Training only accounts for 18 percent of differences in performance between athletes, researchers report.
Among elite athletes, the impact was even smaller. According to the study, practice only accounted for 1 percent of the differences in performances.
The researchers also found that the elite athletes did not tend to begin their sport at an earlier age than less-skilled athletes. Instead, elite athletes often began at the same age as less-skilled athletes, or even slightly later.
Brooke Macnamara, of Case Western Reserve University, and colleagues set out to test the common belief that differences in how well people do in sports reflect differences in the amount of time they spend practicing.
"While practice is necessary for elite athletes to reach a high level of competition, after a certain point, the amount of practice essentially stops differentiating who makes it far and who makes it to the very top," Macnamara explains.
The study, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, looked at 52 sets of data on the link between practice and sporting performance.
While 18 percent of why some athletes perform better than others could be explained by practice, the remaining 82 percent was due to other factors.
These factors included the following:
- Genetic factors relating to muscles and the amount of oxygen carried by the blood
- Psychological factors such as confidence and performance anxiety
- Intelligence and working memory capacity.
"As we look at multiple factors, I don't think we'll even be able to - with 100 percent certainty - predict someone's performance in any activity, not just sports," says Macnamara. "But we can do better than we're doing now."
Study findings also oppose the '10,000-hour rule'
The study findings also oppose the idea that anyone can become an elite athlete after 10,000 hours of practice.
Inspired by research in the early 1990s, the 10,000-hour rule has been a popular part of sports thinking. Although other research has argued against it, the idea has held sway with many people.
"The concept of 10,000 hours taps into the American ideal of hard work and dedication leading naturally to excellence," says Macnamara. "But it does not account for the inherent differences across people and across sports."
The researchers found that athletes who reached a high level of skill did not begin their sport earlier in childhood than less-skilled athletes.
As such, there may be benefit in beginning a sport later in life, the researchers suggest. People whose bodies have matured physically may be able to pick up the basics of a sport more quickly and at less risk of injury.
"People and parents who buy into the 10,000-hour rule can push early specialization in a sport, leading to physical or mental burnout before it's clear that a child even has a penchant for that sport."
The researchers hope that their findings could be used by athletes, parents, and coaches to help them think about how important the time spent practicing sports is.
"Human performance is incredibly complex," Macnamara concludes. "Multiple factors need to be considered, only one of which is practice."
They also recommend that experts should look at findings from other areas of research, such as psychology and sports science, when it comes to understanding what it takes for someone to become an expert at a particular activity.