The 10,000 Hour Myth

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

A myth is a false belief or idea that is widely held. One such myth that has enveloped youth sports is the idea that to become an elite athlete all one needs 10,000 hours of sustained, deliberate training. This is a myth in every sense of the word.

I recently gave a talk at a national soccer coaches meeting. I asked the audience if they had heard of 10,000 hour rule. Everyone raised their hand. Then I asked if they had heard it was not exactly true and a misrepresentation of the study of performance. Only about 10% raised their hand. Myth confirmed.

Ten years ago, very few people outside of academia knew of Anders Ericcson or his study that found a correlation between thousands of hours of training and elite musical performance. That all changed in 2008 when Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 Hour Rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.

The 10,000 hour rule has become the bedrock philosophy of many coaches and programs developing young athletes. They use the popularity of the rule to claim that kids need to train for 10,000 hours if they are going to become top players. They demand more commitment at younger ages. They demand specialization, which can be quite harmful to kids. They funnel every child into their “10,000 Hour System.” They take kids who want to play other sports out of the developmental pipeline, demanding complete allegiance in pursuit of the holy grail of 10,000 hours.

Image from WikipediaThis is quite a shame, because the concept that 10,000 hours is needed to achieve elite performance status is not a rule. It’s a myth.

The examples of athletes whom have performed on an Olympic or professional level with far fewer hours of deliberate training are abundant (see Donald Thomas the Bahamian long jumper). A study of professional hockey players found that on average they spent 10,000 hours in sport participation, but only 3000 of those hours were in hockey specific deliberate practice. The list of players that have competed at an elite level in multiple sports is vast and ever expanding, yet none of these athletes put 10,000 hours into two different sports. ().

Even the originator of 10,000 hours, Anders Ericcson, says that the use and misuse of his research has created a complete misunderstanding on the role of deliberate practice.

That is not to say elite athletic performance does not require thousands of hours of dedicated, focused training and excessive commitment. IT DOES. As I have discussed at length in my book, the evidence shows that simply training deliberately for 10,000 hours does NOT make one an elite athlete, and there are many paths to mastery.

Unfortunately, the purveyors of the 10,000 Hour Rule have contributed to the “adultification” of youth sports, which has become far more about trying to develop tomorrows elite superstar than creating an environment that is enjoyable, physically and mentally rewarding, and breeds adults whom are active for life. This has resulted in an environment that causes many children to quit sports. Combined with the rise in popularity of computers and video games, a decline in access to PE and other sports programs, and a rise in obesity, these factors have created culture of inactivity in today’s children. The scary statistic: today’s 10 year olds are the first generation ever who will not outlive their parents!

It is high time to present the major issues with the 10,000 hour concept, and bring some sanity back to our youth sports programs.

The 10,000 hour myth is a problem for three main reasons:

  1. It puts all the eggs in one basket -10,000 hours of training, and ignores the role of genetics/talent in athletic performance: This point has been thoroughly researched in David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance and should be required reading for any coach. Even Anders Ericsson agrees that the simple idea that 10,000 hours of training will make one elite is not a true statement. Aside from genetics, there are numerous other factors, including access to coaching, the psychological factors that affect performance, even luck, that all play a part. Some people are far more sensitive to training that improves speed, while others can gain in endurance faster than a test group. We are all not built the same, and training will not overcome genetic shortfalls. It also ignores the fact that without enjoyment and intrinsic motivation, players will not continue to train at the required level of focus and intensity to become elite. In a nutshell, hours of training is a part of elite performance, but not the holy grail.
  2. It is misused by far too many ill informed/misguided coaches to force children to specialize early in sports: This is my biggest issue with the 10,000 hours myth. On a weekly basis I get calls and email from parents asking whether they should commit their child to a single sport in elementary school because the coach told them “it is the only way to get your 10,000 hours in.” During the sampling phase of sports development (up to age 12), children can benefit not only physically, but psychologically and cognitively by experiencing a number of sports.  This is how they develop autonomy and motivation. This is when they seek the sport that they enjoy the most. Yet many organizations try to force their “customers” to choose and commit to year round training and games far too young. The greatest benefactor of this is not the child; it is the organization’s bottom line.
  3. It ignores the significant role of deliberate play in athletic development: This is an area where groundbreaking research continues to be done. The deliberate practice model sometimes discounts play, for it is an activity that focuses upon immediate gratification – enjoyment – and is not the delayed gratification that deliberate practice calls for. Research shows that play increases levels of autonomy, motivation and enjoyment, three critical factors in elite athletic development I have discussed previously. There is also evidence that children engaged in play spend more time on task (actually playing) then those in structured training environments, where they stand in line, wait for coaches to set up activities, etc. In an hour of pickup basketball, children will usually spend the vast majority of the time playing, developing motor skills through the game, while research on training environments demonstrates that athletes’ time on task varies between 25% to 54% of total training time. The benefits of feedback from experienced coaches may be outweighed by the amount of time not spent actually playing or practicing! This is why I advise coaches of our youngest athletes to “Just let them play!”

It is certainly clear that thousands of hours of deliberate practice are necessary for elite level performance, yet it is also clear that they are not sufficient. Factors such as motivation, genetics disposition and sensitivity to training, and access to the right coaching all factor in, and without them training alone does not predict elite level performance.

This is an important factor to consider as parents and coaches of young athletes.  If you are involved with athletes age 14 and under, chances are that the vast majority of them will not become elite competitors, never mind professional athletes. Perhaps one athlete every few years will.

So why do we create programs that sacrifice the interest of the 99% for the slight chance that one kid will make it?

Why do we create excessive training environments for 9 year old soccer players and 10 year old baseball players based upon the myth that we need to get 10,000 hours of training in?

Why are we not creating environments that first ensure that our players fall in love with the game, and they show up and play because they want to, and not because they have to?

Why are youth sports organizations hoarding as many children as possible into year round programs at 8,9,10 years old, instead of doing right by the 99%?

And finally, can’t a great coach create an environment that serves the 99%, and the potential elite player at the same time, at least prior to middle school?

If we work harder, and educate our coaches better, we can create youth sports environments that focus on developing better people and better players, and create the next generation of fans, coaches, adult league players, as well as the odd college or pro player. Great coaches do this, and still create a pathway to excellence for those with the talent, motivation, grit and love of the game to achieve greatness.

I believe we can do this through better coaching education and oversight.

I believe this requires a shift in philosophy toward the greater good, instead of the elite few.

I believe the best coaches are not afraid to let children experience multiple sports, and take time off for a family vacation or school event. Those who threaten that child’s place on the team are not furthering their sport; they are cutting the legs out from under it.

I believe the youth sports organizations that see this first, and adapt to what serves all the children, instead of the infinitesimal percentage that have the tools to become a pro, will be the ones that thrive in the 21st Century.

I also believe that those of the Friday Night Tykes genre, the organizations across all sports that treat and attempt to train every single child like a future pro, who select them far too early and ignore the crucial importance of play and enjoyment, will eventually fade away.

Or at least I hope they will.

Please share your thoughts and questions on the 10,000 hour rule in the comments section below the picture.

Sources: (click links in text for additional resources and articles cited)

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

A Good Article Interviewing Gladwell, Epstein and Ericsson

Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14, 85-94

 

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