Why 10,000 is the Most Dangerous Number in Sports

By Erin Smith – US Lacrosse10,000 hours artivle

I enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell. I think he has an uncanny way of making us think differently and question our assumptions. However, I fear Mr. Gladwell has done youth sports a great disservice by popularizing the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success.”

For those of you who have escaped this ubiquitous number in discussions about becoming a world-class athlete (or even just a good one who can nail a college scholarship), I’ll summarize the 10,000 Hour Rule. The idea is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become elite at any particular activity.

After spending three days in June at the National Coaching Conference learning from some of the best minds in coaching and athlete development research, I was amazed at how many times the presenters directly debunked the 10,000 hour rule as a complete myth. Presenters included preeminent youth sports expert Dr. Jean Côté, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, and a bunch of other really smart people who have devoted their careers to helping us better support the young athlete.

This misguided idea of 10,000 hours of practice has inadvertently validated the trend toward having kids specialize in sport from an early age, including late-specialization sports such as lacrosse, soccer, ice hockey and most other team sports. A well-meaning parent of some little tyke hears the rule and starts thinking,

“How is Johnny going to get his 10,000 hours in by the time he’s supposed to get recruited at age 12? Ack! Put a helmet on the kid and get him going on the wall now! He’ll be potty trained before we know it!”

Poor Johnny. We all know the stuff that comes with early specialization—overuse injuries, burnout, muscle imbalance, looking like a total idiot when all you’ve done is swim competitively and now there’s no pool and you can’t catch a ball to save your life at the company whiffle ball game. The list goes on.

I dare you to say “screw the 10,000 hour rule” and all its pressures and potential risks.

I’m not going to leave you high and dry without some facts. If you’re like me, you’re not going to want to go all counter-culture without being prepared for a heated debate at the team picnic with Joe “My Kid is Going to be Awesome Because All He’s Done Since Age Two is Play Lacrosse” Dad.

Here’s what the research really tells us:

First, the initial 10,000-hour study was conducted by renowned psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. It was a study of violinists, aimed at figuring out what set the professional elite apart from their lesser counterparts, all of whom were gifted in music. It has since been taken grossly out of context, to a level that I won’t go into here. While the Ericsson study is of value, what’s missing is that there are many more factors involved to reach a mastery level other than grinding away at one task for some 10,000 hours.

Does specialized practice really matter? Sure, but it’s a matter of when. In studies of elite athletes, there were significant hours of deliberate practice in a specific sport, but only after childhood. So yes, the idea that you need to practice—a lot—holds true, but not until after puberty. A study of Scandinavian athletes showed that kids who specialized in sport at later ages were more successful. Studies by Dr. Côté also show that in order to maximize performance, participation and personal development, the best time to transition to a singular or dual-sport focus is between the ages of 13 and 15.

What should your young athlete do in the meantime? Play lots of different sports and do lots of activities. This is beneficial for many reasons, but here are two big ones:

  1. Young kids’ brains have what’s known as “neural plasticity,” which makes it a lot easier to learn essential sport and motor skills at a young age. Giving them the tools early on affords them almost limitless opportunities to pick up a new sport or excel at a chosen one at the right time down the road. I think that’s why we see so many great crossover athletes getting involved in lacrosse. Our sport, perhaps more than any other, rewards kids who have skills such as hand-eye coordination, field sense, speed, endurance and agility—all of which can be developed through multi-sport participation in childhood.
  2. Working a variety of muscle groups and doing activities that strengthen bones such as jumping, climbing, hopping and running prevents children from future injury. We can’t expect a kid to sit on a couch all day, go to practice for a few hours a week, sit on the couch some more, then go to a game and avoid injury. We want kids with a broad base of athleticism and with muscle balance, neither of which are built by doing one sport activity nor by sitting around except for organized sport practice and competition.

Take that, Joe “My Kid is Going to be Awesome Because All He’s Done Since Age Two is Play Lacrosse” Dad.

Dump the 10,000 hours thing. Give the kids a foundation of activity. Give them time and opportunity to do the stuff that kids do, because they’re kids. Give them the keys to any athletic door they want to open.

Or, think about it this way: If you had three hours a day for nine years to be active with your child from ages 5-14, how would you spend that time?

Would you do the same thing over and over? Or would you go for a hike, ride bikes, take a yoga class, jump in a pool, play pick-up basketball, learn how to ice skate, do some wall ball, play some organized sports, take a vacation—gasp—that’s not centered around a tournament?

Let’s make those 10,000 hours really count for something bigger.

Erin Smith is the Director of Education and Training at US Lacrosse.

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