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.


Yngwie Malmsteen

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.

Timothy

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.

StatingWhatShouldBeObviousButSomehowIsNot

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

sourcreamus

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.

Steve

I think Vince Lombardi described it best:

"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

DV1

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.

Wyatt

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...

Maurits

"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.

Jason

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?

Kris

@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.

Justin

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.

T

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

The Bud

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.

shoez

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

Sully

The article specifically suggests that there is something qualitatively different about A-Rod. That someone else, practicing the same way wouldn't get the results. Even that someone nearly as good shouldn't attempt to practice the same way because A-Rod is special.

Which is to say, the article only supports the expert performance movement's ideas because of Dubner's confirmation bias. (and his readers')

gene

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.

Spoiler

The article specifically suggests that there is something qualitatively different about A-Rod. That someone else, practicing the same way wouldn't get the results. Even that someone nearly as good shouldn't attempt to practice the same way because A-Rod is special.

Which is to say, the article only supports the expert performance movement's ideas because of Dubner's confirmation bias. (and his readers')

andrew

A-Rod batting over .500 in spring! (8 games played, I know)

Max

hey #2, does it mean anything to you that a-rod did better in the post season last year than "mr clutch" (not that i believe in such a thing as a clutch player) Derek Jeter?

I do know that super agent scot boras has had a-rod on special training and work out regimens. on top of whatever else he does.

Malic

This is very true. Natural talent / sheer time spent are usually the only factors considered, but the ability to efficiently improve yourself is undervalued. There are MANY ways to push a boulder without moving it at all, and it's the same for your own ability.