Defending 10,000 Hours

As the pendulum swings away from its ‘10,000 hour’ zenith let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

There are some awesome messages that many of us at the ground level, working with young athletes and their parents, can use.

But before that is discussed it is important to establish an interpretation I have that might differ from what Ericsson originally proposed.

This interpretation is based on real world experience and practical application.

The 10,000 Hour Pyramid

Picture the 10,000 hours of practice as a pyramid. The base represents the wide variety of activities that can improve the athlete’s ability while the height of the apex represents the level the athlete competes at.

As the level of the athlete increases, so there is a decrease in potential activities that can contribute to their sporting performance.

My belief is, as a tennis example, a toddler hitting a balloon in an attempt at keeping it floating will contribute to their 10,000 hours (wide base, low level); however it will not improve Roger Federer’s ability at all (apex, high level).

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Having this same toddler, a few years later, play soccer could also improve its tennis ability though an improvement of coordination, movement and footwork. Again, the transfer of these skills decreases as the proficiency of the athlete improves.

Both of these activities would be contributing to the accumulation of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Changing tact, I can only imagine the specificity required to improve Usain Bolt’s times in the 100m, yet we know that at the lower levels almost any intervention could improve a young athlete’s speed: games, hopping, skipping, ‘tag’, etc.

In this paradigm, these other seemingly different activities are actually contributing to the supposed 10,000 hours theory, initially at least.

It also shows that one can have a ’10,000 hour’ guide and be pro late-specialisation. In fact, in my mind, I prefer young athletes learning different attributes from different activities.

Want to improve a young tennis player’s footwork? Play soccer!

Don’t do a speed session with your young AFL players; enter them into a few track and field meets.

‘Passing drills’ in the early preseason for your young rugby players? Why not get them to play basketball games instead?

Do this while they’re young enough to get a solid transfer from one activity to another.

The Bad & the Ugly

Of course it is important to point out that there are a number of problems that have occurred with this ‘10,000 hours’ approach: research that might have be falsified, authors who were selective in which research they included, National Sporting Organisations that didn’t understand the complexity and just chased hours; and an complete lack of comprehension of the Silent Evidence.

The Good

The first, and probably best, message that the ‘10,000 hour’ mentality brought was: The Journey is Long.

Working in the developmental space can be tough as there are parents who want their child to be the best, now; coaches that want their athletes ‘fit by Friday’ and administrators who need results yesterday.

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The ‘10,000 hour’ message suggests to all those in a rush to calm down, take stock and ride the journey.

It helps put into perspective some ‘good wins’ and some ‘bad losses’; and goes a long way to prevent knee-jerk reactions that are too common in developmental sport. Seen in the context of 10,000 hours, a single event is not 'life or death', and perspective can be maintained.

It gives some breathing room to coaches who need to make some technical changes, understanding that there will be some short-term pain for long to gain.

The ‘10,000 hour’ model can go a step further, suggesting that not only is the journey long, but it’s encouraged to enjoy the journey.

Enjoy the struggles, embrace the hardships, and relish the challenges because they will strengthen you in the long term.

The second message that came thoroughly strongly during our ’10,000 hour’ bandwagon ride was the ‘deliberate practice’ message.

It took the responsibility that previously was often laid squarely at the coach’s feet, and shared it with the athletes.

It encouraged ownership, a potentially powerful predictor of future success of developmental athletes.

‘Attending’ practice was no longer good enough. ‘Going through the motions’ wouldn’t cut it. The athlete knew it. They had to buy in, be engaged. Deliberate.

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There was a third message there too. It combined the first message (the Journey is long) and the second message (make sure your practice is deliberate): You can do it.

It is important to point out that in my experience, no athlete has been given the false hope of ‘you can be anything you want to be’ but a number of them did get a ‘hey, if you really work at this, and commit to it, over the long term you could do well’ message.

This message could potentially keep more athletes active and playing the sport than any other single message.

Unintentionally, it probably gave a number of young athletes a Growth Mindset: your ability is not set in stone, rather, it’s a product of your talent AND your commitment to practicing and training.

Those are some great messages for our young athletes, their parents and other administrators to receive.

As it stands, let’s not be too quick to disregard this, but perhaps find where, when and who might benefit from this philosophy.

Grant Jenkins is a Physical Performance Coach who is trying to balance ‘what works’ with ‘what’s correct’. For more information please contact him here or follow him on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

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