Quality or quantity in deliberate practice: Personal view towards 10,000 hours rule

After discussions on Twitter world, I wanted to pen my ideas and opinions towards the 10,000 hour theory, developed by Anders Ericsson whom studied the way people become experts in their fields. Many readers will now be aware or have heard of the 10,000 hour rule publicised by Malcolm Gladwell. The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field whether it is in music, business, art or in my case, sport.

After re-posting an article by WWPIS (https://www.parentsinsport.co.uk/2017/08/20/10000-hour-rule-misunderstood-by-sports-parents/), I looked at and wanted to discuss further some of the personally deemed biggest issues from the 10,000 hour rule within sporting context, including my ideas towards quality over quantity in training scenarios or environments. This includes single sport specialisation, third party push for early selection to elite sporting programmes, “unimaginative” or repetitive coaching environments or learning scenarios and players or athletes lacking intrinsic drive and creativity, solely searching for greater efficiency.


Backtracking and comparing Ericson’s research to Gladwell’s book shows some glimpses of differences; Ericsson believes Gladwell averaged out and misinterpreted his research. Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” of merely repeating the same activity over and over again is regarded as not sufficient to catapult someone to the top of their field. According to Ericsson, deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities. While repeating a skill you’ve already mastered might be satisfying, it’s not enough to help you get better. Moreover, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough – people also need well-defined goals and the assistance or guidance of a teacher, coach or “more capable other” (to borrow from Vygotsky) who assists a plan for achieving their visions and goals. Looking at whether deliberate practice leads directly to expertise, one of the interesting quotes from “PEAK” was as follows: “To become an expert, you may need to be willing to sacrifice short-term pleasure for potential satisfaction of success down the road. A key tenet of deliberate practice is that it’s generally not enjoyable”. This was something I could not buy wholly into and made me draw from other research….

Brad Stulberg (author of Peak Performance) wrote psychological research actually indicates expertise is developed based on the way you practice, rather than the time you devote. In deliberate practice, you need to be fully tuned in to learning the skill you are working on, and minimise distractions as much as possible. Because focusing intently takes so much energy, you can really only sustain that level of practice for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, perhaps two hours at most. Looking at other research around SDT, Vallerand and Mageau’s findings has shown that intrinsic motivations and self-determined extrinsic motivators are necessary ingredients for athlete’s optimal function (Mageau, 2003). Deci and Ryan’s research investigated that intrinsic motivation is experienced as consequence of feeling competent and self-determined. Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting, all factors which would allow deliberate practice to become enjoyable for the long term commitment required.

While intrinsic motivation stems from innate physiological need of competency and represents the prototype of self-determined behaviour, self-determined extrinsic motivators, which are extrinsic motivators which have been internally rationalised with oneself, become activities which are being carried out as are important and concordant to one’s values (Mageau, 2003). It has been researched that changes to people’s perceptions of competence and self-determination (relatedness and autonomy) should increase intrinsic motivations and player identification while decreasing introjection and amotivation (Pelletier, 1995). Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behaviour, resulting in peak performance and persistence (Deci and Ryan, 2008); could it be considered that intrinsic motivation through choices in practice design or regular review in attaining gradual goals could decrease the perceived volume of time needed to obtain mastery??

Parents, coaches and players alike have perceived the “easiest” way to gain this 10,000 hour mark would be through early specialisation or introduction to HP programs as early as possible. However, research has found that early specialisation leads to both physical and emotional burnout symptoms. Research by Bruce Howard found athletes who specialised in one sport were twice as likely to report previously sustaining a lower-extremity injury while participating in sports (46%) than athletes who did not specialise (24%). In addition, specialised athletes sustained 60 percent more new lower-extremity injuries during the study than athletes who did not specialise. Lower-extremity injuries were defined as any acute, gradual, recurrent or repetitive-use injury to the lower musculoskeletal system (http://www.nfhs.org/articles/injury-rates-higher-for-athletes-who-specialize-in-one-sport/). Similar findings were noted by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University whom found that early specialisation in a single sport was the single best predictor of injury, with athletes 70-93% more likely to be injured than players who engage in multiple sports.

In relation to emotional burnout, researchers propose the burnout syndrome consists of three central characteristics: emotional exhaustion, reduced accomplishment and depersonalization (Maslach, 1982). Athlete devaluation to sport, regarded as “perhaps most cognitive of burnout dimensions” (Lemyre, 2006), has strong links to lack of autonomy (such as feelings of choice and self-directedness in sport development) and competence (perceptions of effectiveness in sport or team). Within Lonsdale’s research, he recognised that “self-determined motivation moderates the relationships that competence and autonomy had with exhaustion” (Lonsdale, 2009); both emotional exhaustion and devaluation were related to unfulfilled or lack of self-determined motivations. Ryan and Deci (2000) also believed “physiological need for relatedness may play a more distal role than competence and autonomy”. Hodge’s research echoed “high burnout players (investigated) had lower competence and autonomy scores yet didn’t report different relatedness (connection to others) scores” (Hodge, 2008).

How does all this tie into practice or learning design? Holland and Woodcock’s research (2010) recognised that having persistent determination to improve while still enjoying sport participation is crucial for sporting success at specialisation stage. The qualities perceived crucial for elite youth participation include confidence, appropriate attention focus, game sense and mental toughness (Holland, Woodcock, Cumming, & Duda, 2010). Developing expert status requires interest and motivation within sport to increase along with proficiency of skills; however, player’s openness to experience shall continue to increase up to 20 years old (McAdams & Olson, 2010). Therefore, leaders within player’s environments such as coaches or teachers need to identify what enhances a player’s interest, looking at areas such as why participate in sport, what constitutes success in athlete’s eyes and in terms of sporting context alongside what motivational impact is recognised when athlete is offered enhanced knowledge and strategic skills support. Coaches could acknowledge inspirations, responses and preferences of elite or specialising athletes, understanding player’s motivations or behavioural tendencies and offer them the competency, autonomy and relatedness within their practice design they desire.

Why the focus on quality over quantity in training scenarios or environments, such as athlete-led, games based or non-linear approaches by myself as personal preference? I believe this style of approach shall develop greater levels of participation, performance and personal development at both age grade through to elite levels, sustainable throughout specialising and investment stages. Previous research suggests that both “learning occurs in social groups through ongoing interactions between people” (Vygotsky, 1978) while Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed “creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability”, going against the 10,000 hour suggestion of improving practical efficiency for task mastery and suggesting collective and collaborative ecological learning methods may be a better method. Would we see more engaged and happier athletes (and people) if we focused on them attaining goals important to them as opposed to focusing on attaining 10,000 hours practice or meeting coaches or other party’s expectations on commitment and effort?

What can we do as coaches to assist committed players to achieve mastery in their chosen applications such as sporting environments? Creating a fun, challenging atmosphere where players drive the structure and decisions shall allow you to better identify and connect to their character to become the “skilled partner”, offering guidance and encouragement in a Vygotskian style approach. I believe coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions, allowing them to develop intrinsic motivation for their endeavours which leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting.

For me, It is not the time, but what you do with it that counts…..