10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice Aren’t Going to Get You Olympic Gold

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Katie Ledecky, devourer of records.Photo: Clive Rose

Like most people, I get my worldview from Macklemore. In “Ten Thousand Hours,” the Seattle-based emcee declares that he is “On some Malcolm Gladwell/David Bowie–meets–Kanye shit.” The song is a paean to the Canadian author’s 10,000-Hour Rule, which states that the way to the top of your field is putting 10,000 hours into whatever activity it is you wish to succeed in. This is a hopeful, bootstrapping message, one that serves as the through line of Outliers, Gladwell’s megahit nonfiction title, a staple of airport bookstores everywhere.

Gladwell uses the 10,000-Hour Rule to explain some of history’s greatest successes: Bill Gates became Bill Gates (partly) because he was crushing code as a teen when no one else was; the Beatles became the Beatles because they played endless shows in Hamburg, thereby perfecting their sound and stage act. Gladwell pulled the rule from K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist who found that elite performance owed to getting in 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice,” where you are consciously pushing at the borders of your capabilities on a daily basis. Whether it’s musicians, doctors, athletes, or chess players, Ericsson found the best are those that practice the most. Or, as Macklemore would say, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint/The greats were great ‘cause they paint a lot.”

But, sadly for the power trio of Ericsson, Gladwell, and Macklemore, there’s more evidence that the 10,000-Hour Rule is more of a rule of thumb than a law of the universe. It comes in the form of a new meta-analysis lead-authored by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara, whose team analyzed the practice and performance of 2,765 athletes through 34 different studies. Macnamara and her colleagues found that on average, deliberate practice accounted for 18 percent of the difference in performance. This is good news for the weekend warrior: If you’re playing in a summer basketball league with your friends from work, putting in extra practice hours could make a big difference. But, as Macnamara said in an interview with Scientific American, that practice “stops differentiating who’s good and who’s great” once you get to a certain level. For elite athletes, deliberate practice explained just a one-percent difference. Ericsson, who also talked with Scientific American, said that the new study doesn’t use the same definition of deliberate practice that his research employs, where a coach is monitoring the practitioner closely at all times.

Another theme from Macnamara’s analysis is that there is so much about peak athletic performance that lies outside what has been captured by scientific research. The Olympics attest to that: Katie Ledecky, the 19-year-old Washingtonian who just broke her own world record to win the women’s 400-meter freestyle, owns the top-ten fastest times in the history of that event. While she’s certainly put in her time in the pool, her outlier performance can’t be explained away by any number of hours.