To be perfect, practice isn’t enough

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — There may be more to perfection than a lot of practice, according to a small study of chess players and musicians.

A study published in the journal Intelligence shows that even copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level of skill in two widely studied activities: chess and music.

In other words, it takes more than hard work to become an expert. Natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity, says Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” Hambrick says.

The debate over why and how people become experts has existed for more than a century. Many theorists argue that thousands of hours of focused, deliberate practice is sufficient to achieve elite status. Hambrick disagrees.

“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” he says.

Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, looking specifically at how practice was related to differences in performance. Practice, they found, accounted for only about one-third of the differences in skill in both music and chess.

What made up the difference?

Based on existing research, Hambrick says it can be explained by factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity.

A previous study of Hambrick’s suggested that working memory capacity—which is closely related to general intelligence—may sometimes be the deciding factor between being good and great.

While the conclusion that practice may not make perfect runs counter to the popular view that just about anyone can achieve greatness if they work hard enough, Hambrick says there is a silver lining.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” he says, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

Researchers from Rice University, Southern Illinois University, Brunel University in the United Kingdom, and Edith Cowan University in Australia contributed to the research.

Source: Michigan State University

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  1. Ted Smith

    It is misleading to use terms such as “innate ability” and “natural talent” when attempting to define the road to perfection. A future, high performing chess player, musician or athlete, for that matter, possesses a neonatal and infant developmental “template” characterized by highly organized brain, neurophysiological and neuromuscular structure. Very few inherited or environmental factors that might be a drag on accomplishment are simply not present/active when this coordinated template is properly stimulated with a specific, e.g. chess, activity. As a running coach for many years I saw this in elite runners whose genetics and early childhood experience gave them an enhanced biomechanics and cardiovascular advantage. When asked how I explained what appeared to be effortless elite performance, I was careful to point out that a particular runner/athlete simply didn’t have so much to correct; the path to improvement was an easy one.

  2. scruff

    “…possesses a neonatal and infant developmental “template” characterized by highly organized brain, neurophysiological and neuromuscular structure.” = fancy way of saying innate ability.

  3. Alex

    I think that what Ted Smith means by that “template” has to include a persons environment as well as their practice habits. It’s not that the template provides innate ability but that it is the proper building block for abilities if they are harbored and sculpted in the correct environment. So we could say that innate abilities have much to do with nurture and not only genetics. Once the genetics are in place the proper environment must be provided for success.

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