Olympic Champions, and Olympic Participants, and that 10,000 Hour Rule

So, as I have watched a few of the events from the Olympics, and I’ve been thinking about the 10,000 hour rule.  And I am ready to state the obvious:  putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.

First, a refresher.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, described the 10,000 hour rule.  To summarize, it takes 10,000 hours to get really world-class good at anything.  (Gladwell got the idea/concept from Anders Ericsson).

And then, in the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, we learn that just any old 10,000 hours is not good enough.  You need to put in “deliberate practice” — lots and lots of deliberate practice – in order to get better and better.  In other words, you practice with the intent to get better.  This kind of practice is exhausting, and almost always needs a very knowledgeable coach, with terrific motivational skills.  (A coach who “can correct with creating resentment.”  John Wooden).

Now, back to the point of this post:  I am ready to state the obvious:  putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.  Here’s what I mean.

As we watch the Olympics, we see pretty clearly that some athletes have developed a work ethic superior to others.  But there are plenty of athletes who put in pretty much the same kind of time, had the same high level work ethic, as the “winners” who beat them when the starter pistol went off.

So, putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.  In sports, you need the 10,000 hours, plus the right coach, plus a little luck, plus maybe the right genetic makeup, plus

Plus, plus, plus…

The more we learn, the more we learn how critical the next “plus” might be.

Now, let me back up.  If we were not so fixated on winning the gold, we might come closer to admitting that the 10,000 hour rule does in fact guarantee success.  Even making an Olympic Team; or, even being good enough to compete in an Olympics Trials Qualifying Event to try to make the team, takes massive skill.  So, why is that not “success?”  It certainly should be.

And we do know that in many cases, coming in second is every bit a “win.”  Did you see the depth of emotion on the faces of Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston after they won the Silver Medal in Synchronized Diving?  They may not have won the Gold, but, it was the first diving medal at all for the USA since 2000, and the first ever medal for the USA in this particular event.  Yes, the Chinese duo were better.  Noticeably better.  But these two young women were the second best in the world, and their 10,000 hours paid off.

Kelci Bryant, left, and Abby Johnston of the USA show off their silver medals from after finishing second in 3-meter synchronized diving. (By Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe we could say this:  maybe 10,000 guarantees nothing.  But a failure to put in 10,000 hours does guarantee something – you won’t make it to the top without putting in those 10,000 hours.

Now – the other challenge.  One reality about this kind of world-class accomplishment is that these athletes show up, every day, with a coach watching and “coaching” every moment.  Wouldn’t all of us get better at our jobs if we had that kind of individual coaching, motivating, “pushing us to the limit” daily encounter?  I think so.

Work ethic, plus coaching, plus deliberate practice, plus constant feedback, plus measurable goals, plus…  The road to true success really is a challenging road.

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