The Deliberate Practice Mindset

Jerry Rice Deliberate PracticeNow that the NFL season is back in full swing it seems fitting to mention one of the great stories covered in Geoff Colvin’s best-selling business book, Talent Is Overrated. By the way, if you haven’t already heard of this book I would highly recommend giving it a read.

The story of Jerry Rice, the legendary wide receiver who led the San Francisco 49ers to 3 Super Bowl victories, is an inspiring testament to power of hard work and determination.

Jerry Rice wasn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest player, but his work ethic was unparalleled. Geoff Colvin explains that Rice was a master of what he calls “deliberate practice”. The purposeful effort required to improve performance and skill in a specific field—for example academics, entrepreneurship, or professional sports—beyond what many of us would consider normal standards. Deliberate practice, contrary to the popular myth of natural inborn talent or so-called ‘giftedness’, explains why Jerry Rice was such an extraordinary athlete.

Here’s a rather lengthy excerpt from chapter 4 of Colvin’s book:

What Made Rice So Good?

With regard to most players, that kind of question usually guarantees an argument among sports fans, but in Rice’s case the answer is completely noncontroversial. Everyone in the football world seems to agree that Rice was the greatest because he worked harder in practice and in the off-season than anyone else.

In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers will trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.

Occasionally someone would write to the 49ers’ trainer asking for the details of Rice’s workout, but the trainer never released the information out of fear that people would hurt themselves trying to duplicate it. The lesson that’s easiest to draw from Jerry Rice’s story is that hard work makes all the difference. Yet We know—from research and from just looking around us—that hard work often doesn’t lead to extraordinary performance. We also know that even after an excellent college career, Rice did not possess outstanding speed, a quality that coaches generally consider mandatory in a great receiver. So there must be something else lurking in Rice’s story.
There is. Note several relevant points:

He spent very little time playing football.

Of all the work Rice did to make himself a great player, practically none of it was playing football games. His independent off-season workouts consisted of conditioning, and his team workouts were classroom study, reviewing of game films, conditioning, and lots of work with other players on specific plays. But the 49ers and eventually the other teams for which Rice played almost never ran full-contact scrimmages because they didn’t want to risk injuring players. That means that of the total time Rice spent actually playing the game for which he became famous, nearly all of it was in the weekly games themselves.

How large a part of his football-related work was that? Let’s estimate very conservatively that over the course of a year, Rice averaged 20 hours a week working on football; the work is demanding and even the most dedicated player can sustain only a limited amount. There is evidence that Rice probably averaged much more than that, but let’s play it safe. That’s about 1,000 hours a year, or 20,000 hours over his pro career. He played 303 career NFL games—the most ever by a wide receiver—and if we assume the offense had the ball half the time on average, that’s about 150 hours of playing time as measured by the game clock; this may be overstated, since Rice wasn’t on the field for every play. The conclusion we reach is that one of the greatest-ever football players devoted less than 1 percent of his football-related work to playing games.

Of course it’s true that all NFL players devote most of their work-related time to nongame activities, and that fact is significant. These people, doing their work at its highest level and subject to continuous, unsparing evaluation, don’t set up weekday football games for practice; they spend almost all their time on other activities, a fact that we should remember. In the case of Rice, one of the greatest players, the ratio was even more extreme.