Practice Makes Perfect, Revisited

We’ve written before on what is generally called “talent,” which most people seem to define as some sort of innate skill that, if properly trained, can result in excellence. But in our article, which relied heavily on the research of Anders Ericsson, we presented a slightly different definition of talent. Here’s one key paragraph:

I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

The main idea of our column is that “talent” is overrated; that practice really does make perfect; and that it’s a good idea to do what you truly love in life, because if you don’t, you probably won’t work hard enough at it to get really good.

I was reminded of all this recently while looking through the Summer 2006 issue of Daedalus. As with every issue, this one had a theme, which was “On Body in Mind.” It included a wonderful essay by Jacques d’Amboise (born Joseph Ahearn, btw), best known in his youth as a star dancer in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and later known as a choreographer and founder of the National Dance Institute. Here is how d’Amboise, now 72 years old, recalled getting his body and mind working together:

Early in the morning or on my days off, I sit in the empty auditorium, gazing at the stage. I am envisioning a variation from my repertoire, imagining, in detail, first how I will look in costume, then how I will enter the stage and from which wing. As if watching a movie, I then dance the variation in my mind the very best that I can, or even better — the leaps a foot higher, the space covered double what I have done in the past. I picture the expression on my face, the use of my arms and hands, and the speed at which I move. …

At first, I run this imaginary film to rhythmic counting alone (without music, melody, theme, harmony, etc.) — creating a blueprint of mathematical time. For example, I launch into a leap on the first count (or beat), float through the second and third counts, and land noiselessly on the fourth. Next, I rerun these movements, adding, in my head, the melody of the music in place of the counts. Each of these processes I repeat multiple times.

Now I am ready to make the imagined concrete. Up on the stage, I rehearse what I have envisioned — step by step, count by count, without music, over and over again. Sometimes I spend as much as two hours on a dance sequence that is perhaps one-and-a-half minutes long. During these repetitions, I count the beats out loud as I dance, even rehearsing how I will breathe. I also practice the dance movements in three different tempos: slow motion, ideal, and accelerated (in case the orchestra conductor has an adrenaline rush during the performance). I am now prepared to handle any tempo that may emanate from the orchestra pit.

Now keep in mind that this is how d’Amboise prepared when he was already a huge star. Practice makes perfect indeed.


Jennifer42

I remember a study I read about years ago that linked better performance in athletes to just such a visuation exercise.

Andy from Houston

Wow I was just having this conversation with one of my friends the other day.

I have to agree...practice makes perfect.

Amateurs practice until they get it right, Pros practice until they can't get it wrong, ect...

There are people with innate talent, but I would hire someone who is dedicated yet average in talent over someone who is talented but not dedicated ANY day of the week.

Keegan

I'm not sure I agree with the premise in all cases. There are considerable variations in fast and slow twitch muscle fibers that account for large variations in athletic performance.

I could train hours a day for months on end, but I would never be able to run a 40 yard dash as fast as a typical NFL wide receiver. My genes and muscle makeup simply won't allow it.

SteveSailer

The "No Innate Limits -- Practice Makes Perfect" myth is extremely popular and extremely destructive in America. What percentage of all the inner city youths who are neglecting their school work to practice basketball obsessively because they believe they'll make it to the NBA are simply innately too short to have the slightest chance of a pro career? 90%? 95%?

pkimelma

Keegan raises a good point. You need to look at talent, *physiology*, and diligence. Many people do not have the body type/shape regardless of talent (or lack). No amount of practice will make someone with the wrong shape perform at high enough levels for many sports. Dance is an obvious example - you are either shaped correctly or not. Basketball may allow for very talented shorter people, but that only goes so far. If you are not at least a certain height, you will never be able to play at the NBA level.

themaroon

On the other hand of the talent debate, you could say that it means quite a bit. There must be thousands of high school basketball players who practice just as hard as Michael Jordan did at their age. The same is probably true of college students. And only a few of those make it to the NBA, and those who do probably practice a similar amount even there and still come nowhere close to attaining his status.

When any endeavor is as wildly popular as basketball there are a virtually endless supply of people with strong work ethics. Talent is what makes the best of them the best.

Tim

Certainly talent plays a role; however, once someone possesses a baseline talent level, hard work makes all the difference. Several comments reference height as an example of a limitation hard work cannot overcome. I suggest looking at the careers of Spudd Webb (5'7", won the 1986 Slam Dunk competition) and Muggsy Bogues (5'3", shortest player in NBA history, 14-year career). While each man had talent, their hard work set them apart from those "too short" to play professional basketball. By contrast, the only issue I have with the initial post is a sticking point I learned in music school. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. If you want to do it better than anyone else, focus on how to do it better every single time.

pkimelma

Tim, the exceptions prove the rule. There are very very few short players in the history of the NBA. Those few people had talent that overcame their height liability. If every player has put in the same level of hard work, then the height liability would work against those players (everything else being equal, you have to look at other differences to find the ones that rise above and the ones that fall below). So, either (extra) talent makes up for the difference, or some other characteristics come into play. The sports metaphor of "heart" relates to attitude and drive (but looking at the superstars in NBA, drive is more important than attitude ;-). The right kind of practice is critical, but basketball is a sport where the feedback on the quality of one's practice is quite clear (unlike music or other arts, where interpretation comes into play). Neither can be enough given the size of the pool of people feeding into the system. So, some other factor must be allowing some to overcome what would otherwise be liabilities. But, for the main body of players in most sports, the right physiology is a necessary prerequisite.

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JordanO

"When any endeavor is as wildly popular as basketball there are a virtually endless supply of people with strong work ethics. Talent is what makes the best of them the best."

"Data indicates it takes on the order of ten years to become expert in
a domain. Yet experience alone is a weak predictor in that it is the
nature of the experience (referred to as deliberate practice) that
makes the difference. The 10-year rule is supported by data from music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. For music composition, Hayes found an average of about 20 years from the time an individual started to study music until they first composed an outstanding piece."
- Richard Upchurch

There is not an "endless supply of people with strong work ethics" even in something as popular as basketball; rather, there is an endless supply of people who want to go out to the park and play. According to what little I've read on this particular topic of research, there is an ENORMOUS difference between practicing free throws for four hours and spending that same amount of time playing a pick-up game.

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Rider2227

I understand that there is a difference between practice and deliberate practice in sports although, how does talent and practice/studying translate into the realm of standardized testing, specifically the LSAT. No matter what i do i never break a certain score. Although when i practice golf there is noticeable improvement, am i just more athletically gifted as opposed to my inteligence?

ps - grades have never been an issue, high GPA but standardized testing has always been a weak point

T

Is using the NBA as a bar for success too high for this talent vs practice debate? With 1 in 10,000 high school students making it into the NBA roster, random luck comes into play, like freak injuries, the right coach finding you, etc. I think anybody can hit 80% of their free throws with proper practice, but to even make it into the NBA, there may be too many other factors.

I was thinking about games like chess, which doesn't need any (known) physical attribute, as a sort of test in the talent/practice issue. With practice you can definitely improve your game. However, if we start talking about being a pro in chess, you must be even better than the top 1% of the players in the world. Is there talent that dictates the top players or is it all just practice? Perhaps there's baselines in concentration and mental stamina? Or again maybe some other random event comes into play?

pkimelma

Rider2227, I think you need to consider that physical facilities are different in two ways: muscle memory allows us to "automate" behaviors and so improve with good practice, we get get feedback from each practice interval (you swing and the ball either goes as far as accurately as you wanted or it does not - you can correct immediately). Most mental "sports" like test taking, chess, etc, lack both of those (feedback is harder because you cannot control the other variables - it is not the same each time). For something like chess, I do think that some people have a more natural "talent" in how they play. Some studies on the top chess players show that they approach the game in a different way than the rest of us. At the very least, a chunk of it is memorizing (so people with better and faster recall benefit), but some of it is how the brain works through the forward progression from possible moves.
I think part of the problem is that "talent" is not an easy attribute to pin down (it is a set of attributes for one). The original research operated from base-talent (good from the start) rather than key talents that allowed people to progress. I would argue that some people will be faster out of the chute in chess or golf, but hit a ceiling based on lack of certain abilities. This would match the test taking ceiling problem as well.

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hwinva

There is a fair bit of evidence that the more talent, the better the result in life, and that that there is no "threshold" above which talent doesn't matter -- but where determination, etc. does. See, e.g., Wai et al., http://www.vanderbilt.edu/Peabody/SMPY/WaiJEP2005.pdf where a group of very high talent 13 year olds were divided into a top 1/4 and a bottom 1/4. The top 1/4 did much better in life 20 years later, but there is no reason to think that the top quarter were more "determined" or "practiced more" than the bottom quarter...

alexa

At the risk of sounding (reading) like a lame, fence-walking, middle-of-the-road girl, I think excelling in a particular arena has a lot to do with both talent and practice. My body and my brain are probably wired to be better at, say, swimming and being sarcastic than the body and brain of that guy over there. But that guy is better than I could ever hope to be at pirouettes. Practicing is absolutely necessary, but I do think our bodies and our minds all work particularly well at certain things. And some of us are fortunate enough to have our particular skill/talent come to light. Sometimes I wonder if I was born with talents that shall remain hidden just because I live in the wrong geographical area. Maybe I'm wired to rock at ice fishing and, because I grew up in the Sacramento Valley, I will never realize my true potential.

IfIThinkICantICant

Naysayers, hmmm...Spud Web

Jennifer42

I remember a study I read about years ago that linked better performance in athletes to just such a visuation exercise.

Andy from Houston

Wow I was just having this conversation with one of my friends the other day.

I have to agree...practice makes perfect.

Amateurs practice until they get it right, Pros practice until they can't get it wrong, ect...

There are people with innate talent, but I would hire someone who is dedicated yet average in talent over someone who is talented but not dedicated ANY day of the week.

Keegan

I'm not sure I agree with the premise in all cases. There are considerable variations in fast and slow twitch muscle fibers that account for large variations in athletic performance.

I could train hours a day for months on end, but I would never be able to run a 40 yard dash as fast as a typical NFL wide receiver. My genes and muscle makeup simply won't allow it.

SteveSailer

The "No Innate Limits -- Practice Makes Perfect" myth is extremely popular and extremely destructive in America. What percentage of all the inner city youths who are neglecting their school work to practice basketball obsessively because they believe they'll make it to the NBA are simply innately too short to have the slightest chance of a pro career? 90%? 95%?

pkimelma

Keegan raises a good point. You need to look at talent, *physiology*, and diligence. Many people do not have the body type/shape regardless of talent (or lack). No amount of practice will make someone with the wrong shape perform at high enough levels for many sports. Dance is an obvious example - you are either shaped correctly or not. Basketball may allow for very talented shorter people, but that only goes so far. If you are not at least a certain height, you will never be able to play at the NBA level.