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Outliers

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I'm currently reading a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm only on Chapter 2 but it's an interesting book so far and it has some direct applications to sports. The book focuses on those "unlikely success stories," often people who rose from obscurity, or beat the odds, to become great at their craft. The premise of the book? These outliers did not succeed due to any "x factor" -- that unpredictable "je ne sais quoi" qualities we love to attribute to "unlikely heroes." In fact, Gladwell sets out to prove, behind every apparent "outlier" there are very specific circumstances that predicted their success.

And the circumstances -- the factors that correlate with success like "making it to the major leagues" -- are not the ones you'd think.

Chapter 1 looks at the rosters of professional hockey teams to see what these "best of the best" have in common. Using the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers as an example, Gladwell shows that it's really quite simple. 14 of the 25 players (56%) were born in January, February, or March. In general, in professional hockey, the most common birth month is January. Second most common? February. Third most common? March. In fact in Canadian hockey, the general rule is that you will find that 40% of the elite players were born in January-March, 30% were born in April-June, 20% in July-September, and 10% in October-December. Why?

Because, Gladwell explains, the cutoff date for youth hockey leagues is Janaury 1st. January kids are thus competing against younger, less physically mature, kids -- kids sometimes less physically mature by as many as 8-11 months. The result is that the January kids will be identified early as "gifted" and thus will receive more coaching, will be placed in better programs with more games, will in every way be placed on a fast-track that prepares them better than their December counterparts - who as a group started out different not in ability but only in birth month - will be prepared. A small initial, and non ability-based, advantage breeds more, bigger advantages, and the gap widens until the rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer. It is tracking at its worst.

The other sport where this is seen is...yup...baseball. The cutoff date for most non-school baseball leagues is July 31st, so August babies have a distinct advantage over July babies. In 2005, Gladwell notes, among Americans playing major league baseball 505 were born in August, 313 born in July. Wow. A whole new way to scout.

Chapter 2 is just as striking, first looking at a study from the Berlin Academy of Music, where the school's violinists were divided into three groups: the "elite," judged to have a chance to become world-class soloists, those judged to be merely "good," and those judged unlikely ever to play professionally.

Everyone from all three groups had started playing at the same age (5), and all had practiced about the same amount early on. The difference found in the three groups? Starting around the age of 8, one factor and only one factor changed: practice time. The "elite" students each had about 10,000 practice hours logged at the age of 20, the "good" students each had about 8,000 hours, the last group about 4,000 hours.

Other studies are cited corroborating the correlation between 10,000 hours of practice and the emergence of musicians as elite, while "naturals" -- those who could practice fewer hours but still make it to the top -- simply cannot not be found.

So you want to scout the next athlete who will beat the long odds and will make it through single-A, through AA, through AAA, to thrive in the major leagues? Find someone born in August who, by virtue of his age, excelled early against weaker competition, was identified as "gifted," and was thus fast-tracked into the best programs that will give him 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 23.

You have yourself an "outlier" who was born to be a big leaguer.