By Jonah Lehrer, Wired Science Blogs, August 24, 2010
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The 10,000 hour rule has become a cliche. This is the idea, first espoused by K. Anders Ericsson, a pyschologist at Florida State University, that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice before any individual can become an expert. The corollary of this rule is that that differences in talent reflect differences in the amount and style of practice, and not differences in innate ability. As Ericsson wrote in his influential review article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”: “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”
On the one hand, this is a deeply counter-intuitive idea. (It’s best articulated in Gladwell’s excellent Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.) Although we pretend to be egalitarians, we really believe that the talented are naturally “gifted”. You and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or NBA superstars, or concert pianists, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.
And yet, the 10,000 hour rule also echoes a long-standing belief about how talent happens. Let’s call this the parable of Tiger Woods. The story goes something like this: When Tiger Woods was an infant, his dad, Earl, moved his high chair into the garage. This was where Earl practiced his golf swing, hitting balls into a soccer net after work. Tiger was captivated by the swift movement. For hours on end, he would watch his father smack hundreds of balls. When Tiger was nine months old, Earl sawed off the top of an old golf club. Tiger could barely walk – and he had yet to utter a single word – but he quickly began teeing off on the Astroturf next to his father. When Tiger was 18 months old, Earl started taking him to the driving range. By the age of three, Tiger was playing nine hole courses, and shooting a 48. That same year, he began identifying the swing flaws of players on the PGA tour. (“Look Daddy,” Tiger would say, “that man has a reverse pivot!”) He finally beat his father – by a single stroke, with a score of 71 – when he was eleven. At fifteen, he became the youngest player to ever win the United States Junior Amateur championship. At eighteen, he became the youngest player to ever win the United States Amateur championship, a title he kept for the next three years. In 1997, when he was only 21, Tiger won the Masters at Augusta by the largest margin in a major championship in the 20th century. Two months later he became the number one golfer in the world.
The lesson of Tiger Woods is that the best way to become a superstar is to start young and get in those 10,000 hours as quickly as possible. That’s why Earl put a club in the hands of a toddler, and why Mozart was composing music before most of us can do arithmetic.
However, a series of recent studies by psychologists at Queen’s University adds an important wrinkle to the Tiger Woods parable. The scientists began by analyzing the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of professional sports, such as the NHL, NBA, and the PGA. This is when they discovered something peculiar: the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA.*
I can think of several different explanations for this effect, none of which are mutually exclusive. Perhaps kids in small towns are less likely to get distracted by gangs, drugs, etc.
Perhaps athletes outside of big cities go to better schools, and thus receive more attention from their high school coaches. Perhaps they have more access to playing fields. Perhaps they have a better peer group. The scientists summarize this line of reasoning in a recent paper: “These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in smaller communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging, and a better integration of the program within the community.”
But there’s another possible explanation for this effect, which was nicely summarized by Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and author of the forthcoming Choke. She proposes that an important advantage of small towns is that they’re actually less competitive, thus allowing kids to sample and explore many different sports. (I grew up in a big city, and my sports career basically ended when I was 13. I could no longer compete with the other kids in my age group.) While conventional wisdom assumes that it’s best to focus on a single sport as soon as possible, and to compete in the most rigorous arena – this is the essential lesson of Tiger Woods – Beilock argues that that’s probably a mistake, both for psychological and physical reasons:
Sampling a variety of activities lowers the likelihood of burnout in one sport and increases children’s feelings of confidence because they get to see the results of their hard work in different settings. In addition, playing different sports lessens the occurrence of sports-related injuries that may end an athletic career. It’s common today for a 10-year-old baseball pitcher to need the tendon replacement surgeries for an injured elbow that were previously restricted to college and major league pitchers. This is the type of injury that sports medicine doctors argue is the direct result of arm overuse and sport specialization at too young an age.This is a nice addendum to the 10,000 hour rule. While deliberate practice remains absolutely crucial, it’s important to remember that the most important skills we develop at an early age are not domain specific. (In other words, Tiger Woods is not using the same golf swing he relied on as a 5 year old.) Instead, the real importance of early childhood has to do with the development of general cognitive and non-cognitive traits, such as self-control, patience, grit, and the willingness to practice. This is also the lesson of a recent study on Australian football players:
Findings like the birthplace effect suggest that we need to rethink the idea that kids should receive year-round training in one sport early on. Although this early specialization certainly worked for Woods, for most kids, less sport-specific training seems to be the key to athletic success. Of course, this doesn’t mean limiting practice overall. Indeed, smaller cities offer more opportunities for unstructured play than larger cities, which results in more opportunities to hone general coordination, power, and athletic skills. These longer hours of play also allow kids to experience successes (and failures) in different settings, which likely toughens their attitudes in general.
The developmental histories of 32 players in the Australian Football League (AFL), independently classified as either expert or less skilled in their perceptual and decision-making skills, were collected through a structured interview process and their year-on-year involvement in structured and deliberate play activities retrospectively determined. Despite being drawn from the same elite level of competition, the expert decision-makers differed from the less skilled in having accrued, during their developing years, more hours of experience in structured activities other than Australian football.What Beilock suggests is that the most important skills for success – the domain general traits that allow us to persist in the face of challenges and perform under pressure – are more likely to emerge when we pursue a variety of athletic activities at a young age, which tends to happen in smaller communities. (Big cities, in contrast, encourage a more single-minded focus, since any particular sport is more competitive.) We won’t be good at all of these sports, but that’s probably a good thing. The struggle will make us stronger.
*According to the researchers, the location of our birth matters much more than several other celebrated correlations, such as the “January effect” in which kids born in the first months of the year are more likely to excel in sports.