Do you love to practice?

If I want to be an expert performer and I’m just starting out, I’m looking up at 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Dr. Anders Ericsson has shown us in his research that it’s going to take me about nine to ten years of applying myself, four hours a day, five days a week for about a decade to reach the elite level.

Phew. That sounds overwhelming and not an appealing way to spend what little free time I have. This is one of the reasons why I am so impressed by athletes who produce amazing performances. Behind what I see on TV are years of sacrifice, denial of pleasure, isolation, frustration and perhaps more than a few times, questions of just why they are putting themselves through all the pain.

Or can there be another explanation? Janet L. Starkes, a researcher who has published alongside Dr. Ericsson, studied if this is the case. Are the athletes, musicians, surgeons and writers who are committed to reaching the highest level of expertise really miserable? After all, deliberate practice isn’t a pleasant little hit around on Sunday morning. It’s failure after failure, trying and coming up short, evaluating and starting over.

What Dr. Starkes and her colleagues found in working with wrestlers and figure skaters is that these athletes actually enjoyed the process of becoming great. Asking them how they spent their time and then ranking the level of enjoyment of each of their activities, the athletes rated the time practicing their sport as quite high. Sleeping, not surprisingly, was the highest, but practice was ranked higher than watching TV and generally vegging out. These athletes had more fun struggling to master their sport than watching Entourage.

So the next time you see bunch of teens forcing themselves across the soccer pitch for one more sprint, maybe one or two of them are enjoying it, deep down. And maybe we’ll be watching them play on a bigger stage in a few years.

The Road to Excellence: Deliberate Practice in Sports: What is it anyway?

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