Why you should care
Because for most mere mortals, spending hours practicing your 3-pointers won’t turn you into Steph Curry.
In 2002, Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson delivered one of the most infamous rants in sports history. During a press conference after the Sixers had been ousted from the first round of the NBA playoffs, Iverson answered reporters’ questions about his spotty appearance at practice (a word he proceeded to utter 22 times). “If I can’t practice, I can’t practice,” he said. “We’re not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we’re talking about practice.”
Research suggests that the morose, misunderstood Basketball Hall of Famer had a point. According to a new paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science,
practice explains just 1 percent of the difference in performance among elite athletes.
The rest likely depends on individual traits like genetics, challenging the idea that with enough practice, anyone can become pro. In other words, “we’re not all blank slates,” says Brooke Macnamara, an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University who led the study. “We come in with differences.”
Macnamara and her colleagues wanted to understand the relationship between performance and deliberate practice, or activities designed to improve performance. They focused on sports because of the abundance of studies on athletic practice and performance. Plus, most people can easily identify differences in athletic skill (versus, say, piano virtuosity). The researchers combed through thousands of studies, including in their sample only those that examined activities that count as deliberate practice, such as practicing darts solo and with a partner, or video game analysis in soccer and field hockey. After whittling their sample down to 34 studies, they used statistical software to calculate a weighted average of the correlations between the number of hours of practice and performance that the selected studies had reported.
Across all skill levels, deliberate practice explained 18 percent of differences in performance. But among elite athletes — those competing at national and international levels — practice essentially stopped predicting performance. “What this suggests is … at a certain point, everyone is putting in a ton of hours of practice,” Macnamara says. “Other factors differentiate between who’s good and who’s great.” Some might include genetic factors, which could affect the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can consume, for instance. Individual experiences (like competition experience) or psychological factors (such as confidence and general intelligence) might also play a role.
Karl Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, believes the researchers might have seen a stronger link between amount of practice and performance had they focused on his research group’s more specific definition of deliberate practice, which focuses on individualized, goal-directed practice with immediate feedback from a coach or other supervisor — not just team practices, for example. “I think some people misunderstood [author Malcolm Gladwell], that if you just do something for 10,000 hours, that you magically become an expert,” an idea based partly on Ericsson’s research. “A lot of people know golf players who have played a couple of times a week for 20 years, and most are not getting better.” Macnamara points out that her team investigated deliberate practice as historically defined by Ericsson and others, which includes team practices and training without a coach.
Earlier research by Ericsson and colleagues suggested that starting a sport early in life increases the likelihood of reaching the elite ranks. But Macnamara’s study found that highly skilled athletes started at about the same age, or later, as athletes at lower skill levels. Committing early on might lead to burnout before it’s clear whether the child has a gift for the sport.
Macnamara thinks the findings could help parents and kids make more informed choices about how much to invest in sports. “If [parents] are under that assumption, that with just 10,000 hours of practice their child will be the next Serena Williams, then they might be setting themselves up for disappointment and their child for a childhood of disappointments,” she says. If the goal is Olympic gold, they should probably re-evaluate their expectations. “But if they’re really enjoying it … then great.”