The 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held in Boston this past weekend, opened with a panel moderated by author Malcolm Gladwell. In his recent smash hit Outliers, Gladwell outlined the "10,000-Hour Rule", a theory that asserts that 10,000 hours of deliberate, repetitive practice and development is a magic benchmark for achieving greatness in many fields.
The Sloan panel, which included former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy and Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, addressed how the 10,000-Hour Rule might apply to professional sports, an industry where physical attributes like size, strength and quickness provide such a huge competitive advantage. Van Gundy and Morey singled out Tracy McGrady as their quintessential example of a player whom they felt relied on his freakish athleticism and remarkable natural ability to enjoy merely a great NBA career instead of diligently practicing his craft so that he might reach his legendary potential.
New York Giants DE Justin Tuck was also a panelist, and he was asked to address this notion of unfulfilled promise and the importance of diligent, repeated skill development from the professional athlete's perspective. Tuck said that he agreed with the idea that concentrated and single-minded skill development had the potential to change the course of an athlete's career; To explain his thinking, he used Portland Trail Blazers forward Gerald Wallace in an example.
"I've been around a lot of athletes in basketball, football and basketball," Tuck, who hails from Alabama, said. "In high school, I remember going to school wtih a guy named Jamario Moon. Our biggest rival was a guy named Gerald Wallace. Freshman year, Jamario was kind of the guy. Gerald was an up-and-comer. Gerald was the guy who was always improving, always working on his craft. Jamario was the kind of guy who could jump with a 45 inch vertical, he could shoot threes, he could do everything he wanted to do on the basketball court."
Over a 10 year NBA career, Wallace has averaged 13.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 597 games. Moon, who most recently played for the Los Angeles Clippers and has spent time in the D-League, has career averages of 6.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 263 games.
Tuck said that Moon's athletic gifts at an early age may have undermined his understanding of the importance of hard work and dedicated skill development. "It kind of swayed him not to practice as much I guess. His natural ability led him not to develop as much. Now, Gerald is an All-Star player. Jamario is in the league but not as good as he could have been if he had taken it serious. I tend to agree that sometimes [being] early natural athletes does get in the way of development."
Of course, Wallace became an All-Star not only because of his hard-working, take-no-prisoners "Crash" mentality but also because of some pretty impressive physical gifts. Tuck's point (Gladwell's point, too) isn't that work ethic and physical talent are a mutually exclusive dichotomy, but that dedicated work ethic over an extended period of time can serve as a key determining factor for similarly talented players raised in similar upbringings.
"When you have that talent and you have so many gifts at an early age, you get swayed and blinded by the fact that it's always going to be that easy," Tuck said. "But as you go up levels -- in college, I've seen guys that are unstoppable, but when they get to the league they disappear because they haven't developed that work ethic and drive, that whatever obstacles come in your way you're going to figure out ways to win."
To date, Outliers has well over a million hardcover copies in print after debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List back in 2008. Maybe Crash can get on the cover of a future paperback edition?
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter