The Myth and Magic of Deliberate Practice

Joe DiMaggio was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. A three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player award, DiMaggio was selected to the Major League All-Star team in each of his thirteen seasons. He is best known for his remarkable hitting streak during the 1941 season when he recorded a hit in fifty-six consecutive games—a record that still stands more than seventy-five years later.

I recently heard a little-known story about how DiMaggio acquired his exceptional ability.

Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio in 1939. Published by Bowman Gum for Play Ball Cards.

As the story goes, a journalist was interviewing DiMaggio at his home and asked him what it felt like to be such a “natural hitter.” Without saying a word, he dragged the reporter downstairs. In the shadows of the basement, DiMaggio picked up a bat and began to repeat a series of practice swings. Before each swing, he would call out a particular pitch such as “fastball, low and away” or “slider, inside” and adjust his approach accordingly.

Once he finished the routine, DiMaggio set the bat down, picked up a piece of chalk, and scratched a tally mark on the wall. Then he flicked on the lights to reveal thousands of tally marks covering the basement walls. Supposedly, DiMaggio then looked at the journalist and said, “Don't you ever tell me that I'm a natural hitter again.” 1

DiMaggio then looked at the journalist and said, “Don't you ever tell me that I'm a natural hitter again.”

We love stories like this—stories that highlight how remarkable success is the product of effort and perseverance. In recent years, the study of hard work has developed into a scientific pursuit. Experts have begun to refer to focused and effortful training as “deliberate practice” and it is widely considered to be the recipe for success.

There is no doubt that deliberate practice can be the recipe for success, but only under certain conditions. If we are serious about maximizing our potential, then we need to know when deliberate practice makes the difference between success and failure and when it doesn't. Before we can capture the power of deliberate practice, we need to understand its limitations.

Before we talk about how to get started, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insights? Download my free PDF guide “Transform Your Habits” here.

The Vision of Greatness

In the early 1990s, a man named Louis Rosenbaum began analyzing the eyesight of Major League baseball players. He soon found out that professional baseball players were nothing like the normal person when it came to vision.

According to Rosenbaum's research, the average eyesight of a Major League position player is 20/11. In other words, the typical professional baseball player can read letters from twenty feet away that a normal person can only read from eleven feet away. Ted Williams, who is widely regarded as the greatest hitter in the baseball history, reportedly had 20/10 vision when he was tested by the military during WWII. The anatomical limit for human vision is 20/8.

Most of Rosenbaum's research was conducted on the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. According to him, “Half of the guys on the Dodgers' Major League roster were 20/10 uncorrected.” 2

Baseball players eyesight and visual acuity chart.
Eyesight and visual acuity results of professional baseball players from 1993 to 1995. The data above includes both minor league and major league players. (Source: American Journal of Ophthalmology. November 1996.)

In his excellent book, The Sports Gene, author David Epstein explains that this visual trend holds true at each level of the sport. On average, Major League players have better vision than minor league players who have better vision than college players who have better vision than the general population. 3

If you want to play professional baseball, it helps to practice like DiMaggio, but you also need eyesight like an eagle. In highly competitive fields, deliberate practice is often necessary, but not sufficient for success.

The Deliberate Practice Myth

The myth of deliberate practice is that you can fashion yourself into anything with enough work and effort. While human beings do possess a remarkable ability to develop their skills, there are limits to how far any individual can go. Your genes set a boundary around what is possible.

In recent decades, behavioral geneticists have discovered that our genes impact nearly every human trait. We are not merely talking about physical characteristics like height and eyesight, but mental abilities as well. Your genes impact everything from your short-term memory abilities to your mental processing speed to your willingness to practice.

One of my favorite examples is tennis great Steffi Graf. When she was tested against other elite tennis players as a teenager, she not only scored the highest on physical attributes like lung capacity and motor skills, but also on competitive desire. She was that once-in-a-generation talent who was both the most-gifted and the most-driven person on the court. 4

During a conversation I had with Robert Plomin, one of the top behavioral geneticists in the world, he said, “It is now at the point where we have stopped testing to see if traits have a genetic component because we literally can't find a single one that isn't influenced by our genes.”


If you want to learn more about the power of behavioral genetics, this audio interview with behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin explains how genes impact our daily habits and behaviors.

How big is the influence of genes on performance? It's hard to say. Some researchers have estimated that our genes account for between 25 percent to 35 percent of our differences in performance. Obviously, that number can vary wildly depending on the field you're studying.

So where does this leave us?

Well, while genetics influence performance, they do not determine performance. Do not confuse destiny with opportunity. Genes provide opportunity. They do not determine our destiny. It's similar to a game of cards. You have a better opportunity if you are dealt a better hand, but you also need to play the hand well to win.

Layer Your Skills

How do we play our hand well? How do we maximize our genetic potential in life—whatever that might be? One strategy is to “layer your skills” on top of one another.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, explains the strategy perfectly. He writes, “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.” 5

If you can't win by being better, then win by being different. By combining your skills, you reduce the level of competition, which makes it much easier to stand out regardless of your natural abilities.

The Magic of Deliberate Practice

Sun Tzu, the legendary military strategist who wrote The Art of War, believed in only fighting battles where the odds were in his favor. He wrote, “In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won.”

Similarly, we should seek to fight battles where the genetic odds are in our favor. It is impossible to try everything in life. Each of us could become any one of a billion different things. Thus, if you aspire to maximize your success, then you should train hard and practice deliberately in areas where the genetic odds are in your favor (or where you can overlap your skills in a compelling way).

Deliberate practice is necessary for success, but it is not sufficient. The people at the top of any competitive field are both well-suited and well-trained. To maximize your potential, you need to not only engage in consistent and purposeful practice, but also to align your ambitions with your natural abilities.

Regardless of where we choose to apply ourselves, deliberate practice can help us maximize our potential—no matter what cards we were dealt. That is the magic of deliberate practice. It turns potential into reality.

Footnotes
  1. I first heard this story from Darin Van Tassell at Georgia Southern University, who either coached with Joe DiMaggio or knew someone who did. I can't vouch for the authenticity of the story beyond that. UPDATE: I've been informed by my readers that this story was originally told about George “Shotgun” Shuba, an outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who reportedly swung his bat 600 times per night in his basement and recorded an X after every 60 swings.

  2. The Sports Gene by David Epstein. Page 40.

  3. During my research I discovered a variety of organizations that test professional athletes. A physician named Bill Harrison runs one of them. Harrison began testing athletes in the 1970s and claims that out of the thousands of baseball players he tested, Barry Bonds scored higher on visual tests than anyone else. Interestingly, these tests were conducted back in 1986, long before Bonds became the all-time leader in home runs and suffered his notorious scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs.

  4. The Sports Gene by David Epstein. Page 46.

  5. Career Advice by Scott Adams.