What Research Says About the Relationship Between Practice and Experience
Some people do much better at activities like sports, music, and chess than others. Take the great basketball player Stephen Curry , for example. Last season, breaking the record he set last year by more than 40 percent, Curry hit 402 3-pointers – 126 points more than his closest rival.
What explains this exceptional performance? Are natural experts endowed with a genetic advantage? Are they completely “made” through training? Or is there both?
This post was originally published in The Conversation .
What Earlier Research Shows
This question is the subject of a long-standing debate in psychology and is the focus of a new book, The Peak: Secrets of a New Science of Experience , by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and writer Robert Poole .
In a 1993 study , Ericsson and his colleagues recruited violinists from an elite Berlin music academy and asked them to estimate the amount of time they had spent “deliberately practicing” in their musical careers.
Mindful practice, as defined by Ericsson and colleagues, includes training sessions specifically designed to improve a person’s skills in endeavors such as playing a musical instrument. These activities require a high level of concentration and are inherently not enjoyable. Consequently, the amount of deliberate practice that even experts can do is limited to a few hours a day.
The main finding of Ericsson and his colleagues was that there is a positive correlation between the skill level of violinists and the amount of conscious practice they have accumulated. As the mindfulness practice increased, the skill level increased.
For example, by age 20, the most experienced group of violinists has accumulated on average about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice — or about 5,000 more hours than the average for the group with the lowest level of training. In a second study, Ericsson and colleagues replicated the discovery in pianists.
Based on research, these researchers concluded that deliberate practice, not talent, is the determining factor for the work of experts. The researchers wrote that they “reject any important role of innate ability.”
In a recent interview, Ericsson explained:
We cannot find any limiting factors that humans really cannot overcome with the right training. Except for body size: you cannot train to be taller.
Is it all about training?
Based on this evidence, writer Malcolm Gladwell came up with his “10,000 hour rule,” a dictum that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in his field. However, in the scientific literature, Ericsson’s views have been highly controversial from the outset.
In an early criticism, Harvard psychologist and multiple intelligences theorist Howard Gardner observed that Ericsson’s perspective required “blindness” to earlier studies of skill acquisition. Development psychologist Ellen Winner added that “Ericsson’s research demonstrated the importance of hard work, but did not rule out the role of innate ability.” The renowned researcher of giftedness François Gagnier noted that Ericsson’s view “overlooks many important variables.” Additionally, cognitive neuroscientist Gary Marcus observed :
Practice really matters – in a lot and in amazing ways. But it would be a logical mistake to conclude from the importance of practice that talent is somehow irrelevant, as if they were in mutual opposition.
So how important is learning?
For our part, working with colleagues around the world , we focused on empirical testing of the theory of Ericsson and colleagues to learn more about the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in various fields.
A 2014 study by Case Western Reserve psychologist Brooke McNamara used a statistical tool called meta-analysis to aggregate findings from 88 earlier studies with over 11,000 participants, including studies that Ericsson and colleagues used to prove the importance of deliberate practice.
Each study included an assessment of some activity that could be interpreted as deliberate practice, as well as an assessment of the level of skill in a field such as music, chess or sports.
Research has shown that deliberate practice and skill level are positively correlated with each other. In other words, the higher the skill level, the more deliberate practice is required. However, the correlation was not strong enough to suggest that differences in skill level are largely due to deliberate practice.
Specifically, the key to this finding is that people can take vastly different amounts of deliberate practice to achieve the same skill level.
A more recent study synthesized the results of 33 studies to understand the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic performance at a more detailed level.
One important finding was that deliberate practice lost predictive power at the highest skill levels. That is, on average, there was almost no difference in the accumulated amount of deliberate training between elite-level athletes, such as Olympians, and lower-level athletes, such as national championships.
Exercise isn’t the only factor.
As we discussed in a recent review article with behavioral geneticist Miriam Mosing , this evidence tells us that experience – like virtually all phenomena studied by psychologists – is determined by many factors .
Training history is certainly an important factor in why some people are more successful than others. Nobody becomes a world-class performer without practice. Humans are literally not born with the specialized knowledge that underpins skills in fields such as music and chess. However, it now seems clear that learning is not the only important factor in gaining experience. Other factors are equally important.
What could be these other factors? There are probably many of them, including basic abilities and abilities that are known to be influenced by genes.
In a 2010 study with psychologist Elizabeth Meinz, 57 pianists, ranging from beginner to professional, assessed the amount of conscious practice they have accumulated over their musical careers and passed tests for “working memory.” Working memory is the ability to focus on information that is important to completing a task while filtering out distractions.
Then the pianists tried sight-reading (that is, playing them without preparation) on the piano in the laboratory. The main finding was that working memory was a factor in pianists’ success at sight-reading, even among those who purposefully practiced for thousands of hours.
Our study of twins also shows that genetic factors influence musical propensity. This study compares identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, with fraternal twins, who, on average, have only 50 percent of their genes in common. The key finding of this work is that identical twins tend to be more similar to each other in their practice history, as well as in their scores on tests of basic musical ability, than fraternal twins are to each other. For example, it is more likely to find a pair of identical twins who have accumulated over 10,000 hours of practice than a pair of identical twins who both have accumulated that amount of practice.
This finding indicates that while extensive practice is required to become a highly skilled musician, genetic factors affect our willingness to practice. More generally, this research suggests that we gravitate towards and persist in activities that we have a penchant for from the start.
Research by other scientists is beginning to link the work of experts to specific genes. In a groundbreaking series of molecular genetic studies, University of Sydney geneticist Catherine North and her colleagues found that the ACTN3 gene, which is expressed in fast-twitch muscle fibers, correlates with high sprint success rates . Based on these findings, North and her colleagues have named ACTN3 a possible “speed gene.”
How can people work with Excel?
With this evidence in mind, we argued that the richness and complexity of experience cannot be fully understood by focusing on “nature” or “nurture.”
For us, the days of arguing that “experts are born against what they did” are over. Our challenge is to understand the myriad ways in which experts are born and become, by developing and testing models of experience that take into account all relevant factors, including not only learning but also genetic influences.
In practical terms, we believe this research will provide the scientific basis for developing robust principles and procedures to help people develop skills. Sports science research is already beginning to demonstrate that it will one day be possible to provide people with accurate information about the activities they can excel at and to develop highly personalized training regimens to maximize people’s potential.
Not only does this study fail to discourage people from pursuing their dreams, it promises to make expert work available to more people than currently.