In elite sport, what distinguishes the best from the also rans? A new meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science looks at all the relevant data to see whether the most important factor is an athlete’s amount of accumulated “deliberate practice” – that is, practice that’s designed, through feedback and other methods, to improve performance. In fact, the new analysis shows that differences in amount of practice do not explain performance levels among elite athletes. At sub-elite levels, it’s a relevant factor, but by no means the most important.
The importance of deliberate practice for top level performance in sport and other domains, such as music and chess, was famously put forward by Anders Ericsson, the psychologist whose research has been distorted into the mythical idea that achieving greatness depends on completing at least 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson has actually never claimed that elite performance can be achieved by anyone who puts in enough practice, as suggested by some popular psychology writers. But he and his colleagues have claimed, based on their findings, that “individual differences in ultimate [top flight] performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice.” In other words, they proposed that at elite standards, it is the competitors who spend more time honing their skills who will usually perform at the highest levels.
To test this claim in the context of sport, Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues scoured the literature available up to 2014, and they found relevant findings from 34 published and unpublished studies, involving the practice habits and performance levels of 2765 athletes across various sports including football, volleyball, hockey, swimming and running.
They found that at the elite level, amount of practice was not related to performance (in statistical terms it explained less than one per cent of variance in performance). This makes intuitive sense – most professional athletes in the top echelons of their sport practice exhaustively through their careers. Instead of amount of practice time, what likely separates them are physiological differences influenced by their genetic makeup, as well as complex psychological factors, such as their personality and confidence. Also, competition experience and time spent in play activities might also be relevant, the researchers suggested.
At sub-elite levels, amount of past and present deliberate practice was relevant to performance, accounting for 19 per cent of the variance in sports performance – an important factor, then, but by no means the only or most important factor. This basic finding applied regardless of whether the researchers focused on team or individual sports, or ball vs. non-ball sports. Another related finding was that more skilful sport performers did not tend to have started their sport at an earlier age.
The researchers said their results suggest that “deliberate practice is one factor that contributes to performance differences across a wide range of skills [but] it may not contribute to performance differences at the highest levels of skill.”
The new findings add to earlier research into chess players and musicians, that also called into question the importance of deliberate practice. However, in a rejoinder to the new meta-analysis, published in the same journal issue, Ericsson argues that Macnamara and her colleagues used too broad a definition of “deliberate practice” to include “virtually any type of sport-specific activity, such as group activities, watching games on television, and even play and competitions”. He says that his claims about the importance of deliberate practice to elite performance refer to a much more specific subset of activities: “individualized practice with training tasks (selected by a supervising teacher) with a clear performance goal and immediate informative feedback.”
As the debate rumbles on, one message that comes through from this new meta-analysis is how so much speculation and argument is based on so little actual concrete evidence. To put things in perspective, the combined research into the role of deliberate practice in elite sport amounts to data from just 228 athletes, and that’s using the definition of deliberate practice that Ericsson claims is too broad.
Macnamara and her colleagues end with a call for more research, including studies that look beyond the relevance of deliberate practice to consider other factors: “scientists must draw not only from research on skill acquisition and expertise but also from research on cognitive ability, personality, learning, behavioural genetics, and research within the performance domain (e.g. sports science). This effort will shed new light on the origins of expertise.”
Macnamara, B., Moreau, D., & Hambrick, D. (2016). The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11 (3), 333-350 DOI: 10.1177/1745691616635591
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