Nature vs nurture, signals v causes

Criticism of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. From it:

…a study published last May in the journal of Intelligence by Hambrick and colleagues suggested that practice explains only about a third of success among musician and chess masters.

No duh. I have a couple thoughts. First, these studies are usually based on backward-looking estimates of time spent in ‘deliberate’ practice, which may not be accurate.

Second, what’s ‘deliberate’ practice? Seems like that could mean a lot of things and one person’s ‘deliberate’ practice may look much different from someone else’s.

Of course, other factors come into play also. After reading about the 10,000 hour rule, I didn’t think I could become Bill Gates or Michael Jordan simply by putting in my 10,000 hours, but it certainly put a different perspective on their success.

A study linked in the above article claims that we should look at factors other than amount of deliberate practice to explain the difference between professional and non-professional soccer players, like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age.

No duh. For the signal vs. causes tag, it seems like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age could be function of the ability the players were showing at that age.

In my experience, even with players at young ages, coaches interested in winning records recruit the best players, so it’s no surprise that they received what appears to be good coaching at a young age, but I’m not convinced that’s the true difference maker.

Certainly, I think good coaches can have an effect, but when you are already a good player and you get on a team with good players, you’re going to have a lot more good deliberate practice and experience on your side.

8 thoughts on “Nature vs nurture, signals v causes

  1. Hi Seth –

    My understanding after reading several of the studies is the difference between “practice” and “deliberate practice” can be summarized by the phrase, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” There is a difference between a kid playing lots of pick up basketball and a kid focusing on various basketball skills with deliberate attention to perfecting the skills through repetitions.

    I agree with your observations about age and being fortunate to have a good coach at a young age. First, when a kid has a bad coach at a young age – and I’m just dealing with technique here – and learns bad technique, it takes a long time to “unlearn” the bad technique. Second, kids who start at a young age don’t have some preconception of the right way.

    Finally, you or I could have put in 10,000 hours as kids practicing basketball – and we would be “good” high school players, but without the right genes, we wouldn’t have the potential to be an MJ. Hopefully, we would select or stumble onto and enjoy an area where we have the most potential and put in 10,000 hours in that area.

    • Hi Mike — My point on deliberate practice is that it is tough to categorize that on a backward looking survey in fine enough detail to have any use in a statistical model that treats all hours of deliberate practice as the same variable.

      I remember hearing a local soccer pro mention that he was lucky enough to have grown up in a neighborhood with immigrants from Mexico, who introduced him to soccer at an early age and taught him to play like they play. Those hours of pickup he played with them do not equal the hours of pickup other play with 1st generation soccer players in the US at the time.

      I think you misunderstand my point on coaches. The coach is not the difference maker. They are just a marker of a grouping of natural talent, interests and self-motivation. What we consider good coaches aren’t good because they make good players. They’re good because they attract good players. The same players who are more likely to turn pro one day.

      I’ve always believed the putting 10,000 hours into something you enjoy doing would be best. We may have become decent high schoolers, but better high school coaches or college assistant coaches, etc.

      • “The coach is not the difference maker. They are just a marker of a grouping of natural talent, interests and self-motivation. What we consider good coaches aren’t good because they make good players. They’re good because they attract good players.”

        Why do certain coaches attract good players? Why would a significant majority of naturally talented players gravitate towards a particular coach and avoid other coaches? Certainly there must be some signal that tells these talented players to seek out Coach A and avoid Coach B.

        From your example regarding the local soccer pro who grew up playing soccer with Mexican immigrants (his de facto coaches), it seems that the soccer pro felt that coaches make a difference as he indicates that there was a difference between learning soccer from experienced Mexicans versus learning soccer from novices.

        • First, I want to say that I think good coaching matters for lots of things, but I don’t think specific coaching quality is the the difference between what makes a pro and non-pro.

          Why do certain coaches attract good players? The same reason boards hire certain CEOs and some people get promoted. Much more often than we think it’s because of mistaken cause and effect, good marketing and luck.

          A coach may have been lucky enough to have coached a few players that went on to bigger and better things. People assume the coach caused that success (while ignoring all the others that didn’t go on to great things), so they seek them out to the point where the coach can be selective and only take the cream of the crop.

          I chose my words poorly regarding the local soccer pro. I don’t think his neighbors coached him. They schooled him. Which is another benefit of coaches that attract good players. Good players will get better faster playing against other good players.

          I think the difference between pros and non-pros comes down to the individual level, with some key differences being in: physical ability, willingness to learn, enjoyment of the activity, self-motivation, competitiveness, good sportsmanship, work ethic, the ability to not get frizzed about losses and not let wins prevent them from looking for things to improve on.

          I’ve coached enough kids to see that there’s a wide variation in the above factors. If I were selecting a team for wins and to infer the image that “I can make your child into a star”, I’d look for signs of these factors in that approximate order, with maybe just a few exceptions when it comes to specialty positions or roles.

          These days, with a smidge of self-motivation and Youtube, there isn’t much excuse for kids to not learn proper techniques.

          • Seth, I’m not sure that there’s a difference between “schooling” (teaching) and “coaching”. The essence of both is that they change someone’s behavior. I do agree that at the “neighborhood” level, and particularly for younger kids, a kid’s talent level is probably more related to innate qualities than coaching. However, as we move up in age and competition levels, environment (coaching – self or external) begins to play a bigger role.

            Sometimes a coach’s role is to teach better technique and sometimes it’s motivational (encouraging players to do things they would not otherwise do).

            Here’s an example: A friend of mine who I regard as the most knowledgeable and dedicated wrestling coach in the western half of my state, coached my son during off-seasons in middle and high school. Now, my son was what can be called a late developer, i.e. he wasn’t very strong physically nor was he very fast or coordinated. However, he was willing to work on technique and, if pushed, conditioning. Fortunately, the off-season coach was, by far, the best technical coach in the region. During his junior year in high school, my son’s high school coach weighed him in a half pound too heavy for his normal weight class and then bumped him up an additional weight class (he weighed 152.5 and wrestled a kid in the 189 weight class) to wrestle a kid they called Tarzan who was very strong (even for his size) and very fast – but he lacked good technique – who he easily beat. The coaching or deliberate practice made the difference. While my son was far outclassed in terms of innate physical abilities, he was able to compensate with technique. In other words, Tarzan had greater potential which he failed to reach while my son had reached a greater percentage of his lesser potential or 10% of 200 is less than 90% of 100.

            Do some coaches or CEOs or others “achieve” success through luck? I’m sure some do, but I think the “market” is efficient enough that eventually most good coaches/CEOs/etc do rise above bad ones. Not always, but more often than not. Sure, sometimes the “talent” that gets them there is something other than the talent that we think matters, but given enough time, the talent that matters in terms of success of the organization or team rises.

            Now, for an example that supports your “luck” idea (which I agree does happen): Jimmy Johnson, the former U Miami and Dallas Cowboys coach. Jimmy got the praise and credit for the UM success, but it was Howard Schellenberger who built the team. Jimmy inherited a dream team – and in subsequent years destroyed it. Howard was a great coach and took UM from laughingstock to success. Because of Howard, athletes wanted to come to UM. Under Jimmy, good kids continued to come and they continued to have success – for awhile – because of good athletes and not because of good coaching. Eventually, the crappy coaching policies (that often had little to do with the technical aspects of football) caused their downfall. By then, Jimmy had moved on to Dallas where he hit the trifecta again when Dallas got great draft positions and several future Pro Bowl players in exchange for one of the NFLs biggest busts, Hershel Walker.

            I think the difference between a pro and a non-pro boils down to a combination of your potential and what part of that potential you actually reach. Depending on the player and the activity, coaching can play a big or small role. Let me add that at the elite (Olympic level) even a small role can be the difference between a medal an no medal. Of course, when we’re talking about hundredths or even thousandths of a second, luck can play a role as well.

          • Mike — I agree, coaching matters & a good coach can help develop and improve someone’s performance, especially against kids of similar abilities. But I don’t think it’s what makes the difference between a pro & non-pro. There’s too many examples of non-pros being coached by the same coaches as the pros for that to be true.

            Did Tarzan or your son go on to wrestle at higher levels?

            As you mentioned, you and I could have practiced basketball for 10,000 hours under the best coaches and would have been just good high schoolers b/c we didn’t have the right genes.

            That’s all I’m saying.

  2. Hi Seth

    In regards to non-pros being coached by the same coach as pros, I think that fits into the concept I proposed in my final paragraph – a pro is one who has great potential and reaches that potential (through some combination of self “coaching” and external coaching, i.e. environment – see below) while the non-pro either had great potential but never fulfilled it or made the most of a more limited potential or (worst case) had very little potential and didn’t even achieve that.

    Comment on the paragraph above – I am not discounting the fact that one genetic gift that pros made be born with is that inner drive or grit that makes them push themselves – which brings us back to the question re the work of Dweck and others we have discussed: Is this trait of “grit” or “determination” or “perseverance” or whatever we call it something we are just born with or can it be developed? I think that’s probably THE important question for us as parents/employers/etc.

    My son went on to wrestle at a higher level (he eventually developed the physical maturity he was previously lacking) although I can now see that the biggest thing he got (or realized he had – if we go back to the question “was he born with the trait and therefore did X” or “did doing X help him develop that trait”) from wrestling was having to face hardships and failures and deal with them – my old concept of adults being able to deal with adult problems and failures appropriately because, as kids, they were forced to deal with kid problems and failures appropriately. Tarzan was a football player who wrestled. He went on to play small college ball, but never wrestled at that level.

    If I might add one other thing, I think we need to recognize the difference between individual coaching and team coaching. One area where I think we probably agree is that too many coaches (and parents) in youth sports are too concerned with winning when they should be more concerned with coaching the individual – both from the standpoint of skill development as well as the development of personal skills (grit, etc.). From an athletic perspective, little Johnny is probably better off learning the technique and skills of the sport and developing discipline and grit and being on a losing team than vice versa.

    However, it’s obvious that many pros never developed the disciple part, i.e. their innate abilities were high enough that they could make pro level at somewhat less than their full potential. I think this is more the case in some sports than others. I think the skills of an NFL running back have less to do with the coaching he received as a kid than the skills of a more technical sport such as wrestling or tennis.

    • ‘Is this trait of “grit” or “determination” or “perseverance” or whatever we call it something we are just born with or can it be developed?’

      I think some people have it naturally. And sometimes what looks like grit is really just someone who has found what they enjoy doing. I’ve been in that situation several times in my life. I enjoyed something and I did. Winning or losing didn’t phase me — or really didn’t even register. I was just more interested in what I could learn to do better and couldn’t wait to come back and give it another go.

      But, I also think it can be taught and we do a lot to teach the opposite. Being overly concerned with winning is one example. I remember watching Khan, of Khan Academy, TED Talk. He made a similar observation and I wrote about it here:

      Especially this quote of his:
      “The traditional model [of education] penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery [e.g. time to move onto next subject even if you only mastered 90% of the last one].

      We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to fail. But we do expect mastery.”

      I think that’s similar to wanting wins over skill development in sports. We want to get our trophies and move one before anyone figures out that we really aren’t any good.


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