Could you beat Bolt if you practiced for 10,000 hours?


Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

I cheated on my spelling tests 

We got lists from school, and I flat-out lied to my parents that I’d done them, naively forging my mother’s signature in my childish handwriting to prove I’d learned them, and deadpan lying about the signature too.

It’s a trivial example really, but illustrative.

For I’m an excellent speller. Always have been. Never needed to try, just knew how to do it.

Had I an unfair practice advantage? Had I more time at it than other kids? No. Had I had 10,000 hours? C’mon, I was already really good. Was I an elite performer? I wouldn’t know – I never competed. With some practice, maybe, but surely not 10,000 hours.

And there’s the rub

There’s been a fuss in the last month or so over the utility of the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, 10,000 hours over 10 years is pitched as a guideline for becoming an expert in an endeavor. Thanks largely to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s one of those neat and tidy factoids you can wrap in pink paper, tie off with a bow and store safely in your bag for later display at various social functions.

Diehard, extremist proponents might claim that 10,000 hours in 10 years can make you expert in, well, anything, almost regardless of the position from which you start.

We’ve talked before about situations where this might not be the case, where pre-existing conditions will be an advantage, and where fewer than, or more than, 10,000 hours might be required.

Suffice to say, it’s not that simple.

Take sprinters for example

In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle points out that of the last 10 Olympic champion sprinters, men and women, none of them are the eldest child. They rank on average, as 4th out of 4.6 children. Coyle suggests that younger children, being naturally smaller than their older siblings, might have to try harder to keep up, and so become faster. In this instance, birth order, and behavioral context could be key elements.

That might be true.

They are also almost always of West African descent.

Black is beautiful. And fast.

So it might also be true that there’s something about the genetics, anatomy or physiology of being black that contributes to their preponderance at elite level.

Maybe it’s naturally faster muscle twitch that provides more explosive power.  Maybe it’s their higher concentration of the protein Alpha-actinin-3 found in fast twitch muscle fiber. Maybe it’s that black people have a wider knee joint which facilitates a more fluid, longer stride.

Grand Valley State University researchers Michael Lombardo and Robert Deaner would tell you in a paper published in June this year, that outstanding speed before beginning formal training is a requirement for achieving world-class times. Moreover, Lombardo and Deaner would add that this speed is evident within 5 years and, for more than half of the Olympic champions, within three years.

At least for sprinters (and the shot putters, javelin throwers and discus throwers they studied) they argue that talent must play a significant part. Clearly, physical characteristics and strengths help shape expertise in these endeavours.

And there’s the chess players…

In 2013, Michigan State’s Zach Hambrick found similar things with chess and music, which require more dexterity and cerebral power than they do strength and speed. According to Hambrick practice, even deliberative practice, isn’t enough. He writes “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

The age at which you began, parental involvement, working memory capacity and general intelligence are all likely contributors.

In July 2014, Hambrick published with Brooke Macnamara from Case Western Reserve University and Frederick L. Oswald from Rice University. They found that practice could explain only 12% in mastering skills in different fields, from music, sports and games to education and professions.

The importance of practice was:

  • 26% for games
  • 21% for music
  • 18% for sports
  • 4% for education and
  • less than 1% for other professions.

Intrinsic motivation, positive and negative feedback, confidence and risk taking may all be implicated in developing expertise.

Is it self-evident?

Now if you were to ask a coach, I wager this might not be such a revelation.

A coach might say there’s no doubt that starting young with someone born at the right time in the right place in the family using deliberative practice with immediate and detailed feedback on tasks that can be made interesting in an environment where someone is rooting for you along with your own intrinsic motivation and clear goals that are within reach but out of grasp and sometimes some competition or tailored incentives with the help of the right body can help you improve in areas of your game you need to work on.

Maybe even get really, really good.

Teachers might agree. For basic reading, writing and arithmetic these other considerations are surely important. And practice will certainly improve your game.

But 10,000 hours alone. No.

So what gives?

Sitting alongside this is an enormous industry of aptitude tests, personality and behavioral profiling, skill analysis and so forth. We use this information at schools, universities, in Human Resource departments, career counselling services, dating sites and the like to help find careers, passions, partners and so forth.

Some of them are excellent and can tip us into fulfilling careers and relationships.

They exist because we believe we’re naturally better at some things than others, and we like to do more of the things we’re good at.

So here’s the take home bit

Excellent performers exploit their advantages to become elite, but only with the right combination of inputs.

The rest of us can do the same to improve in the things we do.

If the practice is going nowhere, find something else or somehow else to practice, even though we can’t all be number one. Usain Bolt is safe for now.

And maybe I’m a better speller than him anyways…

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

10,000 hours

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
This entry was posted in General, Learning, Motivation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Could you beat Bolt if you practiced for 10,000 hours?

  1. Hannah Clarke says:

    Thank you for that, Brendon. I have enjoyed your blog very much; looking forward to the next post.

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