Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The 10,000 Hour Rule and the Development of Champions

Malcolm Gladwell is considered to be a preeminent sociologist of our time. His book Outliers debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and it stayed there for eleven consecutive weeks during 2008. One of the main concepts discussed in Outliers is what Gladwell calls the “10,000 Hour Rule”.

The 10,000 rule’s premise: to achieve any great accomplishment in sport, academics, music, or business an individual must put in 10,000 hours of focused work on their craft. After 10,000 hours of focused work is completed the striving individual may finally be ready for truly high-level accomplishment. The 10,000 Hour rule challenges the notion that high achievers are born with their skills. Instead, Gladwell argues, our world’s high achievers gain their skill sets through old-fashioned hard work, consistently achieved in small increments throughout a period of 10,000 hours.

“Well-roundedness” is not the goal for the highest level achievers in our world. Focused practice that is consistent over a period of time is the key to transcendent success – and according to Malcolm Gladwell, the magic number hovers around 3 hours of pratice per day for 10 years.

I’ve spent over half of my life training with and coahcing USA Olympic and World Championship Team swimmers. I’ve noticed that there have been no short-cuts with these athletes in the quest for their ultimate goals. They are normal people who do extraordinary things, and they work hard at their trade virtually every day. They do not take breaks. Their families support their quest. They go to practice when they are not feeling 100%. They bounce back from poor/tired practices with high-level, redeeming work. They are normal people who do things differently.

What are some of the differences? Much of what these athletes accomplish everyday is due to their positive, focused behavior traits. I’ll give a few of examples of the experiences that I’ve had, which continue to shape my coaching mindset each day.

First, my experience as an athlete was exceptional, considering the fact that I had planned to coach swimming since I was sixteen years old. I trained with three different USA Olympians as a High School swimmer growing up in Baltimore, two of whom won gold medals in the Olympics – one in 1992 and the other in 1996. Each of the three Olympians I trained with were fun, normal kids who sacrificed often for their goals. They attended to their goals on a daily basis. None were freakishly tall or muscular, or exceptional physically. They did normal adolescent things like go to dances, take in a movie on the weekend --and they did well in school. They also practiced each day reasonably rested and ready to accomplish their daily goals. They went after it every day, with no breaks and a minimum of extended vacations which were purposefully placed at the end of the summers. Additionally they had a coach that had coached an Olympic Gold Medalist in 1984, who knew how to train athletes to their highest ultimate achievement. The athlete’s daily focus on a goal, and the experience of the coach formed a perfect storm that I was able to witness, from the pool, as a developing athlete.

Next, my experience as a young coach was one-of-a-kind. I watched Michael Phelps train everyday from the spring of 2001 through the spring of 2002 as he developed into the most highly-regarded swimmer the world has ever seen. Not only did Michael train each day without absence, but he did not miss a single length of scheduled training in the pool. I don’t think I saw him get out of the pool to use the bathroom a single time that year. I’d imagine there were plenty of times when he didn’t feel like training, but his goals kept him on-task. Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman would at times remind him that there were other athletes around the world training to win as well – and the work Michael did had to be more consistent and just plain better that the work his competition was doing.

Coach Bowman told me that between 2000 and 2004 Michael missed exactly zero scheduled practices. That’s no missed days over the course of 1460 straight days. I figure Michael swam an average of 3 double workouts per week during that time for a grand total of 2,225 practices over 1460 straight days. If each practice lasted 2 hours (some were more, and some were less) – then Michael trained in the pool for 4,450 hours from 2000-2004. Add 2.5 hours per week of dryland training for 50 weeks per year and that’s another 500 hours of training – meaning that over four years Michael spent a total of at least 4,950 hours working on his craft. There’s no doubt that Michael Phelps’ 8 Gold Medal performance was due to the fact that he worked longer, harder, and more consistently at his craft than his competition – easily amassing 10,000 hours of training between the years 1999 and 2008.

I had the opportunity to work with an athlete of supreme talent starting in 2003, and by that time I was primed for the task. Katie Hoff set the World Record in the 400 IM in 2007 and again in 2008 – winning the 2007 World Championship by over 7 seconds, and taking the LCM American record in the event from a 4:34 to a 4:31. Katie missed five practices in five years, and she trained every day of the week! I figure Katie trained about 2,518 times over the course of the 1,826 days that made up the 2004-2008 time period – just a bit over 5,000 hours over the span of 4 years.

Katie’s success was due more to daily consistency – rather than daily yardage, amount weight work accomplished, or natural skill. There were many people in the world of swimming that were putting in more overall “work” than Katie, more total “volume” – but she put in the most focused, consistent practice of anyone in the world, for years, leading up to her ultimate goal of winning Olympic medals and setting World Records. Focused, consistent practice is the only type of practice that can be counted toward the 10,000 hours it takes to be the best at what you do. High achievers train their ability to focus on a task just like they train their ability to catch a touchdown pass or hit a 12 foot put. The persistence high achievers practice is a more valuable skill to develop than the ability to hit a 90mph fastball or swim under 50 seconds in the 100 freestyle.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers helps us understand just “how much” we must attend to our tasks, in order to be the best at our trade. He does not care about how much work it takes to be the best you can be. “The best you can be” can only be measured on a sliding scale, you against yourself -- and being “the best you can be”, while certainly a noble goal, has nothing to do with reaching the top of your chosen field.

Sometimes we don’t really know when our 10,000 hours begins, and we may think we are training for one thing when really we are training for another. I know that the 10,000 hours I’ve amassed as a coach started when I was an athlete -- a fact that I didn’t realize while it was happening. I can realize it now as a coach in my mid-30s, that the time I spent training for my 400 IM was the beginning of my training to be chosen as a USA Olympic swimming coach.

The athletes I see in the pool each day are not only perfecting their strokes, but developing persistence, toughness, and a will to be great that may not help them set a World Record in Swimming – but the skills they develop in the pool may help them discover the cure for breast cancer ten years down the road.

Who will become the next Michael Phelps, Bill Gates, or Billie Jean King? Who will become the next great writer or physician of our time? Whomever it is will certainly have 10,000 hours of practice behind them!

A link to an article about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule can be found here:

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