10,000 hours?

Dave Mason

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or maybe even if you haven’t, you might be familiar with the 10,000 hour concept, which postulates that it takes that minimum number of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ (when psychologists talk about deliberate practice they mean practicing in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible) to become ‘expert’ at something. Like chess, piano, ballet. Or hockey.


While 10,000 (or more) hours of practice may be possible for some pursuits, let’s break that down for hockey. My son is 21. He’s been playing hockey for about 16 years. I can only base this on personal experience, but I’d guess that the average duration of a practice for him during that time was probably about an hour. So let’s do some math.

  • 4 practices per week (probably a stretch)
    32 week season (probably a stretch)
    16 seasons
    2,048 hours

Not cutting it. What about throwing games in there?

  • 70 games per season (that’s pushing it for 6 year olds but I’m trying to boost his numbers!)
    16 seasons
    1,120 hours

Getting desperate here.

  • 1 camp per summer
    12 hours practice per camp
    16 summers
    192 hours

Dang. At this pace, my son cannot become an ‘expert’ at hockey unless he continues to practice and play until he’s about 57 years old. That’s some serious men’s league action!

But the real question is: what constitutes ‘practice’?

If my son had stuck with his piano lessons (hahahaha!), I think I’d probably have considered ‘practice’ to include actually activating the keys on a piano. Not to minimize the importance of off-ice fitness and skills development efforts, but apply that thinking to hockey and I think I’d consider ‘practice’ to include actually skating and / or puck handling and / or on-ice strategy and tactics instruction. Which means my previous numbers are flawed. Because games are not ‘practice’.

Even if we consider that the best players might actually be on the ice for 15 or 20 minutes per game, that reduces the effective ‘practice’ time of a one hour game by about 66%, which drops my son’s total ‘practice’ numbers considerably. More telling, a  2002 USA Hockey study conducted during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and the USA Hockey Tier I Youth National Championships tracked how much time the best players had the puck on their sticks during games. At the Olympic level, superstars like Tony Amonte, Joe Sakic and Mike Modano averaged one minute and seven seconds of puck possession per game. At the youth level, the best players, including Zach Parise and Phil Kessel, possessed the puck an average of one minute and six seconds.

Even NHL veterans with 1,200 games on their resumés can’t boast that many hours of ‘deliberate practice’. The late, great Gordie Howe—who played more than 3,000 pro games—has to come closest, but even he likely maxed out at about 7-8,000 hours. What this means is that going by the 10,000 hour rule, we’ve never seen an ‘expert’ hockey player. And we probably never will.

Simply put, we need to find smarter ways to help players become ‘experts’ before their time on the ice runs out.

Practice x (fun x competition) = effort + progress.

Practice design has come a long way in the last few years. Smart, station-based drills provide kids with repetitions and potential for corrective instruction while they move from skill to skill within a short practice window. Small area games provide kids with a greater number of puck touches and teach them to pass and stickhandle ‘in a phone booth’. But what about finding ways to increase effort / compete level? I personally despise running on a treadmill for even 20 minutes, but put me on the ice chasing a puck and I’ll skate as hard as I can for as long as I can. Competition drives effort because it introduces an element of fun. That’s why we all love to play the games!

So maybe, when it comes to hockey, one hour of smart, intense, competitive and fun practice can have the same effect as eight hours of unmotivated, grinding work. And maybe that can free kids up to spend more time reading or swimming, doing homework or playing the piano, or playing baseball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, basketball, volleyball or golf, or doing any one of a thousand other things that might ultimately make them more multidimensional as athletes and as people.

We believe that by making practices more fun, and by introducing elements of ‘scoring’ in the form of PowerPlayer ratings for Practice and Custom Tracking dimensions, we can help young players unconsciously elevate their intensity, develop strong habits, and reach their peak hockey proficiency levels long before they reach their 57th birthdays.

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