Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2011.
I recently started jiujitsu. In the fall, I tried Pilates. Last year, I bought a paddleboard and started paddleboarding. The winter before that, I taught myself to swim. Before that, I tried boxing and kick boxing. I am, to use the description of George Leonard in Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, a Dabbler. I enjoy the newness of an activity. I enjoy learning. However, once the newness of an activity wears off, I move on. Once I reach an acceptable level of learning, which for me is far from mastery, I try something new.
Other people differ. Around the same time I started kick boxing, my friend took up poker. He spent hours playing poker online at work and traveling to Las Vegas to play or hosting poker parties. He was determined to master the game and make it to the World Series of Poker Main Event. He was consumed by poker. Leonard refers to people like my friend as Obsessives. They will not settle for second best; they want to master the skill or game.
I have another friend who runs. He has a love-hate relationship with running. He does not train overly hard; instead, he does just enough to get by and run an adequate time in a couple 5k charity runs each year. Leonard would call this friend a Hacker.
When I was young, my parents gave me plenty of opportunities. At different times, I tried the saxophone, clarinet and piano. I played every team sport that was offered back then (football, soccer, baseball and basketball). I took a variety of lessons: swimming, tennis and karate. I dabbled. I stuck with soccer, baseball and basketball.
When my parents gave me the opportunity to try these activities, I do not recall their motivations, but I imagine they did not expect me to quit after a couple lessons (tennis) or one season (football, track & field, cross country). I imagine that with every opportunity, they expected me to persist and try to learn the skill.
Over and over, however, I quit, which generally has a negative connotation. When the novelty of learning the theme song from Jaws in piano lessons wore off, I stopped practicing. My mom implored me to practice and probably tried to bribe me. I hated to sit inside at the piano and look out at the street with children playing. I practiced less and less and eventually my mom relented, and I quit.
Despite its negative connotation, Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, suggests on his blog that quitting is a positive. He says that quitting requires recognition and creativity: one recognizes that the current path isn’t working and looks around to find something better to do. I realized piano was not my passion, so I quit and spent more time playing sports.
In soccer and baseball, I was more of a Hacker – I did just enough to be a starter or a better than average player. However, I never invested a lot of time outside team practices to develop my skills.
In basketball, however, I was an Obsessive. My mother’s best friend had a son 3-4 years older than me who played basketball. My mom would come home from their house and tell me about something that he was doing, and I would go outside immediately to master the skill. If my mom told me that he was dribbling between his legs, I went outside until I could dribble between my legs. If he was shooting 90% from the free throw line, I went outside until I could make 25 in a row. I never stopped until I had mastered the specific skill.
While most parents hope their child persists in an activity, and often invest a lot of money up front in shoes, gear and more to encourage this persistence, most children are dabblers: they play for fun and when the fun wears off, they look for other activities. I see the attitude at the park when I train players. We work out on Saturday mornings, and there are impossibly young children playing baseball. As soon as their game ends, the children run for the hill by the basketball court. They just want to climb in dirt. Their moms yell at them to stay out of the mud, so they wander to the basketball court and try to play. They are young and motivated by fun.
Obsessives are rare, especially at young ages. Before one becomes obsessive about improvement and mastering skills, and shows the willingness to engage in more deliberate practice, the player has to develop the passion for the sport. When young athletes dabble, they check out a sport to see if they have that interest to persist and try to become good. If not, they move on to a new activity: Coyle’s recognition and creativity.
At what point should a parent insist on some persistence? After all, if a child continually dabbles and never gives an activity a fair chance, how will he ever know if he has a passion or not?
Coyle argues that when the activity is new, the person should give it at least eight weeks, as “eight weeks appears to be a threshold time required for practice to build reliable new circuitry.” Initially, every new skill is difficult. If after eight weeks the child does not like the challenge of the activity, quitting is not such a bad thing. Coincidentally, many youth sports seasons run between 6-10 weeks, providing a perfect initial experience to dabble and gauge one’s interest.
Coyle writes, “When you trace the paths of many top performers, you find very few straight lines. Beneath their forward progress is a churn of false starts, a steady drumbeat of quitting.”
On the other hand, nobody reaches a level of expertise without a great amount of practice which requires persistence and a quality called grit. Jonah Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, argues for the importance of deliberate practice in the process of talent development in an article titled “Which Traits Predict Success?” in Wired. Specifically, he cites a paper titled “Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee” published in March 2011 in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. The paper argues for the importance of grit, which is the quality that allows you to show up over and over again.
Mastery focuses on learning plateaus, which are a temporary discontinuation of learning. Leonard suggests that plateaus lead Obsessives to work harder to overcome the plateau, while plateaus lead Dabblers to quit and pursue something new. In essence, Obsessives possess grit to work harder in the face of a tougher challenge, and this grit leads to more deliberate practice, which is characterized as often unenjoyable work.
In Leonard’s terms, Lehrer argues for Obsessives, while Coyle argues for Dabblers. Coyle argues that persistence differs from the “endless stubbornness” that it is perceived to be. Instead, he sees persistence as “the quality of responding to dozens of different setbacks in dozens of new, different strategic ways.” Grittiness, however, is the opposite of quitting and is much more like the “endless stubbornness.”
In the end, both argue that expertise requires a lot of deliberate practice, as demonstrated by the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University and author of The Road to Excellence. The Obsessives ultimately become the experts.
The difference, of course, is how one becomes an Obsessive. Should we encourage grittiness in every activity and force persistence to teach that quality or develop that personality? Should we encourage the dabbling and quitting until one finds something about which he is passionate and willing to expend the effort required of deliberate practice and grittiness?
This is the million-dollar question. Did quitting the piano make me less gritty in basketball? I don’t know. Would persisting with the boring piano lessons have led to more grittiness in basketball? Maybe. Did quitting piano lessons afford me more time for deliberate practice in basketball? Certainly.
By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League