Quality as well as quantity are crucial for young athletes striving to reach the top

Quality as well as quantity are crucial for young athletes striving to reach the top
St Finbarr's Damien Cahalane gets the ball out from Imokilly's Paudie O'Sullivan. Both players worked hard away from training to make the top. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

ALMOST 50 years ago, in a paper in American Scientist, William Chase and Herbert Simon drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise.

Writing how there are no instant experts in chess, Chase and Simon roughly estimated that a chess master has spent perhaps “10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions”.

In the decades that followed, thousands within the field of psychology studied and elaborated on Simon and Chase’s observation, with most reaching the same conclusion — that it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, Gladwell popularised the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness”. Regardless of a person’s natural aptitude, Gladwell claimed that with enough practise, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional.

The seed for the 10,000-hour rule was a 1993 study of violinists and pianists which examined ‘the role of deliberate practise in the acquisition of expert performance’.

The study showed how, on average, top-ranked violinists had clocked up 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20. The authors argued that differences in ability, even among top musicians, were largely down to how much they practised. Gladwell adapted on the round number to explain the success of people from Bill Gates to the Beatles.

Last year, Brooke MacNamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and her colleague Megha Maitra, set out to repeat part of the 1993 study to see whether they reached the same conclusions.

After interviewing three groups of 13 violinists rated as best, good, or less accomplished about their practice habits, MacNamara and Maitra then had them complete daily diaries of their activities over a week.

Their study published in Royal Society Open Science showed how the number of hours spent practising accounted for about a quarter of the skills difference across the three groups. Their findings also concluded that practice is less of a driver and that the factors depend on the skill being learned.

When David Epstein wrote The Sports Gene in the last decade, Epstein’s key point was that the 10,000-hour idea must be understood as an average. The best players, or the best in their particular field, on average and over time, practice much more than the good ones.

In other words, what separated the best from the rest within a group of talented people was how long and how intently they worked.

There will always be variation behind the numbers, particularly if athletes or musicians or whoever, use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly.

There are other domains that do not fit the 10,000-hour model. “We’ve tested over 10,000 boys,” Epstein quoted one South African researcher as saying, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast”.

There is always a bigger picture though. If kids want to become faster runners, or better violin players, or more accomplished hurlers, footballers, or soccer players, they have to want to do it for themselves first. If they want to spend 10,000 hours doing something they love, particularly if they are chasing a dream, most of that pursuit won’t be a chore.

Former UCLA coach John Wooden. Picture: G Newman Lowrance/WireImage
Former UCLA coach John Wooden. Picture: G Newman Lowrance/WireImage

One of the best definitions of success comes from the renowned coach, John Wooden, when describing his athletes and teams at UCLA: “Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Parents or guardians should almost have a similar definition for themselves. And being the best parent that you are capable of becoming has never been more important in such challenging times.

With kids home from school, and playdates with other kids not advised in trying to contain the coronavirus, the crisis provides an opportunity for parents and guardians to spend more time with their kids. That is difficult for many parents now forced to work from home but that opportunity is still there, especially when many parents don’t have to spend time travelling to work.

Sport is a great starting point, especially if kids and parents are feeling cramped up inside. Doing something sporty in the fresh air can be as basic as teaching a young child how to cycle a bike for the first time, or just throwing or kicking a ball around the garden. Swapping stories as you go also allows both the child and the parent to get to know more the social side of each other.

Barca's Lionel Messi is naturally gifted but his work-rate and energy shouldn't be underestimated. Picture: Getty Images
Barca's Lionel Messi is naturally gifted but his work-rate and energy shouldn't be underestimated. Picture: Getty Images

For kids and parents with a competitive streak, the more fun and smiles during activity, the better the environment is to relieve stress for the parent and the child. More importantly, it can also create special bonding moments that only a child and their parent can share.

Having that extra time at home can be beneficial to parents in coaching their kids, especially those parents who are coaches, and who now have more of an opportunity to do so on an individual basis.

The bigger picture often looms in that background and, for some kids, the time off now is a chance to bank some of the 10,000 hours required to chase a sporting dream, and be really successful.

This is certainly a time of great worry and anxiety for all of society but the most important facet of parents and guardians having that opportunity to coach, encourage, or play more sport with their kids, is for them to enjoy the purity that moment can often provide.

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