Malcolm Gladwell on the fundamental questions about player development

Is there any such thing as being a natural in sports or are today's athletes developed the old-fashioned way by putting in their time the same way a doctor or lawyer would to become proficient in their field?

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

The fifth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference kicked off with this discussion of nature versus nurture hosted by Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell along with Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Athlete's Performance CEO Mark Verstegen.

In his best-selling book "Outliers," Gladwell writes about a 10,000-hour theory that states it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in any profession, a rule that transfers over to the world of sports, as Bret LaGree from Hoopinion explains:

The stated purpose was to discuss the roles of nature and nurture in the development of athletes and takes its title from the supposition that it takes 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to become expert at anything. Obviously, there's a difference between the development of a primarily physical (or, at least, self-selecting first by physical attributes) skill and a skill (both classical composition and chess were used as examples) that is primarily cognitive but there are, safe to say, far more people physically capable of playing professional basketball than there are capable of playing professional basketball well.

Verstegen explicitly stated that above the physical baseline necessary to be a professional athlete in a given sport, nurture surpasses nature. The entire panel agreed on the twin necessity of a player's ability to be coached and a coach's ability to provide quality instruction. Morey and Van Gundy both expressed concerns about the potentially deleterious effect great talent and the early ease of domination can have on a player's development in that the early, true lesson can be that purposeful practice is not necessary for success.

Justin Tuck used two Alabama high school products -- Jamario Moon and Gerald Wallace -- as examples of this. Moon was the early bloomer, the player who could do anything he wanted to on a basketball court at an early age and, understandably, did not see the immediate need to work as hard for success as did Wallace, who had to put in work to be as good as he wanted to be and it was that Wallace developed the ability to put in work that allowed him ultimately to surpass the more immediately gifted Moon.

10,000 hours is a lot of work. It's four hours a day for 10 years. And 10 years is a large chunk of an athlete's viable career span.

Tim Varner from 48 Minutes of Hell questions whether this conversation should extend to the realm of coaching:

Gladwell began by provocatively suggesting that one’s natural talent is often a hindrance to their development -- that is, in the sense that one might coast on native ability and never take the time to adequately develop their skill sets. The discussion spilled over into subjects such as the necessity of coachability within a player and the coming benefit of more comprehensive psychological evaluations of players. Van Gundy stated that he’d rather see a complete psychological evaluation of a player rather than a comprehensive advanced statistical breakdown of him.

But here’s what struck me: the entire conversation centered around player development and evaluation. But if 10,000 hours of practice really is a minimum necessary requirement for success, then why is the turnover rate amongst NBA head coaches so high? And, approached from the opposite end, once a coach has greatly exceeded the 10,000 hours mark, and with only modest head coaching success, why are NBA teams so quick to hire retreads?

At a minimum a coach would need to log 60 hours a week for 3.2 years before he reached the 10,000 hour mark. Many NBA coaches don’t make it nearly that long.

Looking to the future, the panel discussed how to evaluate talented prospects and they came to the conclusion that a team should seek out players who live and breathe basketball, the kind of guy who truly possesses a love of the game, as Brendan Jackson from CelticsHub writes:

The panelists began discussing specific examples of players who failed to reach their potential while offering thoughts on why. Morey instantly thought of Marcus Banks. Drafted early in the first round, Banks was supposed to be the Celtics’ point guard of the future. With Celtics GM Danny Ainge known for making good draft choices, it seemed odd that he would miss so badly on a potential franchise cornerstone. Morey offered this anecdote from a pre-draft interview with Banks as a reason:



What do you really want to do with your life?


Be a male fashion model.

Apparently, Ainge did not get the memo. What he saw was a lightening fast point guard who was built like a running back. However, without this intense focus on basketball, Banks is currently not playing while finishing out the last year of his contract and is not likely to get another one in the NBA.

There are many things that make an athlete but all of the panelists agree that in order to be successful in any professional sports’ league, athletes need to have a healthy balance of talent, smarts, and work ethic. As Van Gundy said during the panel, “Soft, selfish or stupid. You can be one of these things, but you can’t be two.” If an athlete does have one of these qualities, it needs to be balanced with something positive.