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The sporting establishment believes great athletes are born with superior speed, superhuman strength and lightning-quick reflexes. But most athletes are not born to greatness; they earn it. For instance certain athletic skills, such as hitting a baseball, are more learned than innate. And everyone learns and improves at different rates. The “10,000 hour” rule rarely applies to true greatness because some athletes get stronger and faster with practice, while others don’t.  This post is largely researched from David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

This post is for the Sports Enthusiast, Coach, or parent seeking insight into athletic success. 

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Classical music superstars – those good enough to perform solos on international stages – practice an average of 7,410 hours by age 18. Professional players – those good enough for orchestras – put in an average of 5,301. “Future teachers,” who are competent musicians, average 3,420 hours.

These findings lead inexorably to the now-famous 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers. It says mastering a skill requires practicing 10,000 hours. The underlying concept is generally true. You earn greatness; it’s not a genetic gift. Yet the 10,000-hour rule doesn’t allow for individual differences.

“By the strictest 10,000-hours thinking, accumulated practice should explain most or all of the variance in skill. But that never, ever happens.”

People learn and improve at different rates. And talent matters; the most-talented athletes achieve mastery faster than their less-talented peers.

“Because we are each unique, genetic science will continue to show that just as there is no one-size-fits-all medicine, there is no one-size-fits-all training program.”

Consider the following examples:

Visual Acuity

For baseball players, the genetic lottery takes the form of visual acuity. In the early 1990s, an ophthalmologist studied Los Angeles Dodgers prospects and accurately predicted each player’s success based on his vision scores. In 1992, the doctor guessed that Eric Karros would stand out, even though he was a sixth-round draft pick. Karros became Rookie of the Year. In 1993, the doctor singled out Mike Piazza, whom no team had taken until the 62nd round of the draft. Piazza became one of the best-hitting catchers of all time. Professional baseball players possess off-the-charts vision, typically 20/11 or 20/12.

Major League players’ vision tests are higher than those of minor-league players. This visual edge – a genetically determined trait that scientists measure based on the density of minute retinal cones – gives players more time to see and react to the ball. These findings hold true for Olympic softball players, who had an average reading of 20/11. In other words, if you’re born with poor vision, don’t expect to play professional baseball, even if you spend 10,000 hours practicing.

Height

Unless you’re unusually tall, with freakishly long arms, don’t expect to play in the National Basketball Association. Only a handful of players shorter than six feet have made NBA rosters in recent decades. The average height of an NBA player is 6 feet 7 inches only a tiny percentage of US men grow that tall. In the US, only 5% of men are 6 feet 3 inches or taller, which means tall guys have a good shot at NBA riches. So few American men between ages 20 and 40 are between 6 feet 10 inches and 7 feet tall, that 3.2% of men in that rarified group play in the NBA.

Jamaican Sprinters

Why do sprinters from Jamaica’s small Trelawney region outrun everyone else? The nation’s system of developing sprinters counters the 10,000-hour rule. Practices are light and occasional. Athletes don’t lift weights before age 15. Officials even discourage stars from accepting US scholarships; they fear exposing them to grueling training and competition. In the US, tall, fast athletes like Bolt play football or basketball, but neither sport is popular in Jamaica. Height, weight and raw speed are easy to see, but “trainability” proves crucial.

 “Pain is innate, but it also must be learned. It is unavoidable and yet modifiable.”

Jim Ryun

Jim Ryun, the great American runner, offers a classic example of trainability. Not strong enough or fast enough for baseball or basketball, Ryun joined his school’s cross-country team as a 10th grader. He ran a five-minute, 38-second mile in the fall, not terrible, but not great. Six months later, he clocked a four-minute, 21-second mile, an excellent time. Ryun became the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile. He transformed himself from average to superior with hard work. People view a runner with a naturally high capacity but low trainability as unwilling to make sacrifices needed for greatness. But a lack of trainability, not a lack of desire, may keep some athletes from stardom.

“No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete.”

What do you think?

Does athletic success turn out to be a complex stew of genetic and cultural factors?