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Australian Sailing - Australian Sailing March 2011

Fit For Sailing

Andrew Verdon looks at the reason why World Champions can sail any boat.

My column last summer on skill acquisition drew a lot of feedback so I thought we would look a bit deeper into the topic again. This was prompted by a discussion I had with Nathan Outteridge during the 2011 Zhik Moth Worlds.

Nathan, who went on to win the 2011 Worlds on Lake Macquarie, says: “Some of us sail over 200 days per year across a wide range of classes and boards and all that knowledge learned we can bring into our other sailing.”

The Moth Squad, as they were known, includes Nathan’s crew in the 49er Olympic class Iain “Goobs” Jensen, Laser world champion Tom Slingsby, Moth Worlds runner up Joe Turner and Kiwi 49er helm Peter Burling, among others. Incredibly, all of these sailors finished in the top ten in the world championship despite not being full time Moth sailors. How did they do this in a fleet of over 100 boats racing in a generally windy series in a very challenging boat to sail?

If the average day they sail is say three hours on the water (of actual sailing time) then that is about 600 hours per year of high level sailing as a minimum.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

After 10-15 years of research, a theory known as the “10,000 Hour Rule” has been developed. This “rule” has exploded recently and become more widely known owing to the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. What is this rule and how does it relate to these sailors performing at the front of the fleet at the Moth Worlds?

The 10,000 Hour Rule is usually attributed to research done by Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. He and his team divided students into three groups ranked by excellence at the Berlin Academy of Music and then correlated achievement with hours of practice. They discovered that the elite had all put in about 10,000 hours of practice, the good 8,000 and the average 4,000 hours. No one had fast-tracked. This rule was then applied to other disciplines such as other forms of music, chess and various sports and Ericsson found that it proved valid across all fields as to how expert performers acquire their superior performance by extended deliberate practice.

Another author, Daniel Levitin, talks about the theory of10,000 hours:

… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

Deliberate practice

The two words “deliberate” and “practice” are in fact essential, but it is the conditions that surround both of these words that provide the real boost for turning average performers into world class performers. The current infatuation with 10,000 hours is no guarantee of world-class expertise. It needs to be good quality practice of the skill.

Ericsson himself in the Harvard Business Review describes this as, “You need a particular kind of practice – deliberate practice – to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

So even though these boys are not spending 200 days in a Moth they are sailing (in multiple classes) at a very high level of expertise with expert coaches for many of these days in a competitive environment which is allowing them to become better and better – or gaining more expertise..

Most of these guys have been doing this since their teenage years (10 years ago) so they would be approaching this level (10,000) of hours of practising their skills.

Think about the training you have done (if any!) on the water over the summer to prepare for an event? Were you simply getting “time on the water?” or were you following a structured and deliberate method to practise and improve?

One of the things I notice when I spend time in the coach boat with high level coaches and sailors is the very specific purpose and goals they focus on for each session, or even over a whole training block of up to a week, when they go out to train or practise. This differs greatly from many sailors who just go out for a sail.

What Is The 10,000 Hour Rule?

This is the idea that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. For instance, it would take 10 years of practising three hours a day to become a master in your subject. It would take approximately five years of full-time employment to become proficient in your field. Simply work out how many hours you have already achieved and calculate how far you need to go. You should be aiming for 10,000 hours.

But these hours need to be good quality!

So the take away message? Let’s adjust the old saying of “practice makes perfect” to “perfect practice makes perfect”.

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