them didn’t love every single hour? The feeling of the green baize on their palms and the gentle brush of the cue on their chins retained its appeal through every shot.

As Jack Nicklaus said of his own sport: ‘Nobody – but nobody – has ever become really proficient at golf without practice.’

So what about those individuals – those driven by a growth mindset, who embrace the fact that only through failure will they get stronger, and who have a passion both for their chosen sport and unrelenting practice?

Isn’t it refreshing to see individuals pushing the boundaries and challenging themselves? Shouldn’t we be holding them up as glowing examples to others of the success paradox: that evolving into the finished article will only come through learning from persistent failure?

In a world where realty TV teaches children that there is a fast track to achieving fame and fortune, and that an aversion to hard work is no barrier to success, should we really be advising an individual who has fallen in love with a sport to slam on the brakes and diversify?

Those who see dedicated, even obsessive, practice as a challenge and a learning opportunity are to be applauded. Aren’t they?

If you were to have told a young Danny Willett to drastically reduce the number of hours he spent at the golf course and try his hand at something else, he would likely have aimed one of his golf balls in your direction.

Unequal opportunities

The 10,000-hour rule, then, is as much about early specialisation as it is nature v nurture.

But shouldn’t it boil down to the pursuit of happiness? If it makes you happy, what’s the objection?

At this point, it is worth me stressing, in case it has escaped your notice – and at the risk of getting splinters in my behind – that the point of this article is to attempt to paint both sides of the story in order to elicit your views.

Back to Ericsson and Syed.

If you read beyond the starting premise, you will discover that the 10,000-hour concept, and notion that success is not reserved solely for those with special talents, is a lot more complex than it first seems.

Do we really all start on a level playing field? Is it really just a case of hitting that 10,000 milestone and, hey presto, I’m an expert?

Of course not. Life is never that simple, as both Ericsson and Syed are at pains to explain.

For starters, there are a multitude of environmental factors that can help you or thwart you on your journey.

You can be a victim of your circumstances, meaning a sporting rival who lives in the next village who shares your mindset, dedication to practice and passion for sport will improve more rapidly, despite your best efforts.

Environmental factors can affect your opportunity to practise and the quality of your practice and act as obstacles in reaching your potential. They include:

  • access to good coaching
  • access to the best facilities – there may be no squash club, badminton club or athletics track in your area
  • parental support – your parents may work full-time and not be able to take you to the golf course/gym/cricket nets on demand
  • money – your parents may not be able to afford club membership fees or the best equipment; for example, indoor equipment or technology to help you clock up those extra hours during bad weather
  • school – there may be no after-school club for your sport; in contrast, some public schools offer state-of-the-art facilities, including swimming pools, and full-time sports coaches and support staff
  • family – you may have no siblings of a similar age to compete against and motivate you
  • luck – you may be a summer baby, and therefore experience the potential repercussions of the Relative Age Effect.

And, of course, there are genetic factors to consider. If you are born with short arms and short legs, your chances of becoming a basketball player are significantly reduced, and no amount of practice can change that. Similarly, if you inherited a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibres to fast-twitch, you can wave goodbye to your dream of becoming a 100-metre sprint sensation.

Quality and quantity

If you are lucky, and all the cards fall into place, then you have only cleared the first hurdle.

You have to train long, but you also have to train smart, which means engaging in the right kind of practice. Accumulating enough hours is not enough.

As Syed writes:

The ten-thousand-hour rule, then, is inadequate as a predictor of excellence. What is required is ten thousand hours of purposeful practice. And for practice to be truly purposeful, concentration and dedication, although important, are not sufficient.

In other words, the quality of practice is key. You can’t just go through the motions.

Ericsson adds: ‘Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.’

In golfing terms, progress will be limited if you practise within your current capabilities and play the same shots over and over on the driving range. Only by manipulating the mechanics of the swing and attempting variations of shot depending on lie, course layout, different environmental conditions (wet grass, sand, blustery wind) will you maximise improvement.

Which is why a good coach is vital to the evolutionary process, pointing out flaws in your technique and advising how to iron out bad habits.

‘You intentionally have to increase your performance, and you have to be guided, ideally by a teacher, that would allow you to incrementally improve,’ says Ericsson.

Open v closed debate

OK, all understood. But so far, we have been scrutinising one-dimensional, closed-skill sports, where the techniques required to be proficient take place in a stable, predictable environment, and the performer knows exactly what to do and when, and where movements follow set patterns.

What about sports that involve open skills? In team sports, for example, performers operate in a constantly changing environment and have to rely on their perceptual skills (interpreting information quickly at a given time and to make an appropriate decision) and cognitive skills (being able to make sense of a problem and to solve it).[1]

Syed argues that practice can also make perfect in sports that involve greater levels of awareness and anticipation. He writes how instincts can be sharpened, as high quality practice over time forms new neural pathways in the brain. He refers to it as advanced pattern recognition.

The more you play rugby or netball, the bigger your memory bank of information and the more chance your central nervous system will provide you with the correct answer.

Just as skills can migrate from the conscious to subconscious until they become second nature, so too can instincts be honed.

Syed’s theory, then, does not dismiss games-based learning, such as the Constraints-led Approach (CLA) and Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), but rather embraces its application by coaches.

The more extensive, high quality experience performers get, the more they will develop their perceptual, cognitive, leadership, problem-solving and decision-making skills, while boosting their mental fortitude and ability to cope with pressure.

Decision time

So what have we learnt? The one thing we can say for certain is that the 10,000-hour rule does not resonate with everyone.

It worked well for Willett. Will it work for you? That’s up to you to decide.

My personal view: It depends on the person, and, crucially, it depends on the sport.

But most fundamental of all is the need for every coach to encourage their young performers to sample other sports in the hope they will discover for themselves that variety really is the spice of life.

What do you think? Would you go as far as to say young children should be saved from themselves, with parents making key decisions on their children’s behalf?

Do you think purposeful practice at a young age is more acceptable in certain sports, like snooker, swimming, golf and tennis, than in football, hockey or rugby? Please leave a comment below.

[1] Classification of motor skills and abilities

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Comments (2)

   
jswain

Could someone point me in the right direction on a question related to Ericsson's work (please forget Gladwell's drivel)?

Where does Ericsson state that deliberate practice requires early specialisation? I have read this position stated many times by coach educators. Given the multifaceted nature of sport, can deliberate practice aim to improve global sport attributes (e.g. fundamental movements, emotional control, imagery, reflection, decision-making) without the need to specialise at an early stage in any particular sport? Why do authors continue to link the two?

To add, I feel that Ericsson gets a raw deal. Below is a link to his research page where there are several replies to articles made about his work and theory of deliberate practice.

https://psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericssonk/ericsson.hp.html

07/02/18
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jswain

Does the author have anything to add on the subject of Deliberate Practice and its link to early specialisation?

15/02/18
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