Earlier this week I came across an article from 2014, entitled “You can’t teach speed: Sprinters falsify the deliberate practice model of expertise” by Lombardo & Deaner. The article explores the concept of deliberate practice during training, with specific reference to sprinting. The deliberate practice model holds that sporting success is a function of time doing specific practice; the more specific practice you do, the better you will perform. This is commonly known as the “10,000-Hour Rule”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers”. This book built on the work of Anders Ericsson who studied violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. He found that their ability increased with the amount of time they had been practicing with world-class soloists having notched up 10,000 hours of practice. Other books such as Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated” built on this idea, and suddenly everyone was trying to get to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice because that was all that was required to become world-class, no matter what your sport, background or history.
Can early success predict future success?
I’m going to start my explanation with a small bit of autobiographical information: I never lost a race at school. My first ever sports day, I technically didn’t win the race. We had a finishing line and for some reason I was under the impression that I had to stop directly on the finishing line, so I did. I was so far ahead that my teachers gave me the victory regardless. Fortunately, my parents caught all this on video, and it made an appearance in a documentary I was part of for the BBC. Interestingly, the first race I ever lost happened when I was 11. Having won my school sports day, I was selected to represent my school against other middle schools in my area, for competition at the local secondary school. I lined up against my competitors, having no idea who they were, and the gun went. I finished third, and a redheaded kid won. That was in 1997, and 15 years later that red headed kid would win the Olympic Games in the long jump; his name is Greg Rutherford. Note how, without any training or deliberate practice, two future Olympians were already better than the majority of their peers within the local area.
When I went to secondary school, I broke my school record on my first sports day there. Every year, I set another record. I first went to an athletics club in April 2000, and in July 2000 I did my first ever official 100m and 200m race, winning both in 12.0 and 24.7. A year later, aged 14, I became national under-15 champion in a time of 11.00, making me the second fastest under-15 in UK history. I achieved this on one athletics training session a week, lasting 90 minutes. My total athletics training time for this success was 72 hours, alongside general football and rugby training sessions. Two years after this, I ran 10.53 seconds for 100m (aged 16), coming third at the World under-18 Championships. The winner of the 200m at that competition was Usain Bolt, who the year prior had won the World Junior Championships aged 15. Bolt’s performance at those World Juniors is again important to consider – despite giving away up to four years in age (which is presumably linked to training hours), he was still successful. Seven years after my first ever race, I ran my 100m personal best, which still stands today at 10.14 seconds. In total, my journey from complete novice to becoming one of the top-15 fastest people my country has ever produced took seven years of training. I’d estimate that my total training time in those seven years was less than 5000 hours. Added to that fact, I was also initially successful, at least relative to my peers.
Compare my story to that of my friend. My friend is four years older than me, and I first met him at an athletics track at the end of 2000. He had been taking part in athletics for four years, and his personal best was 12.8 seconds. Remember, at this point my 100m personal best was 12.0 seconds, despite the fact that I only had about 50 hours of real structured practice, compared to his four years. In 2006, my friend ran his current personal best of 11.6 seconds, alongside a wind-aided 11.3 seconds. The year before this, I had run 10.22 seconds as an 18-year-old. At that point, my friend had roughly double the amount of years in the sport that I had, with about double the amount of training hours.
From the above, I’m sure you can guess what my viewpoint regarding deliberate practice is. Regular readers of my articles might also have read my piece “The Genetics of High-Performance Exercise”. The deliberate practice model has been touted as one of the key driving forces behind high-level sporting performance. Except that, when it comes to sprinting (as well as other events and sports), the real-world data tends to indicate that it isn’t true. My story is a good example. I was always comparatively better than people who had put in double the amount of hours that I had, and I didn’t run any quicker over 100m in the last 5 years of my career despite putting in roughly an additional 4,000 hours training. My lifetime training hours will be close to 10,000, and yet in 2012 Adam Gemili ran 10.05 with just a few years of serious training behind him. In 2008, at age 21, Usain Bolt became the fastest 100m runner in the history of the World, some seven years after his first serious race. It seems unlikely that his total training volume was 1,400 hours per year, or 4 hours per day, every day, in the run up to this achievement.
Does more training mean more success?
In their article, Lombardo & Deaner float some other ideas for why the deliberate practice model might not hold true, especially for sprinting. The first point they offer is that the deliberate practice model doesn’t take into account genetics. For example, this paper by Timmons et. al. (2010) illustrates that VO2 max responses to endurance training can be predicted by measuring as little as 30 genetic markers. Looking specifically at the 100m, it seems unlikely that someone who doesn’t possess a high degree of fast-twitch muscle fibers would ever reach world-class status in the 100m. Muscle fiber composition and percentage is trainable to an extent, but not enough to take someone from an also-ran to world champion.
Another point that the authors offer is that the model of deliberate practice states that as the amount of practice hours increases, so too does performance level. But what if this correlation were the other way round? In other words, as performance level increases, so do practice hours. Think about it – to be able to reach a high number of training and practice hours, an individual must dedicate a lot of time to their training. It is much easier to do this if you are a high performing professional athlete, who has few external responsibilities. It is much harder to do if you are working full-time and training in the evenings as an amateur athlete. Perhaps amateur athletes aren’t competing at a high level because they don’t have the talent, as opposed to the required number of training hours? Following this change in correlation, people practice more because they are good at their sport; they enjoy winning and want to do it more. As they get older and excel in sport, they do it full time, thus accumulating more practice hours.
The key here is that the main driver in accumulating practice hours is initial talent and success, as opposed to practice hours driving success. In his brilliant book of sporting genetics “The Sports Gene”, David Epstein has a chapter called “A Tale of Two High Jumpers (Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours).” In this chapter, Epstein discusses the 2007 World Athletics Championships high jump event, in which Donald Thomas defeated Stefan Holm. Holm is the example of the 10,000 hours athlete, who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence in the high jump. Epstein notes that Holm had trained himself to such a high level that his Achilles tendon was four times stiffer than a standard human; an adaptation that improved his jumping ability. Compare this to Donald Thomas, who first cleared a high jump bar in January 2006, some 18 months after Holm had won the Olympic Games. So whom would you expect to win the 2007 World Championships? Reigning Olympic Champion Stefan Holm who first competed internationally in 1993 (when Thomas was nine years old), or Donald Thomas who had first cleared a high jump bar barely a year and a half prior? According to the deliberate practice model, it should be Holm every time – but in this instance Thomas won. The final flaw that Lombardo & Deaner put forward in the deliberate practice model is that the empirical data shows that deliberate practice time only accounts for a small amount of differences in performance between individuals. This study by Gobert & Campitelli (2007) found that some chess players didn’t reach master level despite having accumulated 25,000 hours of practice. As a contrast, some players reached the master level within 3,000 hours of practice.
Lombardo & Deaner then explored the deliberate practice model in relation to sprinting. They did this by two different means:
- Looked at the histories of elite sprinters throughout the ages to see if early performance and best performance were linked. If they were, then the deliberate practice model would not hold up in sprinting.
- Looked at the elite sprinters histories to see if it took them about ten years (or 10,000 hours) to reach this elite level.
What they found
The authors found that in almost every case, the elite athletes had been good athletes at a young age. Most of the athletes were “discovered” by teachers at school, and then nurtured by an athletics coach. This mirrors my development – my secondary school PE teacher saw me sprint and encouraged me to join an athletics club. The fact that most of these elite athletes were identified as better than their peers before any deliberate practice began shows a flaw in the deliberate practice model.
The authors also found that the average (mean) time from onset of athletic training to achieving world-class status was consistently less than 10 years (4.6 years for a sample of male Olympic Champions, 3.1 years for a sample of female Olympic Champions, and 8.7 years for a the top-20 US male sprinters of all time). In a sample of collegiate athletes, the authors found that 90% reported that they were faster than their peers at 6-10 years old – again before any deliberate practice could have taken place.
Perhaps the single biggest piece of information against the deliberate practice model and sprinting was that for a large sample of the collegiate sprint athletes, they had no prior organized sprint training before attending university. Most of the subjects had about one year of sprint training, and yet produced performances that were better than 99% of their peers. Put another way – race performance was not linked to training time.
A final point is offered by the authors to counteract the deliberate practice model and sprinting – sprint specific training occurs at a very high intensity and cannot occur on every training day. Most sprint programs alternate high and low-intensity training days, with low-intensity days consisting of tempo running or ancillary weight training. During my higher volume training days, I estimate that I spent around 15 hours per week on track or sprint based weight-training sessions. Over a 44-week period (allowing for off season and tapering), this equates to less than 700 hours per year. This means that achieving 10,000 hours of deliberate practice would take closer to 15 years, not 10. And yet the real-world data doesn’t support this. Instead, we see that real world-class performers achieve world-class performance in much less time than this.
So, what have we discovered from the article? The first is that world class sprinters tend to be better than their peers at baseline, or at least with lesser amounts of training. The second is that it takes less than ten years or 10,000 hours to achieve world-class performance.
What this doesn’t mean is that sprinters do not need deliberate practice. Nor does it mean that being better than your peers at a younger age is a pre-requisite for elite senior performance. Instead, we are discussing trends. The UK all-time list for under-15 100m performances makes interesting reading. The top-50 contains names of some well-known athletes, but also many names of athletes who seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Remember that early sporting success can be a result of early development. At this age, coaching should be focused on developing the correct technique and reducing injury. Indeed, one potential reason why a lot of these youngsters have disappeared is injury or burnout – no matter how talented the athlete, both these factors will destroy potential and future performance. However, at the same time the kid that comes last in his race at sports day is unlikely to one day develop into a world-class sprinter.
Why is this? Well, the first thing to discuss is that sprinting is a relatively low-skill sport, in as much as it occurs in a closed environment with the same objective each time. Compare this with an American Football Quarterback, who has to learn to pick a pass – experience and decision-making skills play a large role here, and a longer period training these is likely to be advantageous. Instead, sprinting is highly physical. It requires the athlete to produce a large amount of force for a short period. If the athlete cannot produce this large amount of force, they aren’t likely to be successful. And, as the amount of force that can be produced has a pretty large genetic component, it follows that no amount of training can overcome this.
The result, therefore, is that the fastest athletes are always usually the fastest athletes, at least relative to their peers. Even the poster boy of delayed development Linford Christie was an English Schools medalist in his youth. However, talent is not enough, and the best athletes have to exist within a good, sensible training set up. All the talent in the world counts for nothing if the athlete is injured and cannot compete. I also believe that everyone can get faster – they just might not be able to be the fastest.
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