“It takes 10 years of extensive training to excel in anything” – Herbert Simon (Nobel Laureate)
In the previous chapters, we discussed how athletes vary in many ways and how these differences affect their choice of sport and training methods. We began by examining "internal" factors, such as muscle fiber type, and progressed to "external" factors like height, weight, and frame size. Finally, we discussed temporal differences, or how athletes respond differently to training over time.
In the last chapter, I classified athletes as “fast responders”, “medium responders” and “slow responders” according to how they respond to a given training load. You will notice that I use “fast responders” and “slow responders” rather than “high responders” and “low responders”. This is quite intentional. In my experience…
Given a sufficiently long period of consistent training, EVERY healthy athlete will improve significantly, to very high levels of performance.
However, what constitutes a "sufficiently long period" varies greatly among athletes due to their unique training response.
For example, we saw in the last chapter how Ian Thorpe progressed rapidly after joining Doug’s squad to his selection as the youngest swimmer on the national team, and in the chapter before, how ‘talent identified’ female rowers improved quickly, moving from novice to elite in just a few years. On the other hand, some athletes may take a decade or more to achieve significant improvement.
In this chapter, we will focus on some of these differences &, more specifically, on how we can develop a long-term plan for a given athlete that effectively navigates the various stages of their progression over several years.
Let’s begin our look at Long Term Development with one of the most well known and controversial “rules” of developing expert performance – the 10,000 hour rule.
The “10,000 hour rule”
The 10,000 hour rule is a popular concept which suggests that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expertise in any given field. This concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers,"[i] which was based on research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues.
In their paper "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,"[ii] Ericsson and his colleagues argue that it is not simply innate talent or natural ability that leads to high-level performance, but rather a consistent accumulation of hours of deliberate practice over many years. Deliberate practice referring to a highly structured and focused form of practice, designed to improve specific aspects of performance.
Ericsson and his colleagues suggest that accumulating many hours, specifically, approximately 10,000 hours, of deliberate practice is the key to high-level performance in any field. Through deliberate practice, individuals can improve their skills and abilities, ultimately leading to expertise in their chosen field.
Overall, the 10,000 hour rule suggests that high-level performance is achievable for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort to engage in a sufficient amount of deliberate practice.
While Ericsson’s initial paper focused on non-sporting fields like music and chess, the same principle has been applied to sports, including the sport of Ironman triathlon…
In their paper, “Expertise in Ultra-Endurance Triathletes – Early Sport Involvement, Training Structure and the theory of Deliberate Practice”[i], Baker Cote and Deakin study the factors that separate “Expert” triathletes from those in the middle and back of the pack.
“Experts” had a mean Ironman time of 9:21 (Top Amateurs & Professionals), “Middle of the Pack” triathletes had a mean finishing time of 12:02. “Back of the pack” athletes had a mean finishing time of 15:03. The differences in their accumulated training volume, both prior to starting triathlon training (single sport and team sport training) and after starting triathlon training, are shown below:
Table 10.1: Differences in accumulated training hours between “Experts”, “MOP” and “BOP” athletes
They unsurprisingly found that the “expert” triathletes accumulated significantly more training time over a period of years than the lower ranked categories.
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