Monday, February 18, 2013

10,000 hours of deliberate practice may just make perfect

During a discussion of why our shoelaces never stay tied, our son Jeremy informed us that we've been tying them incorrectly all these years. Turns out we tie granny knots, not square knots. We had never thought about laces this way. This discovery required us to correct something we've been doing incorrectly for more than four decades--no small feat.

We immediately thought about the concept that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become expert at any task. We first encountered this idea in the 2006 edition of the BCU Coaching Handbook, which states: "Practice makes permanent. Therefore poor practice will indeed make poor performance....If we are to produce high-level performers, we could be talking of up to 10,000 hit our genetic ceiling and produce performers who excel at their chosen sport."

This notion is actually based research by K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness, published in 1994 in the journal American Psychologist. In "Expert Performance: It's Structure and Acquisition," Ericsson and Charness analyze the results of their study of musicians. "By age 20, the top-level violinists in their study had practiced an average of more than 10,000 hours, approximately 2,500 hours more than the next most accomplished group of expert violinists and 5,000 hours more than the group who performed at the lowest level," they wrote. This is the only reference to 10,000 hours in that report, which emphasizes that diligence trumps innate talent even in areas like athletics and music performance.

It wasn't until Malcolm Gladwell published his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success in 2008 that the notion of 10,000 hours took off.

This wonderful infographic, created by on behalf of Zintro, visualizes Malcolm Gladwell's explanation of the 10,000-hour rule.
Soon the concept was extended to the acquisition of all kinds of expertise; a 2011 Harvard Business Review blog claimed that it also applied to "collaborative knowledge work -- the type of expertise required to create, or lead, or grow a company," and quoted a 2010 article in the journal Performance Improvement that stated: "Deliberate practice--meaning drill-like practice under the direction of a coach--is key to developing expertise in sports and music. But working professionals and businesspeople typically have no time for practice. We propose deliberate performance as a type of practice that professionals and businesspeople can pursue while they work as a way to accelerate their progression to becoming experts."

And, of course, plenty of people disputed the idea. Clearly, there's nothing magical about the exact number 10,000. But there's plenty of evidence that deliberate practice does improve performance, and that while some is good, more is better.

Which brings us back to the shoelaces. Learning to tie them correctly after years of poor practice is difficult. It requires conscious thought and deliberate practice to undo the deeply ingrained motor memory we have developed over the past 40 years. It reminds us of how hard it is for our students to become competent paddlers if they don't spend adequate time working on their skills in a methodical fashion. Deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, means "activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance." Or, in kayaking terms, good coaching and lots of practice.

1 comment:

Lenore said...

I really like the graphic. The whole 10,000 hours thing is pretty daunting. But the 7 shortcuts listed are brilliant.