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The “Matthew Effect” and The 10,000 Hour Rule

By David MacDonald


Working with young players and helping them get to the next levels in their hockey and academic careers, I am often reminded of the book, “Outliers: The Story of Success”, a non-fiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell published by Little, Brown and Company in 2008.

In Outliers, Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. To support his thesis, he examines the causes of why the majority of Canadian ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year, how Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates achieved his extreme wealth, and how two people with exceptional intelligence, Christopher Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, end up with such vastly different fortunes.

Throughout the publication, Gladwell also repeatedly mentions the”10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around10,000 hours.

The book debuted at number one on the bestseller lists for The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, holding the position on the former for eleven consecutive weeks.

Focusing on outliers, defined by Gladwell as “people who do not fit into our normal understanding of achievement”, Outliers deals with exceptional people, especially those who are smart, rich, and successful, and those who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically possible.The book offers examples that include the musical ensemble The Beatles, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates, and the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In the introduction, Gladwell lays out the purpose of Outliers: “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like. […] It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds  and who doesn’t.” Throughout the publication, he discusses how family, culture, and friendship each play a role in an individual’s success, and he constantly asks whether successful people deserve the praise that we give them.

The book begins with Gladwell’s research on why a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year. The answer, he points out, is that since youth hockey leagues determine eligibility by calendar year, children born on January 1 play in the same league as those born on December 31 in the same year. Because children born earlier in the year are bigger and maturer than their younger competitors, they are often identified as better athletes, leading to extra coaching and a higher likelihood of being selected for elite hockey leagues.

This phenomenon in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is dubbed “accumulative advantage” by Gladwell, while sociologist Robert K. Merton calls it “the Matthew Effect”, named after a biblical verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Outliers asserts that success depends on the idiosyncrasies of the selection process used to identify talent just as much as it does on
the athletes’ natural abilities.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell interviews Bill Gates and focuses on the opportunities given to him throughout his lifetime that have led to his success.

A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, “so by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’” Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. In Outliers, Gladwell interviews Gates, who says that unique access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace helped him succeed.

Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be “a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional”, but that he might not be worth US$50 billion. Gladwell explains that reaching the 10,000-Hour Rule, which he considers the key to success in any field, is simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years.

Ad-PosterHFAMany young accomplished hockey players began practicing their skills at 4 years of age, and invested 3-4 hours every day for the following11-12 years…., skating, playing road hockey, ice hockey, shooting in the driveway, training in the gym, etc., prior to reaching their junior age. Others have not had the opportunity, or did not take a serious interest in the game until they were 8-10 years old, and (in many cases) simply need to get caught up.

Too many players end up quitting hockey in their mid-teens because there have not been opportunities for them to “get their hours in”, whereas if players had the opportunity to continue to work on their skills until they were in their late-teens (or even  20), they often can catch up through wise development of their skills.

By the time hockey players reach the age of 14-16, families have often spent a tremendous amount of money to have their sons play hockey. This is the point that is crucial for many players to make the right decisions, and grasp the right opportunities for future development and recognition.

Players who have late birthdates simply need additional time to catch up (in size and development).. I have seen it too often to think otherwise… For those who started playing late, it is so important to make the proper choices at this age if one is to pursue hockey as a sport at a high level of competition.

Too many people think that if players are not chosen in the first few rounds of a major junior or USHL draft, that there is no future possibility for a success. Noting further could be from the truth. A realistic analysis of where a player now sits in his hockey career, combined with identifying a realistic destination, will help identify the most realistic and ideal route to acieve academic and athletic success.

Heading down the wrong route, will often result in a premature deadend.

A large number of the players we work with are “late-bloomers”, for the two reasons that I have just explained. Every player can receive a tremendous benefit from leveraging their hockey skills when they have identified a careful and realistic process. An honest valuation of the current situation, the full identification of all the viable options for 2, 3 and 4 years down the road, and a strategic plan to achieve one’s goals will help ensure the highest level of success.


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