Practice (and good genes) make perfect

I read a terrific book this past spring that I meant to blog about at least a half dozen times.  A quick check of the archives, though, finds that I failed to do so.  So, even though it’s beach vacation week, The Sports Gene by David Epstein gets its due.  I was inspired by a Vox post (shared by DJC on FB) that emphasizes just how little of success is explained by practice:

Over the past 20 years or so, some psychologists have been arguing for an appealing idea about expertise and success: they’re hugely dependent on putting in lots of practice time. This idea is a nice one, because it suggests that successful people earned their expertise, and that many people have a shot at becoming successful if they work hard enough. It gained especially wide attention through a rule it inspired in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: that to become really, really good at something, you have to intensely practice at it for around 10,000 hours, the “10,000-hour rule.” But this is an area of active dispute among psychologists — and over the years, dozens of studies have collected hard data on the link between practice and top performance in all sorts of fields. A new statistical analysis of 88 of these studies comes to the exact opposite conclusion: success mostly reflects other factors (probably things like innate talent and opportunity) rather than hours and hours of practice.

Of course practice matters, all else being equal.  But all else isn’t equal as simply looking at an NBA or NFL roster will tell you.  In fact, my favorite factoid from Epstein’s book is that literally only two players in the entire NBA have an armspan to height ratio of less than 1.o.  (One of them being Duke great JJ Reddick).   The average adult male is about 1.01; the average NBA player is 1.06 (Josh Levin has a nice piece building off Epstein’s book).  That’s just genes.  No amount of practice in the world is going to make you 6’5″ or give you freakishly long arms. As mentioned in the Vox post, a lot of people just get the 10,000 hour thing wrong (and I think go far beyond what Gladwell intended when he popularized the notion– here’s Gladwell in response to Epstein’s book).

All this soccer has had me thinking about a book I read last year, The Numbers Game which purports to be a Moneyball of soccer.  It’s pretty good, but I couldn’t believe it when the authors basically said, well, yeah, all these Premier League and La Liga players put in their 10,000 hours and that’s that.  Seriously?  Genes, anybody.

The Sports Gene has all sorts of good stuff about body type, training, gender, race (!), etc., but what really stuck with me was the idea of baseline versus trainability.  Some people have genes for an amazing good baseline, i.e., could run a 5 minute mile with little training.  Other people of good genes for high trainability, i.e., maybe start at a 7 minute mile, but respond very well to training and end up at 4 minute miles in far less than 10,000 hours.  Obviously, the truly elite in most sports have the genes for both.  But it is important to recognize that they are separate things (nicely discussed by the author on Fresh Air).

In fact, when Evan wanted to give up soccer after 3 seasons this past spring, I had to admit that he was simply lacking in trainability at the sport.  Other kids had clearly progressed significantly more with roughly the same amount of practice.  If he still loved it, of course, we’d stick with it.  But I wasn’t going to make him play soccer just because I love to coach it.

Evan’s failed efforts as a soccer player, though, had me thinking about trainability.  And one area where my children should have high trainability is music.  My mom was a piano teacher and terrific musician; my dad an all-state clarinetist.  I was pretty good piano player and percussionist myself and Kim was an all-district clarinetists.  The kids ought to be able to play some damn music.  Well, Evan’s been playing piano for 4 weeks now and I don’t really have a lot to compare him to, but I’d say his musical trainability is pretty high– sure puts his soccer trainability to shame.

Wow, that’s a heck of a long blog post for being at the beach.  The least you could to is put The Sports Gene in your reading queue.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Practice (and good genes) make perfect

  1. Damon Circosta says:

    Will do.

    Damon Circosta

    Likely dictated to Siri. Typos are her fault.


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