You know the variations on the cliche. Practice makes perfect. Or, a step further, perfect practice makes perfect.
A new study suggests, however, that’s not very accurate. According to the study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the correlation between improvement and practice may not be as strong as once thought.
The premise of the study was a deeper look at the study that inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” in his 2008 book “Outliers.” The study, published in 1993, founded deliberate, intensive practice could lead a person to become an expert at a subject matter or domain, be it a sport, professional endeavor or other learning.
“[Gladwell’s rule] is an oversimplification of that study,” said Dr. Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University, one of the principal investigators on this new study.
In other words, the Dan Plan — in which Dan McLauglin sought to become a scratch golfer with 10,000 hours of practice — wasn’t an efficient one.
Macnamara doesn’t deny the value of practice. It can certainly help, she says, but its impact varies person to person. Based on her team’s findings, deliberate practice only accounted for an 18 percent difference in sports performance — meaning myriad other factors account for 82 percent of the difference.
Some people perform better at a task, like learning golf, because they start sooner in life. Kids who take up golf tend to play better later in life, the result of accumulated practice over decades. Children tend to perform better at a specific sport later in life if their sports portfolio is more diverse when they’re younger, learning a variety of different skills that ultimately inform how to play one specific sport.
The amount of practice can be cumulative, but the additive effect varies. Intensity is a factor as well. Some people need time for practice to sink in, while others simply need to keep practicing.
Practice may also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Early success likely leads to more practice, more confidence, more intensity and more attention. Early failure may spur on all those same things, but may also make a player believe they have to practice more than they actually need to in order to improve.
Fundamentally, this study and competing ones on the value of practice add to the library of evidence submitted in the case of Nature v. Nurture. In golf terms, I told Macnamara, that’s basically the difference between being a natural and a grinder.
While practice may not be as important to performance as we might think, the study may bring the value of preparation — and entirely different skill — into focus. Practicing technique may not be so vital to success as being prepared for what techniques need to be employed over the course of a round or tournament.
In other words, when players arrive at Royal Liverpool in two weeks for the Open Championship, they may be best served learning the Hoylake course (or re-familiarizing themselves with it) as much as figuring things out on the range.