What makes a champion - deliberate practice or innate talent
What differentiates an average athlete from a high-performing and exceptionally successful one?
In the 1990s, Professor Anders Ericsson from Florida State University, USA, developed a theory based on years of research. Throughout his research, he studied high-performing experts in a variety of fields, including sport and music. In conclusion, he asserted that expert superior performance is unrelated to innate talent and is instead the result of deliberate practice over a period of ten years or 10,000 hours.
Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ the 10,000 hours rule has become readily recognised.
At the World Rowing Youth Coaches Conference recently held in Minsk, Belarus, Professor Vladimir Issurin, who lectures at Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports in Israel, questioned whether Ericsson’s theory is truly applicable in elite sport.
Ericsson and his colleagues stated in the Psychological Review of the American Psychological Association (1993): “Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of ten years.”
But the type of practice he refers to, deliberate practice, is not just any type of random practice. Ericsson goes to great lengths to define what deliberate practice entails.
Ericsson clarifies that deliberate practice fulfils a list of specific criteria. “To assure effective learning, subjects ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualised diagnosis of errors, informative feedback, and remedial part training.”
Ericsson elaborates in his paper of 1993 the three constraints involved in deliberate practice: the resource constraint, the motivational constraint and the effort constraint.
The resource constraint requires that an individual not only has the available time and energy to practice, but also has “access to teachers, training material and training facilities.” For children or adolescents, the constraint resource also implies that someone in their environment is “willing to pay for training material and the time of professional teachers, as well as for transportation to and from training facilities and competitions.”
Ericsson states that, “deliberate practice is not inherently motivating” and that the lack of inherent reward of enjoyment in practice is distinct from the enjoyment of the result. “Individuals in a domain rarely initiate practice spontaneously.” This is what he calls the motivational constraint.
And finally, the effort constraint. “To maximize gains from long-term practice,” states Ericsson, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
Over the past 20 years, Ericsson’s theory has become increasingly popular. And while he has been able to prove it with many subject groups, other scientists are beginning to question it, at least in part.
Professor Issurin interviewed 20 Olympic Champions in various sports, including rowers Vyatcheslav Ivanov and Sergey Fedorovtsev. He looked at their yearly training time expenditure, athletic performance trends, personality traits as well as family and social support.
In most Olympic Champions that he interviewed, Issurin noted that practicing deliberately for ten years was not needed before the athlete won his or her first Olympic title. A primary example was Ivanov. He began to train in rowing at age 14 and won Olympic gold and silver at age 18.
In his presentation at the World Rowing Coaches Conference, Issurin pointed out that, according to his findings, the theory of deliberate practice seems to be selectively applicable to highly coordinative aesthetic sports like gymnastics but not to endurance, power and combat sports.
Issurin also pointed out that the training volumes of exceptional athletes were much higher than the generally recommended norms in the initial stages of their careers. This seems to indicate the importance of practice, but contrarily to Ericsson’s theory, all athletes who responded to Issurin’s survey reported that their initial training activities were always enjoyable.
Issurin also identified the importance of personality traits that were common to high-performing Olympic athletes. Coaches were reportedly able to identify these traits before success was attained. Issurin defines these common traits as “early indicators of extraordinary athletic ability”.
Issurin considers these traits to be inborn and not learnt.
Self-motivation was noticeable in all respondents from an early age. High-learnability, or the ability to learn and progress quickly, was another common trait when athletes were still young. Nearly all respondents seemed to have inbuilt high tolerance to fatigue and a very competitive mindset. The Olympic Champions interviewed also demonstrated emotional stability and possessed high self-esteem from early age.
“Willingness to train, high and stable motivation, and high trainability can be considered as earlier indicators of extraordinary giftedness,” says Issurin.
Ericsson considers that the only innate attribute that plays a role in athletic success is height, Issurin considers that “appropriate body status evaluated by body size, somatotype, body fat and flexibility that correspond to demands of targeted sport activities,” plays a bigger role.
“Unlike previous publications,” says Issurin, “this study highlights exceptional attitude to training as an important precursor of athletic talent. The salient precursor of athletic talent of studied great athletes was their willingness and readiness to perform much larger workloads compared to their peers and teammates.”
Issurin’s study indicates that deliberate practice is not possible without a pre-defined set of character traits that he concludes are in-born and not acquired. And although training volumes of successful athletes are much higher than that of average athletes, Issurin concludes that ten years of such training is not always necessary before an athlete’s first biggest success.
2017 World Rowing Youth Coaches Conference here.
To listen to Professor Issurin’s presentation, here.