The 10,000 Hour Elite Excellence Dilemma

10,000 Hours is a Lot of Hours

The 10,000 Hour Rule, as it applies to gymnastics, stated simply, is that to become an excellent gymnast and successful Elite athlete, gymnasts must have completed 10,000 hours of practice. 10,000 hours of practice is normally stated, in this context, as being equivalent to working full-time, 8 hours per day for five years or working 20 – 25 hours per week for ten years.

Where Did the 10,000 Hour Rule Come From?

Anders Ericsson was, apparently, the first to develop the 10,000 Hour Rule. He correlated excellence with hours of practice, in a study of three groups of students, ranked at the Berlin Academy of Music. He discovered the elite group of students had all put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice. A group of students, ranked as good, had put in approximately 8,000 hours of practice and average students had only put in 4000 hours. Not one of the students progressed faster moving up to the good or excellent groups without having put in all the hours.

The 10,000 Hour Rule Applies in a Wide Variety of Areas of Excellence

Ericsson researched his rule, in relation to other areas of expertise, and found that it proved valid in all of them. Numerous researchers, since, have applied it to an even greater variety and number of fields of endeavor and found the rule to prove true. The range and categories of people, who have achieved excellence by training for 10,000 hours, includes musicians, chess players, athletes in a wide variety of sports, scholars and even businessmen.

Talent is Overrated

For many years, most people believed that successful athletes became Olympic and World Champions because of some innate talent. What the research behind the 10,000 Hour Rule shows is that success and mastery at the Elite level of excellence is almost totally a function of “deliberate practice.” There is nothing wrong with talent but it does not affect the importance of the need to put in 10,000 hours of training in achieving excellence.

Belief in “Natural” Talent Remains Widespread

But the belief that success, especially athletic and gymnastics success, is primarily based on natural talent is firmly rooted in our culture and even about 75% of professional educators believe that success and excellence are a result of natural talent, in spite of all the research to the contrary. So many programs of all types, including gymnastics, do not plan or provide for a 10,000 hour training option, especially not for any gymnasts not recognized as “naturally” talented.

Can You Pick Them?

There are many gymnastics coaches, who believe they can pick out the “talented” gymnasts, who will ultimately succeed in the sport. And it is actually not that difficult to pick out those gymnasts who are “talented” at the younger age levels. As with many sports, in gymnastics, early maturers get significantly more attention from coaches, the competition system, judges and the TOPs testing system. What the question really is, however, is can coaches or TOPs tell, who out of any random group of gymnasts, which one is going to work and put in the necessary 10,000 hours. The answer is no because neither TOPS nor coaches even consider that in their evaluation. The human mind is complex and merely seeing an early physical talent advantage does not, in any way, forecast those gymnasts with the mental toughness, drive and desire to do the 10,000 hours.

Apparent TOPs Success

The apparent success of the TOPs program, which is that gymnasts, who have successfully participated in the TOPs program, have gone on and become elite gymnasts, actually does not disprove the validity of the 10,000 Rule. It, in fact, makes it clear why the TOPs program is successful. TOPS testing identifies the early maturing gymnasts, who already have the natural strength and flexibility. It then gives them extra training opportunities and starts them at an earlier age on a separate skills program, specifically designed to progressively lead toward high level optional skills. It also gives them increased recognition and status, which can increase their motivation to work harder and longer.

What is Wrong With the TOPs System and Coached-Picked “Talent?”

The problem is not within the TOPs program itself. It can certainly work. Gymnasts who have the physical capabilities at a young age are tracked to work on high level optional skills early with the goal of becoming a high level, possibly Elite gymnast. The TOPs program begins testing gymnasts during the window of opportunity training period and identifies above average strength gymnasts, who are able to use that strength to successfully learn high level gymnastics skills, during the window of opportunity. Some of those “picked” gymnasts will, then, also train the necessary 10,000 hours and reach the Elite level of excellence, but there will also be a large group of gymnasts, who have the mental toughness, drive and desire to do the 10,000 hours and also become an Elite, but are never picked to do so.

The Good News and the Bad News for Gymnasts

The good news for gymnasts is that the research validates that virtually any gymnast can achieve anything they want – if they purposively and intelligently train for 10,000 hours. The bad news is that it is, and always will be, very difficult for gymnasts to find 10,000 hours of training time when they are young, when they have to go to school, and for those 10,000 hours of time to take place during the periods of time when their windows of opportunity for peak training are.

The Windows of Opportunity for Gymnastics Training

Science has shown that the real windows of opportunity for peak gymnastic training all occur before puberty. They start at about age 6 and are over by about age 13. This means that the 10,000 hours of training time necessary for gymnastics success and excellence all would best be accomplished between the ages of six and thirteen. Most gymnasts do not start serious “deliberate training” at age six, or even seven or eight years old. That leaves far fewer years to get in the necessary 10,000 hours of training required to become an excellent Elite and great difficulty fitting such training into a normal school-kids life. And training out of the windows of peak physical opportunity result in significantly slower learning and progress.

Impossible for Young Gymnasts To Do By Themselves

For young gymnasts to be able to train and reach this critical 10,000 number, they need parental support, close coaching from an expert master coach, the right training program and a sufficient level of the proper gymnastics equipment and facilities. Parents, coaches and gyms have to get gymnasts involved in deliberate training at a young age, during the windows of opportunity for physical and skill training. But in relationship to their age, the number of hours young gymnasts put in must be carefully balanced to prevent burnout. Early gymnastics practices for young gymnasts must be FUNdamental, both fun and deliberate practices.

What is “Deliberate Practice”

A number of the researchers into the 10,000 Hour Rule have stated that it is not just hours of practice that is the reason for success, but that those hours of training must be designed to improve performance, carefully planned to achieve goals and objectives and make steps of progress, and track progress and results to modify and improve future practice and performance. So practice, in order to qualify as part of the 10,000 hours, must be targeted at progressing toward achieving Elite excellence, not just going through the motions, doing random drills or just showing up for practice.

You Can’t Mail In the 10,000 Hours

So no one should just think that simply practicing for 10,000 hours will produce excellence and create an Elite gymnast. Ericsson defined deliberate practice as practice activities that are specifically designed to improve performance. Deliberate practice is where both the body and mind are working to learn skills that the athlete hasn’t already mastered. For gyms, coaches and gymnasts to have any kind of real strategy or plan to put together 10,000 hours of deliberate gymnastics practice is all too rare in sports, especially in the training of young gymnasts, during those early limited windows of physical training opportunity.

The Right Stuff Must Begin Early

The basic problems for creating an excellent elite gymnast involve putting together the combination of 10,000 hours of deliberate gymnastics practice, starting early enough to take advantage of the windows of physical opportunity, a strong gymnast financial and emotional support system, expert coaching, a progress-oriented, skill development training program and the necessary facility and equipment. A further problem is the question of whether, and how many, parents, coaches and gym owners even understand what it takes to create excellence, much less begin to provide it early enough if at all. Gymnastics programs with all of the required elements are rare.

An Elite Overhaul

We envision a complete overhaul of gymnastics programs for gyms, gym owners and coaches to provide all of the necessary ingredients to all gymnasts. Such an overhaul of a gym might start with a plan on how to deliver 10,000 training hours, but also will need to educate parents, retrain all the coaching staff who deal with gymnasts starting at age 6 and convert to a training program dedicated to deliberate, purposeful learning and progress.

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3 Responses to “The 10,000 Hour Elite Excellence Dilemma”

  1. John Howard June 30, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Rick McCharles makes an excellent suggestion for reading at:
    He mentions he found the 10,000 hour training for excellence theory first mentioned in a 1985 book “Developing Talent in Young People” by Dr. Benjamin Bloom, which he calls a must read for every coach. It is an excellent read and a book I have on my shelf, but for some reason forgot about and did not reread in preparing this article.

    Rick goes on to say further that he doesn’t really believe in the 10,000 hour theory, saying “The 10,000 hrs correlates with excellence, but correlation isn’t causation. If I had trained 10,000 hrs, I still wouldn’t have made the NBA. You need both talent and training. Nature and nurture.”

    Comment #1 to that: He would have made it, if I had been coaching him (lol – haha). Assuming that he is not height-challenged, as many gymnast size people would be for the NBA, and NBA sized athletes would be equally reverse height-challenged(?) to become gymnasts. Two more opposite sports than NBA basketball and gymnastics would be hard to find, in terms of the range of body types necessary and appropriate for the sport. So, in this case, even though 10,000 hours of deliberate practice could certainly produce NBA level basketball skill excellence, it would, of course, not make anyone tall enough to be competitive in the NBA.

    Comment 2: Rick’s comment points out that I did not emphasize enough the vagaries of the term talent. There has certainly been research to show that “early maturers” garner early success, training and experience advantages in many sports, with the TOPs program being the example in gymnastics. But what is talent? The Russians spent millions of rubles trying to predict which athletes would succeed and win Gold Medals, but the best correlation they could ever get was just somewhat less than they could have gotten by flipping a coin. I cover this topic a little more at:
    I have never been impressed by what many coaches think is their own innate ability to pick those with the talent to excel in the sport for one primary reason. Coaches are so unprepared to understand, much less predict, the effects of a gymnast’s subconscious mind and inner psychology on their success in the sport over a ten-year period or over 10,000 hours of training. Early success in a sport, because you are stronger or bigger at a young age, does not seem like an appropriate definition for talent. Talent seems to most likely be assigned after success (and the deliberate practice to achieve it) has already occurred.

    Comment 3: “The conventional dictum that “correlation does not imply causation” means that correlation cannot be used to infer a causal relationship between the variables. This dictum should not be taken to mean that correlations cannot indicate the potential existence of causal relations.” Edward Tufte suggests that the shortest true statement that can be made about causality and correlation is one of the following:
    “Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for causality.” and “Correlation is not causation but it sure is a hint.”

    So Rick, while I agree that competition success is also dependent for athletes upon being within the range of appropriate body types for the sport, I do not believe that “talent” can even be determined by coaches or by researchers.

    So the message of the article remains for gymnasts, parents and coaches. No one can predict, in advance, your chances of success in Elite gymnastics, except for the fact that you do need to plan to spend 10,000 hours of determined practice to achieve it.

    On the other hand, I am not recommending that coaches and gyms go out and actively recruit the daughters of NBA and WNBA players or Sumo wrestlers to populate their team (lol).


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