It takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practise to become a world-class musician, according to a few studies that are extrapolated as if they can explain success in every skilled profession (they can’t). So what does it really take to become an Olympic calibre athlete? A new analysis gives us some clues.
Photo of Ricky Robertson, who can jump over 2m off the ground, by Andy Lyons / Getty.
But first: As you probably guessed, elite athletes are different from the rest of us. They have great genetics, and have managed to find enormous amounts of time and money so they can dedicate their (usually young) lives to training. According to this review by Vladimir Issurin from the Wingate Institute, elite athletes are also unusually motivated, dedicated, determined, persistent and creative. They are teachable, they improve quickly, and they’re willing to work longer and try harder things.
In endurance, power and combat sports, athletes reached world-class status after four to seven years, and 3000 to 7000 hours of “purposeful training”. Olympic gymnasts were closer to the rules of thumb, averaging 9.7 years and nearly 9000 hours of practise. Rhythmic gymnasts, the ones that dance around with ribbons, had even more.
Specialising early in life is necessary to get those hours of practise in by teenagerhood, but that only seems to help in sports where people compete young (such as gymnastics and figure skating). For other sports, age is less important. And the practise doesn’t all have to be laser focused on the skills of the athlete’s eventual discipline; a majority of Olympians trained in two or three other sports before finding the one they would pursue at higher levels.