How Did A-Rod Get So Good?

When Anders Ericsson and his colleagues in the “expert performance” movement — we’ve written about them before, and we’ll write about them again — try to explain what it is that makes someone very good at what he or she does, they focus on “deliberate practice.” This means that, your level of natural talent notwithstanding, excellence is accomplished mainly through the tenets of deliberate practice, which are roughly:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

This Times article by Tyler Kepner describes how Bobby Meacham, the Yankees’ new third-base coach, recalls seeing a young Alex Rodriguez approach the game. At the time, Meacham was a minor league manager whose team was hosting A-Rod’s minor league team:

“I said, ‘This guy goes about his business not like he wants to get to the big leagues, but like he wants to be the best,’” Meacham said.

“He knows he’s going to be good, but he wants to be great. There was just a method to it.”

In fielding practice, Meacham remembered, Rodriguez would ask for grounders to his right and to his left, and he would ask for fielders at second for a double play and at first for throws across the diamond. In batting practice, he would focus on specific disciplines — grounders the other way, liners to the gaps, and so on.

“At 18 or 19 years old, he already had a plan,” Meacham said. “It was pretty awesome to watch.”

If you ever forget what Ericsson and his crew are talking about when they talk about “deliberate practice,” just remember A-Rod. This isn’t to say that A-Rod wasn’t born with great athletic skills; but so was, e.g., Ryan Leaf.

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  1. gene says:

    Claiming that A-rod, or any great athlete for that matter, achieved hall-of-fame status mainly through deliberate practice is ridiculous. Deliberate practice is more of a pre-requisite than a cause of greatness. I’m sure you could find hundreds of players stuck in the minor leagues who practice just as hard or efficiently as A-rod did.

    Something to think about:
    if deliberate practice is the main factor of greatness…How does tiger even have time to play? Considering how much better he is than everyone else, he’d have to hit balls at the range for at least a lifetime.

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  2. shoez says:

    Ahh, Ryan Leaf. Why does Washington State University’s most famous sports product have to be such a toolbag?

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  3. The Bud says:

    In response to Reej’s comment: Suppose you are learning trigonometry for the first time and do not know what a sin function is. In order to master trigonometry, wouldn’t you want to learn every aspect of that sin function first, just in case that sin function gets hit at you at about 80 miles an hour one day with runners on second and third with 1 out? I would, because if I knew I wasn’t very good at that sin function, then I know I’d probably be screwed if it ever got thrown at me in a real-life situation. That is how you master something.

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  4. T says:

    Any advice to the golf professionals who apparently play worse when they face Tiger Woods?

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  5. Justin says:

    Practicing all facets of one’s game doesn’t sound extraordinary to me. But nevertheless, yes, with equal talent, the guy that works harder will be better, clearly.

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  6. Kris says:

    @shoez – some of us from WSU have decided to ignore Leaf’s pro career and focus more on the quiet success story’s like Bledsoe. He was great in college, but ruined it by going pro before his attitude was “deliberately practiced” in not being an egomaniac.

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  7. Jason says:

    Not to be Captain Obvious or anything, but I am the only who noticed that Meacham’s quote is referring to A-rod’s defense?

    I know when he was younger, Arod was a great defensive shortstop, but Arod’s greatness has always been with his bat, and not his glove.

    Wouldn’t deliberate practice need to be closer to you know, what you’re good at?

    Speaking of which, how much time do you think Arod spent deliberately practicing slapping the ball out of pitchers’ hands?

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  8. Maurits says:

    “1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome”. This is more obvious in some fields than in others. Shooting three-pointers for a basketball player, for instance. But how do you do this as a poker player? There are so many fields where “good technique” is difficult to define but outcomes are very clear.

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