Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Three elements of building elite skills

By James Rychard   


In the early 1990s, research by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music sought to learn more about talent and what constituted it. They believed talent came from more than the nature and genetics of successful people. To qualify his initial belief, he created an experiment with violinists and studied them for years.

To obtain practical results, Ericsson divided violen students into three groups of potential: the stars, the good, and the unlikely to ever play professionally. When the study was complete, he wanted to know how many hours they practiced. He discovered that the students who practiced the most, were the ones who ended up the best. In fact, given the early age when the students began to practice, Ericsson hypothesized that those elite violinists were the ones who, by the age of 20, had put in an estimated 10,000 hours of practice, hence, the infamous “10,000-hour” rule. Well-known neurologist Daniel Levitin said that “the emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.” No matter the vocation, whatever the skill, the 10,000-hour rule is applicable.   

But to reach that level, Ericsson overlooked two equally important factors: opportunities and coaching.  You cannot put in the needed hours without the opportunities to practice and extra coaching to help master their craft. Look at Olympic athletes. They demonstrate the importance of all three elements: practice, opportunities and coaching. Take one away, and reaching an elite level is next to impossible.  However, there’s one example in history that seems to stand out more than others that helps explain the importance of all three: the story of Seabiscuit, the unconventional horse who surprised a nation.    

Seabiscuit was a fast and undersized horse.  Continuously overlooked due to his smaller size and lassiez faire attitude, owners were not confident in his capabilities as a racehorse, and no one wanted to take a chance on him.  Seabiscuit was sold over and over again, creating significant instability. Not surprisingly, Seabiscuit grew very distant, and his confidence waned as owners used him to help elevate the performance of other horses. Sadly, Seabiscuit lost his way and became obstinant.  Seabiscuit needed a second chance.


For those who don’t know the saga of the famous Seabiscuit – he became a champion. He won several significant horse races in 1938 that garnered the attention of the country. But his true test of ability came when faced the biggest challenge of his career: a race against the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, the biggest and most dominant horse of the time.  Deemed the “match of the century”, Seabiscuit was the underdog. Remarkably, due to a sudden change in the rules for the race, Seabiscuit’s trainer had to change the horse’s starting style if he wanted to compete. Ironically, they used a bell from a fire engine. Seabiscuit outraced War Admiral, beating him by four-horse lengths, an unheard-of finish in horse racing at the time. His victory would go down into history as the biggest upset from a horse who was never expected to win.  

Ericsson’s practice hours, coupled with opportunities to race and build confidence, combined with great coaching afforded Seabiscuit the chance he deserved. Seabiscuit was given a second chance because the owner believed in him, the trainer coached him differently, and the jockey developed a special bond with the horse.  All three elements pulled out Seabiscuit’s potential that had lain untapped for so long. The outcome in this case was a champion; and he would go down in history as the horse that changed a nation.

Opportunities for professional and personal development exists in each and every fire service. There is always a need for apparatus and equipment acquisitions, opportunities for improving strategies, or chances to bring forth innovative ideas. If a firefighter has a strong work ethic and smarts, providing them opportunities via exposure or special programs/initiatives and supporting them with the coaching they need has the propensity to make them champions. Just like music students and athletes who want to gain a level of mastery, no matter how good they may be, and hard they work, everyone needs opportunities and coaching to help them to reach a level of mastery, where they too become champions.  

By dedicating and applying the 10,000- hour rule we can be sure a level of mastery will be reached. Equally important are the opportunities to build confidence and having the accessibility to coaching.  

When all three elements are in place, that is when someone masters their craft and joins the elite. Firefighters are no different. They too need opportunities and coaching to elevate their level of practice.  It’s a great feeling when we gain a level of mastery in life.  And when that level of mastery happens in a professional career like fire fighting, amazing talent emerges, and our staff become champions. 

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR Instructor from the City of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at

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