A giant in sport fell just there, though you probably didn’t hear any tremor. But you’ve seen the ripples from his work, from Augusta to Croke Park.
If the name Anders Ericsson rings a bell, it’s probably when Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers and both popularised and misinterpreted his research. By adding 1 and 1 together and coming up with the catchy 10,000 hours rule, Gladwell misguidedly gave the impression that if you put that amount of hours into a particular skill or field, you’ll be an expert at it.
Ericsson, who passed away this day last week at the age of 73, was much more nuanced than that. Not any old practice could do. But there was one upside to Ericsson’s name entering the mainstream about a decade ago through books like Gladwell’s and others by Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code), Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) and Matthew Syed (Bounce). It challenged and discredited the popular and dangerous public myth that skill is ‘natural’.
In 2016 when Ericsson wrote his own book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, based on hundreds of academic papers he had written and studied, he very early on cited Ray Allen, who just this past month was deemed by CBS Sports to be the third-greatest shooter in basketball history.
“When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off,” Allen once said. “I tell those people, ‘Don’t underestimate the work I put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day.’ He went even as far as to say that when he was in high school, his jump shot wasn’t necessarily better than his teammates.
Ericsson’s expertise was in studying expertise: he was the master on studying the masters. And what he found was that expertise or ‘genius’ was not inherited or ‘god-given’.
He understood how seductive the idea of ‘natural genius’ was, saving you having to explain what’s so hard and long to explain. “I get it,” he’d write in Peak, with Robert Pool. “People want to believe that there is magic in life, that not everything has to abide by the staid, boring rules of the real world. But my decades of research in the area of expertise have convinced me there is no magic.”
And he also understood how dangerous and limiting that myth was.
“Since antiquity, people have generally assumed that a person’s potential in any given field is inevitably and unavoidably limited by that person’s inherent talent. But we now understand that there’s no such thing as predefined ability. The brain is adaptable and training can create skills that did not exist before. This is a game changer, because learning now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than of (improving innate ones).”
Expertise was more to do with motivation, and reflection, and especially practice. Deep, purposeful, deliberate practice in which you’re seeking to hit ‘the sweet spot’.
Much of his findings originated from an experiment he conducted in which students had to recall random numbers. He couldn’t find anyone who could go beyond recalling nine digits. But then he had a breakthrough. He’d start with a random five-digit number. If the subject got it right, Ericsson would progress to giving them six new random digits, their ‘sweet spot’. If they got it right, he would progress to their next ‘sweet spot’, seven, not eight or nine. If they got it wrong, he would drop back by two, then back up one by one. By the 16th session, one particular subject could recall 20 digits. By 100 sessions he was at 40. By 200 sessions he was at 82.
That very principle now is rampant in sport, particularly in the area of skill acquisition. Dave Alred is just one popular exponent of Ericsson’s principles, in his work with rugby placekickers to golfers such as Francesco Molinari. Instead of just mindlessly hitting hundreds of balls from the one spot without any pressure, Alred creates discomfort and more competition-like conditions so that Molinari is brought outside a comfort zone and instead is pursuing his sweet spot.
Dean Rock is someone else who can vouch for the merits of Ericsson’s work. At the start of the lockdown he gave an Instagram interview to his Dublin teammate Ciarán Kilkenny in which he recommended Alred’s book and liberally used terms from Alred and Ericsson’s vernacular, like ‘deliberate, purposeful practice’ and the ‘sweet spot’.
He didn’t inherit his freekicking talent from his father, Barney; anything he got from Barney was nurtured: seeing the time and thought and dedication he put into the craft.
You’ll still hear the occasional talk about someone being a ‘natural’. Even in a promo for the upcoming documentary on Christy Ring to coincide with the centenary of the great man’s birth, there are clips from The Game with various talking heads talking about what a ‘natural’ he was.
But Ring himself would have disagreed. In Val Dorgan’s book on Ring, the former Supreme Court judge Hugh O’Flaherty recounts that when Ring would hurl with his son on a local beach, he’d often say hurling was not indigenous or inherent, but something that could be learned.
“Hurling is hard work,” Ring himself once said. “It’s like carrying 100 bricks before you put up one. You must learn to carry them first. Then you’ll put them up. You must work step by step. The hardest things that you must do in training will serve you well in the game because you’ll never be asked to do them as hard again. The easy way happens in the game but of course, it only seems easy because you have been doing the hard things in training.’
Ring would not have been familiar with the terms ‘deliberate practice’ or ‘purposeful practice’ or ‘reflective practice’ or ‘sweet spot’ but he would have vouched for their validity.
Geniuses are geniuses for how they’ve learned to think and work, not for what they were ‘gifted’ or ‘born with’.
And that realisation has been Ericsson’s gift to all of us.