The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein

The 10,000 Hours to Expertise Rule

  • Work done with violin players showed that top players practice on their own much more that less skilled players. Researchers used there data to estimate expert musicians must accumulate about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice by age twenty. This implies that the genes to be a pro anything are contained within all healthy individuals.
  • A study of chess masters, however, showed a large variation with some masters needing as little as 3,000 hours, while others needed 23,000 hours. The key is that with different starting genetic conditions, you can get dramatically different outcomes with the same amount of practice. (Doug: This explains to me why students learn at different rates, which is something educators often do not take into consideration.)

White Men Can Jump

  • The next story is about Swedish high jump champion Stefan Holm. While he was only 5′ 11″ with rather ordinary jumping skill, his 10,000 hours or so of practice combined with his speed allowed him to set the record for the biggest difference between his height and his highest jump (7′ 10.5″). This is compared to the story of Donald Thomas who cleared 6′ 6″ on his first ever high jump due to a casual wager. After just eight months of limited practice, Thomas won the 2007 World Championship. So it seems that there is a tremendous range of hours of practice for athletes who reach the same level, and rarely do elite performers log 10,000 hours of sport-specific practice.
  • Subjects who do well at the start of training improve faster as training progresses than those who begin more slowly. It seems that the ratio between the best and the worst of human activity is between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1. If fact there is not a single study where initial variability between subject disappears entirely. (Doug: This means that gaps between student achievement should only increase unless teachers slow down the fast learners.)

Hardware and Software

  • David likens ones genetic makeup to our bodies hardware and training and practice activities as producing the software to make the hardware perform. If you want to be a great hitter in baseball, you had better have a high cone density on the retina of your eyeballs. This varies greatly and explains why some players seem to be natural hitters. Since visual acuity starts to decline at age 29, it explains why hitters as a group begin to decline at that age. The same is true for other sports like tennis. When you combine physical gifts with lots of high quality practice, you get the top players.
  • As far as early specialization in a sport, a growing body of evidence suggests that it should be avoided. Young people should avoid overtraining until about the age of 15 or so. Pushy parents should also be advised that it’s the child’s joy for playing a sport that will drive success. While Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls at eleven months before many kids can stand, it was always his desire to play that helped make him great. While his father supported Tiger’s passion, he didn’t push it.
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2 Responses to “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein”

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