10,000 hours. 417 straight days. 1 year and some change, straight through. That’s the amount of time that Malcolm Gladwell theorizes it takes an individual to master a skill in his book, Outliers: The story of success [you can find it on Amazon or the public library]. The theory is that those who are experts, that is “outliers” in terms of something like the “bell curve” model of ability, where most of us are in the middle of the ability curve but there are those who are far to the left or right who demonstrate proficiency beyond the rest of us. Fair enough.
A commercial like the one in this article by Proctor & Gamble shows the commitment by all to making room for those 10,000 hours of practice. I could go on and on about the social implications of the commercial but I would rather focus on more positive messages: excellence takes practice AND genetics, sports are a vital part of growing up and finally, dads are vital parts of the commitment to excellence.
I think even Gladwell would say it would be a dubious accomplishment if all it took was practice to get to the level of olympian. Schools that focus on particular skills, for example, gymnastics, have coaches or scouts who start classes where parents eager to get their young ones involved in sports take their children to expose them to new ways to get their sillies out. Every now and again, a coach will spot that one kid. the one with the flexibility, endurance, risk-taking personality and yes, body type, that will contribute to their success as a gymnast. Take all of those factors and you are describing the core debate between nature and nurture. Once those candidates are chosen, the real practice and nurturing begins. There are thousands, maybe millions, of children whose genetics prevent them from being an olympic-level competitor. It doesn’t mean they can’t do gymnastics – it means they will probably never become the cream of the crop. One gleaming example is Michael Jordan. His nurture, what he grew up with, is a passion and love for baseball. His genetics told another story. Maybe it was the praise he received for his skills in basketball (after being cut from the freshman team, of course) or he just realized – baseball was not his calling. I thank goodness that he continued in athletics so that he could become one of my idols. If you doubt the continuing effects of nature versus nurture. It was his calling to be involved in basketball, but his managerial/ownership skills have not been nurtured. You should be in basketball Mike – but not to make ownership decisions. ;-)
The idea though, is to stay involved in sports without the pressure of living out the dreams of athletic/financial success parents may have for their children. There are a myriad of stories from former child-athletes who say the constant day-after-day exertion and pressure from external forces (read: parents and coaches) to work out and practice led to to disdain for their sport. There is research to suggest that when external rewards are associated with performance, the level of performance dips. When play is used as a reward or removed as a punishment for behavior – we are making a horrible, possibly lifelong, association with sports and physical activity. Sports and play are such integral parts of growing up that cannot be omitted from a childhood. It teaches competition, collaboration, commitment, teamwork and how to deal with success and failure. Even more organically, an individual can SEE the result of their time, energy and practice almost immediately which is PERFECT for the need young children have for immediate gratification and the long term result of investment and commitment. I cannot say enough for the benefit(s) of sports and play. My only admonition is keep the pressure for performance, especially in early childhood, at a minimum. Keep the “practice” in the realm of play.
Finally, dads need to remember to play too. In P & Gs commercial, you can see what appears to be men just off to the side and in the case of the Asian family, front and center but not during the wake up times or practices and so on. I remember my mom being at practices and games – not so often my dad – but I know he was out providing for my family so that we could afford the practices, participation, uniforms, equipment and so on. I think it is just the birth connection to our moms that sometimes keeps our dads just off camera in the shadows. I remember a comedian (not his name) who told a joke that reflected this idea. He said dads often fall to the background (socially speaking, sometimes by choice as in they leave) and it’s reflected by professional athletes. A dad will wake up at 5am to practice throwing the ball with his son before his 8 hour day at work to come home and head off to practice with his son because he is coaching the team. then he gets home and throws the football around for an hour before dinner, then does the same thing the next day. All the while paying for tutors, special coaches, equipment and so on. After, according to Gladwell, the 10,000 hours of practice, the boy gets through college and is drafted by the National Football League and wins the Super Bowl – they focus the camera on him and he says, “Hi Mom!” :-D I don’t write this last section to criticize our fathers but we are at a time in our country where fathers can make choices about the amount of time they spend outside the home, and so many are choosing to abandon their families. According to the latest U.S. Census, a third of American children are living in fatherless homes; roughly 24 million American children. For better or worse, my own father instilled some important values in me: the husband/father should provide for his family, he should protect his family and he should provide a role model for his children. The P & G commercial doesn’t point out the contributions of the father but I don’t think that was its aim – its aim, I think because P & G makes so many products associated with the home, is mothers [and yes, that’s another article altogether].
During this olympic season, I want to point out the people behind our amateur athletes: the friends who celebrate their victories and keep them grounded, the brothers and sisters who push their siblings (I know mine did) to be better, the mothers who prepare them and support them for so long and the fathers who help by providing the resources for the 10,000 hours of practice to expertise. Childhood should be focused on play and creativity, but when the stars align and we find those who have been blessed – it is inspiring to know we have sports that enable them to excel and fulfill their gifts.
Best wishes to our Olympic athletes and may they come out of these games healthy and even better for the competition.