Power of Practice

Often I hear people comment on how a particular player was once a ‘really good’ player as a junior but ‘peaked’ as they advanced in through the age groups. I usually follow this up with the question, “what do you mean?” The typical response I receive is that “the player has got by simply on their natural ability and now the competition has caught up. The bottom line being that the player is not nearly as effective on the field as they once were.

As I become more involved in these conversations I start to see a similar theme developing, to which I ask “so now this player you are referring to has reached peak level of ability, does that mean the rest of the team has not gained this natural ability that you speak of?” And let the confusion begin!

I am a big believer in the power of practice. “It is practice, not talent, which holds the keys to success.” For every player who has achieved high standards in sport has achieved these heights through thousands of hours of purposeful practice. There are no ‘child protégés’ or ‘natural talents.’ Suppose a 10 year old playing at the local club has arm strength well above that of any of his teammates or opponents. More often than not, this is due to the fact that while they have devoted the time and effort at practice in order to improve their arm strength, they more than likely gravitated to pickup games with friends and family that involve throwing balls at high velocities.

Children aged 6 to 10 years who have an interest and motivation to play games involving throwing up to 3 hours per week with friends has accumulated roughly 600 hours of throwing before the rest of the team has picked up a ball and commenced the ‘learn to throw phase.’

So to bestow this player with the label of ‘ a natural talent’ couldn’t be further from the truth. Accumulating these hours comes from internal personal motivation, and once the opportunity for team practice arises, the prospects of high achievement take off. If practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

If you ask your players what aspects of the game they enjoy the most, 99% will tell you the things they enjoy the most are the areas of the game they perform well at. So when it comes to practice as author of the book Bounce, Matthew Synd says “when most people practice, the practice things they can do effortlessly.” What if from an early age kids were encouraged to practice aspects of their game they are not as competent in?

Players who are high achievers have had access to the following during their upbringing:

  • High level personal coaching
  • Thousands of hours of practice
  • Mental makeup coaching
  • Access to practice facilities

Players who have these luxuries have the benefit of professional eyes on their game. “If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong; you can never know what you’re doing right,” Chen Xinhua (multiple world table tennis champion from China).

Michael Clarke of the Australian Cricket team had a batting cage and bowling machine at his home, and would spend hundreds of hours each year in that cage. Tiger Woods spent up to 5 hours every day as a child on the golf course. A perfect example was during the 2011 Australian Open in Sydney. Woods was left to play a shot in and around some bushes with little to no way of performing a successful shot from this very difficult position. While commentators were describing the difficulty of the shot given the plantation, the limited area to swing his club, and the angle of his feet, Woods would later say that he practiced that exact shot over 1000 times in his life.

So for little Johnny who is currently playing in the local under 10’s club team with aspirations of playing major league baseball,  consider this; Johnny practices 2 hours a week with his club team and does that 5 months out of the year. Let’s assume that he plays both summer and winter and devotes the same amount of time year round. At the very most he would undertake approximately 104 hours of practice in a calender year. Of that 104 hours, for argument sake lets take away 20 hours at least due to bad weather and/or practice being cancelled. We can also figure an additional 10 hours are lost for all those practices in which Johnny does not apply the necessary level of effort. Of the 104 hours Johnny started with, he has now only dedicated 74 hours of focused practice towards becoming the best. Hardly the power of practice at work!

For players who are serious about reaching the top in anything in life, purposeful practice is crucially important. Dedicating your time to your desired craft does come with some drawbacks such as hanging out with friends. If you are not devoting 7 hours a week to purposeful practice then you are doing yourself a huge injustice. 7 hours a week is roughly 400 a year. Johnny will accumulate roughly 2000 hours of purposeful practice between the ages of 9 and 14 while the rest of the competition devotes less than 1000 hours over that same 5 year span. 1000 hours of extra work goes a very LONG way!

  • 7 hours a week = 364 a year
  • 364 a year from age 9 to 14 = 1,820 hours
  • 364 a year from age 9 to 18 = 3,276 hours

The numbers do not lie. Those who agree with the numbers also agree that there is no such thing as “natural talent.” If anyone would like to explore these ideas further, I recommend you pick up a copy of Matthew Synd’s book titled Bounce.

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