By Justin Coulson School of Psychology, University of Wollongong

Eddy Merckx, “The Cannibal”, remains arguably the most outstanding competitive road cyclist in the history of our sport. A reporter asked Merckx what advice he would give to aspiring riders. “Ride lots” was the reply.

Merckx was mostly right, but not totally right.

To really be great at something simply doing it “lots” is no guarantee that you’ll get there. Most of us engage in a given work activity 8 hours a day every day. That’s “lots”. Yet few of us have attained world class expertise in whatever our day job is.

To become world class in a particular occupation or hobby requires us to do more than just “[do it] lots.” In one of the most influential reviews on the psychology of expertise ever conducted, Swedish psychologist Dr. K. A. Ericsson argued that experience alone will not lead to maximal performance.

Put simply, just because you do something lots doesn’t mean you’ll get good at it. Competent? Sure. But truly excellent? No.

Ericsson found that years spent utilising a skill is only weakly related to performance. The same finding exists in terms of time spent in competition. Competing lots only shares a weak relationship with performance outcomes.

Here’s the clincher… Ericsson argues that virtually all differences in performance can be accounted for by the amount of deliberate practice a person engages in.

In other words, it’s not about going and doing something lots. It’s not really about how many hours or kilometres you’re riding. What matters is the deliberateness with which you practice. That’s one of the key reasons that getting a coach is such a valuable investment. If you really want to be good, you need to “practice”, and that’s not the same as simply riding lots.

The best example of how this principle of deliberate practice works is demonstrated in one of Ericsson’s studies. He and his colleagues recruited groups of musicians. These were either: top level professional violinists, ‘best’ violinists at an academy (likely to become top level professionals), ‘good’ violinists at the academy, and violinists so rubbish they would probably become music teachers.

He found that the better the violinist, the more time they had spent in ‘deliberate practice’ activities across the entire span of their time as a violinist.

The figure below demonstrates this relationship between hours spent practising and level of expertise. You’ll note that weekly hours of practice clearly distinguish the best from the worst violin players.

When those hours of practice are averaged across the life of the musician, the graph looks like this…

Based on Ericsson’s research it would appear that 10 000 hours is the magic number needed to attain the highest standard. (Malcolm Gladwell recently addressed the 10 000 hour rule in his book, Outliers.)

The 10 year rule

Other researchers have discovered that it takes chess players 10 years of intense practice to attain international level of chess skill (this includes famous child prodigies) – which works out to be about 10 000 hours of deliberate practice.

That means it’s necessary to do 20 hours of deliberate practice every week for 10 years to get to the top!

Other studies suggest this ‘10 year rule’ also seems to apply to many other domains such as sports.

Anderson (2000): “all the evidence indicates that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration” (p.304).

While it’s true that the bulk of people reading this blog aren’t gunning for the next world titles or even a local team, the critical point here is this.

“Ride lots” is good advice, but it only tells half the story.

Riding with a purpose, deliberately practicing, doing sets and reps, using a heart strap or power-meter, reading quality books and blogs that teach training tips, and getting a coach are the things that will really make a difference in your riding.