The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood

Friday, August 13th, 2021

If you look at the average number of hours of deliberate practice between elite and near-elite athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), packing in practice is clearly important, but you need to look at the entire picture:

The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood. Only in the mid-teen years did they focus in on a single sport and begin racking up practice hours in earnest.

Age vs. Practice Hours per Week

It could be that some eventual elites were simply more gifted and didn’t have to focus in as early.

Or, given the circa-puberty timing of the crossover in the above chart, the future near-elites may simply have been early developers who ceased to stand out when peers caught up physically, and subsequently the near-elites started throwing in the metaphorical towel.

Another possible explanation for this pattern is that early specialization actually hinders development in some sports.


[NBA MVP Steve] Nash followed a pattern that shows up repeatedly in studies of the childhoods of elite athletes: he had a “sampling period” through about age twelve, where he tried a variety of sports, found the one that best suited him — physically and psychologically — and then focused in during his mid-teen years and got down to business.


A Swedish study of sub-elite and elite tennis players — five of whom were ranked top fifteen in the world — found that the eventual sub-elites dropped all sports other than tennis by age eleven, whereas the eventual elites continued playing multiple sports until age fourteen. Only at fifteen did the future elites begin to practice more than the future sub-elites.


A study of the childhoods of musicians shows a similar pattern. In a paper titled “Biological Precursors of Musical Excellence,” psychologists John A. Sloboda and Michael J. A. Howe found that teenagers in a competitive music school who were deemed of “exceptional ability” had, prior to gaining entry to the school, sampled instruments and practiced less and had fewer lessons than students who were deemed of “average ability.” The average students accumulated 1,382 hours of play and practice on their first instrument prior to entering the school, compared to 615 hours for the exceptional students, who only focused on one instrument and ramped up their practice activities later. The average players, the psychologists wrote, “spent more total time on instrumental activity, but devoted the vast majority of their effort to the first chosen instrument.” That is, they stuck rigidly to a single path rather than embracing the sampling period during which athletes and musicians alike apparently often find the route that best fits their inimitable bodies and minds.

This led Epstein to write his next book, Range, which I also recommend — and which I’ve mentioned here before a few times.


  1. Obaid says:

    A interesting look at high-level performance in sports and the reasons why it occurs across a broad variety of endeavors. When Epstein authored the book, he summarized and described the information that was already available at the time. His explanations are comprehensive and easily understandable to the general public. Despite the fact that it is 33 pages lengthy, his collection of notes and sources for each chapter is quite useful. Many of the issues he discusses need to be investigated in more depth in future research. In particular, myostatin inhibition for individuals who are losing muscle mass as a result of chronic disease or age, as well as the work with follistatin, are being pursued by researchers.

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