Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Practice Doesn't make Perfect; Perfect Practice makes Perfect

The title of this blog is a quote from Vince Lombardi. And without question it's true. But over the last year or so I've heard more and more about the 10,000 hour principle (that in 10,000 of good practice a person can become 'elite' at their sport). This blog is simply going to discuss this concept as well as recent revelations, and a recent interview with Anders Ericsson (father of the 10,000 hour principle)..reported from The Science of Sport blog.

A multitude of books have come out within this area discussing this 10,000 rule of thumb, and at initial inspection it seems quite appealing. The fact that anyone can do anything if we just put in the time and energy. It kind of makes me feel warm and cosy that somewhere inside I can switch on genes to help me be better, or more, be 'elite'. Last year I read 'Bounce' by Matthew Syed, and 'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle, both of which I would recommend to gain a better perspective of this area. 'Bounce' spends considerable time discussing myelin sheaths, best described as an insulating factor over neural pathways that act to reinforce and protect a skill as we practice it. Which is a nice way to protect the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is what's needed.

But looking back at the quote, it's about the quality of the practice, always challenging, always advancing, always perfect. In one of my first year classes I spend considerable time talking about neuromuscular pathways and skill specificity; that to be better at surfing you need to surf, not stand on a wobble board, or a fit ball or bosu. That to become better at swinging a baseball bat or basketball you need to practice the skill, perfectly, with the right weight and size bat or ball. That 'similar' is not the same, and that not the same is 'different'!

In one of my publications last year I talk of specificity with regard to resistance training: here is a brief extract:

"There is no evidence that skill development is aided by the performance of resistance exercises that bear some superficial resemblance to skills performed on the sports field. Skill enhancement is highly specific, with little correlation between the performances of different skills, even when they appear very similar. For example, Drowatzky and Zuccato [1967] showed that the correlations between performances on different (superficially very similar) balance tasks were extremely low and non-significant. They concluded that there is no such thing as a general phenomenon called ‘balance’. Instead, there are many different balancing skills, and because an individual is good at one type of balancing task it does not follow that he or she will be good at a different balancing task.
Not only is the transfer between superficially similar motor tasks quite low, but the performance of tasks in training that are similar (but not identical) to those used in actual performance can lead to negative transfer and a concomitant decrease in performance on the criterion task. For example, Mount [1996] examined the effect of learning a dart throwing skill in two different body positions (sitting on a chair and reclining on a table). Not only was performance poorer after switching position compared to remaining in the same position, but performance after practice in the alternate position was poorer than after no practice."

The article goes on to discuss resistance training movements so please check out the article here. However, I digress....

Ross Tucker and Jonathon Dugas spend considerable time arguing against Ericsson's 10,000 rule, with some key points, and you should definitely check out the blog mentioned above. However, I would suggest that Ericsson is perhaps misguided with his concept and has simplified what is a far more complex area than he presents.

For example the concept that 10,000 hours of training can make anyone elite does not consider the physiological training stimulus, e.g. the prescribed amount of exercise for each individual (it is not the same for everyone!). Tucker and Dugas discuss this and use it against Ericsson, however if you simply adapt the model to state that the 10,000 hours is required for skill acquisition then it becomes more realistic. In support of this is the concept that many people have a ceiling on their physical attributes, be it their height, or trainable variables like strength or endurance. Genetics will dictate how tall we grow as well as how strong we might be, or fit we can get, even with the right training.

A secondary consideration that I think is under reported is that 'elite' has a spectrum of it's own. Tim Henman would surely be considered an elite tennis player, and yet he never won a grand slam tournament. If you've got reservations on calling Tim 'elite' then consider basketball players in the NBA. They would surely be considered elite; essentially competing at the highest level, and yet they're not all Michael Jordan (not even Kobe Bryant). So you see that perhaps once a decade (or more or less frequent depending on sport, etc.) someone comes along with the genetics and the physical gifts, and the motivation (because we haven't talked about psychology at all!!), and puts in the right kind of training, and competes at the right era (how many elite athletes would have won a major tournament if it weren't for 1 or 2 others that dominated; Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras, etc.).

On a final note we have to consider learning rate, some people might master a skill set in sooner than 10,000 hours, I'm sure you would agree. Therefore, logically on the other end of the spectrum some people will not master a skill set until having practised for considerably more than the 10,000 hours!

It is an interesting area, and I don't claim to be an expert on this, on the contrary I consider myself an intelligent lay-person on the area and as such, and as always; welcome any thoughts or comments.

Of course, don't waste your 10,000 hours typing a response, maybe you better get back to it.

Be Well


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