In my last post, provocatively titled How the Motorcycle Gods Ride, we examined Rossi's control, as demonstrated in that fascinating photo, as something beyond the levels most of us mere mortals can achieve. In the comments, SteveH, noted the 10,000 hour rule, made popular recently by Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, in which Gladwell pointed out example after example of superior performance in a wide range of fields that was preceded by at least 10,000 hours of practice. (That works out to 20 hours per week for 10 years!) Those overnight sensations are nothing of the sort.
Putting in the time, lots and lots of time, is essential to becoming great, and someone like a Rossi or Casey Stoner has obviously spent an enormous amount of time on track from his earliest years, practicing everything it takes to control his motorcycle in ways the vast majority of riders can only dream of doing, but some riders think they've been riding for a long time so they must also be great riders, after all, with 30 years on the road, you're something special, right? Well, not so much. Better than a novice, absolutely, but really great? No, and here's why, it hasn't been deliberate practice, if you haven't been doing what it takes to get better, you're just going through the motions and doing what you already know how to do, you've attained an "acceptable level" of performance.
Most individuals who start as active professionals or as beginners in a domain change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, continued improvements (changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience and in those domains where performance consistently increases aspiring experts seek out particular kinds of experience, that is deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993)--activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance.
It's natural to gradually learn how to do something if we do it often enough, but it's also natural to enjoy doing what we've mastered and that's a danger to getting better. Once you know how to do something, it's a common mistake to do the part you enjoy over and over and avoid taking on those difficult bits you haven't yet figured out, while the person on his way to greatness is busy adding to his skills and working on the hard stuff, stumbling, learning and correcting until that skill, too, is among the ones he's mastered. While you think you're getting better, he's actually getting great and the longer the time, the greater the gap. Those 10,000 hours have to be focused on the hard things, not just repeating forever the things you already know.
The great riders in MotoGP are still fairly young as adults go, because reaction time and the ability to get into and remain in great physical condition is a requirement, but they're also older than the skilled rising stars of the lower classes that feed the talent to the highest class because there's no way to get there without the time and practice necessary to develop the skill. It's also why you can't start late and expect to climb to the top, time is against you.
This doesn't just apply to riders, either. Great mechanics, engineers, designers, fabricators, they all take time, in fact, any field in life you decide to pursue with the intention of becoming one of the best is open to you, but the price is one of time and deliberate practice, with major quantities of both required, and that deliberate practice isn't going to be all fun and games, in fact, a lot of it will be difficult and unpleasant. Stick with it, do it long enough, be willing to admit what you don't know so you can learn and get better and, eventually, there may be a slot with your name on it at the very top.