The 10,000 Rule: Genes vs Training

I’ve been hearing a great deal about the 10,000 hour rule the last several years, and as it appears to have made it’s way into baseball circles I thought it worth discussing.

By now, most everyone has heard or read something on the topic, given the number of books, videos, and motivational seminars on the topic. To name a few, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller“Outliers”, “Talent Is Overated” by Geoff Colvin, “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, and Matthew Syed’ s “Bounce”. All these authors make use of the correlations Andres Errcison’s has drawn between hours of practice and levels of achievement. In a nutshell he concluded, you need 10,000 hours of practice over a ten year period to achieve elite level status in anything. Breaking that down further to 1000 hours per year, you would need to practice about 3.2 hours a day, if you took one day off.

Some eager beavers are dedicating their lives to getting in the magical 10,000 in six years!

Would it come as any surprise that more than one zealous parent is already rolling out the 10 year blue print leading to little Billy’s draft day eligibility?

Perhaps we should examine this a bit more thoroughly before we allow authors of best selling books, many of who lack any scientific credentials, tell us how best to succeed.

All this sounds so wonderful… you work hard to put in the necessary hours of practice (the right kind of “deliberate” practice of course) and you’re pretty much-guaranteed elite level status. For those of us baseball grinders with a Pete Rose mentality this is exactly what we want to hear. A motivational super charger for those that may feel they are less “talented” but can make up for it with hard work. Besides, according to the 10.000 practice theory, genes are of minor significance, if they matter at all in the long run.

Yet somehow looking back at the history of baseball and my own personal experience as player and coach the 10,000, 10 year rule doesn’t seem to quite add up.

For example, let’s take a look at perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time Sandy Koufax. Having read many books on his life over the years, (Jane Leavy’s is one of the best) the one thing that jumped out at me, was how little Koufax practiced throwing a baseball until he turned pro. In high school he was mostly a basketball player with great leaping skills.

He went to Cincinnati to play basketball and tried out for the baseball team mostly because he thought the road trips could be fun. His college baseball coach was astonished by his velocity at a tryout and kept him on the team, but he didn’t log many innings because of his wildness.

Even as pro, due to the rules of the time regarding top draft picks, he had to stay with the major league club, spending much time on the bench rather than racking up developmental innings in the minors. How many hours had Koufax spent on the mound in games and practice before he broke through to an “elite” level? Even if Koufax practiced for three hours a day with the Dodgers for an entire year (we know he didn’t), during his six professional years prior to his breakthrough year in 1961 he would still come up about 4000 hours short.

Can Koufax be dismissed as an exception, or does his case indicate some problems with the 10,000 hour theory?

With all the work being done in genetics recently, much of it pointing to the importance of genetic factors in shaping who we are, the “Talent Is Overrated” cry seems to offer an alternative that many prefer hearing.

Not for a moment am I questioning the enormous amount of work required to attain elite level status in anything. That should be a given. The question is, are we diminishing the importance of genes for reasons that are not drawn from factual data, but rather because we want to be the center of our own universe?

Egocentricity aside, I’ve heard it argued that even if the 10,000 hour rule is a delusion, it is a highly motivational one that at least ensures, you will get enough practice in to fulfill your genetic potential, whatever that might be. Most of us are sustained by one delusion or another, so why not just add one more provided the outcome is good? What could be the harm in that? :roll:

So here is the plan….3.2 hours, 6 days a week for 10 years, beginning at age 8, practicing primarily baseball skills until becoming draft eligible or off to college at 18.

Is this all slightly insane or a rationally sound plan… a recipe for disaster or the Hall of Fame? What’s your opinion?

For those interested in getting, what the authors claim, is a more “balanced” opinion from some young scientists with a critical eye, I suggest reading the following blog and browsing around the site for other thoughts on the topic. For a viewpoint from afar, the so-called 10,000 hour rule was recently the subject of several conference’s in the UK.

Here is part of one blog.

[quote]The three ‘failings’ of the 10,000 hour, “practice is sufficient” model

I think there are three key points about this 10,000 hour concept:

Firstly, if you can find ONE case of an exception, then you have disproved the “rule”. That is, if you can find a guy who trains 10,000 hours but doesn’t succeed, then you have shown that it’s not sufficient. Or, if you can find a guy who trains only 5,000 hours, but who does succeed, then you have shown that it is not necessary.

And the truth is that both of these cases exist, everywhere. Baker has shown it in triathlon, it has been found in chess (so it’s not only “physiological” sports where innate ability seems to matter), and it has been found in football, wrestling, field hockey, skeleton. Every single sport has examples of athletes who have shot to the top within a few years of starting the sport, and it is littered with athletes who fail despite doing 20,000 hours. Today I spoke with a woman whose husband taught music for a school for gifted musicians in New York, and they discover children who within months of starting are playing at near-professional expert levels. Now, unless those children have managed to get 10,000 hours of training in in one hour (by discovering how to slow down time), they have achieved expertise well before the theoretical minimum.

There’s no question that talent, or innate ability, or genetics, play a role.

The second point is that there is no good evidence at all to suggest that 10,000 hours is required for expert performance. The study that is always cited is a violin study, which found that expert violinists had accumulated an AVERAGE of 10,000 hours by the time they went to music school, whereas those who were merely good had done 8,000 hours. Two problems. First, you can’t infer cause from this kind of retrospective study. Who is to say that the talented, genetically gifted violinists didn’t train more BECAUSE they had more talent from the age of 8? Perhaps their innate ability was the catalyst to get them more practice (mom sends them for lessons, and they enjoy it). And secondly, the study showed absolutely no indication of ranges or variance. So we don’t know whether there are some people who became experts with less training, and nor do we know whether some failed despite doing their 10,000 hours, because the author did not show that data. I hope I don’t have to emphasize that if either of these people exist, then the theory is wrong.

Which brings me to the third point about this theory - it is entirely unfalsifiable. To the “evangelists” who proclaim that anyone can become an expert if they just practice enough, it’s too easy and too convenient to simply dismiss the exceptions because they clearly didn’t practice in the right way. So if someone has done 25,000 hours and has not succeeded, then they simply say “He obviously didn’t practice the right way”. Or if someone becomes an expert in only 3,000 hours (which happens, all the time), they say “He must have compressed his 10,000 hours into a third of the time”.

So it’s a completely unfalsifiable theory. It cannot be proven, and it cannot be disproven. Therefore, it does not belong in science.

What the science does say - “responders” and “non-responders”

What does belong in science are studies that look at how different individuals have been shown to adapt to training. And sure enough, those studies exist, though Gladwell and Syed would never admit to them. The Heritage study, for example, took hundreds of unrelated people and gave them standardized training programmes, and then measured the responses.

The result? A complete spectrum, ranging from those who show absolutely no response to training, all the way to those who improve by more than 40% as a result of training. And as expected by the scientific theory, the difference between these people can very reliably be linked to genetic factors. Specifically, there are Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) which account for half this training resopnse. Individuals who have 9 or fewer of the identified 21 SNPs are the “low-responders”, whereas people who have 19 or more of these SNPs are “high responders”.

The answer therefore is that it’s not about having different genes, it could also be about having different variants of the same gene, the result being that you and I show completely different responses to training. And you have to ask yourself, if you are a coach, would you rather have an individual who is a “high responder” or a “low responder”? And more importantly, if you have $100,000 to invest in a sport, where do you spend it to find a champion? On talent ID, to find those “high responders”, or do you believe that anyone can succeed if you just spend the money to help them all do 10,000 hours of training? In terms of policy, it’s clear that the science, at least for this physiological variable, points you in the direction of finding the right people to spend the money on. And that means understanding the value of genetic factors to performance.

And just to dispel the idea that skill-based activities benefit more from training, when you look at studies in chess, you find that there is a massive difference in the time taken to reach Master level - some do it in 3,000 hours, some have been at it for 25,000 hours and counting. In darts, 15 years of practice (almost 15,000 hours) only accounts for 28% of the variability in performance. In otherwords, 72% of the difference in performance between two players cannot be explained by the hours spent training. In darts…

In sport, countless studies show that elite athletes get to the top within 6,000 hours of starting their sport, and the success of Talent ID programmes proves that talent transfer (something that is impossible if the 10,000 hour theory is correct) exists.
Conclusion - training is the realization of genetic potential

The bottom line is that a theory of deliberate practice gives us one important message - if you want to succeed, practice. Coaches around the world breathe a sigh of relief, you’re not redundant. But this is so obvious, I guess the reminder is always good though.

But the application of this theory, and the dismissal of genes that it somehow seems associated with, is a huge oversimplication and wrong, at least for sports. Syed today argued about school performance, and about how teachers should downplay the idea that some children are more “talented” with numbers or better at mathematics than others. And that’s fine, because whatever helps people improve is great. But if we’re in the business of finding Olympic champions, then this theory has no place in its polarized form.

Not only this, but it could be extremely damaging. If you take it literally, and you buy into a 10,000 hour concept, then you’ll be obliged to start training a child at the age of about 10, because you need them to become world-class in their early-20s. All good and well, except the evidence shows quite clearly that the earlier you start intensive training, the LESS likely you are to succeed. And so there are all kinds of implications for how we manage children’s sport participation.

The ultimate conclusion, in my opinion (and as always, I welcome your views), is that training is nothing more than the realization of genetic potential. Without both, you will not become an Olympic champion (in a competitive sport, that is). Training will improve everyone, and so everyone should be encouraged to train. But genetic factors determine where we start, how we respond to training (trainability), how much training we can tolerate before burnout or injury (because let’s face it, chess players rarely get injuries that force 6-week layoffs, like stress fractures), and finally, where the “performance ceiling” exists.

Training will get you to your ceiling, you’ll realize your genetic potential. But will it win you a medal? Only if you chose your parents right!


P.S. For a more detailed discussion of these issues, please do read the previous two articles I wrote on the subject:

  1. A look at the 10,000 hour concept. What does it say, and why it fails to pass the test of validity
  2. The evidence for how genes influence elite sporting performance[/quote]

I don’t even know what to say, someone has pulled the 10,000 figure out and made it fit the problem. I guess I could say that 3 glasses of OJ will get me to bigs too (research is all relative, ask Einstein), or this peice of equipment or this technique if you do it 10,000 times will get you there. There is way more to it than that. We have all heard it takes 7 times reading something to remember it, I didn’t read my college text books 7 times in order to make the grade, there are some books I only read once that I can remember 5 years later, there are other that I forgot the next day. Interest level, effort, mental strength, physical ability…man I can go on and on. So wouldn’t sign Johnny up for the 10,000 hour program let him develop at his own pace, slow at times, quick at others. Let him rest when he needs it and kick in the pants too.

I read what you wrote and think you have lost it. An 18 y/o will never be the same as a 28 y/o with experience.

However, there are many exceptions to the idea that 10,000 hours is what it takes to develop elite abilities. I think we all know that though…

A rationally sound plan starts with a rational goal. The goal of making an elite athlete by a tedious process of deliberate practice beginning at a young age ,while a popular thought (due to economics or status), is lacking insight regarding the nature of a well rounded holistic person. That was a mouthful. :roll:

It is not only a poor model to follow but unethical in its presumption that the freedom of the individual, variables in personality and desire are irrelevant. Child prodigy’s are born among average talent. Call it genetic or innate, there is obvious bias on the part of our creator for musicianship, athleticism, knowledge and a host of other gifts. Thus the “gifted” and the “challenged” coexist with the same unalienable rights.

It is this freedom to pursue ones own calling that allows an individual to chose 10,000 hrs of practice in order to honor the gift. We cannot farm elite athletes like we grow rows of cabbage. The human being is too complex for a simple concept to define it. Frankly, the whole suggestion that it could be that simple degrades the entire human race. Now here’s a perfect example to prove my point. Talented - oh yes…but practice?

Your, adjust as you go, approach makes far more sense to me than an abstract 10.000 rule.

Pity the young man who puts in his 10,000 hours and doesn’t achieve elite level status, as many have not. Of course, the members of the 10,000-hour religion will simply say he did not practice “deliberately” enough and blame the subject. Fanatics always have a way of explaining away the exceptions. As is pointed out in the blog above, you can’t ever really prove or disprove the 10,000-hour rule given the “deliberate practice” contingency. Hence it’s not really subject to scientific scrutiny, which is exactly the way the 10,000 hour evangelists want it.

Suppose you give the same drill to 10 players, and have them all perform it for the same number of reps over an extended period. Some will improve a great deal some will not improve at all. Again is this simply a case of not practicing deliberately? In some cases it could be, but to say this is the only reason is highly simplistic. Need I say, that we are all individuals who learn in different ways? It’s very possibly that a young man is practicing extremely deliberately and making no progress because the drill is not addressing his particular needs and may not suit his style of learning.

When I first heard of the 10,000 rule I said in jest. “Wow this guy has just solved the unified field theory of human development,” expecting most to recognize how simplistic it was. Yet a quick search on the “10,000 hour practice rule” indicates the opposite has happened.

Why it has become so popular would require a paper far exceeding this post. I suspect that in some cases resentment against those with special talents is at work, but mostly it appeals to the narcissism of, “I can do anything, no limits”. According to the “genes don’t really matter, it’s all about practice” crowd, we may as well close down all the gifted and talented schools around the country because anyone can be taught to do anything with the right kind of “deliberate” practice. Identifying young talent in the arts and sciences, sport or virtually any endeavor is a waste of resources and money. Rather all our energy should be directed towards nothing else but learning how to PRACTICE DELIBERATLY!

Thanks for hilarious vid. :lol: Allen Iverson also came to mind yesterday as I was thinking about this. He may come off as a selfish teammate in this video but he does make some good points IMO. A good example of an athlete, who demonstrated exceptional talents at an early age, played his heart out in games, and more than likely needed to rest his beat up undersized body on some days, rather than PRACTICE!

Finally ad nauseam… nobody is saying deliberate practice in itself is unnecessary for high levels of achievement. Hopefully most everyone gets that. The disagreement begins when it is made out to be the only factor in something of much greater complexity, and then simplified into a 10,000 rule guaranteeing elite level status regardless of the endeavor, from painting to running marathons.