By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
With the U.S. men’s national team’s unfortunate elimination this week from participation in next year’s World Cup will come a lot of gnashing of teeth and re-examining how this happened. Many different factors will be considered, including the methods through which young athletes are “trained” in their early years. Should we start invoking the “10,000 hour rule”? (My answer from the orthopedic surgeon’s standpoint: absolutely not)
The 10,000 Hour Rule comes from a classic publication by Anders Ericsson and colleagues. In their 1993 work on the roots of expertise, the authors reported on original studies that they had conducted on violinists and pianists, and also reviewed the literature on skill acquisition in a range of activities including sports, chess, typing, and even scientific writing.
The authors stated that in most areas of achievement, the elite performers began serious practice at a much younger age than less accomplished practitioners, although the best age for starting deliberate practice varied from one activity to another according to the natural development of the required motor skills.
They downplayed the role of “talent” and instead argued that “our review has uncovered essentially no support for fixed innate characteristics that would correspond to general or specific natural ability and, in fact, has uncovered findings inconsistent with such models.”
Although the number is not specifically mentioned in the text, a graph in the article by Ericsson show that the “best” violinists had accumulated about 10,000 hours of practice by age 20. Their paper is therefore often cited as evidence for the widely quoted 10,000-hour rule, which maintains that outstanding performers in a diverse group of fields share a common background of at least that much deliberate practice. Multiple papers have been published that challenge several aspects of the Ericsson article.
But what if we assume it’s true? What if we put in place programs to single out young people for intense training beginning around age 5 and continuing through age 20? Do our men then go on to not only qualify for the World Cup but have a chance of winning? Do American girls who play golf grow up to dominate the LPGA the way many young Asian women are today?
Sports medicine professionals are generally more concerned with whether early specialization increases the risk of injury than with whether it improves one’s chances of becoming an elite adult athlete. These concerns have been strongly advocated in areas such as baseball pitching, where we have the 100-inning rule and the Pitch Smart recommendations. I’m a big believer in these.
Beyond specific recommendations such as those with pitching, we’ve also gathered a good amount of data that leads us to three other common recommendations for young athletes: don’t specialize in 1 sport; limit participation to <8 months per year; and limit participation to fewer hours per week than your age in years. A recently published study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine evaluated these three general recommendations and found that all of them had merit.
What does the 10,000-hour rule look like if we somehow decided to implement this for young athletes? And is it possible to limit deliberate sports participation to 8 months (32 weeks) per year as well as limiting participation to fewer hours per week than the child’s age in years? That means that starting at age 5 the child would participate for 5 hours per week, 32 weeks per year and continue in this way so that by age 20 they are practicing 20 hours per week for 32 weeks per year.
I come up with 7812 hours this way. If you actually wanted to achieve 10,000 hours combined over those 16 years you’d have to average about 17 hours per week. This seems ludicrous and a true recipe for disaster as far as I’m concerned.
Discussing early sports participation and all the various facets are complex and often emotional topics. Deciding when specialization is desirable and the best age for beginning this transition will depend on the specific sport and the physical, social, and emotional maturity of the individual athlete. I’d truly love to see the U.S. men win a World Cup someday. I trust that those in charge of mapping the path forward will continue to pay close attention to the complicated physical and emotional development of the kids who will one day be on that team.