Notes on Dave Asprey’s interview with David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance on Bulletproof Radio podcast – September 2014
Q: What about the 10,000-hour principle?
DE: The 10,000 hour rule as a rule is not legit. In so far as it is code word for lots of practice – it is really important, yes. Absolutely, but it’s been completely controversial amongst sports scientists for a while. The idea that the sort of strict version of the 10,000 hour rule and there’s no such thing as natural talent and 10,000 hours of practice is necessary and sufficient to make anyone an expert in anything is simply not the case. It comes from a tiny violin study done on 30 violinists who were so highly pre-screened that they’d already gained admission to a world famous music academy. It’s what statisticians call a restriction of range and it’s the worst kind based on your dependant variable. It would be like doing a basketball study based on only NBA centers noticing that they practiced a lot and that’s what got them to where they are, not practice plus being 7-feet tall. By restricting that subject range, you hopelessly bias your study against finding any evidence of innate talent.
The 10 best violinists in that study had an average number of hours of practice by age 20 of 10,000 hours, but most had not reached 10,000. It was just an average and some had gone way over. Chess is incredibly dependent on coding and brain patterns. Chess is 11,053 hours on average to international master’s status, but some people make it after 3,000 hours, some people are tracked at 2,500 and having made it. I cheekily subtracted my second chapter 10,000 hours +/- 10,000 hours.
Q: Are there ways to accelerate it? How to do it faster?
DE: Depends on what you are looking for. The best group was also sleeping 5.4 more hours a week more per week. This could have been the 5.4 hour rule study.
One thing that shows up – I write briefly but not super expensively about the grooming and talent studies in the Netherlands. They’ve been tracking kids in a variety of sports from age 12 to the pros. One thing they found is that the kids that learn skills more quickly when they practice, you see them in their research video and they’re going up to the trainers an going, “Well, I’ve already mastered this drill. Why are we doing this? Which one of my weaknesses is this working on? I’ve already mastered this and I want to try something else. They look like they’re being insolent 12-year olds, but they are self-assessing constantly.
They’re figuring out their weaknesses and strengths with what sports psychologists call self-regulatory behavior. They are constantly looking at themselves like an experiment. They end up assessing their weaknesses much more similarly to how the coaches do than the other kids. And they continually improve. They do not plateau. That seems to hold across most of the grooming and talent sports. They become the orchestrators of their own development. They are constantly assessing and coming up with a plan to work on a weakness, seeing if that worked, and if it didn’t work, they are revising and trying again and going through that cycle. They get more out of their practice hours than their peers.
Q: Is this something that can be taught or learned?
It’s definitely coachable. They are showing that in their studies. I think they are finding in some ways that the most important role of a coach is helping a player become that orchestrator of their own development and then passing their development off to them and letting them go.
There are some ways we know we can hack certain skills like in golf, there’s something called the quiet eye period that’s becoming a big deal. It’s actually in a lot of targeting sports. In the two-seconds before putting, Tiger Woods’ eyes fix on the back of the ball in the spot where he’s going to hit and they stay there. In that same two-seconds, a lesser golfer’s eye will hit six different spots on the ball and they won’t know it. If you ask them where they were looking, they will say they were looking right there, but if you put tracking glasses on them, it won’t be true. They can’t be explained explicitly. You can’t say keep your eye there. If you say we wrote a word underneath the ball, I want you to read it before you look up after you hit this put. After two weeks, it will make their gaze more stable and I think the average is they take off about 1.9 putts per round in two weeks for people who are already pretty good amateurs. I preach that finding what matters and what you can change. I know that things like quiet eye we know matter to sports performance and turn out to be incredibly coachable.
Q: What is your work around the role of diet around sports performance?
DE: I think it’s an under-attended issue for the vast majority of athletes. Some of it depends on your ancestry to a degree – what your ratio of carbs to proteins and fats and things like that should be. The fact is that most people don’t experiment with it at all frankly to find out what’s best for them. Sadly most people would be better off spending two minutes putting thought into anything they’re putting in their mouth. So we’re starting at a very low baseline. There’s no question that the fuel you put in your tank impacts everything – your body composition, it impacts hormone levels. There’s no question at all and for the most part, we’re not paying attention at all. It’s hard to put a blanket assessment on it, but I think it’s an area where almost everybody can make life and fitness improvements.