Sports reporter David Epstein has written a new book called
The Sports Geneabout the role of genetics in sports.
In an interview with Outside magazine today, Epstein talks the nature vs. nurture debate and attacks the so-called “10,000-hour rule” popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.
In his book Outliers, Gladwell describes a theory that you can achieve mastery in any task by practicing it for 10,000 hours.
It’s basically “practice makes perfect,” but backed up with scientific research.
Epstein says that’s a lie. He says the study that’s the basis for Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is flawed, the assertion that practice matters is meaningless, and your biological setup determines how much practice you need to put into a task to master it.
He told Outside that the people who reference the 10,000-hour rule have never read the original study:
“I talked to Olympic scientists a lot and they didn’t seem to think about the science or have even read they underlying paper. They knew nothing about it. The study is based on the practice hours of 10 people who are already in a world-famous music academy, so they’re already prescreened.”
He also burns Gladwell about fudging the numbers from the underlying study:
Outside: How did Gladwell misconstrue it?
Epstein: Aside from not having copied the numbers from the actual paper correctly for his book? He says that there is a perfect correspondence between practice and the level of expertise a person attains. And you can’t tell that from the paper. The 10,000 hours is an average of differences. You could have two people in any endeavour and one person took 0 hours and another took 20,000 hours, which is something like what happened with two high jumpers I discuss in the book. One guy put in 20,000 and one put in 0, so there’s your average of 10,000 hours, but that tells you nothing about an individual.
He uses chess players as an example of why Gladwell’s rule is misleading:
“Researchers found it takes 11,053 hours on average to achieve international master status [in chess]. But the range there is what’s important. One guy takes 3,000 hours to become a master and another takes 25,000 and he’s still not there. So you can average those and come up with some rule, but it doesn’t tell you anything. You can always average individual differences and come up with some sort of a rule. (…)
“Beyond the chess players, genetics is continually finding now that one person’s hour of practice isn’t as good as the next person’s hour. Talent isn’t something preceding you trying something, but your biological setup that allows you to benefit more than the next guy.”
Epstein isn’t the first person to attack the 10,000-hour rule. But he pushes it further by saying the rule might actually have harmful effects by making individuals who don’t need a lot of training to overtrain.
He points out that some sprinters like Usain Bolt shouldn’t practice as much because it changes the structure of their muscles, which actually makes them run slower.
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