“10,000 hours” theory threatens us all

Too many youth coaches are teetering on the edge of the “10,000 hours’ training” trap – and it risks killing our game. We’re in danger of spending too much time “practising” rugby and not enough time playing.

Players – and note that term “players” – will drop out of rugby because they’re bored, tired or injured. It will also drain the love of the game out of volunteers at grass-roots level.

You may be familiar with the line that elite performers have practised for 10,000 hours and average players for only 4,000. It was based on studies of violinists.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he cites other examples, such as The Beatles, who clocked up a staggering 1,200 gigs by 1964. Or Bill Gates, who, addicted to computer programming, easily exceeded 10,000 hours at the computer terminal before he launched Microsoft in 1975.

Andre Agassi is a sporting example, being forced to hit a million tennis shots a year as a child. He said in his autobiography: “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”

But this research asks the wrong questions for sportsmen and women. It presumes that all kids want to play at international level. In fact, most dream of playing for their country but in a fictitious way – they really don’t see how they’ll progress along that journey.

This is real danger. We, as adults, think we know how to help the player on this journey. “Perfect performance practice”, “physical literacy” and “optimum learning windows” are just some of the theories we can project onto our players. Yet if a child does five hours of rugby a week from the age of six, they won’t become an expert until they’re 44. It’s totally unrealistic.

So, if we want to achieve the prescribed level of expertise players need in the future, we’ll need to follow rigidly the schemes for “child sport”. That leads to too much time spent in pursuit of skill acquisition at too young an age. Suddenly, there are sports educational pathways for five- to nine-year-olds.

If we take the wrong path, junior rugby will be measured on results and not enjoyment. And that will take the fun out of playing and socialising around the sport. So, forget 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Let’s play rugby to win friends, not tick boxes.

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