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10000 hour rule – myth or not? And what can you take from it to increase your performance as a football player?

10000 hour rule

Many people have heard about the 10000 hour rule that says as long as anyone gives 10000 hours of practise to any field, they will become an expert. In the bestseller ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, Malcolm Gladwell promoted the belief that ‘ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness’. Since then, a lot of research has been done to find out about the reliability of this golden rule. Is this rule a myth or not, and what can we take from it to perform better as a football player?

In this blog, I’ll discuss:

1The argument for the 10000 hour rule
2The argument against the 10000 hour rule
3Neuroscience and skill development
4What you can take from both sides of the argument

1 | The argument for the 10000 hour rule

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, he cites examples that attempt to prove the 10000 hour rule. Gladwell cites the Beatles as a world class band because they put in 10000 hours of practise in Hamburg in the early 1960s, or that Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, gained his success because of early access to his computer in his teens. Another example that Gladwell cites is of a study by Ericsson that looks at violinists, where the most accomplished of the students had put in a minimum of 10000 hours of practise by the time they turned 20 (1).  

2| The argument against the 10000 hour rule

The 10000 hour rule is catchy and easy to remember, but it has also been called an oversimplification for a recipe of success. The rule doesn’t take into account natural talent, or as Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, states:

‘When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people.’

Parental support, the quality of coaching and the motivation of the person are also factors that cannot be ignored.

Factors determining success are changeable depending on what area a person wants to achieve success in. For example, a person who is genetically more capable of using oxygen more efficiently will be better positioned to do free-diving than someone who does not possess those genes.

Paul McCartney, former member of the Beatles, said in response to Gladwell’s book:

‘…I’ve read the book. I think there is a lot of truth in it … I mean there were an awful lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10000 hours and didn’t make it, so it’s not a cast-iron theory. I think, however, when you look at a group who has been successful… I think you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles.’ (3)

Possibly, the greatest error with the 10000 hour rule is that not all practise leads to success. The quality of practise is as important as the quantity of practise. Mechanical practise can inhibit development through repeating bad habits. Deliberate practice is systematic and has the intention of improving performance.

3 | Neuroscience and skill development

A little neuroscience 101 here: Information is transmitted through neurons in our brains. Dendrites, which are one of the components of a neuron, receive messages from other cells. Axons, another component of a neuron, pass messages from the cell body to other neurons. When you hear of ‘nerve impulses’ they are electrical charges travelling down the axon. Myelin is a fatty insulation substance that wraps around axons. Research has shown that myelination increases the speed and strength of nerve impulses.

This is important and completely relevant to skill development because skill development is dependent on nerve impulses and myelinated neurons perform better.

Although myelination happens naturally, especially in children, we want it to keep on happening so that the strength and speed of our nerve impulses increases. How do we do that? Scientists believe that there are two important cells (glial cells) that help to form myelin. These cells have to do with practise!

As we practise a skill, our neurons create nerve impulses, and over time (as we repeat the process over and over again) the two glial cells are triggered to myelinate the axons, which in turn speeds up and strengthens those nerve impulses.

Scientists know that myelin increases and strengthens nerve impulses but they don’t know for sure that that in turn has performance-enhancing abilities. Yet, the large amount of research done in this area has pointed to an increase in practise correlating with an increase in myelin, and the lack of myelin correlating with diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

What can we take from this? Practise creates myelin, which causes our neural pathways to work better, so deliberate practice is essential (where you are receiving feedback and corrections as soon as possible). You don’t want to strengthen and speed up nerve impulses of bad habits!

4 | What you can take from both sides of the argument

Deliberate practice in football is powerful. No one can disprove its importance. In fact, with or without a 3000 word research study by top scientists, anyone who has achieved consistent, deliberate practice (which involves timely feedback and corrections) in any field, can testify to its benefits.

But as scientific research reveals understanding in the production and use of very helpful substances such as myelin, and other key factors in skill development, we can maximise their benefits.

Knowing that you can become a masterful football player through key ingredients, such as deliberate practice, the right mindsets and being guided by a coach is part of a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset are much more likely to succeed in the journey of life. It is motivating to know that where you have started and your genetic makeup does not determine where you end up. However, natural talent, environmental factors, the right mindsets and the quality of guided discovery and tuition, cannot be ignored when considering the results of success.

A balanced view is important to acknowledge. Theories evolve, scientific research is always finding new discoveries. A guaranteed recipe for becoming an expert is too much of an oversimplification, but knowing the ingredients and applying them will without a doubt lead to higher levels of achievement.


  3.  “INTERVIEW: Paul McCartney heads to Canada”. CBC News. 6 August 2010. Retrieved 13 September 2011.

10000 hour rule, Brain-boosting tips, Brain-centred Training, Children, Ericsson, improve your performance, IQ Football, Malcolm Gladwell, myelin, myelination, neuroscience, Outliers, performance, Soccer, Soccer Academy

Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.

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