Automaticity, Skill Development and Expert Performance

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers popularized the 10,000-hour/10-year rule from the research of K. Anders Ericsson, Benjamin Bloom, Istvan Balyi and others. Some reacted to the concept by suggesting that the 10,000-hour rule illustrates the importance of early specialization so athletes have time to engage in 10 years worth of practice.

There are two flaws to this reasoning.

(1) The 10-year rule pertains to expert performance. Specializing in a sport to complete the 10 years of practice at an early age would mean a peak at 18-years-old. In most sports, including basketball, players reach their peak in their mid to late 20’s. There is no incentive to peak early as colleges recruit potential and the NBA drafts potential. They want players who will continue to improve and develop. If a player’s reached his peak, there is no more development or improvement.

(2) When a player learns a skill, he goes through three general stages according to Fitts: Cognitive Stage, Associative Stage and Automatic Stage. Some champion early specialization because of the need to move through these three phases. The perception is that players who reach automaticity earlier will be better performers.

There is recent research to refute this idea. In “Inside the brain of an elite athlete: the neural processes that support high achievement in sports” by Kielan Yarrow, Peter Brown and John W. Krakauer (2009), the researchers write:

It is not automaticity per se that is indicative of high proficiency but rather the level of skill at which automaticity is attained.

If a player starts year-round basketball at eight-years-old and reaches automaticity with his shooting form as a 10 or 11-year-old, he masters the shot of a 10-year-old. The skill of a 10-year-old is not likely to lead to success at 15, 18 or 25 years of age.

The researchers continue:

Most of us fail to develop beyond a hobbyist level of performance precisely because we settle into automaticity at a level of skill that we find enjoyable rather than continuing to improve her skills. Hence, automaticity is more of a false ceiling than a measure of excellence.

When a player makes his shooting technique automatic, he settles into a comfort level regardless of the performance level. Most players remain at the level because they practice at the same level; their automaticity becomes a ceiling for their performance.

Experts, however, do not settle into their comfort zone. They continually strive for better performance – they defy the speed-accuracy trade-off by improving the speed of execution and the accuracy of their performance (Yarrow et al., 2009). Fitt’s Law suggests a speed-accuracy trade-off – the faster that one moves, the less accurate will be his performance. Experts defy the speed-accuracy trade-off through practice outside their comfort zone. They practice at a faster speed and learn to shoot with more accuracy at the faster speed. They push beyond their comfort level, and this ability to push past their level when automaticity is reached is one distinction of an expert performer.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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