You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hours rule—essentially, this rule states that it takes around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. The rule itself was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, who built on initial research by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s key research, carried out on musicians, demonstrated that expert musicians spent significantly more time engaged in deliberate practice than less successful musicians, with a relationship between the amount of deliberate practice and the level of expertise—a finding replicated across domains (but not unchallenged). The theory, at least as espoused here, is that the more time spent practicing—and, hence, the earlier we begin deliberate practice—the more likely we are to become experts.
Now, it’s important for me to state that I hate the 10,000 hours rule, or at least the version that has become popularized (Ericsson distanced himself from Gladwell’s own retelling of the research). I don’t think that everyone can become world class at something by just accumulating sufficient hours of deliberate practice; in sports—especially sports such as track and field—I believe that genetics play a huge role in both how good we can become and how much we can improve.I don’t think that everyone can become world class at something by just accumulating sufficient hours of deliberate practice, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Other researchers agree with me; the heritability of elite athlete status, for example, has been calculated at around 66%, meaning that our genetics certainly do have a role in how good we can become. This isn’t to say that practice isn’t important—it certainly is—but that it’s not the only thing that determines how good we can be. I even wrote about this, from the view of sprinting, for this website. In short, I feel like everyone can get better, but not everyone can be world class.
And yet I keep coming back to the idea of expert performance.
Ericsson’s initial research was looking at experts—people who are very good at what they do. There are many different types of experts, such as knowledge experts, expert drivers, really good actors. In sport, we often don’t use the term expert, but instead focus on adjectives such as “world class” or “elite.” In track and field, I’m not entirely sure the two are the same: an elite athlete might have the physical characteristics required for success in their event, but are they an expert? Can they accurately explain the processes by which they gain performance success? Do they even need to? In track and field I feel there are two main mental models of performance, which I call the biomechanical model and the physiological model. In the biomechanical model, coaches and athletes aim to understand the key mechanical underpinnings of performance in their event, and then develop training sessions and plans to optimize these. In the physiological model, coach and athlete do the same, but through a physical lens.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these two models (and, like all models, they are a dramatic oversimplification), but what if we start to consider what “expert” might look like in track and field? I’d argue that the main goal of competition for elite athletes is to win competitions, or at least finish as high as possible in competitions, with greater weight placed on competitions of increased importance, such as the Olympics/Paralympics and World Championships. To do this, athletes need to have the physical characteristics required for success, but also be able to deliver the required performance on the day that it matters. This means that other factors come into play: an effective taper, the ability to perform under pressure, and making the correct tactical decisions in the heat of competition. This is where I think expertise comes into track and field; it’s all about using what you have to deliver a successful performance.
As my thinking in the area of expertise in sport has developed over the last couple of years, so has my interest. As such, I recently picked up Developing Sport Expertise (edited by Damian Farrow, Joe Baker, and Clare MacMahon). Specifically, I picked up the first edition of this book published in 2007, but there is also a more recent 2013 version that I’m about to work my way through. The stimulus for this specific textbook was a workshop held at the Australian Institute of Sport in 2005 on the topic of Applied Sport Expertise and Learning. Each person attending the workshop was asked three key questions:
- What does your research tell us about the development of elite athletes?
- How can this information be used to optimize training and performance?
- Do your findings apply to talent ID programs?
As individual coaches, questions 1 and 2 are perhaps more pertinent; however, for more developed practitioners looking to move into more management or leadership positions, question 3 is also important. Given the expertise of the various authors of chapters within this book, it’s worth us taking a closer look at some of the key topics and themes contained within.
What Does an Expert Look Like?
In the first chapter, Bruce Abernethy explores what expert performance looks like and how experts may differ from non-experts—aspects that are crucial in our understanding of developing sport expertise. Abernethy writes that, in sport, expert performance is characterized by factors such as:
- Pattern recognition and recall—experts are better than non-experts in recognizing or recalling patterns of play within sport. As an example, expert chess players can recognize key patterns of play, but this is highly specific; if the chess pieces are arranged randomly on the board, they are no better than beginners at determining what will happen next.
- The ability to multitask and undertake automatic movement—expert performers are much better at performing two sport-related tasks simultaneously than non-experts. In track and field, an expert relay runner would be better at receiving visual information as to the position of the incoming runner and simultaneously being able to run as fast as possible during the change than a non-expert.
- Superior sports-specific knowledge and tactics—experts understand more about performance in their sport than non-experts, and, as a result, can select better tactics and make better decisions, increasing the chances of success.
- Anticipation—experts are much better than beginners at anticipating what may happen within their unique sporting context. This can be crucial in sports such as football, where the player picks up cues from other players as to what might happen next—and hence is better prepared for it.
Expertise in sport is also highly specific; when standardized tests are used (e.g., a visual reaction time test or a test of general intelligence), experts often don’t outperform non-experts.
So how do we become experts?
The research, writes Abernethy, points to three key aspects (only one of which is under our control):
- The time of year in which we’re born (the relative age effect—which, in track and field at least, becomes less important the older we get).
- Where we grow up (growing up in less densely populated areas appears to increase the chances of sporting success).
- The quality and type of practice we undertake.
Practice needs to be deliberate, which is defined as requiring concentrated physical and/or cognitive effort undertaken with the specific goal of improving performance. This definition is important, because it suggests such practice is somewhat unenjoyable—something we will return to later.Practice needs to be deliberate, which is defined as requiring concentrated physical and/or cognitive effort undertaken with the specific goal of improving performance, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
If practice is crucial, how do we as coaches set the environment for the development of expertise? Here is what Abernethy suggests:
- Utilize training that addresses the limiting factors of performance—practice is only likely to be beneficial if it is directly aimed at developing factors that are limiting to the athlete’s performance. This means that we need to:
- Understand what factors are required for success.
- Understand where the athlete currently sits on these factors.
- Understand how to actually improve these things.
- Utilize perceptual training (where relevant)—if a key driver of expertise is pattern recall and recognition to support decision-making, then enhancing the perception skills of the athlete is highly important. At the simplest level, this involves exposure to a large and varied number of potential situations, allowing the athlete to build up a “mental library” of situations and potential outcomes—and test these outcomes—to optimize their expertise.
- Utilize variety and diversity—as highlighted above, exposure to various different scenarios enhances an athlete’s expertise.
- Maximizing practice opportunities—if practice is crucial to the development of expertise, then we need to ensure developing athletes can get as much as is optimal. This requires good access to facilities, good coaching, and a peer group willing to practice (which includes play) with the athlete.
- Create experiences that encourage strategic skill development—one potential reason why athletes from smaller towns or cities may be more likely to have adult success is that they have to start competing against adults earlier. This means that they need to develop the strategic skills required to beat “better” opponents and can’t rely on their physical skills. Exposure to challenging competition is, therefore, an important aspect of developing expert performers.
How do We Develop Elite Athletes as Skilled Performers?
Following Abernethy’s introduction, the book moves into section one, which looks at developing elite athletes. In the first chapter of this section, Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas explore how, if accumulation of practice is a driver of expert performance, this changes over the athlete’s career. This is an important discussion primarily because early on, the deliberate practice research was interpreted to indicate that athletes should specialize very early in order accumulate the required volumes of practice; however, research across many sports, especially track and field, actually suggests the opposite: late specialization is probably best for adult elite performance.
This research, which appears (on the surface at least) to oppose the 10,000 hours “rule,” led Cote and his research colleagues to develop the Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP). This model outlines the three stages of an athlete’s development towards adult elite performance: the sampling years (age 6-12), where the future athlete plays many different sports, often in an unstructured play format; the specializing years (ages 13-15), where the athlete starts to focus on a smaller number of sports; and then the investment years (from age 16 onwards), where the athlete commits to (usually) one sport, and begins to undertake deliberate practice.
Cote’s research, and that of others, ultimately suggests that early diversification moving towards increased specialization and deliberate practice with increased age is the most optimal way to develop expert performers.
In the next chapter, Joe Baker and Steve Cobley provide some guidelines for implementing deliberate practice into our daily coaching practices, specifically:
- When designing a long-term training plan, consider the role of deliberate practice—this suggests considering maximizing the time we get with the athletes we work with, focusing on quality of practice, and considering how each individual training session fits into the bigger picture of the previous and upcoming week, month, and year.
- Be wary of the negative consequences of deliberate practice—by definition, deliberate practice takes effort and is not that enjoyable. As such, regular breaks of play or non-deliberate practice may be helpful in maintaining the freshness of athletes.
- Develop a strategic plan for training—it’s important to know what drives performance success in your sport, what “elite” looks like, and where the athletes you work with compare to this “elite” state. Being strategic about this process can set you up for future success.
- Monitor training stress to prevent training ineffectiveness—if an athlete is not in an optimized state to adapt to the training they’re undertaking, then the time spent will be ineffective. Having a good idea of the adaptive potential of the athlete via monitoring should assist in ensuring that any training they do undertake can be as effective as possible.
For readers interested in further understanding how to move from the theory of deliberate practice to using it in practice, I’d highly recommend this article on “operationalizing” deliberate practice in sport.
Building on this, Bradley Young and Nikola Medic explore how coaches can develop long-term commitment in their athletes—something that is clearly important given the high levels of effort and low levels of enjoyment of deliberate practice. There is surprisingly little research on this topic, but Young and Medic identify some key themes that coaches can utilize to, in their words, take athletes “from the backyard to the big show.” The first of these themes is supporting an individual’s quest for competence and mastery, with the advice being that coaches should find ways to enhance an athlete’s perception of competence. Athletes who have a task-oriented motivation (as opposed to ego-oriented), appear to be more likely to seek out mastery and competence. There are some key ways to do this, including:
- Ensuring successful experiences—successful adult athletes appear to have been offered more opportunities to experience success in training during their developmental years. As such, coaches may wish to simplify drills, challenges, or competition rules to better match the developmental stage of the athlete.
- Provide successful role models—when athletes observe a successful performance from someone else, it can increase their feelings of persistence. This is especially true when the skill is new to the athlete, and the model is of a similar age and level of competence—the message being “if you can do this, I can too.” Through the use of video review, athletes can also serve as their own role models by watching themselves deliver a successful performance to develop their own feelings of competence.
- Provide verbal persuasion—if coaches are trustworthy, credible, and thought to be in possession of their own expertise, then the messages they provide to athletes are much more likely to be listened to and used by the athlete to change their behavior towards mastery.
When designing training sessions in support of feelings of competence, it’s important for coaches to focus on supporting athletes in learning the processes of performance, as opposed to highlighting a successful competitive outcome, as this allows athletes to develop task-oriented, as opposed to ego-oriented, motivation.
Coaches can do this using the TARGET framework:
- Task Design—use drills that are varied and diverse.
- Autonomy—involve the athlete in the learning process.
- Recognition—provide positive feedback for good practice habits; doing this in private supports development of task orientation, while doing in front of a large group increases feelings of ego orientation.
- Grouping—placing athletes into groups may promote ego orientation (due to competition); instead, a focus on individual or small-group drills may be beneficial.
- Evaluation—athletes should be supported in their ability to self-evaluate their development.
- Timing—Due to differences in learning speed, the time allocated for the completion of a practice task should be flexible and relevant to each athlete.
The second key theme highlighted by Young and Medic is that long-term motivation in athletes depends on their ability to self-regulate; i.e., they develop their own motivation to practice. This is done by providing positive reinforcement when the athlete exhibits a desirable behavior—in this case, self-directed practice. This can be done via parents (who instill a sense of routine around practice, along with a value for sport and high expectations); coaches (with research demonstrating coaches who take a special interest in the athlete; offer praise, approval, and tangible rewards; and monitor and track progress—for example, by a training log—are more likely to support the self-regulation of athletes); and other key peers.Long-term motivation in athletes depends on their ability to self-regulate, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
The third and final theme is that expert motivation requires a progressive commitment to one sport. Similar to the DMSP model, the Sport Commitment Model highlights that attractive alternatives are a key factor that is negatively related to commitment. As such, future expert performers need to progressively focus their motivation towards fewer and fewer options as they develop, but those diverse sport experiences early in their development are still crucial for the development of expertise.
The Coach as an Expert Performer
So far, we’ve focused on athletes, but it’s clear that coaches can also develop expertise. This is the topic of Chapter 6 of Developing Sport Expertise, from Sean Horton and James Deakin. The first issue here is defining what “expertise” is from a coaching standpoint. We tend to judge coaches on the performances of their athletes, but clearly there are some big issues with this approach. Instead, Horton and Deakin take a different approach, asking two main questions:
- What do expert coaches see that others don’t?
- Research across a variety of sports highlights that expert coaches can extract more information from what they see and provide better solutions in feedback to the athletes they work with—something that is true of experts across a variety of domains.
- What do expert coaches do that non-experts don’t?
- Research observing expert coaches suggests they spend the majority of practice time (60%) observing performance. The reminder of the practice time is spent on instruction (32%) and everything else (8%).
With these questions in mind, we can draw some key themes to support our own coaching:
- Expert coaches are very good at designing effective practice sessions—they employ key sporting principles that utilize deliberate practice to enhance performance. At the highest level, the majority of coaching is only going to make small refinements (given that elite athletes are already experts) or find areas to develop that their competitors haven’t considered. Expert coaches tend to be able to do more with the limited practice time they have available—i.e., they don’t waste time at practice.
- Expert coaches develop drills that simulate competitive scenarios—they focus on being able to prepare their athletes to demonstrate their expertise in the competitive arena. They are also able to support their athletes to perform when under pressure via the use of simulation in training.
- Expert coaches deliver a suitable practice environment—they match high standards with emotional warmth to support the development of the athletes they work with.
Designing Effective Practice
As highlighted by Horton and Deakin in their chapter, an important role for coaches in the development of expert athletes is based around designing and delivering effective practice sessions. This aspect is the focus of the later chapters of the book. Rich Masters authored a chapter on implicit skill learning in athletes, with the key takeaway being that the use of metaphors to guide athletes in their skill development is highly effective—in part because it reduces “internalizing” the movement, and so prevents overthinking.An important role for coaches in the development of expert athletes is based around designing and delivering effective practice sessions, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
This links to the next chapter, from Robin Jackson and Sian Beilock, on performing under pressure—a key skill for all expert performers. One risk factor for this is thinking too much, hence the potential importance of implicit skill learning. Finally, Jae Patterson and Timothy Lee have a chapter on how to organize practice, with the key take aways for coaches being the importance of providing a variety of feedback types and utilizing observational learning.
The final chapter from Janet Starkes explores the past, present, and future of sport expertise research and practice. This is interesting because of the predictions made; as this book is now just over 15 years old, we can look to see how many of these have come true. Starkes makes four key predictions; the first is that web-casting will become economically feasible and technologically easy, making virtual conferences and meetings much more likely. As the last couple of years have shown, this is now the case, and we’re arguably much better connected because of it.
The second prediction highlighted the need for greater information sharing between coaches and sport scientists. It’s hard to tell whether this gap has been closed; there is still tension between some coaches and sports scientists, while some manage that relationship really well. As the team around the athlete inevitably grows over the coming years, sports scientists being able to develop the softer skills to effectively work within a team will become even more important, as well the ability of the coach to welcome outside input.
The third prediction from Starkes is the need to redefine what high performance is; as masters sports become increasingly popular, we are going to see high performance athletes of ever-increasing ages. Understanding how to develop their expertise will support them in their athletic pursuits. Finally, Starkes writes that the gap between haves and have-nots in sports is likely to widen; countries with more money to allocate to sports are likely to pull away from their less-rich competitors, especially in sports where technology is important.
To a large extent, this has been proven right. For example, in technology-driven sports like cycling, economically developed nations tend to dominate. However, in sports where overall costs are lower—such as athletics—we’ve actually seen an increased distribution of medals across countries, something that is very pleasing to see.
As I said in the introduction, I’ve never really thought of elite performance as “expert” performance, and so this book has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me. The key point to me is how we design training sessions to support the development of expertise in our athletes, with this expertise showing itself as the athlete being able to deliver a successful performance under pressure.The key point to me is how we design training sessions to support the development of expertise in our athletes, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
This then opens the door to a better understanding of skill acquisition and how it might transfer to coaching in track and field, along with ideas such as representative design in which we ensure that training sessions mimic what happens in competition. This requires us to adequately understand what actually happens in competitions; this sounds obvious, but do we really know what happens in races, especially those where tactics come into play? If we can get to this point, and if we can adequately operationalize the principles of deliberate practice, we should be able to successfully develop expert performers. This book, for me, is the first step on this journey.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF