Practice Makes Perfect? Not Really

Spending 10,000 hours trying to build an elite athlete probably isn't the best use of anyone's time, finds a new study.

Why are some people just better than others when it comes to sports? Could practice really make the difference between a middling and a top talent?

The answers to these questions will certainly interest coaches, talent scouts, parents and of course athletes themselves. But practice doesn't really seem to have much of an impact on elite sports performance, finds a new study published this week in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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Among ordinary athletes, deliberate practice accounted for an 18 percent variance in sports performance. For elite athletes, the difference was far lower, accounting for a mere 1 percent difference in performance.

"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 of Case Western Reserve University.

To figure out how much of an impact practice made on an athlete's abilities on game day, a team of researchers from the United States and New Zealand conducted a meta-analysis of 52 independent data sets from a total of 2,765 participants, all of whom had varying levels of skill in one sport or another.

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In addition to determining how much of an impact practice itself had, the researchers also discovered that starting an athlete at a younger age to provide more time to build up skills isn't necessarily beneficial. In fact, a more physically developed individual can learn a sport's fundamentals more easily while reducing the risk of injury from overexertion, the authors found.

The findings have implications for anyone in the business of raising or training athletes. "From a practical perspective, knowledge about the contribution of deliberate practice to performance may help people make better informed decisions," the authors write. "For example, athletes, parents, recruiters and coaches can use this knowledge to weigh the importance of deliberate practice and the associated time and financial investment."

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The study also challenges the so-called 10,000-hour rule, which suggests the amount of dedicated practice that will eventually lead to expertise of a particular skill, and it's not the first to do so. In 2014, a similar study published in the journal Psychological Science written by the same lead author debunked the idea that top performers in not only sports but also music, education and a number of professions were the ones who practiced the most.

So if practice doesn't exactly make perfect, what guides athletic performance? Unfortunately, the answer is a bit complicated. Genetic predisposition, competitive experience, cognitive and psychological traits and behaviors all play a role. More research is needed to determine just how much of a role each of these traits play in contributing to an athlete's success.

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