Are You Better Than Matt Halliday?

Matt Holliday

Image via Wikipedia

Matt Halliday is better than you.

Of course he is, you say, it’s because he’s gifted. He makes hitting a ball moving at 95 mph look easy. He has to be better than me.  I could never do that.

You’re right, you can’t. But remember, hitting is a very specific skill. I’ll bet you could beat him at chess, Jeopardy or pretty much anything else you can think of.  Except for the one thing that he’s been constantly practicing since he was a  kid, he’s just average.

But he IS different from us. Better. His brain has been wired, over hours, months and years of practice, to be wonderfully efficient at hitting a baseball.

The “gift” that he possesses is persistence.

Make the Right Comparison

So throw away that comparison between you and the major leaguer because it’s obvious that he hits way better than you do.

Consider Derrick Fitzgerald.

Derrick is a six-foot, right-hander who plays for Peoria, a Single A team in the Chicago Cubs organization. Currently, his batting average is .136, according to FanGraphs. He has 12 hits for 88 at bats. Today, that makes him the worst hitter in professional baseball.

He is a far better hitter than you.

If Derrick showed up as a ringer for your Wednesday night softball league he would smack every single pitch farther than you’ve ever seen a ball hit. He’s that good.

But Derrick is looking up at thousands of players in the league. He might be looking at Matt Halliday the way you are looking at him: gifted, a natural.

Just How Good Are the Pros?

If we could graph the hitting ability of anyone who’s ever played baseball well, we’d see two groupings of data. The first group is low on the graph and that’s you. You hit OK, you go 2-for-4 against that guy from Joe’s Bar and Grill, you score a run or two, knock a few runs in ourselves; you’re pretty good.

High above you on that same graph are the data for the pros. Derrick Fitzgerald is at the bottom of that group. (And I’m not picking on Derrick. The guy plays professional baseball. He’s one of only 6,500 people in the United States being paid to play baseball. That’s awesome.)

My point is that once you consider just the pros, there’s a big distribution in hitting skill. So there’s something different about Matt Halliday’s brain from Derrick Fitzgerald’s.

How Are The Pros Different?

Is it genetics? Genetics play a small part. When you’re young, your environment turns on certain genes that may help you perform a certain skill.

It’s the persistent practice, however, that grows a genetic chance, a “gift” if you like, into a world-class skill. That skill has to be honed by practice, with great coaching and an unbelievable tolerance for failure and frustration. Imagine the hours of batting practice, every day, twelve months a year.

At first, the ball is pitched nice and easy. That natural, gifted hitter grooves his swing and he feels unbeatable. Then, the pitch gets faster he spends the next week fouling the ball off. He screams and rages and wants to quit. He starts to connect and hitting becomes easy again. Again, the ball comes in faster and faster and the screaming begins again. This isn’t fun, like amusement park fun. This is work.

Over time, the neural path in the hitter’s brain becomes a six-lane highway. The best hitters have had the best coaches, endured the most frustration, faced the toughest pitches and put in the most hours.

Derrick Fitzgerald drives this highway at 100 mph. He’s an amazing hitter.

Matt Halliday drives this highway at 500 mph.

Is Matt more gifted than Derrick? That’s difficult to measure. But he’s worked harder.

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9 thoughts on “Are You Better Than Matt Halliday?

  1. Scott Yewell says:

    Love the post Steve. The first thing I thought of was “how does this apply to business people / entrepreneurs”?

    For a batter, it seems like they would have literally millions of brain training experiences, namely, each at bat.

    Most entrepreneurs found 1-2 companies, some as many as 10. While there are many, maybe millions of decisions in each new venture, the scope is much broader than an at bat, and the measurement of success is a lot less distinct.

    Is there an analogy to athletic training that could apply to help train / identify better entrepreneurs?

    • Steve says:

      That’s a great question.

      You become an expert through execution->feedback->revised execution. As you go through each cycle, you refine your skill and get better, more efficient. The brain becomes a better pattern recognition engine.

      “Oh, I’ve seen this pitch before (or problem or software bug or market circumstance). I know how to solve this.”

      So the easy answer is, the best entrepreneur is the one who has the seen the most examples and has the largest database of experiences in her brain. More patterns = more experience.

      Where I think this cycle becomes complex is in the individual’s response to failure and subsequent feedback of what they did wrong. Failure is dangerous territory for a lot of us and we avoid it or don’t acknowledge it.

      However, without failure, there is little neural change in the brain, that is, no growth in skill. When you succeed at an easy level, the neural paths are reinforced at that low level of difficulty but no more. So if the pitch comes in a little faster (or in this analogy, the business situation is a bit more complex) you don’t have that pattern in your database and you do fail.

      I look at an athlete’s or entrepreneur’s capacity to endure failure as a way to identify a “better performer.

  2. Katie Myers says:

    Imagine that you were asked to speak to your favorite college sports team about the topic of peak performance. What 3 major points would you emphasize about how to be great? And, what 3 pratical interventions (mental skills or strategies would you share or teach them?

    • Steve says:

      If it’s a college team, the athletes have been in their sport for over ten years. So any discussion about motivation, preparation and WHY they play the game would be simply an acknowledgement of their path to where they are now. “Well done, everyone. Now, moving forward…”

      Acknowledge the athlete’s need for control. The years of preparation, the hours of practice are, in part, a way for the athlete to feel that they have control of what they do in competition. When they do, their anxiety decreases, skills become automatic and they are more likely to perform well.

      Establishing that need, my three points are:

      1. Control of the result is an illusion.
      There are too many parameters changing on any given day to control the outcome: the opponent’s performance, the weather, the referee, etc. But the athlete CAN control their application of their plan for the match. Set an intermediate target within the scope of the game (for example, 70% first serves in play, reacting quickly to the starter’s gun, making short, crisp passes in midfield) These are ELEMENTS of an elite performance and narrowing the focus to simple pieces of the whole match allows the athlete’s brain to stay calm.

      2. Trust your game.
      Practice and preparation has fortified the neural paths in the athlete’s brain for all the skills necessary for competition. In the heat of competition, the athlete’s need for control engages the cognitive, thinking part of the brain. (“I’ll just ease this serve in so I don’t double fault”) Thinking interrupts the neural control and confuses the well-trained athletic brain. Intuitive play shows up when the cognitive brain is quiet. Competition is the time to trust your preparation and let your shots fly.

      3. Frustration and Worry
      Frustration is focusing on what has happened in the past. Worry is focusing on what could happen in the future. Both are worse than useless – they engage the cognitive brain in negative and stress-increasing thoughts that lead to over-thinking and feed the need for control. Playing the game moment to moment offers the best chance for a great performance. I realize that this is a bit zen however, the activity of a focused, present brain is much quieter than one dwelling on the past or potential future.

      There may be a character limit for the Comments field so I’ll answer the second part of your question separately.

      Steve

  3. Katie Myers says:

    Thanks for the wonderful response! I look forward to your answer to the second part of my question …

    Also, any updates on when your book might be released?

    • Steve says:

      Your second question, practical interventions, mental skills and strategies:

      1. Focus on your breath
      I know, every yoga teacher has said this and every time I heard it always thought that it had no place in sport. It was a nonsensical instruction. However, neurologically, it makes sense. The body doesn’t exist in the past or the future, it can only physically be in the present. So focusing on the breath causes the brain to pay attention to the body and stop hanging out in the past or future where performance-sapping frustration and worry are.

      I still think it sounds trite, but it’s a valid technique.

      2. Have a target
      The brain is always scanning for threats and in the midst of a game it can easily find them. However, the brain’s reaction to threats sets off a chain reaction of physical responses that don’t support intuitive performance. Having a target gives the brain something to do: watch the quarterback’s eyes, focus on the server’s toss, zero in on the ‘e’ in TopFlite. If the conscious brain is occupied with a tangible task, it’s less likely to have the bandwidth to be looking for something to worry about.

      3. Be curious about errors
      The athlete will make mistakes, it’s intrinsic to the chaos of competition. How the athlete REACTS to mistakes is critical. Frustration, anger, blame, indignation: all strong reactions disturb the brain from focusing on the immediate next thing. This again takes the brain out of the ideal, quiet performance state.

      Instead, ask the athlete to react with curiosity, rather than anger and maintain a detachment from the result. “Huh, that’s interesting”. Mistakes, in their most objective description, are FEEDBACK, nothing more. If the sport allows the time, it’s a chance for the athlete to review the play and make a mental correction.

      My book is currently in the hands of the literary agents so I’m optimistic about it getting released this year. Thanks for asking!

      • Katie Myers says:

        Thank you again. I like all 3 practical suggestions. Good stuff.

        Final Question – Do you have a favorite story or metaphor or athlete example related to the topic of peak performance?

        Excellent blog and best wishes with your book. I will definitely order a copy when it is released.

      • Steve says:

        Examples keep popping into my head: Edwin Moses (preparation and ritual), Bjorn Borg (preparation and focus) and more. But this quote from Yuri Vlason, a Russian weightlifter authentically captures the elusive moment of peak performance:

        “At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly comes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment, you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precise moment in life than this, the WHITE MOMENT, and you will work hard for years, just to taste it again.”

  4. Katie Myers says:

    I love it!

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