SquashMatch Blog

Got 10 years to spare? Practice makes perfect

By Fatema on 2013-01-09

By Fatema L

Want to be an excellent squash player? According to Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic book, Blink, all you need is 10 years of deliberate practice (which also works out as 10,000 hours) to rise to the top of whatever profession you’re in, whether it’s as a teacher, nurse or chess grandmaster.

Luck, talent, connections and ambition play a part, but if you look at any successful athlete or businessman, the main thing that sticks out is how many hours they have dedicated to their career. However, the emphasis lies on ‘dedicated’ practice. In squash, this means playing regularly with a variety of partners, working with a coach, putting in the hours, working on the areas where you’re weak, and regularly pushing yourself to be the best player you can be. If you’re an occasional squash player and you like to play with your best friends for an hour every weekend, you’re not going to get to the top of your game as there is no ‘dedicated practice’ involved. And if you want to be a squash pro, well for most SquashMatch readers, it might be a little too late given that most athletes go pro in their mid-teens, but there’s nothing stopping you from being the best possible lawyer, accountant or darts player you can possibly be as long as you put in your meaningful hours.

And this isn’t just a recipe for success for sports alone. A 1991 study of violinists in Germany looked at three types of violinists. The first group comprised of outstanding students who were expected to become international soloists, the second group were extremely good, but not as accomplished as the first group. They were expected to end up playing in the world’s top orchestras, but not as soloists. And the third group were the least able students who were studying to become music teachers. After detailed interviews, researchers found a lot of similarities with regards to the ages they started playing, the number of music teachers they had and the number of other instruments played, but found the single difference between the groups was the number of hours dedicated every week to serious practice. By the age of 20, the best violinists had practiced an average of 10,000 hours, which was 2000 hours more than the good violinists, and 6000 more than the future music teachers. And most importantly, researchers found there were no exceptions to this pattern. Nobody in the first group was there without putting in some serious practice hours, and nobody in that group failed to excel. Purposeful practice was all that distinguished between those in each group.

This is transferable across other fields as well. An analysis of the Top nine golfers of the twentieth century showed that they won their first international tournament around the age of 25 – on average more than 10 years after they first started golfing. The same finding has been discovered in fields as diverse as maths, tennis and long-distance running. Ditto for academia. A study of the 120 most important scientists and 123 most famous poets and authors of the c19th found that ten years elapsed between their first work and their best work.

You have the same pattern in squash. Ramy Ashour started playing at the age of six, and in 2004 he won the World Junior Championship at the tender age of 16. Nick Matthew also started playing at the age of eight, and went pro at the age of 18. Same again with Nicol David who started playing at five, and went pro at 17. These players might have started young, but by their early teens, they had spent thousands of hours on court practicing their shots and perfecting their moves, had support from their families and good quality coaching, and more importantly, had the willpower and determination to keep on practicing and playing as often as they could.

But bear in mind one point. Putting in the hours is one of the main factors of success, but that still doesn’t guarantee anything. There are lots of people who put in the hours and still struggle to get anywhere, but for those who have made it, you will always find they’ve invested a lot of time and energy over the years to achieve their level of success.

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