We often hear about the 10,000 rule as it relates to developing expertise in all areas of life from hockey to singing to playing chess. The research behind the rule, however, is far more complicated than the popularized version often cited today. Understanding the nuances of the rule is instrumental for any athlete who wants to develop elite status in hockey (or anything else for that matter).
First, we need to understand some of the research behind the rule. K. Anders Ericsson discovered that amongst violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music, the difference between the elite, “good”, and students not likely to play professionally was the amount of accumulated practice hours. The best violinists totaled ten thousand hours of practice whereas the lesser violinists had only hit eight thousand hours. Can we conclude from this research that hockey players need to simply hit 10,000 hours of practice and then they’ll be elite?
Ericsson himself argues that for practice to count toward the total hours, a person must engage in deliberate practice – practice that is intentional, often mundane, and designed specifically for training returns. Fun isn’t part of the calculus.
Do we really think this is something an eight-year-old should be doing? And even if we could force them to do deliberate practice correctly and get as many hours in as possible, would it be beneficial? Remember, this original study was on violinists. The number of practice hours differentiated sharply around eight years old, coinciding with when an overwhelming majority of children’s neurological growth has occurred. In contrast, an athlete’s muscular and skeletal development is minimal at that age.
Instead of trying to maximize training hours at the youngest ages, we should identify the ages when increased training volumes are the most effective. Taking this a step further, we should do more to understand at what ages certain types of training provide the best returns (i.e. a peewee player can improve her hands faster than a high school athlete).
For male athletes, the optimal window to significantly increase deliberate training hours probably occurs for most after the age of 15. All athletes are different in terms of when they biologically mature so for some this training window can start later and for others it is a little earlier. An interesting study on Danish athletes in centigrams, grams, and seconds sports suggests elite athletes outpace their peers not by practicing more at every age but by performing more quality practice at the right ages. In this study, elite performers actually accumulated fewer practice hours prior to the age 18, but they ramped up training volumes at age 15 relative to their near elite peers.
Chart Data Source: Moesch, Karen, A.-M. Elbe, M.-L. T. Hauge, and J. M. Wikman. “Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports.”
Could the same be true for hockey, football, and soccer players? If so, the 10,000 hour rule is even more nuanced. The rule becomes less about hitting a number of practice hours and more about understanding what training to do and when to increase it.
 Gladwell, Malcom. “Outliers”. Page 39