Malcolm Gladwell is a terrific writer (one of my favourites.) He wrote Blink. He wrote The Tipping Point. And now he's writing about Outliers – those special individuals who rise above the rest, and what makes them special. The surprise? They're not born to it. Their specific influences, environment, culture, and – most importantly – practice are what make them great.
Gladwell starts the excellent book talking our language – hockey. Want to know the most popular birth month among our most elite players in Junior A and NHL hockey? January. The second-most popular? February. Third? March. Why is it that players born earlier in the year are more likely to advance to the higher ranks of hockey?
Gladwell proposes it's the age cutoff date for most Canadian hockey leagues: January 1. A child born on January 2, 2009, will be nearly a year older than his counterpart born December 30, 2009, but will still play in the same league, on the same team.
By age 8, when players start attracting the attention of all-star and rep squads, that age difference will still be obvious in most of the categories that matter: size, strength, speed, agility, and dexterity. The older players are more likely to be noticed, even at that young age. Their subsequent recruitment onto rep teams and travelling squads means greater exposure to good coaching, more practice time, and more time honing competitive skills. Players who started out lucky thanks to their birthdate become much more skilled due to the extra coaching and practice time. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
This is not to say that a player born in November or December has no chance, only that they have a lot of ground to make up at critical points in their playing career.
This is where Gladwell's postulation that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become master of anything comes into account. He's no longer talking about hockey players by this point, instead focusing on classical musicians and Mozart and computer programmers, but his points still apply. A player born in January will playing/practicing only 3 hours per week will still have 175 more hours playing than his December-born buddy. That's a lot of coaching, and a lot of experience. It's a big head start.
Can that 10,000 hours of practice be made up? Yes. Consider that much of the 10,000 hours is self-guided, and more playful in nature than disciplined acquirement of skill. Play is critical, don't get me wrong, but how does an hour of quality coaching compare to an hour of just 'shooting around?' 2 to 1? 3 to 1? 50 to 1?
How much time can quality off-ice training make up? What if we could negate the strength and speed advantage through science and elite coaching?
And what if you were born in January? How much more an advantage could you gain if you applied advanced conditioning methods to your training? Worth thinking about.