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In Sports, Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

The old adage “Practice makes perfect” may not apply to sports performance. New research suggests that athletic prowess has little to do with how much a person practices.

The research, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science (2016; 11 [3], 333–50), looked at 52 sets of data that focused on practice and performance. According to the investigation, “Deliberate practice accounted for 18% of the variance in sports performance.” Among elite-level athletes, practice was linked with a 1% variance.

The authors also learned that the age an athlete begins training for a sport isn’t necessarily linked to performance level. They explained, “Athletes who reached a high level of skill did not begin their sport earlier in childhood than lower skill athletes. This finding challenges the notion that higher skill performers tend to start in a sport at a younger age than lower skill performers.”

The researchers theorized that other factors—such as muscle and the amount of oxygen carried by the blood; confidence and performance anxiety; and intelligence and working memory capacity—may influence sports aptitude more than training effort do.

“As we look at multiple factors, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to—with 100% certainty—predict someone’s performance in any activity, not just sports,” stated lead study author Brooke Macnamara, MA, in a press release. “But we can do better than we’re doing now.”

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