The Math of Mat time: Those lost minutes add up.
A few years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Gladwell helped popularize the ‘10,000-hour rule’, an average number of hours required to achieve elite level mastery within a domain. This ‘rule’ can be attributed to Swedish professor Anders Ericsson, and his 1990’s research into practice and expert performance.
Many, including Ericsson himself, have argued that this ‘rule' is more of a generalization and point to the quality of practice rather than the quantity as the key element of development. Regardless of its validity, the 10,000-hour 'rule' serves as a good reminder that mastery rarely comes without a considerable commitment of time and effort. While Ericsson studied elite performers across many domains, our focus for this article will center on MMA (Striking and grappling).
Assuming Gladwell's rule as being plausible, it would roughly translate into a required practice time of around 4 hours per day, 5 days per week for about 10 years. Of course, we can change the arithmetic and find many ways of getting to 10,000 hours. Regardless of how you do the math, mastery takes a long, long time. Forgetting about ‘elite’ for now and assuming the more attainable goal of becoming ‘really good’, it would still seem reasonable to acknowledge that at minimum, many hundreds of hours over several years would be required to achieve such status. In acknowledging this significant time investment, the next logical consideration might be how to efficiently accumulate these hours.
If we are to assume that generally each one of these practice hours required might be a single class or practice session, then both the structure and content of a class take on profound importance. In further breaking an hour into its constituent minutes, the value of each sixty units starts to become more apparent. Consider a class that might start six minutes late; That's 10% development time lost. Perhaps six more of irrelevant or unnecessary instruction; That's another 10%. Take a five-minute round off plus its minute break, 10% more. These three relatively common circumstances have just robbed 30% of valuable development time.
This lost mat time doesn't even consider other common issues such as pointless drilling, useless warm-ups, umpteen strike choreographed combos and goofing off. All forms of time-wasting I’ve experienced to one extent or another in every gym I've trained at. If we account for these time robbing violations too, then how much of our hour/session are we getting? Really learning and developing?
Designing practice with this perspective of training time can be valuable regardless of coaching styles and technical preferences. Whether a demanding, autocratic drill sergeant or a laid back, laissez-fair leader, surely coaches share the same goal of student improvement. Also, that practice can be tailored more efficiently to optimize training time does not mean that engagement and enjoyment must be undermined. If anything, it can foster engagement of both students and coaches by expediting development and progress.
I write this as both a coach and a student. As someone who has contributed to and participated in hundreds of hours of wasted practice and development over the years. I likely still do, but I know to a much lesser extent. Practice will never be perfect, but it can often be better. By trimming the fat here and there as well as structuring practice consciously, we can perhaps achieve mastery much sooner than Gladwell's estimate. Or at the very least get to just being ‘really good' more quickly!
* Remember, 10,000 hours is not a magic number. In fact, it becomes relatively meaningless if we are to consider the more nuanced variables of practice quality and both the physiological and psychological attributes of the learner. Check back soon for 'The Goldilocks Zone', 'Not Instagram Worthy' and 'Zoned in or Zoned out' for more thoughts on designing practice.