I grew up to the sound of instructors reciting the mantra, “Practice makes perfect.” I was taught that all I had to do was practice hard and often, and one day, I’d be a master of whatever task I was working at. Unfortunately, research shows that the process isn’t that simple. One must deliberately practice his or her skill and have advantageous genetics, among other influences, in order to become an expert in a specific field.
Deliberate practice, or perfect practice, refers to the time one spends perfecting a skill using the most effective, appropriate training methods and feedback (Baker & Horton, 2004). It requires effort, focus, motivation, quality coaching, and drills that transfer well to performance. An athlete must be focused and intrinsically motivated to work hard through practice times under that guidance of knowledgeable coaches who maximize the efficiency of practice time and utilize effective feedback techniques to maximize the athlete’s development. Training exercises must be gauged to the athlete’s level and allow for correction and repetition. These drills must also transfer well to the performance of the defined task (Baker & Horton, 2004).
There are many flaws with the model of deliberate practice for expert performance which stipulates that approximately 10,000 hours of perfect practice over the course of 10 years is what is required for any individual to become an expert. Firstly, many of the studies cited for this model are retrospective studies, meaning the total hours of practice time were estimated retrospectively by participants, instead of being recorded or measured at the time of occurrence. The accuracy of these approximations is questionable. Secondly, what assurance is there of the quality of a given hour of practice? Is an hour of practice by one person in a study equivalent in quality to an hour of practice by another person in that same study? Furthermore, Tucker and Collins (2012) found that the number of deliberate practice hours only explains 28 to 34% of the individual variances in certain sports’ performance. While practice is an essential ingredient in the recipe for achieving sports expertise, it is not, by any means, the only important element.
Tucker and Collins (2012) state, that “training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realized,” demonstrating the intertwined relationship that deliberate practice and genetic factors play as one becomes an expert. Genetic factors that hold a large influence on sports performance expertise include gender, height, VO2 response to training (among other hereditary cardiorespiratory variables), and muscle mass and strength. Certain traits are more advantageous in some sports and less advantageous in others. For example, pertaining to the trait of height, tall individuals are preferred by some sports, while shorter individuals are favored by others (Tucker & Collins, 2012). Psychological traits including one’s ability to focus, rebound from mistakes, and manage anxiety in addition to one’s self-confidence and concentration are also influenced by genetic components and play an important role in setting up an athlete to achieve expertise in his or her sport (Baker & Horton, 2004).
Regardless of practice quality and genetic factors, there is also a limit to how much time one can practice in a given period without increasing the risk of injury from overuse and fatigue. Andrew Read (n. d.) tells a joke of an overzealous, novice athlete who asks his coach how long it’ll take before he’s a world class athlete. The coach tells him it will take 10 years. The athlete then asks the coach how long it would take to become a world class athlete if he works twice as hard and trains twice as long. The coach’s response is twenty years. Athletic development is limited by the amount of training one’s body can handle, and the occurrence of injuries delay the development process or prevent expert performance capability.
In my work with young athletes, I apply some of this information by teaching my students quality practice habits, such as concentration, focus, and intrinsic motivation. Although strong evidence exists about the influence of genetic factors on an individual’s performance potential, I refrain from teaching young athletes to attribute any of their success or lack of success to factors outside of their control as I believe this negatively affects their motivation. Further, I could do more in my coaching to promote positive recovery practices, such as quality sleep, soft tissue maintenance, and good nutrition, in the athletes I work with so they can maximize their ability to train and minimize injury risks.
Baker, J. & Horton, S. (2004). A review of primary and secondary influences on sport expertise. High Ability Studies, 15(2), 221-228.
Read, A. (n. d.). Run Strong [E-book]. N.P.
Tucker, R. & Collins, M. (2012). What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sporting success. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 555-561.