Practice makes perfect
15 July, 2016
The Summer Rio Olympics begin in three weeks and we will no doubt marvel at the record-breaking performances of the world's best athletes.
Some of us might assume these athletes are unique individuals with an innate or natural talent; how else can we explain their extraordinary performance?
According to Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at The Florida State University, innate talent has little to do with a person's ultimate success.
Rather, Ericsson believes virtually anyone can become world-class at anything if they are willing and able to devote themselves to deliberate practice.
Ericsson is an expert on experts, having researched top performers in a variety of different fields over three decades. His findings show there is little connection between a person's early success — the results that lead parents and others to declare that someone has "natural talent" — and their ultimate success.
Children who are better than their peers in the early stages of learning — be it playing the piano, reading, drawing or hitting a ball — are not guaranteed to succeed as an adult.
In his new book "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" Ericsson says it is belief that one can achieve, which convinces people to put in the necessary practice, that ultimately enables top performers to succeed.
"This is a common theme in so many of the world's champion athletes, world-class musicians, prize-winning scientists and artists and others at the top of their fields. Indeed it's hard to imagine anyone putting in the effort necessary to become the best in the world, without believing that all that hard work was going to pay off. What is surprising is just how little basis there is for any of these beliefs of predestined greatness."
When researchers studied the childhoods of top performers, there was no evidence that these individuals had been measurably superior to their peers before they began their rigorous training.
Yes, their parents believed in them — but that's what parents do.
Ericsson says the phenomenon at work is much like the placebo effect in medicine. If you give someone a sugar pill but pretend it's a real drug, that person is more likely to say they feel better than someone who gets nothing.
Similarly, convince a child that he or she has a special talent, and you significantly increase the odds the child will actually grow up to be something special.
Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" featured the "10,000 hour rule" that said anyone who put in 10,000 hours of practice - in any field - will become an expert. Gladwell based this rule on Ericsson's study of 40 violinists in Germany that concluded the best violinists had spent a total of 10,000 hours practicing their craft by the age of the 20 years.
Ericsson has since refined his theories to suggest it is not sufficient to simply repeat the same activity over and over again for 10,000 hours in order to become the best. To be a world-class performer, you need to engage in "deliberate practice" which involves trying activities beyond your current abilities.
It is not enough to want to improve; people also need well-defined goals and the help of a teacher or coach who can provide feedback and tweak problem areas until good becomes best.
Ericsson highlights the downside of deliberate practice in seeking success. To become an expert, you need to be willing to sacrifice short term pleasure for potential satisfaction of success later. Deliberate practice is generally not enjoyable.
Worth considering as we watch Olympic athletes compete for world-class status.