DEBUNKING THE 10,000 HOUR RULE
I have to admit, the first time I read about the 10,000 hour approach to mastery, I was impressed. Basically, the approach, or rule, is that an individual who deliberately practices a task for 10,000 hours will achieve mastery. There are incredible examples of this. Everything from the Beatles working around the clock performing in less than savory "gentlemen's clubs" in Amsterdam to Bill Gates programming computers as a high school kid. These masters all got their 10,000 hours of practice in before anyone ever knew their name. They got their practice in when nobody was watching.
I believed this was the way to achieve mastery. To drop everything else that could possibly be a distraction and focus on the task at hand. But then I read about Donald Thomas and Stefan Holm. Both of these men were World Champion long jumpers. For Holm, he had a 20 year love affair with the sport and had incredible technique. For Thomas, he entered the sport on a friendly bet and after only 8 months of training, stumbled his way to a championship. The stories of these two men intertwined In 2007. Holm took second place at the World Championships in Japan. The man who beat him was Donald Thomas. For Holm, he had well over 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (he believes he has taken more high jumps than any other human being ever!). For Thomas, he would have been lucky to hit 1000 hours. To be honest, it was probably closer to 500 hours (Thomas preferred shooting hoops at track practice over taking high jumps). So how does this happen?
To say genetics are not a factor would be misleading. They absolutely do. And to say that deliberate practice is not important would also be a lie. Deliberate practice is an important component of achieving peak performance. For the above example, it is why Holm continually improved his jump height each season whereas Thomas never improved after he burst on the scene. There is a certain skill set that when combined with deliberate practice and wholly immersing yourself in an activity will lead to an increase in performance. It is not saying your child will or will not become a World Champ. It is saying that your child will improve.
I run into too much sport specialization in my line of work as a strength and conditioning coach. Kids are quitting sports and focusing on only one sport. Sometimes the reasons are valid, other times they can be quite ridiculous. There needs to be a balance between genetics and deliberate practice. Donald Thomas grew up playing a wide variety of explosive sports. He dunked basketballs at ease. This made his transition into the high jump a little easier. Afterall, the guy had been running and jumping his whole life. How hard could it be jumping over a bar? For others like Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Andrew Luck, the training they received from playing other sports helped them become the professional athlete they are today. The skills they developed playing a sport like soccer transferred into the sport they currently get paid to play.
When you learn a wide variety of skills growing up, you are much more likely to learn a new sport skill in a shorter amount of time. You don't need 10,000 hours of practice playing baseball when you are playing football in the fall and using the winter time to improve strength & conditioning. There is no better way to improve your genetic make-up then through strength and conditioning. The body is born with different muscle fibers. Some of these fibers are slow-twitch. Think marathon runners. Some are fast twitch. Think Usain Bolt. Some fibers are intermediate. These fibers have both fast-twitch and slow-twitch capabilities. These fibers are malleable. If you train fast and explosive, those fibers will take on fast-twitch characteristics. If you train slow (this is all you runners out there), the intermediate fibers will take on slow-twitch characteristics. For a sport like football or wrestling, you want to be predominantly fast-twitch. This means you want to work in short spurts of high intensity. It does not mean running 1 or 2 miles for training. The opposite would be true for cross country runners. Slow, and longer duration is the area that they should be training in. All while boosting strength in the process.
There are many factors that go into achieving mastery. The most important thing you can do as an athlete is to embrace the challenges a new sport may bring. Embrace the challenge of lifting 5 additional pounds in the weight-room. You will never know your limitations unless you are constantly bumping up against them.
Chris is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He has recently served as a high school football and wrestling coach. Chris loves swinging kettlebells around, watching football and reading books!