Genes and talent over-rated? great performers, whether they are sportsmen, doctors, musicians or businessmen, achieve expert performance not because of genetic factors or “talent”, but because they accumulate enormous volumes of deliberate practice? It has a few examples of this, and makes a compelling case, at least on the surface. The debate is big !
In order to succeed at something at the highest level, to become an expert performer, you need to "practice 10 000 hours ". OK then… nobody should be surprised at this, and nor would they be. The problem is It seems to exist outside of a world where genetic factors also have an influence, and it’s this exclusivity in this thinking that forces a closer look.
So the issue is not that they advocate hard work and a lot of training, it is that they downplay the importance of talent or innate ability. I emphasized this in my own talk, but it bears repeating – the secret to success is training and accumulating many years and hours of practice, then Talent ID is a waste of time and money. We should rather spend that money on getting 100 more children to train, because they should all (or most) become champions, provided they get through the required hours.
Note that this also completely overlooks the fact that children tend to do what they are good at, and that simply running a child through a “10,000 hour factory” is an imagined concept only. I guess the real question is why are some children good at something almost within the first moments that they start it, thereby encouraging them to do it more? It seems to me that this could be an innate difference too…
In a competitive sport, training is obviously a crucial determinant of success. But the theory that practice is important is so obvious it doesn’t need emphasis. As soon as you have competition, then within a narrow range of individuals (the top 10 tennis players, or the Olympic finalists, for example), training will become a crucial determinant of who wins and loses.
where there is no competition, it’s possible to succeed with talent alone. Just think back to school level athletics, when there’s no competition, a young athlete can show up on the day and dominate to win. But the higher the level, the better the competition, the more important training becomes. And those individuals who get attempt to by on talent alone are washed away in this more competitive landscape. Of course It's correct. But the key is that the athlete who succeeds all the way to the Olympic podium is the one who dominated without training (that is, he’s talented or genetically gifted), but then also trained incredibly hard to stay a champion as the competition intensified. In otherwords, he has BOTH talent and training.
In fact, I challenged on this after many talks, and basically made the point that if I had walked into a venue today, with 200 people in the audience, and asked them to please raise their hands if they thought that sporting success was ENTIRELY genetic, Everyone knows that it is not.
Yet it seems to arrive at this belief that someone out there believe that expert performance is achieved solely on the basis of genes and natural talent. Now, maybe I missed this, but I have not once heard this theory. The established theory in sports science is that many, many years of training are required to refine skills and physiology in order to become a world or Olympic champion. The reality is that sports science does NOT believe that it’s ALL in the genes, and nor do they believe that it’s ALL about training.
To polarize the debate on detection, they have emphasized how important it is that we recognize that not all young aspirant athletes develop equally, and that we may need to consider how coaching is provided to more children to prevent some from falling through the cracks. But sports science already knew this, I experienced it too in my career.
The work of Elferink-Gemser confirmed this, because she has been studying the progress of young sports people for 10 years, and has found large differences between children in terms of how they respond to training sessions and coaching. But more important, she finds that it is possible to predict which children will become professional within the first few years of them entering the sports academy. In other words, by the time children are 15 or 16, there are already differences between those who will become “great” and those who are merely “good”.
And the truth is that both of these cases exist, everywhere. football, wrestling, hockey, basketball. Every single sport has examples of athletes who have shot to the top within a few years of starting the sport, and it is littered with athletes who fail despite doing 20,000 hours. I spoke with a woman whose husband taught music for a school , and they discover children who within months of starting are playing at near-professional expert levels. Now, unless those children have managed to get 10,000 hours of training in in one hour (by discovering how to slow down time), they have achieved expertise well before the theoretical minimum.
There’s no question that talent, or innate ability, or genetics, play a role.
my point is that there is no good evidence at all to suggest that 10,000 hours is required for expert performance. The study that is always cited is a violin study, which found that expert violinists had accumulated an AVERAGE of 10,000 hours by the time they went to music school, whereas those who were merely good had done 8,000 hours. Two problems. First, you can’t infer cause from this kind of retrospective study. Who is to say that the talented, genetically gifted violinists didn’t train more BECAUSE they had more talent from the age of 8? Perhaps their innate ability was the catalyst to get them more practice (mom sends them for lessons, and they enjoy it).
And just to dispel the idea that skill-based activities benefit more from training, when you look at studies in chess, you find that there is a massive difference in the time taken to reach Master level – some do it in 3,000 hours, some have been at it for 25,000 hours and counting. In darts, 15 years of practice (almost 15,000 hours) only accounts for 28% of the variability in performance. In otherwords, 72% of the difference in performance between two players cannot be explained by the hours spent training. In darts…
In sport, countless studies show that elite athletes get to the top within 6,000 hours of starting their sport, and the success of Talent ID programmes proves that talent transfer (something that is impossible if the 10,000 hour theory is correct) exists.
Conclusion – training is the realization of genetic potential
The bottom line is that a theory of deliberate practice gives us one important message – if you want to succeed, practice. Coaches around the world breathe a sigh of relief, you’re not redundant. But this is so obvious, I guess the reminder is always good though.
But the application of this theory, and the dismissal of genes that it somehow seems associated with, is a huge oversimplication and wrong, at least for sports. how teachers should downplay the idea that some children are more “talented” with numbers or better at mathematics than others. And that’s fine, because whatever helps people improve is great. But if we’re in the business of finding Olympic champions, then this theory has no place in its polarized form.
Not only this, but it could be extremely damaging. If you take it literally, and you buy into a 10,000 hour concept, then you’ll be obliged to start training a child at the age of about 10, because you need them to become world-class in their early-20s. All good and well, except the evidence shows quite clearly that the earlier you start intensive training, the LESS likely you are to succeed. And so there are all kinds of implications for how we manage children’s sport participation.
The ultimate conclusion is that training is nothing more than the realization of genetic potential. Without both, you will not become an Olympic champion (in a competitive sport, that is). Training will improve everyone, and so everyone should be encouraged to train. But genetic factors determine where we start, how we respond to training (trainability), how much training we can tolerate before burnout or injury (because let’s face it, chess players rarely get injuries that force 6-week layoffs, like stress fractures), and finally, where the “performance ceiling” exists.
Training will get you to your ceiling, you’ll realize your genetic potential. But will it win you a medal? Only if you chose your parents right!