Why MLB hitters can't hit Jennie Finch and science behind reaction time
From THE SPORTS GENE, by David Epstein. Reprinted by arrangement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2013 by David Epstein.
The American League team was in a deep hole, and National League slugger Mike Piazza was up to bat.
So in came the ringer.
Sauntering past a phalanx of the world's best hitters, Jennie Finch reached the sun-drenched infield, her flaxen hair blazing in the clear desert light. For more than two decades, the annual Pepsi All-Star Softball Game had been contested by major league baseball players only. The crowd thrummed with excitement as Finch, the 6' 1" Team USA softball ace, took the pitcher's mound and curled her fingers around the ball.
It was a temperate day in Cathedral City, Calif., 70° in a replica of one of the country's sports cathedrals. The three-quarter-scale version of the Cubs' Wrigley Field was faithful down to its ivy-covered outfield walls. Even Wrigleyville's brick apartment buildings were there, in the desert at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains, depicted on near-life-sized vinyl prints created from photographs of Chicago.
Finch, who in a few months would win a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, had been invited only as a member of the American League coaching staff. That is, until the American League stars went down 9-1 in the fifth inning.
No sooner did Finch arrive at the mound than the defensive players behind her sat down. Yankees infielder Aaron Boone took off his glove, lay down in the dirt and used second base for a pillow. Rangers All-Star third baseman Hank Blalock took the opportunity to get a drink of water. They had, after all, seen Finch pitch during batting practice.
As part of the pregame festivities, a raft of major league stars had tested their skill against Finch's underhand rockets. Thrown from a mound 43 feet away and traveling at speeds above 65 mph, Finch's pitches take about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball does from the standard baseball mound, 60' 6" away. A 95-mph pitch is fast, certainly, but routine for pro baseball players. Plus, the softball is larger, which should make it easier to hit.
Nonetheless, with each windmill motion of her arm, Finch had blown all her pitches by the bemused men. When Albert Pujols, one of the greatest hitters of his generation, stepped forward to face Finch during that practice, the other major leaguers crowded around to gawk. Finch adjusted her pony-tail nervously. A smile stole across her face. She was exhilarated, but she was also afraid that Pujols would hit a line drive right back at her. A silver chain dangled over his expansive chest; each of his forearms was wider than the barrel of the bat.
"All right," Pujols said softly, indicating he was ready.
Finch rocked back and then forward, whipping her arm in a giant circle. She fired the first pitch just high. Pujols lurched backward, startled by what he saw. Finch giggled.
She unleashed another fastball, this time high and inside. Pujols spun defensively, turning his head away. Behind him, his professional peers guffawed.
Pujols stepped out of the batter's box, composed himself and stepped back in. He twisted his feet into the dirt and stared back at Finch.
The next pitch came right down the middle. Pujols uncoiled a violent swing. The ball sailed past his bat, and the spectators hooted.
The next pitch was way outside, and Pujols let it go. The one after that was another strike, and Pujols whiffed again. With one strike remaining, Pujols moved to the back of the batter's box and dug in, crouching low in his stance.
Finch rocked and fired. Pujols missed badly. He turned and walked away, toward his tittering teammates. Then he stopped, bewildered. He turned back to Finch, doffed his cap and continued on his way.
"I never want to experience that again," he later said.
The fielders behind Finch had good reason to sit down when she entered the 23rd Pepsi All-Star game: They knew there would be no hits. Just as she had during practice, Finch struck out both hitters she faced. Piazza, the Mets' catcher, went down on three straight pitches. Padres outfielder Brian Giles missed so badly on the third strike that his momentum spun him through a pirouette.
Then Finch returned to her role as a ceremonial coach. But she was not nearly finished befuddling major leaguers.
In 2004 and '05, Finch hosted a regular segment on Fox's This Week in Baseball in which she traveled to major league training camps and transformed the world's best baseball hitters into clumsy hacks. "Girls hit this stuff?" asked an incredulous Mike Cameron, the Mariners' outfielder, after he missed a pitch by half a foot.
When seven-time National League MVP Barry Bonds saw Finch at the Major League All-Star Game, he walked through a throng of reporters to talk trash to her. "So, Barry, when do I get to face the best?" Finch asked.
"Whenever you want to," Bonds replied confidently. "You faced all them little chumps.... You gotta face the best.
"You can't be pretty and good and not face another handsome guy who's good," Bonds added, spreading his peacock feathers. He then told Finch to bring a protective net because, he said, "you're going to need it with me.... I'll hit you."
"There's only been one guy who touched it," Finch replied.
"Touch it?" Bonds said, laughing. "If it comes across that plate, believe me, I'ma touch it. I'ma touch it hard."
"I'll have my people call your people, and we'll set it up," Finch said.
"Oh, it's on!" Bonds said. "You can call me direct, girl. I take my challenges direct.... We'll televise it too, on national television. I want the world to see."
So Finch traveled to Arizona to face Bonds in spring training, and after he watched several of her pitches fly by, the raillery stopped. He insisted that the cameras not film him batting against her. Finch shot pitch after pitch past Bonds as his Giants teammates pronounced them strikes. "That's a ball!" Bonds pleaded, to which one of his teammates replied, "Barry, you've got 12 umpires back here."
Bonds watched dozens of strikes go by without so much as swinging. Not until Finch began to tell Bonds what pitches were coming did he tap a meek foul ball a few feet. He taunted her, "Go on, throw the cheese!" She did, and blew it right past him.
Finch visited Alex Rodriguez, who was then starring for the Rangers, at another spring-training park, in 2003, and Rodriguez watched over her shoulder as she threw warmup pitches to a Texas bullpen catcher. The catcher missed three of the first five throws. Before Rodriguez stepped into the batter's box, he made it clear he wouldn't dare swing at any of Finch's pitches. He leaned forward and told her, "No one's going to make a fool out of me."
For four decades, scientists have been constructing a picture of how elite athletes intercept speeding objects. The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes, which give them more time to react to the ball. Except that isn't true.
When people are tested for their simple reaction time -- how fast they can press a button in response to a light -- most of them, whether they are teachers, lawyers or pro athletes, take around 200 milliseconds, or one fifth of a second. That is about the minimum time it takes for the retina at the back of the human eye to receive information, for that information to be conveyed across synapses -- the gaps between neurons, each of which takes a few milliseconds to cross -- to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, and for the brain to send a message to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion. All this happens in the blink of an eye. (It takes 150 milliseconds just to execute a blink when a light is shone in your face.) But as quick as 200 milliseconds is, in the realm of 100-mph baseball pitches and 140-mph tennis serves, it is far too slow.
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A typical major league fastball travels about 10 feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher's hand to the plate takes just 400 milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand -- well before it's even halfway to the plate.
The window for actually making contact with the ball, when it is in reach of the bat, is five milliseconds, and because the angle of the ball relative to the hitter's eye changes so rapidly as the ball gets closer to the plate, the advice to "keep your eye on the ball" is impossible to follow. Humans don't have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in. A batter could just as well close his eyes once the ball is halfway to home plate. Given the speed of the pitch and the limitations of our physiology, it seems to be a miracle that anybody hits the ball at all.
Still, Pujols and other All-Stars see -- and crush -- 95-mph fastballs for a living. So why are they transmogrified into Little Leaguers when faced with 68-mph softballs? It's because the only way to hit a ball traveling at high speed is to be able to see into the future, and when a baseball player faces a softball pitcher, he is stripped of his crystal ball.
Janet Starkes was a 5' 2" point guard who spent one summer on the Canadian women's national basketball team nearly 40 years ago. Her lasting influence on sports, though, would come off the court, from the work she started as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Her research was to try to figure out why good athletes are, well, good.
Tests of innate physical hardware -- qualities with which an athlete is apparently born, such as simple reaction time -- had done astonishingly little to explain expert performance in sports. The reaction times of elite athletes always hovered around one fifth of a second, the same as the reaction times of random people.
So Starkes looked elsewhere. She had heard of research on air-traffic controllers that used "signal-detection tests" to gauge how quickly an expert controller can sift through visual information to determine the presence or absence of critical signals. And she decided that conducting studies like these, of perceptual cognitive skills that are learned through practice, might prove fruitful. So in 1975, as part of her graduate work at Waterloo, Starkes invented the modern sports "occlusion" test.
She gathered thousands of photographs of women's volleyball games and made slides of pictures in which the volleyball was in the frame and others in which the ball had just left the frame. In many photos, the orientation and movement of players' bodies were nearly identical regardless of whether the ball was in the frame, since little had changed in the instant after the ball exited the picture.
Starkes then connected a scope to a slide projector and asked elite and novice volleyball players to look at the slides for a fraction of a second apiece and decide whether the ball was or was not in the frame. The glance was too quick for the viewers actually to see the ball, so the idea was to determine whether some of the athletes were seeing the entire court and the body language of players in a way that allowed them to figure out whether the ball was present.
The results of the first occlusion tests astounded Starkes. Unlike in reaction-time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. For the elite players, a fraction-of-a-second glance was all they needed to determine whether the ball was present. And the better the player, the more quickly she could extract pertinent information from each slide.
In one instance Starkes tested members of the Canadian national women's volleyball team, which at the time included one of the best setters in the world. The setter was able to deduce whether the volleyball was present in a picture that was flashed before her eyes for 16 thousandths of a second. "That's a very difficult task," says Starkes, who would become one of the world's most influential expert-performance researchers. "For people who don't know volleyball, in 16 milliseconds all they see is a flash of light."
Not only did the world-class setter detect the presence or absence of the ball in 16 milliseconds, but she also gleaned enough visual information to know when and where the picture was taken. "After each slide she would say yes or no -- whether the ball was there -- and then sometimes she would say, 'That was the Sherbrooke team after they got their new uniforms, so the picture must have been taken at such and such a time,' " says Starkes. One woman's blink of light was another woman's fully formed narrative. It was a strong clue that one key difference between expert and novice athletes is not in the raw ability to react quickly but rather in the way the expert has learned to perceive the game.
Shortly after she received her doctorate, Starkes joined the faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and continued her occlusion work with the Canadian national field hockey team. At the time, coaching orthodoxy in field hockey held that innate reflexes were of primary importance. Conversely, the idea that learned perceptual skills were a hallmark of expert performance was, as Starkes puts it, "heretical."
In 1979, when Starkes began helping the field hockey squad gear up for the '80 Olympics, she was dismayed to find that its coaches were relying on outdated ideas to choose and arrange the team. "They thought everybody saw the field the same way," she says. "They were using simple reaction-time tests for selection, and they thought it would be a good determinant of who would be the best goalies or strikers. I was astounded that they had no idea that reaction time might not be predictive of anything."
In fact, in her occlusion tests of field hockey players, Starkes discovered just what she had found in volleyball players, and more: Not only could elite field hockey players tell in less time than the blink of an eye whether or not a ball was in the frame, but they could also accurately reconstruct the playing field. This held true among basketball and soccer players too. It was as if every elite athlete miraculously had a photographic memory when it came to her sport.
The question, then, is how important these perceptual abilities are to top athletes -- and whether they are the result of genetic gifts. And there's no better place to look for an answer than in a type of competition in which the action is slow, deliberate and devoid of the constraints of muscle and sinew.
In the early 1940s, Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot began drilling for the core of chess expertise. De Groot would test players of various skill levels and attempt to detect what made a grandmaster better than an average professional, and the average professional superior to a club player.
The common wisdom at the time was that highly skilled chess players thought further ahead in the game than did less skilled players. This is true when skilled players are compared with complete novices. But when De Groot asked both grandmasters and merely strong players to narrate their decision making in an unfamiliar game situation, he found that players of disparate skill levels mulled over the same number of pieces and proposed essentially the same array of possible moves. Why then, De Groot wondered, do the grandmasters end up making better moves?
De Groot assembled a panel of four players: a grandmaster and world champion, a master, a city champion and an average club player. He enlisted another master to come up with different chess-piece arrangements taken from obscure games and then did something very similar to what Starkes would do with athletes 30 years later: He flashed the chessboards in front of the players for a matter of seconds and then asked them to reconstruct each scenario on a blank board. The differences that emerged, particularly between the two masters and the two non-masters, were "so large and unambiguous that they hardly need further support," De Groot wrote.
In four of the trials, the grandmaster re-created the entire board after viewing it for three seconds. The master was able to accomplish the same feat twice. Neither of the lesser players was able to reproduce any board with complete accuracy. Overall, the grandmaster and master accurately replaced more than 90% of the pieces in the trials, while the city champion managed around 70% and the club player only about 50%. In five seconds the grandmaster understood more of the game situation than the club player did in 15 minutes.
In these tests, De Groot wrote, "it is evident that experience is the foundation of the superior achievements of the masters." But it would be three decades before it was confirmed that what De Groot saw was indeed an acquired skill and not the product of miraculous innate memory.
In a seminal study published in 1973, two psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh -- William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon, the latter a future Nobel Prize winner -- repeated the De Groot experiment and added a twist: They tested the players' recall for chessboards that contained random arrangements of pieces that could never occur in a game. When the players were given five seconds to study the random assortments and then asked to re-create them, the recall advantages of the masters disappeared. Suddenly their memories were just like those of average players.
In order to explain what they saw, Chase and Simon proposed a "chunking theory" of expertise, a pivotal idea that helps explain what Starkes found in her work with field hockey and volleyball players. Chess masters and elite athletes alike "chunk" information on the board or the field. In other words, rather than grappling with a large number of individual pieces, experts unconsciously group information into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based on patterns they have seen before. Whereas the average club player in De Groot's study was scanning and attempting to remember the arrangement of 20 individual chess pieces, the grandmaster needed to remember only a few chunks of several pieces each because the relationships between the pieces had great meaning for him.
A grandmaster has a mental database of millions of arrangements of pieces that are broken down into at least 300,000 meaningful chunks, which are in turn grouped into mental "templates": large arrangements of pieces (or players, in the case of athletes) within which some pieces can be moved around without rendering the entire arrangement unrecognizable. Where the novice is overwhelmed by new information and randomness, the master sees familiar order and structure that allows him to home in on information that is critical to making the decision at hand.
"What was once accomplished by slow, conscious deductive reasoning is now arrived at by fast, unconscious perceptual processing," Chase and Simon wrote of the elite chess players. "It is no mistake of language for the chess master to say that he 'sees' the right move."
Studies that track the eye movements of experienced performers, whether chess players, pianists, surgeons or athletes, have found that as they gain experience, they are quicker to sift through visual information and separate the wheat from the chaff. Experts swiftly discard irrelevant input and cut to the data that are most important in determining their next move. While novices dwell on individual pieces or players, experts focus more attention on spaces between pieces or players that are relevant to the unifying relationship of parts in the whole.
Most important in sports, perceiving order allows elite athletes to extract critical information from the arrangement of players or from subtle changes in an opponent's body movements in order to make unconscious predictions about what will happen next.
Bruce Abernethy was an undergraduate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and an avid cricket player when he began to expand on Starkes's occlusion methods in the late 1970s. Abernethy started out using Super 8-mm film to shoot footage of cricket bowlers. He would show batsmen the film but cut it off before the throw and have them attempt to predict where the ball was headed. Unsurprisingly, expert players were better at predicting the path of the ball than novice players.
In the decades since, Abernethy, now associate dean for research at Queensland, has become exceedingly sophisticated at using occlusion tests to determine the basis of perceptual expertise in sports. Abernethy has moved his studies from the video screen to the field and the court. He has equipped tennis players with goggles that go opaque just as an opponent is about to strike the ball, and he has outfitted cricket batsmen with contact lenses that produce varied levels of blurriness.
The theme of Abernethy's findings is that elite athletes need less time and less visual information to predict what will happen in the future, and, without knowing it, they zero in on critical visual information. Elite athletes chunk information about bodies and players' positions the way grandmasters chunk arrangements of rooks and bishops. "We've tested expert batters in cricket where all they see is the ball, the hand and wrist and down to the elbow, and they still do better than random chance," Abernethy says. "It looks bizarre, but there's significant information between the hand and arm where experts get cues for making judgments."
Top tennis players, Abernethy found, could discern from the minuscule pre-serve shifts of an opponent's torso whether the ball was going to their forehand or backhand, whereas average players had to wait to see the motion of the racket, sacrificing invaluable response time. (In badminton, if Abernethy hides the racket and entire forearm, it transforms elite players into near novices, an indication that in that sport, information from the lower arm is critical.)
Pro boxers have a similar skill. A Muhammad Ali jab took a mere 40 milliseconds to arrive at the face of a victim standing a foot and a half away. Without anticipation based on body movements, Ali's opponents would have been beaten in Round 1, hit flush by every punch. (Ali's skill at disguising the trajectory of a punch, and thus confounding opponents' anticipation, often meant his foes were finished in a few rounds anyway.)
Even skills that appear to be purely instinctive, such as jumping to rebound a basketball after a missed shot, are grounded in learned perceptual expertise and a database of knowledge about how subtle shifts in a shooter's body alter the trajectory of the ball. Without that database, which can be built only through rigorous practice, every athlete is a chess master facing a random board, or Albert Pujols facing Jennie Finch: He is stripped of the information that allows him to predict the future.
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Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment. And Pujols's simple reaction speed is downright quotidian. When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested him, perhaps the greatest hitter of his era was in the 66th percentile for simple reaction time compared with a random sample of college students.
No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete. When Abernethy studied the eye-movement patterns of elite and novice badminton players, he saw that the novices were already looking at the correct area of the opponent's body; they just didn't have the required cognitive database from which to extract information. "If they did," Abernethy says, "it would be a hell of a lot easier to coach them to become an expert. You could just say, 'Look at the arm.' Or for a baseball batter the advice wouldn't be, 'Keep your eye on the ball,' it would be, 'Watch the shoulder.' But if you tell them that, it makes good players worse."
As an individual practices a skill, whether it be hitting, throwing or learning to drive a car, the mental processes involved in executing the skill move from the higher-conscious areas of the brain in the frontal lobe back to more primitive areas that control automated processes, or skills that you can execute "without thinking." In sports, brain automation is hyperspecific to a practiced skill -- so specific that brain-imaging studies of people who train in a particular task show that activity in the frontal lobe is turned down only when they perform that exact task. When runners are put on bicycles or arm bikes (whose pedals are moved with the hands instead of the feet), their frontal lobe activity increases compared with when they are running, even though cycling wouldn't seem to require much conscious thought. To return to Abernethy's point, thinking about an action is the sign of a novice, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur. (University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting -- paralysis by analysis, she calls it -- by singing to himself, thus preoccupying the higher-consciousness areas of the brain.)
Chunking and automation travel together on the march toward expertise. It is only by recognizing body cues and patterns unconsciously that Pujols can determine whether or not he should swing at a ball when it has barely left the pitcher's hand. The same goes for quarterback Peyton Manning. He cannot stop in the face of blitzing linebackers and consciously sort through the defensive alignments and patterns he learned in hours and years of practicing and studying game film. He has seconds to scan the field and throw. He is a grandmaster playing speed chess, only with linebackers and safeties in place of knights and pawns. (At the same time, NFL defensive coordinators are shuffling their players in an attempt to present Manning with a chessboard that looks misleading or random.)
The result of expertise study, from De Groot to Abernethy, can be summarized in a single phrase that played like a broken record in interviews with psychologists in the field: "It's software, not hardware." That is, the perceptual sports skills that separate experts from dilettantes are learned, or downloaded (like software), through practice. They don't come standard as part of the human machine. That fact helped spawn the best-known theory in modern sports expertise, and one that has no place for genes.
It started with musicians. For a 1993 study, three psychologists turned to the Music Academy of West Berlin, which had a global reputation for producing world-class violinists.
The Academy professors helped the psychologists identify 10 of the "best" violin students, those who could become international soloists; another 10 students who were "good" and could make a living in a symphony orchestra; and 10 students they categorized as "music teachers" because that was their future career path. The psychologists conducted detailed interviews with all 30 students, and certain similarities emerged. All of them had started taking regular lessons at around age eight, and all had decided to become musicians at around 15. And regardless of their skill levels, the violinists in all three groups dedicated a whopping average of 50.6 hours each week to music -- whether taking theory classes, listening to music or practicing and performing.
Then a major difference surfaced: The amount of time that the violinists in the top two groups spent practicing on their own was 24.3 hours each week, compared with 9.3 for the bottom group. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the musicians rated solitary practice as the most important aspect of their training, albeit a much more taxing one than activities such as group practice or playing for fun. Everything in the lives of the violinists in the top two groups seemed to orbit around training and recovery from training. They slept 60.0 hours each week, compared with 54.6 for the bottom group.
But even the hours spent practicing alone didn't differentiate the top two groups. So the psychologists asked the violinists to make retrospective estimates of how much they had practiced since the day they began playing. It turned out that the top violinists had begun ramping up their practice hours more quickly. By 12, the best violinists had a head start of about 1,000 hours on the future teachers. And even though the top two groups were spending identical amounts of time on their craft at the academy, the future international soloists had accumulated, on average, 7,410 hours of solitary practice by age 18, compared with 5,301 hours for the "good" group and 3,420 hours for the future teachers. "Hence," the psychologists wrote, "there is complete correspondence between the skill level of the groups and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin." In essence, they concluded, what might have been construed as innate musical talent was actually the product of years of accumulated practice.
Remarkably, the psychologists found that expert pianists had, on average, accumulated a similar number of practice hours as the top violinists, as if there were a universal rule of expertise. The researchers used these weekly practice estimates to suggest that expert musicians, regardless of the instrument, have had 10,000 hours of practice by age 20, and that skilled performers have engaged in greater quantities of "deliberate practice," the kind of effortful exercises that strain the capacity of the trainee. In other words, the kind of practice that is often done in solitary.
In their now-famous paper, "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," the authors extended their conclusions to sports, citing the Starkes occlusion tests showing that learned perceptual expertise is more important than raw reaction skills. Accumulated hours of practice, they suggested, were masquerading as innate talent in both sports and music.
The lead author of the paper, K. Anders Ericsson, now professor of psychology at Florida State, came to be viewed as the father of the "10,000-hour rule" to achieve expertise (though he himself never called it a rule) or the "deliberate practice framework," as it is often known among those who study skill acquisition. Ericsson and other proponents of the framework went on to suggest that accumulated practice is the real wizard behind the curtain of innate talent in fields as diverse as sprinting and surgery.
As genetic science became more prominent, Ericsson worked genes into his writing. In a 2009 paper, "Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement," Ericsson and his co-authors wrote that the genes necessary to produce a pro athlete (or a pro anything, really) "are contained within all healthy individuals' DNA." In that view, experts are differentiated by their practice histories, not their genes. The media interpretation of Ericsson's work has often been to say that 10,000 hours are both necessary and sufficient to make anyone an expert in anything. No one, the idea goes, achieves expertise with fewer hours, and everyone achieves expertise with that amount.
On the backs of several best-selling books and reams of articles, the 10,000-hour rule (alternately known as the 10-year rule) has become embedded in the world of athlete development and an impetus for starting children early in hard training. In some cases, popular writers describing Ericsson's work have allowed for individual genetic differences in addition to differences born of practice, while others have taken a rigid view of the 10,000-hour rule as absolute, with no room for genetic gifts. The 10,000-hour rule has, for scientists and coaches alike, become shorthand for the idea that practice matters, and should be started as early as possible; that it is not only nature but also many years of nurture at work behind athletic stardom.
But it is not enough for scientists to say that practice matters. That point is entirely uncontroversial. "There isn't a single geneticist or physiologist who says hard work isn't important," says Joe Baker, a sports psychologist at York University in Toronto. "Nobody thinks Olympians are just jumping off the couch."
Scientists must go beyond saying that practice matters and attempt the difficult task of determining how much practice matters. By the strictest 10,000-hour thinking, accumulated practice should explain much or even all the variance in skill. But that is never the case in research on elite athletes.
In some instances, as with sprinting, sports scientists suggest that early training that is hard and specific leads to the dread "speed plateau," in which an athlete gets stuck at a certain top speed. The athlete is better off diversifying his or her early sports experience. (Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash grew up playing hockey and soccer and didn't get his first basketball until he was 13.) And for all the athletes who cut their teeth on decades of sport-specific training, there are still those like Jon (Bones) Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion, who take up a sport on a whim (or, in Jones's case, when he got his girlfriend pregnant and needed money) and within months are dominating seasoned professionals.
Usain Bolt, the embodiment of pure athleticism and lackadaisical training, wrote in his autobiography, 9.58: Being the World's Fastest Man, "I'm so lucky that I'm raw talent. If I really worked at it I could be extremely good indeed, but I never have." Bolt aspired to be a cricketer as a child, and his second choice was soccer.
But even for Bolt and Jones, and certainly for Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, incandescent talent never manifests itself without the appropriate anticipatory skills that only come with specific, effortful training that allows them to execute a move with the speed of an unconscious process. That is inescapable, whether they're anticipating a spinning back fist, the crack of the starter's gun, or a softball hurtling toward them at 68 mph.
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