The cryptic phrase “Virtuosity is some evidence of virtue,” occurs in Deirdre McCloskey’s book, The Rhetoric of Economics. Virtue aside, virtuosity is clearly evidence of commitment and hard work. In his book The Talent Code Daniel Coyle describes how repeated, focused practice of specific skills causes the involved neural pathways to be insulated with myelin, ultimately making these pathways as much as 3,000 times more efficient. He repeats what I have read elsewhere, that the usual amount of deep practice necessary to master a difficult sport or musical instrument at a virtuoso level is roughly 10,000 hours or about 10 years. Getting 10,000 hours of practice in ten years would mean spending an average of 2.75 hours every day in deep, focused practice. To do it in fewer years would require more hours of practice each day. Whether we are discussing playing an instrument, playing soccer, skateboarding, or playing tennis, a huge investment of time is required to become a virtuoso player or performer.
One long-term study of music students revealed the factor that most determined their long-term achievement was their initial feeling about how long they would continue to play their instrument. Those that progressed the most assumed they would continue to play their whole lives. This sense of commitment was key to achieving deep concentration when they were practicing, which is crucial to the development of these super-efficient neural pathways.
Coyle also reports that the inspiration to make such a powerful commitment typically comes from outside ourselves. If we see someone who has become successful in a field, then we might imagine that if we worked hard enough, then perhaps we too could be successful. When golfer Se Ri Pak (shown at right) came to the U.S. tour in 1998, she was the only Korean woman, but her extraordinary success inspired others. Ten years later there were 45 Korean women on the tour, and articles were being written about it was that they had come to dominate professional golf. This 2007 article is particularly interesting, discussing the discipline and purpose Korean families expect from children that show some talent. (Korea is also providing some of the best prepared young pianists and violinists.) Obviously, some native ability is required, but it is hard to imagine practicing your skills for 10,000 hours without having seen an example of what all those hours of practice might allow you to do.
In that sense, a sports star can become a glamorous figure to others because the star has achieved the level of mastery that they aspire to attain. But in our media-rich world, if a sports star happens to combine top-level skills and physical attractiveness, then they become even more valuable to sponsors, who hope to capitalize on the star’s commercial appeal. Some examples of sports figures whose looks have made their images highly marketable include David Beckham, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Anna Kournikova, and Maria Sharapova (shown in the first photograph above introducing a line of Canon cameras). Sharapova is thought to make considerably more money with endorsements than she does by playing tennis.