Wednesday, March 06, 2013

10,000 hours of practice

 This is one of those posts that seems like it's about sports but it's more about life and has a funny payoff.  Non-sports fans are invited to give it a try. 

They say you need 10,000 hours of practice. I say that’s true – give or take 7,000 hours. It’s true in writing and certainly in learning how to do sports play-by-play. There is no substitute for experience. At least when you try to hone your craft as a writer you can do it inconspicuously. To learn play-by-play you need to go to a venue and announce the game. That means a recording device and talking out loud in a public setting. Not for the faint of heart. But you can’t learn it by just turning down the sound on your TV. You need your own eyes to scan the field and describe what you see.

I used to bring a tape recorder to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium and call games from the cheap seats. I figured, if someone was paying good money for a ticket they didn’t want some buffoon sitting next to them mangling play-by-play. But in the general admission section the seats were unreserved and if someone took issue with my announcing they could just sit somewhere else. Also, folks are so plastered up in that level they don’t even know you’re there. Forget that the players look like ants and the bullpens are in the next time zone. But that’s what I did for two years until I felt I was accomplished enough to send tapes to the minor leagues.

I also practiced basketball by going to Clippers games. Back then it was easy. No one came. I had entire sections to myself. I was running late one night and they held the game for me. Seriously, no one came.

But just because you don’t have a major league team in your town doesn’t mean you can’t learn your craft. There are probably college and high school games in your area. You can sit in the stands of a high school and call a baseball game (for you non-American readers – substitute cricket or rugby or whatever they play in your country).

My favorite story involves a young announcer (who went on to become a major league announcer) who decided to call a high school basketball game. He set up his equipment in the bleachers. It was a mid-week game and the stands were practically empty. The only problem was he didn’t know any of the players. So he decided that since this was just an exercise he called the teams the Lakers and the Celtics and assigned the players names of real NBA players. So one guy was Magic Johnson, another was James Worthy, another was Larry Bird… you get the idea. Pretty ingenious, wouldn’t you say?

So the game begins and he starts calling the action.

Magic into the front court, right wing to Worthy, baseline to Cooper – turns, 10 footer… no good… rebound by Parrish, ahead to Johnson, left wing to McHale. He shoots a three-pointer…GOOD!”

Unfortunately, since the gym was so empty everybody could hear him. And by everybody I mean the players themselves. They found this incredibly unnerving. After about five minutes a time out was called. Both head coaches went to the scoring table and huddled with the officials. A moment later  the announcer was thrown out of the game.

I’m guessing the players were really rattled. Or maybe just annoyed with the assignments. “Hey, why can’t I be Magic Johnson? Why do I have to be A.C. Green?” “How come I’m on the Celtics? I want to be on the Lakers.”, etc.

So again, when you’re writing your spec in Starbucks, you can do it blissfully unnoticed. You don’t have to call out stage directions. You don’t have to say:

“Bald guy crosses to counter to add sugar, cute blonde orders double latte and fumbles for her credit card. On her sheepish expression, we:”

Yes, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. But the time spent being escorted out of arenas, stadiums, or coffee houses counts.   Best of luck! 


PolyWogg said...

"They held the game for" you heheheh An oldie but a goodie.


too embarassed to give usual name said...

So you're up to, what?, 8000 hours of blogging now?

Carol said...

A few years ago my theatre group was doing King Lear and our director, who was also playing Lear, would go to this gazabo that was located in a little shopping area of his town to practise his big speeches.

One day, as he was railing against the storm, he got interrupted by a cop coming to move the crazy guy in the gazabo.

Michael said...

Ken, your old friend and partner Jon Miller once told the story of how in Detroit, the booths hanged over the field so the players sometimes could hear them. One day Gene Tenace was hit by a pitch or a foul tip and Miller, then a rookie A's announcer, said something about how he appeared to be in pain and Tenace yelled up at him, "No kidding," or something like that.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jared Sandman wrote an interesting skeptical essay recently about the 10,000 hours rule (which derives from a book by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell) as applied to writing, arguing that it's way, way off:

The sad thing is - at least in tennis, the only sport I follow - that at least some of the time the professional TV commentary is being done from a studio very remote from the action. Eurosport in particular I think did this, where they'd have different commentators for different languages from one or more studios. These days, as the tours are increasingly using online broadcasting, the commentators are on-site (I think), but have no independence.

The Curmudgeon said...

"I was running late one night and [the Clippers] held the game for me. Seriously, no one came."

Reminds me of the old Bill Veeck story about his unhappy time in St. Louis. Someone would call and ask what time the game started that night and Veeck would say, "What time can you get here?"

John said...

My favorite story involves a young announcer (who went on to become a major league announcer) who decided to call a high school basketball game. He set up his equipment in the bleachers. It was a mid-week game and the stands were practically empty. The only problem was he didn’t know any of the players. So he decided that since this was just an exercise he called the teams the Lakers and the Celtics and assigned the players names of real NBA players.

My friend swears Curt Gowdy used to do a version of this when ABC would assign him ice hockey to do during the winter Olympics (and before the days when all the players had names on the back of their jerseys). In this case, when the U.S. would be playing Czechoslovakia or some other country with oodles of multi-syllable names, Curt would simply memorize 5-6 of them and just use them in a repeated cycle, so it would sound legit even if the actual owner of the name was in the penalty box or at the local hospital with a broken leg.

Dave W said...

It's been written that half-a-generation earlier, young Marvin Aufrichtig called Brooklyn Dodgers games from his seat in Ebbets Field. The young man was able to et a summer job with the Dodgers through his hard work. Later his voice would be heard professionally, but uner a different name, and later someone else's hair. Marv Albert. YES!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Here's the thing about sports for me...

I'm not exactly a big sports guy, I'm an artist: I produce, I puppeteer, I write, I direct, etc... and that becomes a problem living in Tennessee where football is God (yeah, go Vols). So, whenever I'm dragged into a conversation with a stranger, inevitable, the first thing I'm always asked is, "Do you like sports?", or "Did you see that big game", and when I tell them otherwise, they all just give me this look like I'm from Mars or something.

On the plus side, it usually gets me out of the conversation altogether when I really don't feel up to a long-winded conversation with somebody I don't even know.

Paul Duca said...

I hope Howard Hoffman has enough hours under his belt before he starts doing play by play for the Walla Walla Sweets.

Total said...

"The sad thing is - at least in tennis, the only sport I follow - that at least some of the time the professional TV commentary is being done from a studio very remote from the action. "

That's always been done. Ronald Reagan used to call baseball games from the reports coming over the wire, just making up the details. The ability to fantasize plausibly came in handy for him later.

BigTed said...

It's obvious to most people that sports take practice, but for some reason they don't believe it when it comes to writing. Many would-be screenwriters will write one bad script and give up, thinking they have no "talent." Or someone who's never written anything longer than a shopping list will think, "As soon as I get a little free time, I'll write the great American novel." Few of us are willing to go through the process of studying writing, and writing a lot of crap, before we start to get good. (And, of course, most of us would rather spend that time playing basketball.)

Justin Murphy said...

I've been writing professionally for eight years, meaning I have a little over 8,000 hours of practice myself!

Cap'n Bob said...

I once saw ESPN cover the runni9ng of the bulls in Pamplona. It's hard to imagine getting 10,000 hours of practice in that endeavor.

Cap'n Bob said...

delete "9" from "runni9ng," please.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow! I can't believe you'd actually sit and record yourself announcing games with other people in earshot. I'd probably feel self-conscious doing it in my own living room. Seriously. I definitely feel self-conscious sitting in Starbucks tapping away. And I can't handle it if I think someone can read my screen... (What if they could see how terrible I was?)

I'm flabbergasted, and very impressed, that you could comfortably sit near people and practice something like commentating!

I'd like to be able to feel that comfortable.

Johnny Walker said...

Wendy, it's weird that Malcom Gladwell gets credit for something that was discovered years before he wrote his book! I remember being taught about the "10,000 hours" research in University. It wasn't controversial, it was just what research had shown. I found it fascinating, but Gladwell apparently got rich and famous for popularising what was essentially the contents of quarter of a semester!

It's worth noting that the 10,000 hours refers to the amount of time it takes to become an EXPERT in a field. You can be very good before then :)

People seem to miss the most important discovery of that research: That becoming an expert in something isn't decided at a genetic level. Any reasonably intelligent adult can become an expert in any field. Before that research it was completed, it was thought that people like Einstein were BORN, that they had some genetic advantage over the rest of us. As it turned out, he had a perfectly normal, average brain (they thoroughly examined it on his death).

Discoveries like that made researchers look elsewhere for why some people became experts, while most of us don't. That's how they discovered that experts were typically extremely passionate about their field, and that they spent way more hours practising it than the average person.

Best estimate based on the people they followed: 10,000 hours.

It's not the number of hours that was important, it was that ANYONE dedicated enough could become a world class expert in something.

Jamie said...

Ken, while doing some research on another topic in the television-radio industry magazine "Broadcasting," I stopped to read an article about international sales of American television series. Someone with Fox was talking about the company being concerned that MASH might not translate well to other cultures, so when dubbed foreign language tracks were prepared for the series, rather than simply translating the English language tracks the way they normally do, they brought in writers to sometimes create new jokes that would make sense to the country specific to that language, or to replace American "regionalisms" with expressions other countries could understand. I was curious if you knew anything about this. or had ever had any of these "new jokes" or revamped "regionalisms"

Ron said...

Gladwell gets credit because he wrote captivating stories along with the 10,000 hour rule. Sure someone can come up with an idea but if they don't sell it they often don't get credit. Star Wars is a collection of old story lines wwith stock characters but Lucas made money because he took that and made it captivating. Isn't that something that writers are suppossed to do? Take something boring and make it interesting.

Johnny Walker said...

Yes, Ron, I was being a bit flippant. I totally agree that he should get credit for writing a captivating and entertaining book. I don't think he should get credit for other people's work though.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I could care less about football. I may be the only man in the US who feels this way. I was invited to a Superbowl game one year and went. Bored to tears. Maybe it's because I never really bothered to learn the game of football. I don't know why a team punts or what the fourth down and ten means. Actually, the real reason football ain't my thing is that I actually suited up and tried out for my high school varsity team. Got hit pretty hard by a couple of big seniors, got up, took my helmet off and walked straight to the locker room. Saw the coach and I said, "that's all for me!"

A guy I work for is a huge football fan and always asks me if I saw this game or that game. He starts talking about a game and I think he's speaking Serbian or something. So many people take football so seriously. I dunno what the shouting's all about, sorry.

prior2before said...

I'm now reading that book by Malcolm Gladwell that's mentioned above called "Outliers - The Story of Success."

What do elite hockey players, the Beatles and Bill Gates have in common? 10,000 hours. But what's more interesting is the circumstances that got them the 10,000 hours.

And there's more...

thesamechris said...

On the 10,000 hours issue, an incident which supposedly happened comes to my mind. I don't remember the names, but it is about the meeting between a king and violinist who was considered a genius.

The king tells him that he would do anything to be able to play the violin like him, and the violinist asks,
"Even practice for eight hours every day?"

Debby G. said...

I read Gadwell's Outliers and a book called Talent Is Overrated, both of which talked about the 10,000 hours. But it's not just a matter of putting in the practice time. It's about "deliberate practice," focusing on your mistakes and weak points and fixing those.

I'm an author who credits my (quite moderate) success not only to my willingness to spend a lot of time writing, but also my willingness to take revision suggestions from my critique group and agents and editors, and to work on my weak points such as scene structure. I've seen many writers who get defensive when faced with helpful criticism, and thus never get better at their craft.

Jack Nicholson could write Redrum, Redrum every night for 10,000 hours in his hotel room, but that wouldn't help him get a book published.

daz said...

Do you really need to be there?

Back in the day, when wireless links were not suitable for live coverage between Australia and the UK, the ABC produced "synthetic" coverage in Australia from 'ball by ball' telegrams from the UK.

I recall a story that once there were two batsmen on the pitch, whose names were both abbreviated to "McD". Then "McD" was run out and the commentary team had to take a gamble on which it was. They got it wrong, and made an on-air correction, which was the first time the public realised the coverage wasn't 'live'.


Tor Hershman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tor Hershman said...

[____]---{I have WAAAAAAAAY more than ten-thousand hours of practice at s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g!}

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: I didn't know that, but it doesn't surprise me. Gladwell is a journalist, not a researcher.

I read somewhere in a book on tennis that the most significant talent an athlete can have is a talent for *practice*. Granted, native talents such as hand-eye coordination (for athletes), perfect pitch (for musicians), facility with language and a sense of humor (for writers) are valuable. But they don't amount to anything without discipline and hard, often boring and repetitive, practice/hard work. You're right that this is the point that's often missed.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

daz: the remoteness is clear to me as a tennis fan, in part because it means the on-air commentators don't go to the press conferences and ask their own questions, and can't do any between-match chatting with the players, which used to be a staple for broadcasters such as Bud Collins and Mary Carillo.

Debby G: Sadly, in today's publishing world, Jack Nicholson probably *could* get a book published that consisted of REDRUM 10,000 times.


Cap'n Bob said...

It's "I COULDN'T care less."

Badge 714
Grammar Police