Another Critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule”

I’m currently reading a very interesting book entitled Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession. (The “our” is Canada, if you hadn’t already guessed that from the reference to hockey.) If nothing else, this book has made me, as a figure skater, realize that participating in hockey can be almost as expensive as participating in figure skating, especially when parents put their kids into all kinds of additional hockey training and coaching.

However, the part of the book that I found particularly fascinating was its comments on Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”, which I have criticized in another post Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels, the authors of Selling the Dream, report that the 10,000-hour rule has become very popular in the world of amateur hockey – among hockey parents pushing their kids to maximize their potential, and among coaches, hockey schools, trainers and leagues, who happily sell their services to parents convinced that their child has to put in 10,000 hours of effort to have any chance of a career in professional hockey.

Here’s a summary of Campbell and Parcels’ comments on hockey and the 10,000-hour rule:

If any one group of people already espouses the idea of hard work, it’s hockey parents. So the 10,000 hour rule found a ready audience among parents and coaches….But to minimize the importance of natural ability is, quite frankly, absurd.

What would 10,000 hours of hockey practice look like? (credit:Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia)

What would 10,000 hours of hockey practice look like? (credit:Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia)

…[D]eliberate practice is just what it sounds like: one of the tenets as defined by Ericsson is that it’s not inherently enjoyable and it’s not play. So time spent playing games, scrimmaging, and driving to the rink cannot be considered to contribute to deliberate practice. Let’s break it down, then. To fulfill the requirement of 10,000 hours over the course of ten years, a player would have to be on the ice for two hours and forty-five minutes every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for a period of ten years.

…[Over] a fourteen-year period between the ages of five and eighteen, which is typically the time span for prime development, [that] would require a player to be on the ice for almost two hours every day without missing a day for more than 5,000 consecutive days. Where the 10,000 hour rule falls down in its application to hockey is in the logistics of it all….First of all, where would you get that kind of ice time? How would you accommodate games and travel and tournaments if you’re on the ice for three hours a day simply working on your skills? How could anyone possibly practice that much and do that many tedious drills – without actually playing the game – before burning out? (p. 112-119)

These comments emphasize a serious flaw in the 10,000-hour “rule”. The research that Gladwell (inaccurately) draws on was looking at chess players and musicians. Now there are certainly barriers to practicing in both of those activities, such as finding available time with the appropriate coach or teacher, having the right kind of equipment, or finding practice space. But for hockey players, practicing not only also has to overcome logistic and scheduling problems, but also has to overcome the problem of getting access to a very specific and non-substitutable type of training facility – i.e., an ice rink. Rinks aren’t always close by, and ice time is expensive – and, in some places, hard to find at a reasonable time or hard to find at all (this is true for figure skating as well).

So generalizing the 10,000-hour figure to any activity – as Gladwell does, in stating that ‘Ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness‘ – is misleading at best. It fails to take into account exactly what might be required to achieve 10,000 hours of practice time in different types of activities, and the hockey example is a very good demonstration of that flaw.

Campbell and Parcels also have some interesting observations on another part of the same book in which Gladwell discusses the 10,000-hour rule.

The 10,000-hour rule isn’t the only place in Outliers where Gladwell makes a sweeping generalization… 539 players, or 55.7 percent of those who played in the [National Hockey League] in 2010-11, were born in the first six months of the year.  And 428, or 44.3 percent, were born from July 1 to December 31. It’s a notable difference to be sure, but not quite as stark as some would have you believe – and certainly not as predetermined as Gladwell suggests in Outliers when he says ‘Those born in the last quarter of the year might as well give up on hockey’. (p. 123)

It’s really useful to see how theories stand up (or don’t stand up) when applied to real-life situations and data. In my opinion, Campbell and Parcels have done a very thoughtful job of deconstructing Gladwell’s claims.

RELATED POST: Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” Doesn’t Add Up


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