Kafuffle via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Kafuffle via Wikimedia Commons

There has been a significant debate in psychology over the past 20 years about skilled performance. The debate comes down to the difference between talents and skills, where talents involve traits of an individual that affect performance, while skills involve things that people learn.

For a long time, the talent explanation was dominant. Most people just assumed that the best performers in art, music, sports, and academics were the ones who had the most natural talent.  Skilled performers have to practice, of course, but the talent was assumed to be more important than practice.

Then, along came the work of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues (which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) who argued that differences in performance—even among elite performers—was driven more by differences in deliberate practice than by differences in underlying skill.

More recently, careful examination of the research literature suggests that practice may be less important than Ericsson’s view would indicate. The latest paper to make this case was written by Brooke Macnamara, David Moreau, and David Hambrick and appeared in the May 2016 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

This paper focused on the role of practice in sports. These researchers have also analyzed the influence of practice in other areas of skilled performance. Sports is a good domain to study, though, because there are often objective measures of performance (like race times) and it is often possible to find out a lot about the athletes like the age at which they started their sport.

These researchers performed a meta-analysis of studies. Meta-analysis uses statistics to look across many different studies in order to establish a consensus about the current state of the research literature. This meta-analysis examined 34 studies involving a total of over 2,500 participants. These studies looked at elite athletes (that is, those who compete at a national or international level) as well as non-elite athletes (those who compete at a regional level). 

All of the studies in this sample assessed the amount of practice people engaged in and related it to their performance. Studies used different methods of measuring amount of performance, but those methods did not seem to affect the outcome of the studies. 

Overall, amount of deliberate practice accounted for 18% of the difference in performance of athletes in the sample. That is, 82% of the difference in performance among athletes does not reflect practice. This relationship between practice and performance was true for athletes in both team and individual sports.  It was true for sports that are externally paced (like hockey or volleyball) or internally paced (like bowling or darts).  It was true for ball sports and non-ball sports. 

Practice does help to distinguish between sub-elite and elite athletes. Studies that looked at both types of athletes in the same study suggest that practice accounts for about 29% of the difference in performance among athletes. That is, amount of practice may help to distinguish a bit between elite athletes and others, but still most of the difference in performance is due to other factors. 

Finally, the age at which athletes started working on their sport did not influence whether athletes reached an elite skill level. That is, an elite athlete does not necessarily need to start his or her sport at a young age to reach a high level of proficiency. 

Putting all of this together, it suggests that for people who reach a very high level of performance, there are many aspects beyond practice that affect how well they do.  Practice matters, but it is not the dominant factor. Talent plays a big role in sports performance.

Of course, in many cases people are not interested in elite level performance. Their goal may not be to be the best in the world at something, but just to be pretty good at it.  In that case, practice does matter a lot. By working at a skill, people can get better at something than almost anyone else they know, even if they don’t become one of the best people in the world at it.

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