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. Wyatt says:

    My favorite counter-example to this (and I’ll admit that it’s simply a data-point, so don’t take it to heart) is man’s man John Daly. Now there’s a guy who doesn’t believe in practice and has made it to the highest level of golf!

    Not that he’s the A-Rod of golf or anything…

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  2. DV1 says:

    I think John Daly is the perfect example of what this article is about. Daly probably has more inate golf talent than just about anyone, but he’s more known for his partying than practing. Yes, Daly has made it to the PGA Tour and won a couple majors, but he in NOT in the pantheon of all-time great golfers. If John Daly had Tiger Woods’ desire and drive, who’s to say he would not have been the world’s #1 golfer for a long period of time?

    A-Rod probably already had enough raw talent to make it to the Major Leagues, but the authors are arguing that it is something more that has propelled him to the pinnacle of his sport.

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  3. Steve says:

    I think Vince Lombardi described it best:

    “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

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  4. sourcreamus says:

    I recently read John Daly’s book and can tell you that growing up he practiced alot. He was good enough to shoot 47 over nine holes the first time he ever played as a seven year old. He still practiced all the time until he became a pro. Nowadays, he practices losing money at casinos and drinking beer, and has grown into an expert at both those things as well.

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  5. StatingWhatShouldBeObviousButSomehowIsNot says:

    There must not be many former athletes reading this post. Only #18 was able to state what should be totally obvious.

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  6. Timothy says:

    To #16 (Maurits) – It is funny that you have chosen poker as example of a field where focusing on technique is not applicable. Actually, because poker involves chance, in the short term it is especially important to focus on technique versus outcome. Pick up nearly any poker book and it will stress the importance of not being results oriented on a given hand or session. Instead, one should focus on making the correct decision given the available information.

    Poker play is very(!) subject to analysis of technique. Poker bulletin boards are full of a single hand that generates hundreds of analytical posts.

    Obviously over the long term, outcome (winning or losing) is the most important. Given a reasonable sample size of hands, however, making logical decisions should make concerns about outcome a moot point.

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  7. Yngwie Malmsteen says:

    Deliberate practice is especially useful when learning to play a musical instrument.

    My guitar teacher always preached the importance of small incremental approach to learning. Slowly building on what you already know.

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  8. mikeg says:

    I think it is easier and more enjoyable to practice when you have natural talent. I have seen players without natural talent practice and it takes more effort and time. The advantage to natural talent is, as the game changes you can change with it more readily. All games change and all records are broken.

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