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David Epstein on the Olympics and Why 10,000 Hours Won’t Make You Great

Are there things that make certain people preternaturally more likely to be great athletes? The answer is surprising.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Aug 4 2016

Hey! Ben, Blinkist Podcast’s producer, here. Today, I’m honored to bring you a conversation I recently had with author of the book The Sports Gene, David Epstein. The Sports Gene is a New York Times bestseller about exactly what it sounds like: whether or not there are things that make certain people preternaturally more likely to be great athletes.

It feels like a perfect thing to talk about considering, you know, the Olympics started on Friday. In this episode of the podcast, we talk about the greatest physical specimens in the world, one athlete you must watch out for in the Olympics, and the central weakness of the 10,000 rule everyone always talks about. Oh, and also, David answers the question: if aliens invaded and you had to pick one athlete to compete against them in a competition they decide, which athlete today do you send against the aliens”’s a journalist whose work appears in places like Slate, The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and much more.


Ben Schuman-Stoler:Thanks for taking the time to do this, I actually learned in your book that we both are Evanston Township High School graduates and probably have our faces a couple years apart on the all-conference wall by the gym if they still have it up there.

David Epstein: That’s funny! No way!

BSS: Yeah! Alright, so first of all, are you going to Rio, actually”DE: I’m not.

BSS: Why not?

DE: I’m moving away from sports really. Since my book I’ve been more of a general investigative reporter. ProPublica doesn’t really have, it doesn’t really make sense for ProPublica to send someone to Rio. There was a point at which we were talking about me going for Sports Illustrated but then a lot of changes happened to Sports Illustrated and they’re sending a smaller team than in the past anyway.

BSS: Well I hope it’s still cool that we talk about sports stuff.

DE: Absolutely.

BSS: Because we’re doing a magazine issue on the Olympics and we’re not diving as much into the competitions as the human aspects that your book ties perfectly into. For example, one thing that we’re really into is this 10,000 hour rule, the [Anders] Ericsson thing. It remains, stubbornly popular and influential everywhere. So I was wondering if you had any progress updates from Dan McLoughlin, the golf guy. Could you maybe tell his story a little bit and then give an update on his progress?

DE: Sure. So Dan is a guy who was not completely content with his career as a commercial photographer. And he saved some money and decided he wanted to make a big change in his life. At first he thought it was going to be business school, basically, and very quickly felt that wasn’t as drastic a change as he needed. He read about the 10,000 hour rule – that there’s no such thing as talent, buts skill is just the manifestation of 10,000 hours of practice – and decided instead to take that money and save for grad school, and put it toward funding himself training in golf, which he was almost a complete novice (he’d been to driving ranges and things like that) to try and put in 10,000 hours of training with a PGA-certified coach and everything like that and see where he was when he got to 10,000 hours. He’s still en route. He’s passed halfway.

BSS: He’s passed halfway?

DE: Yeah. He made great progress early on and last time he contacted me he said, “I feel like I’m stagnated both personally in my journey and skill-wise.” So I think he’s in the part of the learning curve that’s a little bit tougher now.

It’s interesting because my feeling was – when I wrote about him in The Sports Gene – my feeling wasn’t that he definitely wasn’t going to make it, it was to use his story showed that the 10,000 hour rule has no basis in reality for an individual person. It’s an average of these humongous individual differences, that by its nature, squashes the reality of individual variability. And so to see someone apply to himself, as if it’s a rule for individuals, when there’s literally no one – you know, the original study that led to the 10,000 hours rule, like, some people had less and some people had more and it averaged out. You look at other things, like chess, it takes 11,053 hours to become an international master in chess but some people make it 3,000 hours and some people are at 25,000 hours and still haven’t made it. So you can average it and get an 11,053 hour rule, but when you actually include measures of variance, it would seem a lot sillier for someone to say, “Alright I’m gonna put in the 11,053 hours and I’m gonna be there.”

BSS: And this was an opportunity to track someone from hour zero.

DE: Yeah and I also thought this was interesting because he contacted Ericsson, and Professor Ericsson was really excited because nobody had tested this before. And I was like, that’s exactly, exactly right, he has not tested almost any of his predictions, essentially. Ericsson himself implicitly acknowledges the failures of his model when it comes to novices. He says you have to only study people which are the best, which is like, you’re positing a comprehensive model of expertise that can’t account for squares 0-99 which means it’s not a model of expertise.

BSS: And the thing that I learned most about it is the deliberate practice aspect. You can’t watch 10,000 hours of American Idol and then think you’re going to win it.

DE: Yeah, and that aspect of it I actually think is a real contribution. Focusing on a certain type of practice, right? Because sometimes I will hear people say, you know, well I could run or I could golf or I’ve done this many hours and I haven’t made it to the pros. And I’m like, yeah, but you’re going to the driving range and swatting balls. You’re not trying to identify your weaknesses and work on them and cognitively engage. It’s really different.

There’s some really interesting literature, things like air traffic controlling and chess and speed typing, things that have these big bodies of research. And I thought typing was so interesting because it’s clear that we could all type faster than we do. We just sort of get to a really good spot and then settle, and what we’d have to do to get better is to set some kind of metronome, type as fast as we can, not worry about errors and just go at that speed so you start getting custom to that speed and that’s how you get off a plateau, like people who compete at this (there are such people!). But mostly we settle at good enough.

So I think the idea that there’s a type of practice that gets you off plateaus is a very valuable contribution.

Yesterday I spent the whole day with a researcher who studies some of this. People simultaneously overestimate how good they currently are at things and underestimate how much better they can get. It’s sort of a lethal combination because it would be much better if we underestimated how good we are now and overestimated how much better we could get, but it turns out human nature is the opposite.

BSS: Man, there’s a lot there. The typing thing, I wanted to ask: these things where the only way to get better is to break it down, right? If you have to take apart the whole machine, or the way you’re used to typing. Like for example I’m really bad with my left pinky, I know I’m bad with my left pinky. I never use my left shift, and the idea of breaking down my technique, and it does apply to sports and other fields, I know I would have to consciously type slower for a couple of weeks in order to then be good at my left pinky and then be able to type much faster.

DE: Maybe, so it turns out that explicit and implicit learning operate differently. For the most part, ultimately what you would do in motor learning would be implicit. So you’d want to make your pinky work without you having to consciously think about the movements so that the best scenario would be if you could set up a situation that forced you to try to type fast that was using your pinky in the ways that you were weak at. So that you didn’t have to sort of explicitly identify – you’ve identified your weakness, which is great – and to set it up in a way that forces you to do the training you should be doing, basically.

BSS: Ok. Well then I’ll just make a bunch of mistakes and fire off emails without –

DE: For implicit learning, that’s right. It’s weird, I wish there were a blanket answer. Sometimes we extrapolate sports skill to certain other types of skills, but many sports skills are examples of implicit knowledge and a lot of other things we do in life are not those kinds of examples and actually require different types of training.

BSS: The other thing about what you were talking about before that I found cool is, like, there’s this quote that I’ll read really quick from the book: “The ‘practice only’ narrative to explain Tiger Woods has an obvious attraction: it appeals to our hope that anything is possible with the right environment, and that children are lumps of clay with infinite athletic malleability. In short, it has the strongest possible self-help angle and it preserves more free will than any alternative explanation.”

I don’t know, that’s the thing. It’s like Olympics time, so everything sports-wise is turning into a metaphor for all of humanity all the time.

DE: That’s a good way to put it.

BSS: Yeah, everywhere you look. And I love this one because not only can you find all these metaphors in sports but also there’s a metaphor in the way we think about sports, you know”DE: Yeah, I actually love that part of it. I love that striving part of it. Honestly it became sort of weird for me to become this semi-spokesman for talent because I think of myself as someone who is a zealot for trainability, basically. Like I wrote in the book, I won my university’s award for the athlete who – people always laugh at this – overcame significant challenge and difficulty to achieve athletic success. And I sort of reinterpret that story in the book. At the same time I really believe that if people find the right training environment they can get better in basically anything they think they will.

At the same time, sometimes these metaphors – I wish the world were that way, but it turns out it isn’t always this way. And I think elite athletes in the Olympics often understand that quite well because they have devoted their life to doing what they’re doing. The other sprinters that will line up next to Usain Bolt – believe me, he trains less than everyone else who will be on the starting line – I’ve been at his practices, he spends more time like trying to balance a traffic cone on his head. Which was not true of his training partners. And I sort of think there’s some kind of intuitive genius to it like, I think the muscle physiology shows now that actually sprinters should be training less than they typically do because it actually dilutes your explosiveness even if the training is explosive. So I think he actually has an outstanding implicit knowledge of his body but the other people who line up next to him are doing everything they can be doing and they tend to be aware that there are other things that also matter.

BSS: Right, I didn’t find a whole bunch about this in the book because it wasn’t really the point of the book but also the whole concentration part. Like training too much and losing the chillness or self-confidence because you’re overthinking every piece of your mechanics; if you’re balancing a traffic cone over your head, and not worrying about it, and like you said, you have this instinctual understanding – it might be better than someone who’s basically freaking out constantly about their pinky toe and making sure they push off in the right way and, you know what I mean, that their arm technique is correct.

DE: No question about it. I mean, there’s a researcher at the University of Chicago Sian Beilock who studies choking and it’s interesting because she’ll say things like, well, if you really want to stymie your tennis partner, instead of saying, “Wow that’s a great shot you hit,” when you go up to the net to chat you say, “Oh the way you angled the racket on that shot was just amazing.” Because you want them de-automating the skills that they work so hard to automate.

There are parts of the book, like when I talk about baseball players being struck out by softball pitchers, they don’t know why that happened. They were challenging Jenny Finch, the softball pitcher. Barry Bonds was, for example, thinking that he was going to crush her pitches. And that goes to show that he doesn’t actually know the basis of his expertise. Right, I like to tell, I know a lot of my sportswriting colleagues sometimes will see someone who does something really well and consider them the experts. We ask them how they did it. And in implicitly learned skills – things that are executed unconsciously, like many sports skills – they are the worst position to know how they do it. I have this saying for these kinds of situations, it’s, just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re an ornithologist. So we can’t ask the bird why it flies.

And so those skills that are implicit, if you can get someone to think about like an isolated piece of them, it drags it back from this more primitive part of the back of your brain up to the front part where you’re thinking about things, and that eliminates the expertise that makes movements fast and smooth.

BSS: Man, that’s some deadly info. I’m already thinking about the table tennis match I’m going to have later and how I can use that.

DE: Yeah, don’t think about it – paralysis by analysis, that’s the catch phrase.

BSS: So, are you going to watch the Olympics? Do you watch it”DE: Oh absolutely. You know, it’s the first Olympics I’m missing in a while, since I’m no longer at Sports Illustrated, but I’m getting solicited for a lot of freelance things like doping like genetics like sex testing in sports and I think it’s very likely that I’ll be somewhere doing something with some media outlet pretty much every day of the Olympics. So I’ll be following intensely and talking to people who are there and things like that.

BSS: The thing I wanted to ask you about the Olympics is like, what do you watch when you watch the Olympics? Not only just which sports are interesting to you but how do you watch it? Do you read as much as you can and then watch it or do you just kind of watch it and enjoy the drama, or do you have particular people you follow and follow their narratives? How do you do it”DE: Well, since, for the last decade I was going and so there I would meet athletes as much as I could in sports that I knew I was going to cover ahead of time, start getting to know them, pitch articles about them so I could write about them in the lead-up. So I’d follow it from on the ground. At the same time there’s a lot of things you miss on the ground.

I mean the first answer is when it comes to Olympic level where you have athletes who – think about diving, something that most people don’t know about and it’s not like somebody’s doing a dive that hasn’t been done before and you know these people have done what they’re attempting in practice before, so the question is just: will these athletes who are on a stage unlike anything they’ve ever been on before or since simply be able to cope with that and execute to the best of their ability and I find that to be incredibly compelling no matter what the event is, like tiddlywinks, whatever.

So I can really watch anything at the Olympic level and sort of feel that, empathize with that and think about my own competitive career and all those sorts of things. And actually I really like watching now how coaches interact with athletes because some of them will do tons of hands-on coaching during competition. Fencing is a fascinating one because there’s something called strip coaching, where the strip is the surface they compete on, and some coaches do tons of strip coaching and some absolutely swear it off. So it’s interesting to see how they interact with their athletes in the heat of the moment.

But ultimately I’m a huge track and field nut so I watch literally anything track and field with of course the 800 meters being objectively the best event – I take a special interest in that! And speaking of the 10,000 hours and that sorts of things, so actually, after Malcolm Gladwell and I had this debate at MIT that’s up on YouTube we actually became interval running partners and we’re both big track nerds so that’s what we spend most of our time talking about.

BSS: No way! What does he run?

DE: He is a borderline world-class 1500 meter runner, miler, for his age group. He was a Canadian provincial champion as a teenager and then stopped running.

BSS: What? Really?

DE: Yeah, when we were training together last year he got invited to run the 5th Avenue Mile and he ran like 4:50 and change, or something like that.

BSS: What! How old is he now?

DE: Like 51 or something.

BSS: Aw no!

DE: He’s legit, he’s an interval machine, I’m telling you.

BSS: Oh man, I just did like – I’m not a long distance runner. I’ve just been doing in the summer between soccer seasons, like 12k’s just for fun. It’s the first time I’ve run consecutive 12k’s and I just realized why people like distance. Distance to me is anything over a 5k, and it just happened. I’m 29 and I’ve been running in whatever been serious about sports since I was 12 and it just hit me.

DE: That’s great, you know after I was done with competitive running – I ran competitively a year after college – I had to go sort of cold turkey for a little while. Like, “Oh, I’ll never feel like I’m in shape again.” But then after some time, doing some other activities, cross-training, I came back to it and realized there are things about it I really just love about the activity itself and so I had that transition to loving it for the process after my competitive career.

BSS: I’m finding there’s like different fitness. There’s like different shapes for me to get into, that I never even cared about before. Like swimming, and biking and stuff! I never cared about being able to swim, and now all of a sudden I have so much respect and regret being snobby about it through my teenage years, obviously.

DE: That, well, you know your brain wasn’t fully formed. Don’t blame yourself too much.

BSS: So I have another good question about this I think. What’s the most amazing physical specimen you’ve ever seen?

DE: Oh that’s a good question.

BSS: We could put it another way. We could say, what’s the craziest bit of hardware, in your formulation of hardware and software, what’s the craziest hardware you’ve ever seen?

DE: This is interesting. I used to have the office next to Pablo Torre at ESPN and he liked to play this question, like if aliens invaded and to save humanity the task was, they aren’t gonna tell you what the athletic task is you just have to pick someone to do it ahead of time. Who do you choose? So I was like, well, if it was like having someone surrounded by people and they have to get a package across a line I’d take Barry Sanders. He’s like, right but you don’t know, that’s the thing. Right now, I wouldn’t have said this other times, but right now I think I would actually pick Ashton Eaton, the world record holder in the decathlon. Maybe a couple of years ago I would’ve said Lebron James. There’s something about seeing him in person that doesn’t totally come across on television. He’s not just tall and large, there’s like a largeness about everything about him.

BSS: Wait which one, Lebron”DE:Yeah his hands are like a pack of franks. Everything’s just big. You see the way he moves, for someone that big? I was watching a slo-mo video of him on a full-court fast break and he basically took the step pattern that world class long jumpers take, like, intuitively. And just to transfer his energy and I thought that was really amazing.

But right now I do think if I had to choose, the things that Ashton Eaton’s doing – the decathlon – I don’t think ever before the title of “best athlete in the world” that decathletes have gotten has ever been true before and I think it may actually be true now because he’s world class in events individually. Events that are zero sum in their training, like some take away from being good at others, and he’s still managing to be world class in multiple events.

I think it’s the first time that the decathlete champion may actually be the world’s best athlete.

BSS: I didn’t know anything about him, that’s pretty cool. What’s the story?

DE: He came to it sort of late which actually turns out to be very typical of elite athletes, never mind the prevailing narrative. He was at the University of Oregon and kind of exploded. He’s just a good, normal guy who’s incredible. He’s a world class quarter-miler he’s a world class hurdler, he’s just, I don’t know, he’s just an amazing athlete. There’s not some crazy personal story behind it, he just found his niche with the encouragement of a coach and has just gotten to levels and events that decathletes have never gotten to before.

He could go to the Olympics maybe not for the United States but for almost any other country in the world in sprint events just as an individual, never mind the decathlon.

BSS: So, is that hardware? That’s hardware.

DE: Well, it’s both. It’s always both. Without genes and environments there are no outcomes. But he clearly is a latecomer to the sport, for sure. And he’s incredibly explosive and while we know that you can make certain types of muscle fibers more explosive, ultimately explosiveness is limited by qualities of some of your muscle fibers and you need to be born with a certain type. You can do a better job of building endurance than you can of building that kind of explosiveness. In fact, training actually converts your fastest twitch variety of muscle fibers down to less explosive ones so you literally can’t train to have the fastest type of muscle fibers because any training you do actually takes away from how explosive they are.

BSS: What about the same question with software? What’s the most amazing software specimen you can think of?

DE: Good question. I mean, when I think of things like watching someone like Floyd Mayweather (never mind various out-of-the-ring things), the speed limits in boxing, the rate at which things have to be anticipated makes baseball look slow. So a really fast major league fastball takes 400 milliseconds, 4/10 of a second, to get to home plate. Whereas a really fast puncher, from the first time you could pick up that his fist is moving if he throws a jab, to the point that it’s fully extended, is 150 milliseconds. That’s like the time it would take for your eyelid to move if I flashed a flashlight in your face. And it’s below the minimum human reaction time just to recognize that something is in front of you for that information to cross the synapses in the back of your brain and to send a signal to start moving – that takes 200 milliseconds! So not getting hit by every punch from a fast puncher every single time requires incredible anticipatory skill and picking up body cues and to see the way he defends himself and moves in a way that frustrates other boxers, he must just have incredible anticipatory database.

He’s obviously got incredibly athleticism too but, like, there’s a cool video I use sometimes where Cristiano Ronaldo is taking a corner kick and hitting a header and they can turn off the lights as soon as the ball’s kicked and he can still connect with it perfectly. He’s fast and strong but that has nothing to do with strength and speed and being an incredibly good looking underwear model. Those things are incredible – guys like him and Messi – but since I can’t really choose I would say a Muhammed Ali, a Floyd Mayweather, because playing defense the way they did is more time-limited than anything else in sports I can think of basically.

BSS: Yeah that’s cool, I didn’t know that about the boxing.

DE: Yeah, Ali was tested on that and it was actually interesting because some people were claiming that the test showed that he had sort of slower-than-normal reaction speed and it was picked up on in this weird way by some people with a bigoted agenda to say, look even this amazing guy has a slower brain. But if you look at the data he’s near the theoretical limit of human speed, so they were wrong.

BSS: I’m sure your book led to people sending in all sorts of crazy anecdotes and stories – what’s the craziest story your book has initiated that you’ve heard?

DE: Well you know I narrated This American Life recently, and this was probably the most unlikely story I’ve ever been involved with since I’ve been a journalist. I was yammering about some genetics and sports thing on TV and a woman named Jill Viles, a woman in Iowa, overheard me and said this is what I’ve been looking for. So she has rare forms of both muscle-wasting and fat-wasting diseases. And she had seen pictures on the internet of the woman who won the bronze medal in the 100 meter hurdles in the 2008 Olympics and this woman has incredibly large muscle. And she said, this woman’s missing fat in the same strange pattern as I am from my disease, but has these huge muscles, what if we have the same mutated gene and for some reason her body went down this losing fat but having tons of crazy muscle, totally looks like steroids, and my body lost both fat and muscle.

So she contacts me and thinks this might be important for research, can I convince this woman to get a genetic test, and I’m like I doubt it but I’ll try because this woman Jill had done her homework I mean she knew her science, so much so that she self-diagnosed one of her diseases when doctors were telling her there’s no way, women don’t get this. She had a friend smuggle some equipment to draw blood, sent her blood to Italy and it turned out to be an index case for finding a gene that causes the disease she has. So they thank her in the article. So she knew her stuff. I said this at least deserves an attempt.

So I reach out to Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, and she’s first of all the coolest person, she’s a Canadian bronze medalist, and she says, absolutely, people have been accusing me of steroid use forever. What do I have to do I’ll send you pictures of myself when I’m 8 years old. You can see I’ve always looked different, I’ll send you pictures of all the women in my family, you can see this. She was motivated to clear her name basically and so the first geneticist we approached said, no, too unlikely this woman Jill, maybe she has some kind of stalking thing online.

Finally someone agrees to do it and sure enough Jill’s right. She has this incredibly rare fat wasting condition that for some reason causes incredible muscle growth. So first of all it leads to emergency treatment for priscilla who was about to have an attack of pancreatitis, but nobody had been monitoring it because they’re like, she’s an olympic athlete, obviously healthy, we don’t even have to do normal blood screens. So this random woman in Iowa, you know, using the cutting edge medical tool of Google Images, causes the largest medical intervention in the life of an Olympic athlete who sees biomechanists, all these sorts of people, all the time, and now they’ve become the subjects of research.

Jill’s amazing and I just couldn’t believe it. I doubted it too but I said she deserves an effort, it’s going to come to nothing – it just knocked me over.

BSS: That’s crazy. That’s probably a good thing to end on because I don’t even know how to follow up unless we go deep into genetics and then we’ll need a lot more than the time we have. Alright well this was great, I really appreciate it, and I hope you think of us, like if you have a new book coming out at some point. What are you working on? Just single pieces nowadays?

DE: I’m working on pieces but I’m starting on a new book also. I added an afterword to the paperback edition of my book that’s about early specialization and this data showing that it’s actually not the typical path to success, particularly in the sports that require you to learn anticipatory skills, which are more complicated. And I got interested in that actually after this debate I had with Gladwell – where he was like, that was a point you had me on, that was tough, that data – and started to get more interested in it in areas outside of sports as well. When is it right to early- and hyper-technical specialize? When is breadth and delaying specialization better? So I’m getting into that through sports but wanting to look at it more in the world in general, as people get more pushed towards hyper-specialization I think there are a lot of virtues in alternate paths that are undersold.

BSS: Cool, well I hope when it comes out we can do that again. That’d be fun.

DE: I’d love to, feel free to contact me anytime or if I can be of any help during the Olympics just let me know!

BSS: I appreciate it. Well enjoy the rest of the day out there and yeah, we’ll be in touch.

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