Dan McLaughlin
Dan McLaughlin

Malcolm Gladwell said so in his enlightening book, Outliers, so it must be true. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

So inspired was Dan McLaughlin, a commercial photographer from Portland, Oregon, he decided to quit his profession and commit to learning how to play golf by practicing for 10,000 hours to see if he could become a professional golfer. This from a man whose golf experience up till then consisted of two visits to a driving range as a child.

So on June 27, 2009, McLaughlin began his journey, and tracked it on his site, The Dan Plan. And in 2012, when McLaughlin was the 2,500 hour mark, Golf.com writer, Alan Bastable met McLaughlin, and was impressed with his progress. McLaughlin had a 10 handicap, and according to Bastable, was energetic, enthusiastic and committed. At that stage, the plan was to hit 10,000 hours of practice in 2016, by which time he hoped to be a pro golfer.

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Fast forward to November, 2015, and McLaughlin finds himself stuck on pause. Bastable caught up with McLaughlin to find the golfer recovering from back injuries with rest, as well as working hard to improve his financial situation. While the press and corporate sponsors are intrigued by this Quiotic dream, they are not showering him with as much attention as he would like. But more damaging has been the injuries to his back, which has McLaughlin contemplating surgery.

As McLaughlin said in this November post in his blog, he wrote about his frustration in dealing with his injury. “My back has been improving steadily and there was one week where I was able to play three rounds of golf with minimal pain. Then there are days where I swing a club once and it feels like I have reverted 3 or 4 weeks in my recovery. It’s not a half full – half empty situation, it’s more as if the cup has sprung a small leak and water is flowing in haphazardly.”

McLaughlin has hit the hard wall of reality. And one hopes that he is able to recover from his back ailments and resume his journey because his original reason for starting this journey resonates with me. Here’s how McLaughlin explained it in this interview with Bastable:

I’m interested in seeing whether somebody could do it, and how far they can go. In our culture, we’re kind of fascinated by the idea…not quite manifest destiny, but the ability to transform, and how far one can go, is it talent or hard work, and which trumps the other, and how much human potential we all have.

The Sports Gene Book Cover 2013I suppose McLaughlin’s premise is that in the nature vs nurture debate, nurture (or deliberate practice in this case) can “trump” nature, or the genes that assign specific physical attributes to you. Here’s what David Epstein wrote in his fascinating book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, about why that thinking appeals to so many people:

The “practice only” narrative to explain Tiger Woods has an obvious attraction: it appeals to our hope that anything is possible with the right environment, and that children are lumps of clay with infinite athletic malleability. In short, it has the strongest possible self-help angle and it preserves more free will than any alternative explanation.

And yet, Epstein explains that the 10,000-hour idea is more rule of thumb than rule.

…one man’s 3,000-hours rule was another man’s 25,000-and-counting-hours rule. The renowned 10,000-hours violin study only reports the average number of hours of practice. It does not repot the range of hours required for the attainment of expertise, so it is impossible to tell whether any individual in the study actually became an elite violinist in 10,000 hours, or whether that was just an average of disparate individual differences.

In other words, 10,000 hours is an average, and there must be other reasons to explain why some people achieve mastery faster than others, or why two people raised in similar

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I was 20 years old. A friend and I bought the cheapest seats in Madison Square Garden for a New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game. Sometime during the game, we made our move from the nose-bleed seats downwards, going down steps, slipping by ushers, sliding over barriers, getting closer and closer to the court. And suddenly, there we were, walking courtside. And there they were, the NBA players, and I couldn’t believe how big they were. I vividly recall staring at Kareem Abdul Jabbar as we nonchalantly strolled the sideline. He was huge!

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Olympians on the whole I suppose share this fascination. In the Olympic Village, you essentially have the very best athletes in their disciplines in the world, and very often, body shape and size are determinants in who reaches world class. As the anonymous author of “The Secret Olympian” wrote:

The best thing about the Village, even better than the famous people, food and free stuff is the amazing variety of humankind. Pick a corner in the shade and sit and watch for half an hour. It’s like going on a human safari or to the Crufts of all mankind: all colours, shapes and creeds. The contrast emphasises the wonderful diversity of the human race. Watch a basketball game and everyone’s tall – so no one looks it. In the Village you might get a 14-year-old Russian gymnast sitting between a 130kg Turkish weightlifter and a seven-foot Chinese basketball player.

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I am currently reading a fascinating book by David Epstein called The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performancehe Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which goes deep on the eternal debate of whether it is nature or nurture that determines one’s life’s direction, one’s future avenues for success. Here are some of the author’s observations regarding physical attributes of athletes in specific sports, and the strong correlation between them and success:

  • One reason that marathon runners tend to be diminutive is because small humans have a larger skin surface area compared with the volume of their body. The greater one’s surface area compared with volume, the better the human radiator and the more quickly the body unloads heat. Heat dissipation is critical for endurance performance, because central nervous system forces a slowdown or complete stop of effort when the body’s core temperature passes about 104 degrees.
  • Athletes who have to rotate in the air – divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts. In the last thirty years, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from 5’3″ on average to 4’9″.
  • Measurements of elite Croatian water polo players from 1980 to 1998 show that over two decades the players’ arm lengths increased more than an inch, five times as much as those of the Croatian population during the same period.
  • Top athletes in jumping sports – basketball, volleyball – now have short torsos and comparatively long legs, better for accelerating the lower limbs to get a more powerful lift off.
  • Professional boxers come in an array of shapes and sizes, but many have the combination of long arms and short legs, giving greater reach but a lower and more stable center of gravity.
  • The world’s top competitors in the 60-meter sprint are almost always shorter than those in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, because shorter legs and lower mass are advantageous for acceleration.
  • Longer trunks and shorter legs make for greater surface area in contact with the water, the equivalent of a longer hull on a canoe, a boon for moving along water at high speed.

The pictures in this post are by Howard Schatz, who has taken photos of athletes and compiled them in a coffee book called Athlete.

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Oksana Chusovitina in Six Olympiads
Oksana Chusovitina in Six Olympiads

When she arrives at Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, she will have turned 41 years old. For most Olympians, that’s old. For female gymnasts, that’s ancient.

Oksana Chusovitina was selected as a member of the Uzbekistan’s women’s gymnastics team. And while Chusovitina will be far more than twice the age of her teammates and competitors, she will also have infinitely more experience. The Rio Olympics will be her seventh Olympic Games. Not only has she competed in seven Olympic Games, she has done so, essentially, for three different teams:

  • The Unified Team (participants from former USSR): 1992 Barcelona Games
  • Uzbekistan: 1996 Atlanta Games, 2000 Sydney Games, 2004 Athens Games, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games
  • Germany: 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games

Here is a basic fact. Since 1972, the all-around Olympic women’s gymnastics champions have been 20 years old or less, the majority of them being teenagers. There is a biological and evolutionary reason for this, according to a fascinating book I am currently reading on the science of athletic physiology, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein. He writes that girls and boys physically mature at practically equal rates until the age of 10. Top running speeds, for example, are the same for 10-year-old boys and girls. But boys get a significant boost in athletic prowess from the start of puberty around the age of 14. Girls at the age of 14 tend to peak physically in some respects. For example Epstein explains that the average female runner is already approaching her fastest lifetime sprint speed by the age of fourteen.

Epstein also explains that female gymnasts need slim hips and low centers of gravity to perform swiftly and agilely at the international level. Unfortunately for aspiring female gymnasts, biology conspires against them.

The Sports Gene Book Cover 2013Studies of Olympians show that an important trait of female athletes in certain sports is that they don’t develop the wide hips that many other women do. If elite female gymnasts go through a significant growth spurt in height or hips, their career at the top level is essentially over. As they increase in size faster than strength, the power-to-weight ratio that is so critical to aerial maneuvers goes in the wrong direction, as does their ability to rotate in the air. Female gymnasts are pronounced over the hill by twenty, whereas male gymnasts are still early in their careers.

In other words, Chusovitina is an outlier of significant proportions, an aging gymnast who has sustained the proper power-to-weight ratio while maintaining the training, the technique, the stamina and the mental strain to compete at an Olympic level.

She won a team gold medal in 1992, and a bronze medal in the individual vault competition in 2008. At the age of 41, can Chusovitina, still a top ten vaulter in the world, find Olympic glory one more time?