Some of the oldest and most prominent cliches that athletes are fed on a day-in, day-out basis revolve around practice (e.g. “practice makes perfect”). Like a lot of cliches, these sayings are boring but turn out to be true.
Recently, research surrounding the concept of practice and expertise has begun to be supported by neuroscience. Best selling books like Malcolm Gladwells’ Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code have taken aim at traditional conceptions of talent, arguing that rather than an innate predisposition toward greatness, the limiting factor in expertise and achievement is actually grit, tenacity and the willingness to put in countless hours practicing a skill.
Specifically, K Anders Ericcson has postulated a kind of magic 10,000 hour rule. He has studied a number of competitive fields, from violin playing to international chess competitions to the Olympic games, and across those very different domains a common theme has emerged: people at the top of their international fields all tend to have put in at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.” Worth noting is that “deliberate practice” is different from simply time spent doing an activity. Joking around while shooting baskets with your friends doesn’t count the same as time spent honing the mechanics of your jumpshot. Ericsson has outlined several key aspects of deliberate practice–training that is meant specifically to optimize skill acquisition:
- “The most critical condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.”
- “the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learner”
- The athlete “should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.”
Neuroscience research around plasticity has provided support for these ideas. From musicians to cab drivers to tennis players to braille readers, the acquisition of expertise has been linked to visible, measurable, structural changes in the brain.
Now, clearly, there is no magic cutoff at 10,000 hours of practice that makes an athlete an expert. And not everybody who puts in 10,000 hours will win an international competition at any activity they might choose. But this research does point toward a few really interesting findings: 1. That our cognitive and physical abilities are highly adaptable and changeable with practice, and that perfect practice really does make perfect. 2. That, because of the distinctions between “deliberate practice” and other types of practice, there are certain ways to acquire expertise that are better than others.
This seems obvious on its face, but it opens the door to some interesting questions. The biggest one being, what really is the best way to train? Are our practice sessions “deliberate” enough? Are we neglecting the training of the cognitive skills required for expert sport performance? And finally, with more advanced training programs, can we cut that 10,000 hours down, and accelerate the process of becoming an expert?