What does it take to succeed?

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” quotes a 1993 research paper that studied top violinists and concluded that the best of the best violinists consistently practiced for a period of 7,000 – 10,000 hrs in order to become 1st chair violinists in a recognized Symphony Orchestra (aka “success” as a musician).

In a follow up study, researchers attempted to replicate the results from the first study of violinists and came to the following conclusions after their own review: middle of the pack violinists accumulate 6,000 hrs of practice, and violinists who ranged from good to excellent rack up an average of 11,000 hrs of practice.

6,000 Total Training Hours Accumulated
= Middle of the Pack (at National level)

In addition, these researchers discovered that there is another dimension to training beyond just hours of practice: once a violinist passes 6,000 hrs, actual practice time becomes a less important factor to success (its still required but alone practice time isn’t sufficient to predict success) as quality of the practice time becomes a more important predictor to determining long term success.

How much daily training is required to become “middle of the pack“?

**  2 hrs per day consistently for 9 years  **

So where’s the rush for results?

Let’s allow kids the time to develop at their pace.

What can we take from these studies?

(1) Until an athletes racks up a few thousand hours of training time, predicting their potential is pointless… the average National level athlete will have at least 6,000 hrs of training time. Until your junior athletes puts in the time needed to hit the median there is no point in attempting to predict anything. A lot can happen and will happen in that time… puberty, high school & graduation, university admission, and so on. Until your child decides upon a path, sport needs to be about learning, about them learning how to develop, how to progress, about acquiring, developing and refining the process to succeed in sport (which is the same process to succeed in life).

(2) Its important to start with the end in mind… if the quality of training separates the best from the best of the best, then training at the outset needs to start with this end in mind. Teaching junior athletes to focus beyond the what of training and onto the how : how they execute sport specific technique, how they acquire, develop and refine the skill sets of the sport, how they train, and how they compete will pay off in spades over the long term.

The implication for parents: judging, comparing, measuring your child against other children before they have acquired a base of training time (i.e. few thousand hours) is harmful to the long term success of your child. Two children born a day apart will not start in sport at the same age, in the same way, or have the same experiences. Pairing up children to see who wins maybe entertaining for parents, but its harmful to children (see the quote on our ‘Training Philosophy’ webpage on this topic).

Want your child to succeed? Then start with the end in mind, start with their long term success in mind. Our focus: quality progressive training that encourages your child to learn to appreciate that consistent deliberate work is the process to long term success.

Until an athlete is consistently & deliberately training 2hrs/day…
there is no reason to anticipate or predict any level of success

(aka if your child rarely does math homework… is there any point anticipating a great grade in math?)

What about when a child athlete does stand on the podium… isn’t that significant?  Its absolutely a fun and fantastic moment for the child, but nothing more should be made of it… its no indication of future success or the child’s Olympic potential. When a child wins its rarely about their ability and more about the inability of the other children in the competition (and what most fail to appreciate is that it says nothing about the potential of those other children to gain abilities and win the next time).

In fact, the predominant reason why children drop out of sport is because when winning is associated to being in sport, when their winning trend ends with a loss or a few or when they are struggling to set new personal best times or scores… all of a sudden the luster of competition wanes and the point of training disappears as the child is all of a sudden “bored” and then done with the sport. When ‘being’ in a sport is only about winning, the moment a child loses, their time in sport is close to ending. The pattern is so predictable that I had my children keep record of the athletes in their age category they admired and believed are unbeatable; now, a few years later there is but only one or two of those children still in the sport [and none of them appear unbeatable any more].

The point… children need to be encouraged to use sport to gain the skill set they will need to succeed in life. No one ever wins endlessly in life, at some point we all have a fall. So learning how to fall and stand back up, learning from and becoming stronger as a result is the experience which your child needs critically to succeed in sport and across life.

In his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell explains how birth month of aspiring hockey players is predictive of their eventual playing in the NHL. One child born in January and another child born in December of the same year are the same “age” on paper, but the child born in January will start learn to skate lessons, and introductory hockey programs 10-12 months before the child born in December. Although this period may seem small and irrelevant, it can add up to a hundred or more hours of training which can play a significant role as a teen when it comes to team selection, which plays an eventual role in the athletes ‘success’ in being drafted to the NHL, at which point it plays a statistically significant role as the majority of NHL players are born in the 1st 6 months of the calendar year.

The point… children may be the same age on paper but there are no two children who grow up following the exact same trajectory (i.e. have the same exposure and experience) to and in sport and the simple matter of a few months of extra training time can make all the difference.  Then add in different growth rates, different learning rates and comparing children in their abilities before they accumulate a few thousand hours of training time is really quite ridiculous (and any coach who does should be ridiculed). Its entertainment for parents to claim what appears to be a “naturally gifted” child but rarely does the child that wins at 10 or 12 last long enough in sport to win when it really matters… when the child hits their psychological and physiological peak (age 18-24).

What happens when a child is driven to deliver results ahead of their total accumulated training time? Click here to link to a post titled “224 bpm Heart Rate @ rest”; this post could have easily been titled: “dying to deliver results to earn a parents love [or a coach’s attention/approval]”. Its a reflection on the recent story of a teenagers cycling career coming to an early and abrupt end as a result of needing heart surgery to tame an aberrant heart beat developed from training and racing consistently at an excessive intensity.

Which leaves me with a request… parent to parent… ask yourself this: what result is worthy of the cost of your child’s well-being, health, or life? Ridiculous question, but unfortunately in the quest for results at earlier and earlier ages, the lure of Provincial or National Team membership, university scholarships and so on, parents are failing to ask this question, and coaches are far to eager to entertain the needs of parents to see their children ‘perform’.

Your child will succeed in sport and in life if given the opportunity to develop at their own pace; so on behalf of your child… please provide them that opportunity.