In a comment today, Jon King mentioned a frequently cited reason for the decline of the U.S.A’s tennis fortunes: the best athletes in this country don’t play tennis. It may be true, and I’ve been known to mention it myself when I’m asked for my opinion on the state of American tennis, but since I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, I’ve begun to question that assumption.
As with his other two books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,Gladwell’s Outliers will make unimaginable connections and float ultimately convincing theories for all manner of human behavior. How do rice paddies explain the Asian proclivity for mathematics? Why did Korean Airlines have such a dismal safety record? Why don’t Ivy League schools produce the majority of Nobel Laureates? You’ll find the answers to these and many other questions, including why birth date matters in athletics and academics (The Matthew Effect), although I have to admit that this particular Gladwell argument doesn’t resonate as much with me as some of his others. (It matters for hockey and soccer, but not for basketball and football?)
One of his theories was not new to me; I’ve seen previous sports writing references to the actual 1990s Berlin Academy of Music study by K. Anders Ericsson that has become known as the 10,000 hour rule. Simply put, it says that in order to become expert at something, you need to 10,000 hours of practice.
Here’s a key excerpt from Gladwell’s chapter on this study:
With the help of the academy's professors, they divided the school's violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second were those judged to be merely "good." In the third were students who were unlikely to ever play professionally and who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?
Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing--that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better--well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.
The striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals," musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds," people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
I think the implications for tennis are obvious, as is this related quote from a chapter entitled "The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 1":
A basketball player only has to be tall enough --and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold. It's like basketball again: once someone is tall enough, then we start to care about speed and court sense and agility and ball-handling skills and shooting touch.
I think that speaks directly to the question of athleticism in tennis. Once someone is athletic enough, future achievement in tennis is about other things.
Gladwell takes great pains to puncture the myth of self-made success, arguing that it is much more complicated than that. Early on he says:
We've seen that extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.
Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed...Nor is success simply the sum of decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities--and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
Virtually every success story we've seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers.
Soon I hope to finish rereading The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. by Daniel Coyle, the author of this article about Moscow's Spartak Club in the New York Times that I linked to a couple of years ago. He has expanded that into an excellent book that is really a companion piece to Gladwell’s. I’ll be reviewing that book soon, but if you’ve already read Outliers and are looking for more information on how talent is translated into success, order it from Amazon now via the link above. It is absolutely essential reading for any coach or parent.