10,000 hours of practice won't win you the gold in Rio, says science

According to new research, the amount of hours spent training for the Olympics only amounts to a 1% difference in achievement

10000-hour rule, Malcolm Gladwell, Brooke Mcnamara

The reverse side of the Rio 2016 gold medal [IOC]

Whether you first came across the 10,000-hour rule via Canadian historian Malcolm Gladwell or through one of Macklemore’s songs, you’re likely to be familiar with the concept. First conceived in 1993 by K Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist, the theory holds that in order to reach the pinnacle of elite performance, a person needs to consciously push him or herself to the limit of their abilities on a daily basis. By the time the 10,000th hour has come to a close, a champion has been created. Sadly, it still is no guarantee of winning gold at the Olympics.

According to new analysis, which looked at the performance of nearly 3,000 athletes, it is true that becoming a world-class athlete requires an enormous commitment to practice. But when it comes to how successful an athlete turns out to be, it cannot be predicted based on the number of hours they put in with focused training alone.

The study, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, suggests that intense practice is just one of a number of factors that turns someone into a world champion or gold medal winner. “More or less across the board, practice will improve one’s performance,” said Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist and the lead author of the research paper. “At a certain level of success, however, other factors determine who is the absolute best.”

Macnamara and her team completed an analysis of 34 other studies, tracking the amount of time 2,765 athletes spent training. The research also accounted for personal achievements, including data on details like race times, scores for individual performances, and membership in elite groups. Across the board, deliberate practice was deemed to determine 18% of the differences in achievement between athletes in all sports when it came to competing at club level. At an Olympic Games or World Championships, however, the amount of time spent practising amounted to just 1% of a difference.

“This suggests that practice is important to a point, but it stops differentiating who’s good and who’s great,” Macnamara said. Instead, what really makes for a gold-winning performer is an ill-defined combination of genetics, psychological state, and a myriad of other things.

According to Scientific American, many academics in the field of psychology argue over the practical implications of a theory like the 10,000-hour rule. “The majority of the scientists in the field would acknowledge that practice is important in the development of expertise, but at the same time I guess that we accept that other factors would contribute,” says Mark Williams, a sport, health and exercise scientist in London.

Macnamara adds that her meta-study is valuable as a way of approaching coaching and training for elite performance with a more all-encompassing understanding of the multitude of factors that influence an athlete. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to 100% explain [what makes an Olympic gold medallist], but I think we can do better than what we’re doing now.”

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