How ‘Talented’ Is This Kid?

A while ago, we wrote a New York Times Magazine column about talent — what it is, how it’s acquired, etc. The gist of the column was that “raw talent,” as it’s often called, is vastly overrated, and that people who become very good at something, whether it’s sports, music, or medicine, generally do so through a great deal of “deliberate practice,” a phrase used by the Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson and his merry band of fellow scholars who study expert performers in many fields.

As we wrote, there are at least three key elements to deliberate practice:

1. Setting specific goals.
2. Obtaining immediate feedback.
3. Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

I thought of No. 3 the other day while reading an article about a young baseball pitcher from Lubbock, Tex., Garrett Williams, who in a Little League World Series game struck out all 17 of the batters that he retired. Only a pitch-count rule prevented him from facing and potentially striking out all 18 batters (Little League games are 6 innings long). When asked if he was aware of his strikeout count, here’s what Williams told the reporter:

“No sir, I don’t worry about stuff like that … I just concentrate on the mitt and try to get the batter out.”

Sounds like Williams depends on more than just “raw talent.” This probably bodes well for his potential as a baseball player. I haven’t seen any data on the subject except for this, but from everything I’ve read and heard, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between success in Little League and success in the majors. Kids who are big and strong and fast are likely to do well at a young age; but it’s the kids who engage in deliberate practice who are likely to make a career of it. So while Williams may be just another “talented” 12-year-old, he also sounds like the kind of kid who turns into Roger Clemens.

In related news, an e-mail happened to arrive yesterday in the Freakonomics in-box from one John DePalma with a couple of interesting writings in the Anders Ericsson school of expertise: an essay by Michael Mauboussin of Legg Mason on “experts” and financial markets; and a chapter from a CIA monograph about the power and paradox of expertise.

Pup, MD

he also sounds like the kind of kid who turns into Roger Clemens a future tommy john surgery patient.


While I'm sure this young baseball star is deliberate with his practice of baseball, I'm sure he's well practiced too in how to speak to reporters. I'm recalling a scene in Bull Durham where they practice what to say to the reports, which is basically nothing. "I'm just one man", "the defense played a good game out there", "I thank God for this opportunity", etc. So to say this kid wasn't thinking about his strikeout count probably isn't so.


I wonder if any "raw talent" exists on the show "America's Got Talent"?


Perhaps there are at least two domains of "raw talent":
1) intrinsic talent to do an activity (e.g. a musical or athletic skill that just seems to appear spontaneously as a child grows)
2) another intrinsic talent, to be able to focus and practice in an efficient, motivated, imaginative way

The two talents may both be needed. Talent 1 without talent 2 leads to a precocious prodigy who never goes anywhere. Talent 2 without talent 1 leads to a diligent technician (we can all think of these, artistically, musically,scientifically, or athletically) who lacks the "special something" that those with Talent 1 have to contribute.


Dick Hayes, a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon U, has studied the nature of expertise for years. I believe he did a study looking at natural talents such as Mozart and showed that even with his gifts, he produced his best works only after years of practice.


My understanding is that baseball skill arrives later than skill in other sports. Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr were hockey phenoms at a very young age; Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, probably less so. Also, wasn't Tiger Woods showing golf genius at the age of 3, or something?

No matter how much I set specific goals, no matter how I set up for instant feedback, and no matter how much I concentrate on technique, I'll never be one-tenth as good as Tiger Woods.

Mario Ruiz

Hi Stephen,

As a CEO of different software companies, I have seen talented people. Althogh emosional intelligence has been out there for some years, I can assure you there is not enough attention at the universities about it.

Talented people (most times):

1. End up cutting corners
2. Finding short cuts
3. No getting well with their partners

This is a problem of education and values. Between nature of nourish, I will keep the latter.

Mario Ruiz


If there is a capacity for learning (which we recognize diminishes with age), and if that capacity is different across different functions, then a "talent" might be a strong capacity for learning in a particular area. It would show itself strongly among youth, who learn easily. As natural learning declines, those who don't practice would stagnate, those that do practice would eventually surpass them.

Sure, if we live long enough, practice will always overcome the advantage held by a talented person. That is, unless the talented person practices too. Then you have to hope for a law of diminishing returns.

For example, the only thing keeping me from getting better at golf is practice. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, is bumping his head on the laws of physics. Look out, Tiger.

Random Esquire

I do truly admire those people who work hard to hone their talents and I realize that even very talented people work to perfect their skill.

However, for pure power to awe me, naked and raw talent that surpasses so many others in the field (for example, someone who can play a difficult song at the piano after hearing it only once) is the most enjoyable to discover. There is something about watching someone do something and make it seem like magic that excites me more than a perfected skill sometimes.



Stephen King sums this up beautifully:

"Talent in cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."


Genius = the product of Inborn Talent * Hard Work.

As a complicating factor, I think the capacity for hard work is itself a talent to some degree (in terms of being a heritable trait).

And perhaps as a further complication, not all "talent" need be inherited, perhaps some of it can be acquired through experience or work.

And perhaps a third complication is that the two factors are not independent, but correlated, perhaps a product of some shared genetic and environmental influences.


While I'll completely give the kid his due props for striking out 17 batters, there's a few key things to note.

First, he did NOT strike out ALL 17 batters he faced. He struck out 17 of the 17 outs he got. He also gave up 3 hits. I'm not saying this to diminish his accomplishment; just to be factual.

Second, his competition in the game struck out 16 batters out of the 18 outs they combined for. Which leads me to...

Third, typically speaking, pitchers dominate the Little League World Series. Remember Danny Almonte? There are plenty of pitcher stories in the LLWS.

To the point that pitchers are overpowering, there have been 240 strikeouts in 156.2 innings so far in this year's LLWS. That's a K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings pitched) of 13.78. Nolan Ryan had a career K/9 of 9.55. Clemens is at 8.57. Randy Johnson is at 10.78.

One thing that is almost a certainty with pitchers is that they get "worse" as they move closer to MLB. A guy with a 12 K/9 in A, will go to 10 in AA, then 9 in AAA, then 8 or less in MLB.

Tim Lincecum, the young phenom for the Giants is showing this right now: 15.61 K/9 in A, 13.35 in AAA, and 9.67 in MLB.

So, is Garrett Williams talented? Well, he can certainly pitch better than the batters he faced in the game in question, so there's at least SOME measure of talent there. Given how "well" I did in Little League, I'd say he's a superstar. But, there's a loooooooooong way between 17 strikeouts in the LLWS and stepping onto the mound for a MLB club. My guess is that he'll need a lot more than any talent he may have to make that happen.


Caleb Powers

The kid's statement that he doesn't worry about the count, just focuses on the mitt, reminds one of the series of "The Secret Game of " books from the seventies, that began, I think, with "The Secret Game of Tennis," and ran the gamut, ultimately of most of the other sports. Its premise was zenlike, that one should focus entirely on the ball, or in this boy's case, the mitt, to clear his head and allow his subconscious to take over.

I wonder what percentage of major league pitchers use some form of zenlike technique to clear their minds before they pitch? I'll bet its higher than you'd think.

Jens Zorn

As a physicist, musician, and sculptor who has worked hard in each of those areas, I believe that hard, well-directed study and practice may well lead a practioner to a high level of competence.

But there is a vast difference between a pianist who can play the music correctly and the one who can infuse the performance of a score with the extra dimensions of musicality that give the listener a joyous response.

Similarly, years of devotion to the study of physics may well permit a researcher to do competent, correct work at a level rewarded by tenure in a major university. But there are a truly talented few who see connections and relations in an astonishing manner that their colleagues can only admire but cannot hope to match. It is those few who establish the new frameworks on which the rest of us can build.


Wow. I think this blog should stay away from baseball. (And perhaps all sports...)

No Little League pitcher is well-poised for a future baseball career because of anything technique-related he is doing.

First, most major-league pitchers are extremely tall. If he ends up being 5'10, he has virtually no chance. Second, there are a huge number of 18-year-old pitchers with amazing arms...and almost all of them get hurt before they're 22. As of yet, Nobody has the "technique" to keep them from hurting themselves.

Even the #1 draft pick in the MLB draft can turn out to be a bust. All the work ethic in the world didn't help.

Carl G

Gripe from a long time rss feeder.

Please, please, please, publish the full articles to the rss fed, or at least enough of the article so I can tell what the content will be.


John Gilroy


Michael T Sweeney

Better question:

Why are LLWS pitchers so good and batters so lousy?


I can speak unequivocally to the fact that as a child and adolescent I was exceptionally 'talented' at mathematics. I could ace tests and exams with a minimum of effort. (n.b. I didn't say no effort, but very little). Whether this kind of talent can manifest in other domains is hard for me to say, although I suspect that many people are far more talented than I am at artistic pursuits.

The most important thing I've learned in life, though, is that talent, no matter how exceptional, only gets you so far. The rest is blood, sweat and tears.


The presence of a greater number of red fibers or white fibers in somebody's muscles might influence the person's potential in sports, and even indicate in which sports the person will have more success.

I don't remember exactly how it works, but it was a very interesting read.