Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: A Star Is Made

The May 7, 2006, Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine asks a fundamental — but very hard — question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

To find the answer to this question, Dubner and Levitt turn to Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement. Ericsson and his colleagues have spent years trying to figure out how the best pianists, golfers, soccer players, surgeons, writers, stockbrokers, and chess players in the world got so good. How far can talent take you? What role does selection play — and how about practice? Click here to read their article.

The research of Ericsson and his Expert Performance crew has been collected in a forthcoming book, a rather weighty academic reference work called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. For a taste, here is a look at the book’s table of contents.

Ericsson himself has studied a vast array of expert performance. Here is a paper of his (co-authored with Linda J. Duffy and Bahman Baluch) on the pursuit of excellence in darts. Here is a working draft of a paper (co-authored with Patric Andersson and Edward T. Cokely) on people who picks stocks for a living. And here is the paper (co-authored with Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer) that gets to the root of what Ericsson thinks is the driver of all expert performance: a concept he calls “deliberate practice.”

The Freakonomics article describes some non-Ericsson work as well, including research on the “relative age effect” in sports like soccer and hockey. Here is one paper on that subject, here is another, and here is a very engaging website that rolls up a lot of research on the subject.

So it seems that only one pressing question remains: when do Ericsson and his pals start studying what makes a good blogger good?

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  1. Michael Cregan says:

    I am of the strong opinion that “deliberate practice” as enunciated by Prof Ericsson et al is the most plausible theory in acquiring high skill levels. I and my brother Eamon reached very high levels of skill in Ireland’s national game, Hurling (which is a wilder form of field hockey with no holds barred). From a very young age we had been playing/practising the game for many hours each day, interspersed with other popular games, soccer, Gaelic football etc. However when I was aged fourteen, after ten years of play it was suggested that I switch from my natural way of gripping the hurley(stick)as it was percieved by coaches as unnatural or unorthodox and within a short space of time my skills deteriorated alarmingly. For years I continued to struggle the retain the skills I had developed over the previous ten years. I never succeeded because I could never replicate the amount of practice time I had devoted to acquiring my initial skills and i became a “hurling dyslexic”. The “chunks” of “acquired memory” I had developed with my natural grip were now of no use to me because I now had a new grip and the neuro muscular patterns were never fully developed and reinforced by sufficient practice. Needless to say my standards dropped and I never regained them. It was when I reached my late twenties that I again switched back to the original grip I had as a child that suddenly all the skills that I had developed as a boy came flooding back as if they had never gone away. But at that stage in my career it was too late for me as a player. My brother went on to greater things in Hurling and was percieved as an elite performer.
    As a result I have researched and studied the acquisition of expertise for over thirty years and, aided by my military instructor profession, discovered through field trials that motor skills in sport can be rapidly developed if task specific practice methods are applied simply by increasing “intensity” then complex motor patterns and sequencing can be reinforced and retained in long term memory in less than three hours a day. In fact it can be converted into a trained reflex which is what most sportsmen and women aspire to. Prof Ericsson may be interested.

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  2. Michael Cregan says:

    I am of the strong opinion that “deliberate practice” as enunciated by Prof Ericsson et al is the most plausible theory in acquiring high skill levels. I and my brother Eamon reached very high levels of skill in Ireland’s national game, Hurling (which is a wilder form of field hockey with no holds barred). From a very young age we had been playing/practising the game for many hours each day, interspersed with other popular games, soccer, Gaelic football etc. However when I was aged fourteen, after ten years of play it was suggested that I switch from my natural way of gripping the hurley(stick)as it was percieved by coaches as unnatural or unorthodox and within a short space of time my skills deteriorated alarmingly. For years I continued to struggle the retain the skills I had developed over the previous ten years. I never succeeded because I could never replicate the amount of practice time I had devoted to acquiring my initial skills and i became a “hurling dyslexic”. The “chunks” of “acquired memory” I had developed with my natural grip were now of no use to me because I now had a new grip and the neuro muscular patterns were never fully developed and reinforced by sufficient practice. Needless to say my standards dropped and I never regained them. It was when I reached my late twenties that I again switched back to the original grip I had as a child that suddenly all the skills that I had developed as a boy came flooding back as if they had never gone away. But at that stage in my career it was too late for me as a player. My brother went on to greater things in Hurling and was percieved as an elite performer.
    As a result I have researched and studied the acquisition of expertise for over thirty years and, aided by my military instructor profession, discovered through field trials that motor skills in sport can be rapidly developed if task specific practice methods are applied simply by increasing “intensity” then complex motor patterns and sequencing can be reinforced and retained in long term memory in less than three hours a day. In fact it can be converted into a trained reflex which is what most sportsmen and women aspire to. Prof Ericsson may be interested.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0