Starting sports at an early age does not necessarily provide athletes with an advantage, and practice levels accounts for just 1% of the difference in elite athlete performances, new research from Case Western Reserve University has found
“While practice is necessary for elite athletes to reach a high level of competition, after a certain point, the amount of practice essentially stops differentiating who makes it far and who makes it to the very top,” said lead author Brooke Macnamara, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University.
“Human performance is incredibly complex,” she said. “Multiple factors need to be considered, only one of which is practice.”
According to the study practice explains about 18% of why some athletes perform better or worse than others, with 82% of this difference attributed to factors other than practice.
The findings counter the notion that anyone can become an expert or elite athlete with 10,000 hours of practice, a theory inspired by research from Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s and popularized in the mainstream since.
“The concept of 10,000 hours taps into the American ideal of hard work and dedication leading naturally to excellence,” said Macnamara. “But it does not account for the inherent differences across people and across sports.”
And despite some research suggesting starting young gives an athlete more time to build skills critical to attaining high performance levels, this study contradicts this.
Higher-skill athletes start at about the same age as less-skilled athletes – or even began a little later – according to Macnamara’s research. In fact, athletes may benefit from waiting to specialise in one sport: A more physically mature athlete can accomplish the fundamentals of an activity more easily, with a lower risk of injury from overuse.
Factors other than practice believed to influence athletic performance include genetic attributes, such as fast-twitch muscles and maximum blood oxygenation level; cognitive and psychological traits and behaviours — including confidence, performance anxiety, intelligence and working memory capacity
“As we look at multiple factors, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to — with 100% certainty — predict someone’s performance in any activity, not just sports,” Macnamara said. “But we can do better than we’re doing now.”