(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the club)

Opinion Matters

The 10,000 Hour "Rule"

The other day in conversation, a triathlete friend of mine confidently informed me that when you change your stroke you have to do 10,000 lengths before the changes can become fully established. What she was doing was expressing a variant of the now widely held conviction that to become great at something takes 10,000 hours of practice. As an idea it has been around since the early 1990s when a group of psychologists at Florida State University, headed by Dr. Anders Ericsson, first suggested it and since then it has been repeated so often and in so many guises that it has popularly assumed the status of a scientific "rule" eventhough the reality is that there is little real evidence to support it. But why should anyone in swimming be specifically concerned by any of this? Well most coaches will have heard of the concept of Break Point Volume (supposedly a key prerequisite for all serious competitive swimmers to train in excess of 50km a week) - in fact most will be aware of the former National Performance Director's rather dismissive reported comments about youngsters who do not manage to cover that minimum weekly distance. If you care to do the rough maths involved you will be able to see where this figure comes from - yes, it is swimming's manifestation of the 10,000 hour "rule".

So let's return then to Dr Ericsson. In his original work he approached pianists, whom he placed into three categories - greater experts, lesser experts, and serious amateurs. Greater experts, he and his colleagues found, had amassed 10,000 hours of deliberate practice by the age of 20; lesser experts had amassed 5,000 hours; and serious amateurs had amassed 2,000 hours. Ergo, the longer you practice something the better you become at it until you finally achieve mastery.

But of course it does not quite work like that. Even assuming that levels of expertise in Dr Ericsson's study were defined before the number of hours of practice was known, there are still several serious shortcomings to the notion. Much as people like nice round numbers, 10,000 hours is a pretty arbitrary figure as, for that matter, is the age of 20. Neither in fact cast much specific light on the relationship between practice and expertise, leaving a good many questions unanswered: for example, at what age did the greater experts first attain that level of expertise and how many hours practice had they amassed by that point in time? No bottom limit for hours of practice is known, nor is there any indication of what the groups would have looked like with continuing practice into the future.

Then there is the matter of exceptional membership of the various groups, ie those who despite amassing 10,000 hours of practice still did not figure in the greater experts group; and conversely, those among the greater experts who had in fact amassed less than 10,000 hours of practice. This gives rise to the question why these exceptional memberships occur, and logically invites an examination of the nature of the practice individuals pursue, as well as what other influences play a part in the development of expertise. This would suggest that continued improvement in expertise may not be the automatic consequence of more experience, even when it is deliberate, ie consisting of activites designed for the sole purpose of effectively improving an individual's performance. In reality, the pathway to becoming excellent is messy and ambiguous, and there is really no simple model to becoming great: a myriad of variables matter and you will never be confident that you have found the optimum combination.

So what's the rub with Break Point Volume? Well, it too easily reduces achievement to quantity (the secret to becoming great is to do a great amount of work) and thereby encourages a put-all-your-eggs-in-the-one-basket model of development, the outcome of which is to expect youngsters to train for 16 or more hours a week at the obvious expense of other activities in their lives. The other side of the coin encourages people who do not or cannot do the hours to believe that they will always just be also-rans and will never make it. Both alternatives may be wrong - the path to excellence requires a balance between confidence and doubt, and though this balance is challenging, it is tractable as long as you recognize what you are facing.

No-one is saying that the development of excellence does not take a lot of hard work but there is no magic number: it is not the result of a well-behaved tallying of hours but instead emerges out of a cauldron of rolling ambiguity. So in response to my triathlete friend, forget the 10,000 lengths (or even hours) - stroke correction will depend on how you approach it. And when it comes to developing ability in swimming, know that the right way forward is never quite clear.


Johnstone Macpherson-Stewart