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.


Phil

It's comforting to think that if you work hard enough then you can achieve anything. But I agree with many people who have posted here: Mozart certainly worked hard, but no amount of hard work can produce "a Mozart." It is also possible to be exceptionally talented and to achieve very little. But I don't agree that talent is commonplace.

Philip J Tramdack

The great and the super-great are the ones who are biologically different from the rest of us, and no amount of work can make us like them. Then there are the not-quite-as-well-endowed who can achieve near greatness through repetition, focus, tolerance for pain and a kind of courage or fearlessness. The pressures of economics and culture now make it likely the great and super-great will be identified at an early age, depriving the rest of us of a shot at the very top, by putting the very top out of reach, whereas 50 years ago the best-endowed might have been left working in a field or shoveling coal somewhere. Good for them I say, but it is the near-great rest of us that interest me. I am fascinated by the performance of a Roger Federer, but I am deeply absorbed by the "talented" and hard working club player who constantly plays beyond herself, achieving a kind of anonymous greatness. I say that the genes account for the very best, but the rest of us can be near-great by pushing ourselves beyond the limit. To have done so, anonymously, is the best life has to offer, and encompasses my definition of “sport”. There is nothing mysterious about it. It is the combination of natural ability and hard work. P J Tramdack

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T

If you were really wanted to talk about deliberate practice, you probably want to talk about somebody who practices so much that he finally made it to the big leagues in his mid-thirties, not about 12-year old phenom's quote. Although the 12-year old's performance was amazing, he is quite a young, and raw, talent.

agm

Unrelated to this post -- David Beaver writes about your post about him:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004839.html

Mrs. Hayes

As one of Garrett Williams elementary teachers I have known him many years. What you are seeing happen this summer is the product of many years of practice and hard work on the part of all the players, coaches and parents. I have tremendous respect for the adults in the situation as they have always remembered the boys are kids and have not made baseball the only important thing in their lives. As for Garrett having been coached on how to talk to reporters, he has, in a way. His parents have worked hard to teach him manners, respect and humility. What you are seeing is genuine and I couldn't be prouder of all of the boys and the adults on this team.

Ed

The comments here that reinforce the talent myth seem not unlike the arguments in favor of intelligent design. What you can reasonably imagine and what is so are not always the same thing. Just a tip.

Alex

A lot of you are making the point that you will never be as good as Tiger Woods no matter how much you practice golf. And you're right--but why? Do you really want to be that good, and do you want it bad enough to quit your job, get up every morning and hit garbage cans full of golf balls?

Tiger is physically endowed with a body that's capable of hitting a golf ball with extreme force, and he's also mentally endowed with the obsession for golf that keeps him practicing (much of which I suspect was taught to him by his father).

In order to get really, really good at something, you have to be obsessed with it.

dan

To the moderator:

I'm a journalist (who occasionally writes for the Times magazine) doing research about methods of effective golf practice -- and would like to contact Kenny (post #23) regarding his experience.

No need to post this of course, but if you could please relay this message to Kenny along with my email address it would be most appreciated.

Thanks,

Daniel Coyle

Skyler

Yes.
Garrett Williams is a wonderful baseball player. I was completely impressed with the way he played. He is one of best pitchers in little league I have ever seen. My best friend who is an excellent baseball player was extremely impressed. He's fabulous. I think he has a great chance of going far in a baseball career, as well as the other players on the team. They were all great.

lyndsey

who cares... hes sooooooo hot(:

Brittany Williams

Well considering the fact that I am Garrett's sister and all I would like to clear up a few things. Many people talk about kids his age that are extremely talented but eventually get hurt or over work themselves. My brother has an amazing pitching coach that understands the fundamentals of baseball and realizes how to much work could damage his arm. He also has a loving father that realizes that Garrett is just a kid and that baseball is just a game. If anyone was to work Garrett to hard it would be himself because he loves the game and strives everyday to get better. There were many times when he would stay after a game for several hours and make my dad throw batting practice to him in the cages because he knew that he could hit better that what he did in the game, and he wouldnt leave until he felt that he had accomplished something. As for him being taught on what to say to reporters, he was taught the values of respect an honesty. Those are his words coming from his mouth. As you can also remember, from the movie "For The Love of The Game", he runs the thought through his head, "release the mechanism". My brother doesnt walk onto the mound with a set goal in mind of how many strike-outs he wants to have in the game, nor does he care. All he cares about is having fun and playing the game that he loves. He doesnt let statistics get in the way. After pitching a no-hitter during the regular season my dad was giving him congratulations and he asked, "what for?" He had no clue what he had just done because he was just out there having fun and doing what he does best, pitching. So for all of the people that are believing these young kids to have a hidden agenda behind everything that they say or do, though it is true in some cases, my brother is just out there to have fun and play a game. He isnt in it for the glory or fame, he just happens to be good at it.

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Hailey Wright

No offense, but you just got dissed by Brittany Williams.
Just because Garrett is a good baseball player doesn't mean anything. He is a very well- rounded kid with good manners. In his quote he said "No sir." How many kids these days say No sir when they are asked a question? Not a lot. Because of this, Garrett Williams is a role model for people like me who are 12 + 13 who watched him being interviewed and said, "Wow. What a great person. I wish he was my friend." And....It is a bonus when he is a great baseball, football, basketball AND student. That is amazing!! Plus.......He isn't ugly. I give Garrett Williams, his family, and teammates 6 stars!!! What about you?

JASPER

Say goodnight Gracie

knocker

Roger Clemmens is as guilty as sin! It is allright to ridicule and make unproven accusations about Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield. But when it comes to Roger Clemens the media and everybody else know wants to give him the benefit of the doubt. why didn't these other players receive the same treatment. roger Clemens is a liar and he is as arrogant as the come. The media and everybody else wants to put an asterik next to Barry Bonds records, but know there is all of a sudden a change of heart, about placing asteriks next to players records that are using or accused of using steroids! How come? because now All American whitebred Roger Clemens name has surfaced in this investigation? No one is making mention of the owners involvement in this mess! Use your'e brains people, If you had billions of dollars invested in MLB! would you or would you not know what is going on with your'e investment? This is all B.S! Roger Clemens been dirty, the league been dirty! and last but not least the OWNERS ARE DIRTY! I rest my case.

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downwardblog

i guess he's got talent but he couldn't be featured on my favorite show, america's got talent. starts tomorrow.

Pup, MD

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

ryan

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.

MGF

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

http://figiel.blogspot.com/

Garth

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.

JEP

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.