The 10,000 hour myth – misunderstood by sports parents?

WORKING WITH PARENTS IN SPORT CEO & FOUNDER, GORDON MACLELLAND, TAKES A LOOK AT A MYTH CONFUSING PARENTS.

Many parents will now be aware or have heard of the 10,000 hour rule publicised by Malcolm Gladwell. The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field whether it is in music, business, art or sport.

However, what many parents are unaware of is that this rule has later been discredited on many counts and the original man behind the research, Anders Ericsson, has publicly bemoaned the context that Gladwell used it in his book ‘Outliers’.

As well as the 10,000 hour myth the media coverage of the road to success for Tiger Woods in golf and the Williams sisters in tennis who spent a large part of their childhood practising and specialising in one sport has been seen by many parents as the blueprint to success.

Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit www.parentsinsport.co.uk.

However, for the success of Woods and the Williams sisters there will have been thousands of failures attempting the above model – the only difference is that we do not know anything about it!

Long term athletic development requires far more components than just deliberate practice.

Two of the biggest issues evolving from the 10,000 hour rule are single sport specialisation and the push for early selection to elite sporting programmes.

Many parents now feel the need to get their child to 10,000 hours as soon as possible and to do this will ultimately mean focusing the vast majority of time and money playing and practising one sport. This can rob them of their childhood and many children do not find the sport they would have enjoyed the most and become the most successful at.

We have discussed on many occasions on this site the problem of single sport specialisation at an early age that can lead to problems such as burnout, injury, lack of motivation and also psychological issues yet parents cannot see beyond the initial short term success in helping their children achieve the best from their sport.

Sport should be a lifelong, long term investment for any child and any parent.

The fact still remains that although there may be exceptions many top level sportsmen and women sampled a variety of sports during their early years and only in their teenage years did they really begin to specialise and focus on one specific sport.

Outside of female gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, there are no definitive studies that directly tie early specialisation to a greater chance of long-term, high-level success.

The next issue for parents is that they are pushing and being pushed for their children to get selected into elite sports programmes at a younger age fearing that if they do not do it immediately they will struggle to get there in the future.

In the UK perhaps football poses the biggest problem for parents due to its early selection criteria. With the offering of contracts by professional football clubs at the age of 9 many parents have been caught in a rat race thinking that the initial offering of a contract will give them the best chance of creating a professional footballer.

Going back a generation footballers were not invited into the professional football clubs until their early teenage years yet now clubs are picking up children into development programmes as young as the age of 5.

In the years that children should be sampling a large majority of sports children are playing football all year round and even at the end of the season when the summer gives them the opportunity to recover and refresh many are involved in summer tournaments most weekends in the pursuit of recognition from the professional clubs.

Professional sportsmen and women have some time off each year to recuperate and do something different yet many parents are finding it acceptable to flog their young children all year round in the pursuit of success.

Perhaps the latest statistics from the Michael Calvin book, ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ that of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9 less than half of 1% may make it or the fact that of the 180 of the 1.5 million players playing organised youth football in England will make it as a Premier League pro. That’s a success rate of 0.012% the same sort of chance as being hit by a meteorite on your way home.

Perhaps these sobering statistics may just help parents in realigning themselves and perhaps more than anything else create a greater sense of perspective in the sport of their young children.

Although we have highlighted football here a number of sports have certainly started to select and give representative honours at a far earlier age than they did a generation ago adding fuel to the fire that these children may become professionals in the long term and increasing the expectations of parents along the way.

What can we do about it as parents?
It is important that as parents that we can keep a real sense of perspective on our children’s sport. Why is your child playing? What do you want them to achieve? You need to be able to answer these questions in order for you to manage their progress accordingly. The chances of becoming a professional are incredibly slim, please be aware of this.

That does not mean that your child cannot dream of being a professional or indeed you can even think about it but with the statistics of this becoming a reality this expectation must be managed accordingly.

No matter how many hours you do there is still no guarantee of long term success. Obviously, as with anything hours of practise will lead to improvement but it offers no guarantees in the future. We want children to be involved in sport all of their life so keeping them fresh by letting them try lots of different sports and finding what they truly love will help achieve this.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong if your child is fortunate enough to be selected in elite sports programmes at a young age. Great facilities, good coaches, playing with good players are all positives but it is the management of this experience that will allow your child to gain the most from it and give your child valuable lessons that they can take into all aspects of life with them.

Be careful not to fuel their ego, not to make their sport the centre of the universe and talk about their sport with them all the time. However, more than anything else make sure that they are enjoying it!(not you!) Without this there will come a time where they will simply stop and walk away no matter how good they are…