Most sport enthusiasts have at least heard of the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice needed to reach the expert level of athletic performance, although they may not appreciate what lies behind it. How athletes develop sport talent used to be a back and forth argument between advocates of innate talent (i.e. you were born with it), and those who believed talent could be developed. Research has shown that those who thought they could develop talent were right. 10,000 hours is a metaphor used to illustrate that there is no shortcut to excellence; that being good at something—really good—is a long-term process. Understanding the concepts behind the 10,000 hours is easy, but actually putting them to work, as Anders Ericsson says in The Making of an Expert, “is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient.”
Typically, it takes over 10 years for an athlete to accumulate this much practice time. But thinking that simply practicing for 10,000 hours will produce excellence misses the point. What the 10,000 hours refers to is deliberate or “deep” practice where the mind and body are engaged in learning skills and strategies that the athlete hasn’t already mastered. Ericsson defines deliberate practice as activities that are specifically designed to improve performance. This kind of practice is rare in sports, especially those such as swimming, cycling, and running, which focus mainly on metabolic training. Practices in sports like these generally consist of the repetition of a very small skill set so practices can take place without any learning component at all. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in these kinds of sports is certainly a challenging goal.
In addition to the hours of deliberate practice, those seeking excellence need strong support from friends and family, and the watchful eye of a master coach. While there is something appealing about having a “formula” for achieving success, the process Ericsson outlines is not so much a plan as it is a description of what it takes to achieve peak performance.
The elements involved—long term deliberate practice, a strong support system, and an expert coach—are not common. And while some parents might see the 10,000 hour rule as dictating that sport training must begin at an early age, most programs for youngsters are not the type that could produce or sustain excellence. Practicing must begin early, but the kind of practice makes a difference. Focusing on skill development and deemphasizing the metabolic components of training will get young athletes started on the right foot and allow for building excellence later.
William Price, MS
Mr. Price is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy. As a former swimming coach he served as executive director and head coach of the Saluki Swim Club in Carbondale, Illinois. He also served the United States Sports Academy as a swim coach in Malaysia and Brunei as part of a team focusing on developing age-appropriate sports programs.