Practice, Practice, Practice?

Erasmus by Holbein

Erasmus by Holbein

A challenge to a ubiquitous orthodoxy, and a return to a debate pretty much endlessly fascinating to copybaras: where does creative practice fall on this spectrum? Literary and artistic history is plump with examples of the early development of prodigious talent. At the time they finished their first major novels (all in their early twenties), had Jane Austen or Truman Capote or Dave Wallace really put in anywhere near the requisite amount of hours supposedly required for expertise? Granted, sprinting and art are entirely different forms of performance. But the more important consideration that comes to mind for me is whether the characteristics of extremely high-level performers are so entirely different from one another. Maybe they’ve all ‘got it’, and the rest of us, not so much: like watching an Andy Roddick play against someone like Federer, or reading a Cheever story after Updike, you get the sense that all the practice in the world couldn’t turn them from good to Great. A sad but intuitively compelling thought.

You Can’t Teach Speed: Sprinters Falsify the Deliberate Practice Model of Expertise

Most scientists agree that expertise requires both innate talent and proper training. Nevertheless, the highly influential deliberate practice model (DPM) of expertise holds that either talent does not exist, or that its contribution to performance differences is negligible. It predicts that initial performance will be unrelated to achieving expertise and that a long period of deliberate practice — at least 10 years or 10,000 hours — is necessary and sufficient for achieving expertise. We tested these predictions in the domain of sprinting. Study 1 reviewed the biographies of 15 Olympic sprint champions. Study 2 reviewed the biographies of the 20 fastest male sprinters in U.S. history. In all documented cases, sprinters were exceptional prior to or coincident with their initiation of formal training. Furthermore, most reached world class status rapidly (Study 1 median = 3 years; Study 2 median = 7.5). Study 3 surveyed U.S. national collegiate championships qualifiers in sprints and throws. Sprinters recalled being faster as youths than did throwers, whereas throwers recalled greater strength and overhand throwing ability. Sprinters’ best performances in their first season of high school, generally the onset of formal training, were consistently faster than 95-99% of their peers. Collectively, these results falsify the DPM for sprinting. Because speed is foundational for many sports, they challenge the DPM generally.


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