The 10,000 -hour rule for sporting success is largely a myth, so let kids dabble | Sean Ingle

A new volume blows out of the water the hypothesi that the key to sport success is relentless practise and total focus from an early age

This column comes from the sleepy Austrian town of Gotzis, where Katarina Johnson-Thompson has obliterated a world-class heptathlon field, winning four of the seven disciplines. Her event is a supreme test of speed, strength, stamina and technical skill. Yet Johnson-Thompson did not start out wanting to be an athlete. Instead, while continuing to in nappies, she began taking ballet class. Then, later, she became obsessed with football, kicking about with friends outside her house in Liverpool while wearing a Steven Gerrard top. Merely when she was older did she focus on track and field.

I mention this because I have been reading an extraordinary new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialised World, by David Epstein, which skewers what he calls” the cult of the head start” and makes an overwhelming scientific example for playing the sport field.

Epstein’s book starts with Tiger Woods, who was driving a golf ball past an awestruck Bob Hope at two and shooting 48 for nine holes when four- acts that foretold his sporting genius. Woods’s tale, and others such as that of Serena Williams- who began playing tennis at three- have become almost how-to handbooks for pushy mothers: start them young, train them hard and watch them soar.

Books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Bounce by Matthew Syed have reinforced this idea by propagating the 10,000 -hour rule for success- something Gladwell describes as the “magic number of greatness”. Their message is simple and seductive: to succeed someone needs 10,000 hours of deliberate practise in an activity, which entails it is best to start early. Yet with a few exceptions such as gymnastics, where ability acquisition needs to be developed before maturity, and chess, where developing early pattern recognition is vital, the science does not back that up.

Instead Epstein says most elite athletes are more like Roger Federer, who dabbled in a vast number of sports- including skiing, wrestling, handball, skateboarding, football, badminton- which helped to develop his athleticism and hand-eye coordination, before focusing on tennis much later; or the Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko, who took four years off boxing as a kid to learn traditional Ukrainian dance and also did gymnastics, basketball, football and tennis and is now the best boxer in the world.

As Epstein points out, most people think of football as a sport where early specialisation is important. But a 2014 examine comparing the development of 52 top German footballers, including 18 national team players, with 50 who playing in the fourth to sixth divisions found that emphatically was not the case.

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Yes, all the persons who played for the national team differed from the amateurs. But not in the way you would expect. As the academics noted, the German internationals played” more non-organised leisure football in childhood, more engagement in other athletics in adolescence” and specialised in football merely at a later age.

A German study comparing international females players with those who only played in the Bundesliga received a similar narrative. Those who represented the national team played fewer games up to 18 and did” more peer-led football and coach-led practice in other sports compared to their Bundesliga equivalents “.

There is a message there, especially given that children can now join club academies from as young as eight. It pays to keep sampling other athletics and to focus on fun practice before specialising later.

It is not just football, either. A Danish study, which looked at the differences between 148 upper-clas starrings in multiple sports- including canoeing, cycling, rowing, sailing, skiing, swimming, way and field and triathlon- compared with 95 near-elite athletes in the same disciplines, determined a similarly surprising picture.

Tiger Woods during his freshman year at Stanford University in October 1994. Photograph: David Madison/ Getty Images

As the academics noted, the near-elite athletes accumulated” significantly more training hours as early as age nine and continued to complete more hours through early adolescence until age 15″ compared with elites. The elites also had their first national and international competitions at an older age. It did not matter. The upper-class intensified their training regime during late adolescence and ran past them.

Epstein notes that the research phases a similar way in most athletics.” Eventual elites typically dedicate less hour early on to deliberate practice in which they will eventually become experts ,” he writes.” Instead they tend to’ sample’ a wide number of sports in an unstructured or softly unstructured environment” before specialising only later.

Why might this be? Part of it is that early specialisation and highly structured educate can lead to lower motivation, burnout and potentially increased injury rates. But there is a more fundamental point that Epstein wants to attain: acquiring abilities in multiple sports, often via unstructured play, assistances develop ingenuity and equips people better to handle fresh challenges later in their sport life.

Incidentally the rest of Range shows that this theory holds outside sport, too. Epstein, quoting one of the world’s most influential researchers in the psychology of music, indicates the best way to get better is” a sampling period, often gently structured with some lessons and a breadth of instruments and activities, followed only later by a narrowing of focus, increased structure and an explosion of practice volume “.

Essentially what Epstein is telling us is that what can lead to improvements in the short term can sometimes undermine long-term success. Experiment, have fun, be prepared to fail- and accept that, if you want to succeed, holding obsessively to the 10,000 -hour rule is probably not the way to go.

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