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Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis.

More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popularscience writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained
26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

Authors: Brooke N. Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick, and Frederick L. Oswald Princeton University; Michigan State University; and Rice University

Why do so few people who take up an instrument such as the violin, a sport such as golf, or a game such as chess ever reach an expert level of performance? This question is a topic of a long-running debate in psychology. There are two classical views. One is that experts are “born”— that training is necessary to reach a high level of performance, but innate ability limits the ultimate level of performance a person can achieve. Galton (1869), the founder of behavioral genetics, argued for this position on the basis of his finding that eminence in science, music, art, sports, and other domains tends to run in families. The opposing view is that experts are “made”—that either talent does not exist or its effects on performance are overshadowed by the effect of training. Watson  (1930), the founder of behaviorism, captured this view when he stated that “practicing more intensively than others . . . is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not only for success in any line, but even for genius” (p. 212).

More recently, in the spirit of Watson, Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) proposed their influential deliberate-practice view of expert performance. This view holds that expert performance largely reflects accumulated amount of deliberate practice, which Ericsson et al. defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. In two studies, Ericsson et al. recruited musicians with different levels of accomplishment and asked them to estimate the amount of deliberate practice they had engaged in per week for each year of their musical careers. On average, cumulative amount of deliberate practice was much higher for the most-accomplished groups of musicians than for the less-accomplished groups. For example, at age 20, the average for the “best” violinists was more than 10,000 hr, whereas the averages were about 7,800 hr for the “good” violinists and about 4,600 hr for the least accomplished group.

Ericsson et al. (1993) concluded that “high levels of deliberate practice are necessary to attain expert level performance” and added, “Our theoretical framework can also provide a sufficient account  [emphasis added] of the major facts about the nature and scarcity of exceptional performance. Our account does not depend on scarcity of innate ability (talent) . . .” (p. 392). They continued, “We argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain” (p. 400). Ericsson (2007) reiterated this perspective when he claimed that “the distinctive characteristics of elite performers are adaptations to extended and intense practice activities that selectively activate dormant genes that all healthy children’s DNA contain[s]” (p. 4).

The deliberate-practice view has inspired a great deal of interest in expert performance. A Google Scholar search in April 2014 showed that the article by Ericsson et al. (1993) has been cited more than 4,200 times (http://,21&hl=en), and their research has been discussed in a number of popular books, including Gladwell’s (2008) Outliers, Levitt and Dubner’s (2009) SuperFreakonomics, and Colvin’s (2008) Talent Is Overrated. Ericsson et al.’s findings were also the inspiration for what Gladwell termed the “10,000-hour rule”— the idea that it takes 10,000 hr of practice to become an expert.

At the same time, the deliberate-practice view has been sharply criticized in the scientific literature. Gardner (1995) commented that the view requires a “blindness . . . to decades of psychological theorizing” (p. 802), and Sternberg (1996) observed that “deliberate practice may be correlated with success because it is a proxy for ability: We stop doing what we do not do well and feel unrewarded for” (p. 350). Anderson (2000) stated that “Ericsson and Krampe’s research does not really establish the case that a great deal of practice is sufficient for great talent” (p. 324), and Marcus (2012) concluded that “it would be a logical error to infer from the importance of practice that talent is somehow irrelevant, as if the two were in mutual opposition” (p. 94).

Furthermore, although deliberate practice is important, growing evidence indicates that it is not as important as Ericsson and colleagues (Ericsson, 2007; Ericsson et al., 1993; Ericsson & Moxley, 2012) have argued. Gobet and Campitelli (2007) found a large amount of variability in total amount of deliberate practice even among master-level chess players—from slightly more than 3,000 hr to more than 23,000 hr. In a recent reanalysis of previous findings, Hambrick et al. (2014) found that deliberate practice accounted for about one third of the reliable variance in performance in chess and music. Thus, in these domains, a large proportion of the variance in performance is explainable by factors other than deliberate practice.

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