The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (3 page)

BOOK: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
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Remarkably, the psychologists found that expert pianists had, on average, accumulated a similar number of practice hours as the top violinists, as if there were some universal rule of expertise. The researchers used the weekly practice estimates to suggest that expert musicians, regardless of the instrument, accumulate 10,000 hours of practice by age twenty, and that skilled performers engage in greater quantities of “deliberate practice,” the kind of effortful exercises that strain the capacity of the trainee. The kind of practice that is often done in solitude.

In the now-famous paper—“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”—the authors extended their conclusions to sports, citing Janet Starkes’s occlusion tests that showed learned perceptual expertise is more important than raw reaction skills. Accumulated hours of practice, they suggested, were masquerading as innate talent in both music and sports.

The lead author of the paper, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, now at Florida State, came to be viewed as the father of the “10,000 hours” to expertise rule—though he himself never called it a “rule”—or the “deliberate practice framework,” as it is often known among those who study skill acquisition.

Ericsson is regarded as an expert on experts. He and other proponents of the framework went on to suggest that accumulated practice is the real wizard behind the curtain of innate talent in fields from sprinting to surgery.

As genetic science became more prominent, Ericsson worked genes into his writing. In a 2009 paper, “Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement,” Ericsson and his coauthors write that the genes necessary to be a pro athlete (or a pro anything, really) “are contained within all healthy individuals’ DNA.” In that view, experts are differentiated
by their practice histories, not their genes. The media interpretation of Ericsson’s work has often been to say that 10,000 hours is both necessary and sufficient to make anyone an expert in anything. No one, the idea goes, achieves expertise with less, and everyone achieves expertise with that amount.

On the backs of several bestselling books and reams of articles, the 10,000-hours rule (alternately known as the ten-year rule) has become embedded in the world of athlete development and an impetus for starting children early in hard training.

In some cases, popular writers describing Ericsson’s work have allowed for individual genetic differences in addition to differences born of practice, while others have taken a rigid view of the 10,000-hours rule as absolute, with no room for genetic gifts. During the reporting of this book, I saw the 10,000 hours referenced as the recipe for success in arenas as disparate as an interview given by a U.S. Olympic Committee scientist and the annual letter from a hedge fund to its investors explaining the fund’s tenets of success.

I even became acquainted with a golfer who is putting the rule to a very personal test.

2

A Tale of Two High Jumpers

(Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours)

O
n June 27, 2009, his thirtieth birthday, Dan McLaughlin resolved to do something special: quit his job as a commercial photographer in Portland, Oregon, and become a professional golfer. His golf experience over the previous three decades consisted of two childhood trips to a driving range with his older brother. Save for some youth tennis and a season of cross-country running in high school, McLaughlin hadn’t been a competitive athlete. But something had to change.

After completing his journalism degree at the University of Georgia in 2003, he took pictures for newspapers for two years, and then worked in various forms of advertising and product photography. After six years at a desk job that centered on snapping photos of dental equipment, McLaughlin needed a venture more suited to his taste for challenge.

At first, he thought it might be grad school. So he saved enough money to start an MBA program in finance. But it took only the first day’s class at Portland State, on how to operate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, for McLaughlin to realize that an MBA was not the change of course he craved. He mulled over becoming a physician’s assistant, or an architect, but decided that the new path had to be drastic.

McLaughlin had always had a bit of the extreme in him. His idea of
a winter vacation in 2006 was a trip to Fiji during the nation’s military coup. And yet, in many ways, McLaughlin is the Everyman. He’s 5'9", 150 pounds, and “not particularly physically gifted,” in his own words. “I’m kind of just a very average-type person,” he says. That’s what he’s counting on.

McLaughlin was inspired by what he read of Ericsson’s work in the bestsellers
Talent Is Overrated
, by Geoff Colvin, and
Outliers
, by Malcolm Gladwell. He read about the 10,000-hours rule, the “magic number of greatness,” as it is called in
Outliers,
and about the idea that skills that appear to be predicated on innate gifts are often nothing more than the manifestations of thousands of hours of practice.

And so it was that on April 5, 2010, McLaughlin logged his first two hours of deliberate practice toward his ultimate goal of going pro and making the PGA Tour. His plan is to log every single hour along the path to 10,000, and to show that “there’s no difference between experts and me, or other people, not just in golf, but in any field. If I were over six feet tall, that might not speak to most people, but I’m a normal guy.”

McLaughlin is not approaching his journey—he had logged 3,685 hours by the end of 2012—as a publicity stunt, but as a scientific experiment. He enlisted a PGA-certified instructor and consults with Ericsson for advice on his strategy. McLaughlin is committed to counting only those hours of practice that truly qualify as deliberate according to Ericsson’s definition.

“According to the tenets of deliberate practice, you have to be cognitively engaged,” McLaughlin explains. Just going to the driving range and swatting balls for a few hours without an eye toward improvement and error correction doesn’t cut it. So, six days a week, McLaughlin puts in six hours of deliberate practice, a workday that consumes eight hours because he takes frequent breaks to think about what he did well and what can be improved—like closing the club face on impact—and because it is exhausting to maintain strict focus for hours on end.

McLaughlin is building his golf game from the ground up. When I first spoke with him, 1,776 hours into his journey, he had yet to wield
a driver. “I’m only up to an eight-iron,” he said, “so my game is all within 140 yards of the hole.” On the occasions when McLaughlin decides to play something resembling a round with his eight-iron, he places three balls at varying distances from the cup and plays all three at once. “That way,” he says, “I can get twenty-seven holes of play in on only nine holes.” At his current pace, McLaughlin will reach 10,000 hours late in 2016. (And he isn’t even counting the hours he spends lifting weights, reading golf theory, or working with a nutritionist.) McLaughlin fully expects to be a professional when he reaches the magic number. “There are no guarantees,” he says. “I could get in a car wreck and die tomorrow. But my ultimate goal is to make the PGA Tour.”

“No matter what happens,” he continues, “I will consider it a success. I love the game more every day, and I gave a presentation at a conference at Florida State, where I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with Dr. Ericsson. . . . He said this is useful for him to see how things progress, even though it’s just one person. He said he’s never done this long a study on someone, tracking their deliberate practice.”

No one has ever done such a study. All of the data in support of the 10,000-hours rule have been what scientists call “cross-sectional” and “retrospective.” That is, the researchers look at subjects who have already attained a certain skill level and ask them to reconstruct their history of practice hours. In the case of the original 10,000-hours study, the subjects were musicians who had already gained admission to a world-famous academy, so most of humanity had long since been screened out. A study that is restricted to only prescreened performers is hopelessly biased
against
discovering evidence of innate talent. A “longitudinal” study, on the other hand, is a much higher standard of experimentation that follows subjects as they accumulate those hours in order to watch how their skills progress. It’s easy to understand why longitudinal research of the 10,000-hours rule is difficult: imagine the challenge of recruiting a group of Dan McLaughlins for a study—all willing to spend years practicing a skill they’ve never tried—much less tracking them assiduously.

There is, however, a way to track the acquisition of skill expertise without at least some of the problems of subjective human recall.


Chess players are rated according to Elo points, named for Arpad Elo, a physicist who created the ranking system. An average chess player has around 1,200 Elo points. A master, the bare minimum level to make a living playing chess, has between 2,200 and 2,400 points. An international master has 2,400 to 2,500, and a grandmaster has more than 2,500 Elo points. Because Elo points are accumulated as a player improves, the rating system provides an objective accounting of a player’s historical skill progression.

In 2007, psychologists Guillermo Campitelli, of the Universidad Abierta Interamericana in Buenos Aires, and Fernand Gobet, director of the Centre for the Study of Expertise at Brunel University in West London, recruited 104 competitive chess players of varying skill levels for a study of chess expertise. Campitelli had coached future grandmasters, and Gobet, who logged eight to ten hours a day of chess practice in his youth, had been an international master and the second-ranked player in Switzerland.

Campitelli and Gobet found that 10,000 hours was not far off in terms of the amount of practice required to attain master status, or 2,200 Elo points, and to make it as a pro. The average time to master level in the study was actually about 11,000 hours—11,053 hours to be exact—so more than in Ericsson’s violin study. More informative than the average number of practice hours required to attain master status, however, was the
range
of hours.

One player in the study reached master level in just 3,000 hours of practice, while another player needed 23,000 hours. If one year generally equates to 1,000 hours of deliberate practice, then that’s a difference of two decades of practice to reach the same plane of expertise. “That was the most striking part of our results,” Gobet says. “That basically some people need to practice eight times more to reach the
same level as someone else. And some people do that and still have not reached the same level.”
*
Several players in the study who started early in childhood had logged more than 25,000 hours of chess practice and study and had yet to achieve basic master status.

While the average time to master level was 11,000 hours, one man’s 3,000-hours rule was another man’s 25,000-and-counting-hours rule. The renowned 10,000-hours violin study only reports the
average
number of hours of practice. It does not report the
range
of hours required for the attainment of expertise, so it is impossible to tell whether any individual in the study actually became an elite violinist in 10,000 hours, or whether that was just an average of disparate individual differences.

On a panel at the 2012 American College of Sports Medicine conference, Ericsson noted that the now world-famous data were collected in a small number of subjects and are not entirely reliable in terms of counting practice hours. “Obviously, we were only collecting data on ten individuals,” Ericsson said. “And [the violinists did] some of the retrospective estimates several times, and there was no perfect agreement.” That is, the violinists were inconsistent in multiple accounts of how much they had practiced. Even so, Ericsson said, the variation among just the ten most elite violinists—the 10,000-hours group—was still “certainly more than 500 hours.” (Ericsson himself, it should be noted, never used the term “10,000-hours rule.” In a 2012 paper in the
British Journal of Sports Medicine
, he ascribed the phrase’s popularity to a chapter title in Malcolm Gladwell’s
Outliers
, which, he wrote, “misconstrued” the conclusions of the violin study.)

When I asked Dan McLaughlin whether he had any concern that he might, like some of the chess players, be a 20,000-hours guy as opposed to a 10,000-hours guy, he said that he considered the journey a victory in itself. “When it comes down to D-Day and it’s my ten-thousandth hour,”
McLaughlin said, “it’ll be interesting to see whether I’m still shooting seventy-five, or I missed Q-School [the PGA Tour’s qualifying school] by one stroke, or if I’m on the Tour. I think you could probably master something in anywhere from 7,000 to 40,000 hours, but this is kind of a good way to keep track of progress.” Somehow, the 7,000-to-40,000-hours rule just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

For the chess players, differences in progress showed up right away. “If you look at those players who go on to be masters and those who remain below that level,” Gobet says, “some of them have the same practice the first three years, but there were already large differences in performance. Perhaps if there are very small individual differences [in talent] at the beginning, they make a huge effect. We assume it takes about ten seconds to learn a chunk, and we have estimated that it takes about 300,000 chunks to become a grandmaster. If one person learns each chunk in nine seconds and the other person eleven seconds, those small differences are going to be amplified.”

It’s a sort of butterfly effect of expertise. If two practitioners start with slightly different initial conditions, according to Gobet, it can lead to dramatically different outcomes, or at least to drastically different amounts of practice that will be required for similar outcomes.


On the morning of August 22, 2004, Stefan Holm was staying calm the way he always did before a competition, by losing himself in a book. This time, it was
Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games
by Michael Llewellyn Smith. When Holm, a Swedish high jumper, traveled for competitions, he liked to choose books that were relevant to the locale he was visiting. And this book was particularly apropos, as he would be competing in the
Olympiakó Stádio
in Athens in a few hours in the 2004 Olympic final.

As always, Holm made sure that he forced every omen into auspicious alignment. Even if he wanted to stop reading his book at page 225, he would make sure to read to at least page 240, because when
the bar was raised to 225 centimeters (7'5") during the competition, he did not want that number associated with stopping in his mind.

In order to avoid the mental strain of small decisions, Holm’s morning followed a practiced pattern: first, corn flakes and orange juice for breakfast; then, one hour before leaving for the track, he laid the blue and yellow competition clothes bearing the symbol of the Swedish crown on the bed, followed by a shower, shampoo—always twice, for no reason he could explain—and a shave. He packed his bag in the same order every time. He wore the same black underwear he always did for competition. He put the right sock on before the left, and his jumping shoes in the reverse order, the left before the right.

At the track that evening, Holm’s life came down to one final attempt at 7'8". He missed on his first two jumps. A third miss would be the end. As he did before every jump, he whisked his hands backward over his shorn hair, twice, wiped his eyes, tugged the chest of his jersey, and then cleared the sweat from his brow. He took a few baby steps toward the bar, and then broke into a full sprint. He launched himself into the air, and sailed right over. After that, he cleared 7'9" to win the Olympic gold medal. It was a fitting climax to a story that began with the kind of youthful obsession that is capable of producing genius.

Inspired by the Moscow Olympics, Holm took his first jumps with his neighbor Magnus over the sofa when he was just four years old, in 1980, an adventure that ended when Magnus broke his arm. But the duo was undeterred.

When Holm was six, Magnus’s father built a high jump pit for the boys from pillows and an old mattress and placed it in the backyard. Two years later, in 1984, when Holm was eight, he saw a competition featuring Patrik Sjöberg, the brash Swedish jumper with the cascading golden tresses who would go on to set the world record. All across Sweden, hordes of mini-Sjöbergs began scissor-kicking and Fosbury-flopping over their parents’ couches. The young Holm often beckoned his father’s attention with delighted squeals of “Look! I’m Patrik Sjöberg!” before bounding over the couch.

Holm started school around that time, an endeavor that excited him primarily because the school had a high-jump pit. He spent many a lunch hour, with Magnus, enacting a fantasy version of the Olympic high-jump competition, occasionally showing up tardy for class.

On the day of the Athens final, Magnus was there in the stands, and so was Johnny Holm, Stefan’s father and lifelong coach. In his youth, Johnny Holm had been a catlike goalkeeper in Sweden’s fourth division, and could have progressed toward the professional ranks, but he chose to stay close to home and to his job as a welder. From the time Stefan Holm was a teenager, he could sense from his father’s stories that Johnny regretted never having taken the chance to become a professional athlete. His father did not say it outright, but Holm could tell from how eager Johnny was to help his son throw himself fully into high jump. Both Holm and his father became obsessed with the sport.

BOOK: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
11.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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