Can practice predict an athlete’s performance?

Studies on sports specialization and injuries indicate that kids should not play a single sport for more than eight months a year. (File photo)

It turns out that the 10,000-hour rule might not apply to sports. This could be bad news for some parents who dream of their children earning college scholarships and playing in the pros one day.

The 10,000-hour rule is based on the idea of deliberate practice, or activities specifically designed to improve the current level of performance. Basically the more deliberate practice time an individual accumulates, the more likely he or she will become an elite performer.

Ericsson and his colleagues originally proposed the idea after studying violinists.

Parents might not consciously count hours of training or think about Anders Ericsson or author Malcolm Gladwell as they stand on the sidelines and watch their children compete. This idea, though, can manifest in youth sports in a number of ways.

A father might push his son to play only baseball starting at seven years old. A mother might hire a private coach to work with her son outside of his football team’s practices. Parents might pull a young tennis player out of school and enroll her in online school so that she can practice four to six hours each day.

Those efforts to increase a child’s intense training might seem reasonable if they actually worked. A new study questions the role of deliberate practice in sports performance.

Brooke N. Macnamara and others analyzed 52 studies that looked at the number of hours athletes practiced and the effect on sports performance. In total, the training of almost 2,800 athletes was included.

First, there is some good news for parents who believe that more training is better. Nearly all of the studies in their analysis showed a positive correlation between deliberate practice and high levels of performance.

Unfortunately, the amount of deliberate practice alone accounted for only 18 percent, on average, of the variance in sports performance among athletes. This finding held true for athletes in both team sports and individual sports, as well as for adult athletes versus young athletes. For elite athletes, deliberate practice accounted for only 1 percent of the variance in sports performance.

Deliberate practice can help athletes, but it loses its ability to predict which athletes will become truly elite at a certain point.

The researchers also found that more highly skilled athletes did not start playing their sports at earlier ages than lower skilled athletes. Many parents and coaches believe that the earlier a child starts playing a single sport, the greater his or her opportunity to train – and succeed – in that sport will be.

Opponents of early sport specialization argue that playing a variety of sports allows children to acquire coordination and core motor skills that will improve later sports performance. Plus, it might decrease the risk of overuse injuries and burnout often seen when a young athlete plays one sport year-round without breaks.

If only 1 percent of the difference in sports performance comes from practice, what accounts for the other 82 percent? The researchers suggest that mental and psychological factors could help some athletes succeed. The ability to overcome performance anxiety and negative outcomes, confidence, intelligence, attention and more could be involved. Even genetic differences could explain why some kids become stars and others don’t.

I’m not at all suggesting that practice is bad. It’s important to learn and develop skills and strategy. I just don’t think most athletes need thousands of hours of practice every year. Especially at eight or nine years old.

Dr. Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston. For more information about other sports medicine topics, please go to Dr. Geier’s website at drdavidgeier.com