To excel in sports, you need good ‘software’ but not necessarily 10,000 hours, says reporter

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David Epstein (Photo by Samuel Kim)

“In the finishing results between sprinters, what’s the difference between a top 10 sprinter and the top 1 sprinter?” ProPublica investigative reporter David Epstein asked the audience, during a March 30 talk on campus sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

The answer, he said: 0.5%.

Epstein opened his talk — titled “Genius in Sports: Is it Nature or Nurture?” — by citing Stephen Jay Gould’s hypothesis about excellence and affirming its validity, saying: “The more well-developed a human endeavor becomes, whether that’s sprinting or stock trading, the smaller the margins that separate performers at the top.

“In sports that are easily measurable, [that margin is] now typically less than 1%,” Epstein continued. “So the importance of understanding which variables we can actually alter [to improve performance] is more important than ever.”

Author of the New York Times bestseller “The Sports Gene,” Epstein talked about, among other things, how “software” plays a key role in sports performance.

One humorous example of this, he noted, was when Barry Bonds, one of the top-hitting baseball players, known for his arrogance, was struck out by Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher. Bonds was being cocky, said Epstein: He challenged Finch to pitch against him and was so confident that he wanted to film the whole thing, assuming that if he could hit 100 m.p.h. fastballs, he surely could hit a ball that’s both bigger and is thrown at a comparatively slower 68 m.p.h.

The reason Bonds failed has to do with sport-specific “software,” Epstein told the audience: Bonds was so used to seeing specific baseball pitchers’ techniques and forms when they threw their pitches that he had no clue what to do when Finch’s torso wound up and she delivered her pitch using softball’s underhand technique.

Similarly, after being shown a picture of a chess game for only several seconds, chess grandmasters can recreate what they see with ease while the general public would probably only manage to recall only a snippet of the board, noted Epstein. However, if you show these same chess grandmasters a chess game where all the pieces are in impossible places, they fare no better than the general public in recalling what they saw, he said.

Epstein then went on to disagree with the “10,000 hours rule” that Malcolm Gladwell famously proposed — Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, said that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

“It’s actually more like the ‘10,000 hours plus or minus 10,000 hours’ rule,” David remarked. “You need to know about the range … one man’s 3,000 hours can be another man’s 25,000 hours.”

Epstein was referring to the results of an experiment carried out in 2007 by psychologists Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet. They recruited 104 competitive chess players from novice to expert skill levels for a study of chess expertise. While the average hours of practice required to reach master level for the participants of the study was 11,053 hours, the range varied heavily; one player only needed 3,000 hours to reach master level, while another player required 23,000 hours.

Epstein concluded his talk by sharing a quote from J.M. Tanner, a British pediatric endocrinologist, who said, “Everyone has a different genotype. Therefore, for optimal development, everyone should have a different environment.”

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