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How Much Should You Practice: The 10,000 Hours Rule

"10,000,000 balls!" That was the answers that my dad gave me when I first asked him how much I needed to hit before I became as good as Ivan Lendl. During the Cold War, we didn't have access to too much tennis on TV (the tennis that we did see was often smuggled into the country on Betamax tapes) but whenever we did get a chance to watch some high-level tennis, Ivan Lendl was one of the favorites (his Slovak counter-part, Miloslav Mecir, was a close second). As much as he was disliked in the West, Lendl was adored in the East. Where Americans seem(ed) to idolize McEnroe-talent and Connors-brashness, the Eastern bloc was all about work-ethic and pure, mechanical determination - characteristics that were embodied by Lendl. From an early age, it was hammered into us, that single-minded determination and hard work are the keys to success...in whatever field you happen to specialize.

It was nice then to see the afore-mentioned rule of thumb being validated in modern press. In books such as Outliers: The Story of Success, Talent is Overrated, Bounce, This is Your Brain on Music and The Talent Code, the writers seem to indepentely arrive at the same conclusion: that if you want to master a particular endeavor - be it sports, music, computer programming or even a profession such as law or medicine - you need to dedicate TEN THOUSAND HOURS (quality hours, that is) to the activity. As stated in This is Your Brain on Music (by Daniel Levitin):

"...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."

Where natural ability may be a factor at an earlier age - allowing the player to grasp certain concepts with less effort - it, more or less, becomes insignificant (or wholly irrelevant) down the road. In many ways, superior natural talent may be an obstacle because, if something's too easy, the player will lose focus or end up spending less time on court (thereby failing to improve stamina, muscle memory, strength and concentration). See, for example, page 66 of The Dynamic Path (Citrin, James M.) ("[a]t the extreme it [talent] can become a hindrance"). Of course, there are some talented individuals who are also DRIVEN to succeed and PASSIONATE about the activity. They are the lucky ones. Such players are able to pick up things relatively quickly and also have the ability to pour blood, sweat and tears into their practices and matches. But that doesn't mean that you cannot make it if you're not "talented". As long as you're PASSIONATE about the sport and willing to put in the hours, you have an even chance.

With the foregoing in mind, if you hit 1000 balls per hour and you play tennis for 10,000 hours, you will have hit 10,000,000 balls. Obviously, as an 8, 9 or 10 year old, you might not have the ability to his 1000 balls an hour. However, as you get older - be it 14, 15, or 16 - you should be in a better position to make up the balls (and hours). Sometimes, you can go out there and crank 1500-2000 balls in an hour on the ball machine. Other times, you will be able to hit 4-5000 volleys against the backboard or 1000 serves in an hour. The key is to have intense practices where you are focusing on specific objectives and endeavor to repeat the work until "you get it".

Before you think that a young tennis player is incapable of this type of work, please read up on Budhia Singh. As a 4 year old boy, Budhia Singh was picked up from poverty by a judo coach who trained him to run marathon races. By 5 years old, Budhia had run 48 complete marathons!!! Think about that feat for a second: 48 marathons at 5 years of age. He has also run a 60 kilometers course (37 miles) in around 6 hours. Did I mention that the temperatures ranged around 93 degrees Fahrenheit during these runs?! Needless to say, this type of behavior borders on child abuse - and his former coach has been accused of exactly that by the Indian state government and child protection services - but it goes to show WHAT the human body can accomplish - even at an early age - as long as there's determination and motivation. All of a sudden, hitting 1-2000 balls an hour seems like a cake walk, doesn't it?! You think that hitting a couple side-to-sides or 200 serves per day is tough?! Well drop the racket and pick up a newspaper 'cause you ain't gonna make it in this sport.

Unfortunately, there are a number of parents and players who believe that, since the family has spent X Dollars (or Euros) so far on development, Junior should be winning Wibledon titles any day now. From a coach's point of view, such mindset is comical at best, frustrating at worst. As a family unit, you're either (a) all in, (b) all out, or (c) pursuing tennis as a diversion only (i.e., playing tennis for pleasure - in which case you need to relax and have more realistic expectations). Time and again, the studies have shown that, unless the player has clocked numerous AND (here's the key) quality hours, she will not be in a position to master the game. And by mastering the game, we mean mastering not just the shots and movement, but also the strategy as well as the physical and mental aspect of the sport.

Notwithstanding the evidence, many continue to believe that they know of a better, quicker way; the "practice, practice, practice" concept seems to be lost on tennis players - particularly those from affluent backgrounds. Certain people seem to think that results will come with money spent rather than time spent on court (i.e. buying success v. earning it). There are even some instances where people believe that spending $800/hour to take ONE lesson from some name-brand coach is a good investment. Well, as the saying goes, "it's immoral to let a sucker keep his money" (and some coaches have certainly adopted this mindest). If lessons are what you're after, the simple fact is that, in the above example, the money could be better spent on taking 16 lessons with a coach who's just as good (or better). It's all about consistent repetition; forget the short-cuts. Your personal savior him/her/itself will not be able to give you the keys to tennis in a one hour lesson.

What's even more peculiar is that some parents (particularly in the United States) seem to think that one can combine tennis with other sports and somehow become phenomenal at everything. Although some exceptions exist, you have to objectively analyze your child and determine whether he's the exception or the rule. If it takes 10,000 hours to master just one thing (e.g. tennis), how is he going to get those 3 hours a day (see quote, above) when mixing it up with perfoming arts (dance, drama), soccer, martial arts, music, videogames, playdates and academics? Does your day (and, by extension, your child's) contain more hours than everyone else's?! And let's assume that you and the athlete are super-organized (you have a colorful day-planner and everything), is the player capable of shifting focus from activity to activity throughout the day?! Remember, it's not just the number of hours but also the quality of hours. Well, if s/he fails to achieve mastery of any one subject, you will have your reason in no time.

So be it tennis, school or martial arts, the key to success and mastery seems to be focused practice for 10,000 hours (10 Million balls). If the goal is to simply be a well-rounded person, than this concept might not be for you. However, if the goal is to stand out at tennis, then this is the road that you should consider following. Another way of looking at it is to "PLAY YOUR AGE PER WEEK". That is, if you're 7 years old, play 7 hours per week; if you're 8 years old, play 8 hours per week; if you're 15 years old, play 15 hours per week; and so on. Following this model, if you start at 7, you will be racking at least 9,828 hours before you reach your 21 birthday. Obviously, if you start late (or tennis becomes a focused objective only later in life) you have some catching up to do. No magic...no snake oil...no gadgets, training software, high-priced academies, lessons with name-brand coaches, or exclusive offers on DVDs. Just hard, lengthy work.

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Reader Comments (6)


November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Time spent on court > money spent on tennis

November 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

Seems to me that the number of hours spent also needs to be meaningful hours spent doing the proper thing - and that is where some parents - including myself - need pro guidance. Hours and hours and hours per day hitting the strokes with the same mistake will likely get the player nowhere. Seems europeans also de-emphasize sports specialization at a very early age and prefer more general athletic development (gymnastics, track and field skills, etc) - at least thats what one book I read said.

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertweener

Guidance by a decent pro is key but it's important to supplement those lessons with additional workouts - be it hitting against backboard (nobody was watching Borg hit against the garage door and he turned out pretty good) or ball machine or even parent feeding some balls. Unfortunately, Americans tend to try out 4-5 different sports and then specialize on one when they're 13-14. At that point it may be too late to make up the lost hours.

You may be right about European attitude towered sports. Please also check out parentingaces.wordpress.com Some parents may be struggling with the same general issues

November 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

tweener, FYI, the per year break-down (following the 10000 hr rule) is as follows: age 7 - 364 hrs/year (or 7 hrs per week); age 8 - 416 hrs/year (8hrs/week); age 9 - 468hrs/year (9hrs/week); age 10 - 520hrs/year (10hrs/week); age 11 - 572hrs/year (11hrs/week); age 12 - 624hrs/year (12hrs/week); age 13 - 676hrs/year; age 14 - 728hrs/year (14 hrs/week); age 15 - 780hrs/year (15hrs/week); age 16 - 832hrs/year; age 17 - 884hrs/year; age 18 - 936hrs/year (18 hrs/week); age 19 - 988hrs/year (18hrs/week); age 20 - 1040hrs/year (20hrs/week)). The later one starts the more hours have to be made up down the stretch. At some point it will be impossible for the kid to keep up. So quality hours and lots of 'em are key

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIni

Does warm ups, ball collection, conversations during corrections etc. count towards the daily hours advised? Or are we talking about primarily ball hitting? My eight year old started since he was five at an academy but grew up watching tennis on TV since he was a toddler and picked up his first raquet at 2.5. Initially for three hours a week now spends approximately 12 hrs a week. But then this includes warm ups, fun games with other kids on the court as well as short match playing, flex and stretching exercises etc. So total ball hitting time is perhaps about 5-6 hours/week. Of this, 3 days are at the academy with other kids and 3 additional days with a smaller group of 3 kids with a different coach to handle more technical stuff. I hope to go all out to help him get there as a professional, if he wants to. Am I doing too much? Please advise.

June 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJayjeev

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