Genetics Matter: Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell, You Will Not Be Usain Bolt No Matter How Hard You Practice
    By News Staff | June 28th 2014 10:10 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Sorry Malcolm Gladwell, and you positive thinking book buyers at Whole Foods, you are not going to be a world-class sprinter no matter how much you practice unless you were born with exceptional speed.

    A new paper by Michael Lombardo, professor of biology at Grand Valley State University, and Robert Deaner, associate professor of psychology, shows that the developmental histories of elite sprinters contradict the popular deliberate practice model of expertise. According to this deliberate model, there is no such thing as innate talent. Instead, 10 years of deliberate practice (roughly 10,000 hours) are necessary and sufficient for anyone to become an expert in any field, including sports.

    That idea was always science for the "Star Wars" generation, which believed in some magical force you just had to practice to harness. "The Phantom Menace", where it was revealed it was just lucky genes, was reviled by fans because it shocked off ancient religion when explaining The Force, was more accurate.

    On the left, Usain Bolt. On the right, most of us. Usain Bolt and Jar Jar Binks links: Wikipedia and Wikipedia.

    Scouts and coaches never really believed it either. They know some people are not going to be great no matter how much they try. If you swing a baseball bat poorly 10,000 times you do not suddenly become great at hitting baseballs.

    The researchers studied biographies of 26 world-class sprinters, including 15 Olympic gold medalists and the eight fastest men in U.S. history. The first major finding was that every expert sprinter, male or female, was recognized as exceptionally fast prior to beginning formal training. This contradicts the deliberate practice model, which assumes that initial performance and final performance in a domain will be unrelated. A second key finding was that, contrary to the 10-year rule, most sprinters achieved world class performances in less than five years, and more than half of the Olympic champions reached this level in three years or fewer.

    In addition, Lombardo and Deaner surveyed 64 sprinters and throwers (i.e., shot put, javelin, discus) who qualified for the 2012 NCAA collegiate track and field outdoor championships. Sprinters recalled being faster as children, while throwers recalled greater strength and overhand throwing ability. Another key finding was that the collegiate sprinters' best performances in their first season of high school competition, generally the beginning of formal training or deliberate practice, were consistently faster than 95-99 percent of their peers.

    "Rob and I both ran track in college, and we follow the sport pretty closely," said Lombardo. "So we expected that most sprint champions' biographies would indicate that they were always the fastest kid in their neighborhood, even before they did any formal training or received any coaching. But the consistency of the pattern was surprising – from Helen Stephens, a 1936 Olympian, to Usain Bolt, there were no exceptions. Gathering the data systematically allowed us to see how strong the patterns were. It also allowed us to test and rule out alternative explanations."

    The authors noted that because speed is crucial for many sports, the new results imply that talent is important for many sports besides track and field. The authors also pointed out that their behavioral data complement many genetic and physiological studies indicating individual variation in athletic talent.

    "Our results won't come as a surprise to most biologists, sports scientists, or coaches—all of the previous data pointed to this conclusion," said Deaner. "But our results are important because the deliberate practice model and its '10-year rule' remains enormously popular among many social scientists and intellectuals. Our results are clear-cut and should require no scientific training to understand. So we hope they will finally put an end to the debate."

    The researchers stressed that their results support an interactive model of expertise development. "Our point is not that talent trumps everything," said Lombardo. "Training is crucial, especially the kinds of training highlighted by the deliberate practice model. But in sports, innate talent is required too."

    Citation: Michael P. Lombardo, Robert O. Deaner, 'You can’t teach speed: sprinters falsify the deliberate practice model of expertise', PeerJ, DOI 10.7717/peerj.445.Source: Grand Valley State University


    Sure, genetics matter, as has long been clear from even cursory (not to mention honest) consideration.

    Sprinting ability is one example. What about intelligence? Oh wait, that doesn't favor blacks, does it? Never mind, Lombardo's wrong, it's all nurture.

    This in way contradicts Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe actually read what he says. Read some Robert Sapolsky, too. Do your job.

    This in no way contradicts Malcolm Gladwell.

    No one can really contradict Malcolm Gladwell when even he can't figure out what populist non-scientific tripe he is spewing this week. If you look up "vacuous nonsense" in the dictionary, there he is.
    This article grabs onto the Gladwell 10,000 hour meme and shows us how meaningless memes can make things. Gladwell never says 10,000 hrs puts anyone in the genius camp. Maybe actually read him. (Or at least cop a feel on the specific dispute: . )
    Gladwell always asks us to look at things again. He challenges our thinking, as in the very way we think we actually think. And that's a hard job, especially when you're writing for the reader of popular press, those who come to mostly graze and be entertained. He pulls together strings from different socials sciences, applies the studies. Makes us mull with him. Most of all -- and the reason he's attacked -- is that he challenges the main authorizing strategy of the elites: the illusion that we live in some sort of meritocracy.
    And the idea of genes has also been memed into a false simplicity. It's what our culture does, or al least, what journalism makes us think it does. .

    Gladwell always asks us to look at things again. He challenges our thinking, as in the very way we think we actually think.
    100% of the evidence-based, scientific world has checked out after this fanboy prose. That same idolizing gibberish can be said about every homeopath, psychic and astrologer. And has been.

    You should stick to Psychology Today or wherever those unverifiable, pseudo-philosophical claims pass as clever.
    And your actual thoughts on the subject? You haven't read him, don't know what I'm (or he) referring to, and throw out some scientifical pontification not-your-own, that are, again, in the service of authorizing the elite.You then add a personal swipe. Nice talking with you.

    Gladwell has some points in his "Outliers" book-
    but several misconceptions. There are thousands of kids
    who have played thousands of hours of basketball-had
    training-coaches-who maybe couldn't even make the
    high school team. According to Gladwell they should be
    like LeBron James. Gladwell-just seems to ignore one
    the obvious-talent does play a big factor. It is quite
    amazing his bias missed this.

    Michael Martinez
    Technically, it was Dr. Daniel J. Levitin (coginitive psychologist) who decided that 10,000 hours of practice was "required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert in anything" in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  Malcolm Gladwell simply took his theory and popularized it in his own book in 2008.
    Check your grammar. It should be Genetics Matters. With the s at the end of Matters. Genetics is considered a singular noun, just like Mathematics, Physics, Kinematics and Dynamics.

    Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard dumps on this thing too.
    Once again -- I know people like putting Gladwell and 10,000 hrs in their titles, but this article in no way disproves Gladwell. Maybe actually read him.

    If you aren't inclined to check things out for yourself, today in WAPO: