What Makes Great Performers?
Geoff Colvin Proves Talent Alone Is Not The Answer
Originally published the May 15, 2009 edition of Collegiate Baseball
By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
FAIRFIELD, Conn. — What separates world-class performers from everybody else?
It is a question that many have asked for centuries, but not understood until now.
Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large of Fortune magazine, spent nearly two years researching this question.
He wrote a remarkable book which hit book stores last year called Talent Is Overrated and is the hot book to read now by coaches in amateur and pro baseball.
According to Colvin, the short answer to being a world-class performer is practicing in a precision manner on a regular basis for 10,000 hours.
But the subject is obviously much more complex than that.
“What separates world-class performers from everybody else is a deep question,” said Colvin.
“The simple answer is the thousands of hours these people spend with deliberate practice. But the question underneath that is why do they put in those thousands of hours when most people don’t? And why do they push themselves so they reach this level?
“But there is more to it than that. Two different people could put in the same amount of hours, and one person could just go through the motions while the other person could be intensely focused on it at all times. The second person would get much better results.
“So again, why do some people work so hard and with the requisite intensity? That is a much more difficult question. What I have come to believe in many fields, and sports is definitely one of them, is that training starts early in life, and the role of the parent is extremely important.
“At the same time, I have found that every great performer has a moment when motivation becomes internalized. The performer is no longer practicing hard because his parents are making him do it. It becomes his own quest and own pursuit. When that happens, it typically isn’t a goal that is driving him. It is because there is something in the activity itself that he finds rewarding.
“Wherever that comes from is what really separates world-class performers from everybody else. Research has been conducted by a number of people that suggests 10,000 hours of practice done in a precision manner is the magic number. And there is separate research, but related, that shows 10 years is generally necessary. These figures apply pretty well across most disciplines. That is why it is so striking whether you are talking about baseball, playing the cello, the violin or chess, in addition to a number of other disciplines.
“This information suggests that it takes a lot more work than most people realize to be a top performer. They simply aren’t born that way. Consider that 10,000 hours is an enormous amount of time. Twenty hours of deliberate practice a week is a lot by any standard. But you would have to do that for 10 years every week all year long for that amount of time. It’s a huge amount of work.”
Colvin said there is a tremendous amount of undisciplined practice taking place all across the world in different disciplines.
“It is the most common thing in every sport or activity. People tend to do what they can already do and just do that over and over because it is rewarding and feels good. You get to see some pleasant results. Those people don’t get much better. The best are always focused on what they can’t do well. And there is research on this. If you look at figure skaters, the mediocre ones spend time practicing jumps that they can already do quite well.
“The best ones spend most of their time practicing jumps that they really can’t do yet. They are constantly pushing the envelope. It is the same in baseball. Ball players must try to hone their skills so they are better in the areas which need improvement. This is also why good coaches are so valuable in any pursuit. Even if it isn’t sports, a good coach is extremely valuable. A good coach will assess where the kid is at that moment in his development.
“Based on the coach’s own experience, he will decide what that pitcher or hitter must develop next. What is it that he can’t quite do that he needs to be able to do? He must repeat this over and over again until he can do it. If it is a certain pitch he can’t throw well or locating it properly in a certain location in the strike zone, the pitcher must grow constantly in his quest to get better.
“It sounds obvious, but it is also obvious why most players don’t do it. When you first try it, you will fail. Mistakes will be made, it will feel uncomfortable, and it won’t feel good. So most players avoid pushing themselves. They are fine with what they do. But it is obvious to me that good coaches will force the players to reach new skill levels by working on their deficiencies. These coaches will also provide lots of feedback on how it’s going.
“It is also important to point out that nobody can work hard on their discipline for a tremendous length of time straight. It’s not only because of the physical constraints. There are mental constraints involved, and coaches must understand this. A player must focus very hard on learning or improving a skill. After a certain amount of time, whether that is 30 minutes or longer, you need a rest. Then you can come back to it. The mental exhaustion is at least as important as the physical exhaustion.”
Colvin said in Talent Is Overrated that researchers looked at violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin to find out whether there was any data that showed why some students excelled and others didn’t. They studied biographical data about every conceivable subject involving all violinists, whether it be the age they started, teachers, competitions entered and other information.
At the age of 18, three distinct groups surfaced. The most accomplished group had accumulated 7,410 hours of lifetime practice on average compared to the less talented second group which compiled 5,301 hours and 3,420 for the even less talented third group.
The 10,000 hour practice rule seemed to be in full effect with the data compiled and 10 year rule as well.
“What applies to the violinists applies very well to baseball. Both of those are activities that people start as kids. When you reach the age of 18, if you haven’t accumulated as many hours as another player, it becomes very difficult to catch up. At that point, the best players are adding to their total amount of hours at a fairly impressive rate and are getting a lot of help. If you are trying to keep up and trying to do more than they are doing in order to catch up, it becomes almost impossible.
“So the early training of an athlete turns out to be very important.”
Starting Young Essential
Colvin was asked if disciplined practice is vital at a young age or consistency of disciplined practice throughout one’s life.
“Having disciplined practice is important during a person’s life. But there are two reasons to believe that it is particularly important in the early years as a pitcher. Disciplined practice will alter your brain. Researchers call this brain plasticity. It can happen at any age even if you are an adult. At one time, researchers didn’t believe adults could have their brains altered in this fashion. But in fact, it is possible.
“However, it happens much more easily when you are young. That function will take over a larger part of your brain if you focus on it early in life. And that will last the rest of your life. It essentially changes the way your brain is wired. That is one reason why.
“The second reason is the pitcher’s ability to get the arm back much further than the ordinary person can get it back. There is research that shows if you do this early in life before your bones are fully calcified, you can get it way back there and continue to get it way back even after you mature fully. However, if you haven’t done that before your bones are fully calcified, then you will never be able to do it. You will lose the ability to get the arm as far back as possible.”
Colvin was asked how a young athlete can be trained by a parent so that youngster will have a passion to play the sport and not wash out at a young age.
It was pointed out to him that many times, well meaning parents live through their kids and force the kids to practice too hard or punish their kids for failing to excel in different sports. In time, the young athlete quits playing because he can’t cope with the pressure the parent puts on him or the constant abuse.
On the other side, Tiger Woods had an exceptional father, Earl, who passed on the love he had for golf through his son with demanding, focused practices. But both had a great time doing it. And Tiger Woods has been the standard as the world’s greatest golfer for years because of this early, focused training.
“You’ve really put your finger on one of the key issues here. In fact, I had several paragraphs in my book Talent Is Overrated about how vital the development is between parents and the child.
“The preeminent researcher on the subject, Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, feels that the passion of a young person develops rather than emerging suddenly. A youngster’s childhood may be especially important in how the drive’s development gets started.
“Anders Ericcson goes so far as to say, ‘The research frontier is parenting. Push children too hard, and they respond with anger. You have to develop an independent individual who has chosen to be involved in this activity. It’s how you as a parent can make individuals feel free to reach these levels and aware that this is going to be a long process.’
“Getting a kid to understand and go through demanding practices at an early age is necessary. But you don’t want the kid becoming angry and resentful. In a way, this is what it’s all about. Obviously Earl Woods was able to do this successfully with Tiger Woods. Yet, we have all seen examples where an overbearing parent tries to force his kid to practice hard, and ultimately the kid reaches a certain age and rebels.
“He abandons the whole thing in anger and resentment, and it turns into a terrible situation. What you are asking is undoubtedly one of the most important questions. But unfortunately, there is no research available in this area that really explains how to do it right as a parent.”
Colvin was asked to explain the story he discussed in his book about Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian educational psychologist, who believed that great performers are made, not born.
In the 1960s, Polgar felt he understood the process so well that he could prove it with a live experiment with his children as they grew up. He wrote a book about how to do it called Bring Up Genius! (English translation).
To start the experiment, as incredible as this sounds, he publicly announced that he was looking for a woman to marry him so his wife could have children in the quest to help help him with the experiment. He ultimately found a schoolteacher in the Ukraine named Klara.
According to the book, the Polgars soon had a daughter named Susan. When she turned four, he began the process of making her a Grand Master in the game of chess.
At that point, the two parents devoted their lives to teaching Susan chess along with their two other daughters who were born later named Sophia and Judit. All three were home schooled, and the parents quit their jobs to work with the kids.
The schooling consisted largely of time consuming chess instruction every day. Incredibly, the family accumulated 10,000 chess books, and a filing system of index cards which cataloged the important areas of each book. It was a massive undertaking before computers became common.
When Susan was 17, she became the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship. She wasn’t allowed to compete because she wasn’t a male. At the age of 21, she became the first woman ever to be named a grand master, the highest rank in chess.
Her sister Judit became a grand master at 15, the youngest person of either sex to do this. The middle sister, Sophia, never attained the grand master rank because she was the least committed of the three. But she did reach the rank of sixth in the world.
None of the three ever became world champion.
“This story vividly shows what deliberate practice can achieve,” said Colvin.
“The father, Laszlo Polgar, was not a chess master. He knew the game and was a serious player. But he was just average. He was still able to coach his daughters to be top-notch chess players and did it by learning about the game down in-depth.
“The time he brought up his daughters was pre-internet. They had a 10,000 book library that was strictly about chess. He also created a huge filing system where you could look up any position on the chess board and see what various great players had done.
“Today, that is almost trivial on the internet. But when he did it, it was an enormous piece of work. That’s what he was able to do which enabled his daughters to be great in chess, plus of course, requiring his daughters to spend hours and hours each day on chess.
“It shows you that you don’t have to be a great performer to teach others to be great.”
Jerry Rice Workouts
Colvin was asked to explain the remarkable work ethic of Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League who mainly played for the San Francisco 49ers.
He is the all-time leader in every major statistical category for wide receivers and was an All-Pro 10 times in 20 NFL seasons. He also won three Super Bowl Rings with the 49ers.
In Talent Is Overrated, Colvin explains Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception during team practices when others would stop and go back to the huddle.
His off-season workouts were legendary. He worked out six days a week conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five mile trail. He then would reportedly run ten 40-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons, he did strenuous weight training.
“Jerry Rice was not the fastest wide receiver around,” said Colvin.
“By NFL standards, he didn’t have the speed necessary to be a great receiver. He would clearly be a good one, but he wasn’t fast enough. He somehow devised a training program that focused precisely on what he needed to do to be a great receiver.
“There is a larger lesson here. In any job on a baseball team, it is valuable to stop and think what the specific skills and strengths are needed to be great at that position. And then figure out what will build those specific skills and strengths.
“Jerry Rice knew that he had to run his patterns very precisely every single time so the quarterback knew exactly where to throw the ball.
“He knew he had to jump high to get balls that were thrown in this area to beat out defenders. He knew he had to develop tremendous hand strength to hold on to the ball when defenders tried to strip it away.
“Jerry Rice knew he had to have explosive power so he could come off the line faster. And finally, he had to have endurance so that at the end of the game when the defender was exhausted, he wasn’t.
“So he devised these workout routines focusing exactly on those specific skills to a degree that is incredible. It made him the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL by a mile… not a little bit…but by a mile.”
Colvin had some final thoughts on this complex subject.
“One point I would like to emphasize is that I hope people will accept this message, because it will really effect how they lead their lives and raise their kids. If you truly don’t believe that this type of practice will make you better and believe it takes a special gift that you either have or don’t, then you probably are giving up any chance of being extremely good.
“But if you do believe that deliberate practice will work, then you do have a chance.
“It is just tragic that people give up any chance of being great because they don’t think they can do it. The message here is yes, you can do it. You can always get much better than you thought.”