The Babe Ruth Effect

Eleanor Fulton (green/blue top) of High Performance West leads the charge as the rabbit at the 2017 Stumptown Twilight in the High Performance Women's 1500m.

Eleanor Fulton (green/blue top) of High Performance West leads the charge as the rabbit at the 2017 Stumptown Twilight in the High Performance Women's 1500m.

Two years ago, I came across this exquisite investment article which discusses a phenomenon called the Babe Ruth Effect and its application to financial portfolio management. The central takeaway from the article — “that the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters” — hit me like a lightning bolt of truth. The statement awakened a clarity about a variety of elements related to track & field, including training and coaching, as well the industry of the sport itself. What follows is my attempt to inspect how and why we could apply the mental model of the Babe Ruth Effect to these areas. 

Babe Ruth Effect on training

There are several degrees of application of the Babe Ruth Effect toward training. I am going to explore what I consider paramount, namely doing the work of the highest magnitude of correctness first — and often. 

What mattered to Babe Ruth was home runs. The same should matter to you as a coach as well as your athletes. What are the metaphorical home runs of which I speak — the fundamentals. Do them first and do them often. The best preparation is an uninterrupted accumulation of very unimpressive work. It is simple, horribly repetitive, and highly effective. The benefits of focused training have a long-term exponential payoff. In order to experience mastery, an athlete must make it past what I call the plateau of effort. To examine this further let’s consider Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule of deliberate practice

When an athlete is new to a discipline there is a period I call the Clean Slate Phenomena where skills acquisition and overall competency rapidly increases with initial bouts of consistent deliberate practice. However, very soon the athlete hits a wall — my experience has proven this occurs after 6 - 8 weeks of new practice. Improvement is no longer as dramatic, and the reward for the long hours of preparation is not as easily had.

What happen? They hit a plateau of effort.

Now, the growth of competency has slowed even though the work demanded to improve has increased in difficulty, requiring more time, effort, and energy. The majority of would-be champions give up during this period. It is a weeding out process. Those who enjoy their chosen discipline independent of the result continue to practice, while the athlete who solely fancied the fruits of quick improvement and rapid transfer from practice to sport quit. Creative thinker Seth Godin calls it The Dip. I call it the plateau of effort. It is a tough period no matter what you call it. 

However, this is where most of the work critical to mastery is done. If the athlete can keep a calm temperament and focus on enjoying the process then they will come out of the plateau of effort vastly improved and closer to rarefied air. The latter 2,500 hours of deliberate practice on the road to mastery are 10-20 times more potent than the first 7,500 hours. But you cannot skip those development hours spent in the plateau of effort. These hours are necessary because they make up the foundation of expertise. You need the learnings in these long preliminary hours of practice so the exponential increase of competency in the final hours of deliberate practice can be experienced. Sadly, many attempt to circumvent this truth. Their methods include employing artificial medical enhancements, which there is much literature on, or implementing exciting new secret workouts.

Some erroneously believe the newest workout of the week can give them a magic bump in fitness they desperately want. However, I aim to follow Charlie Munger’s wisdom: “Independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior is vital to long-term investment success.” Following the popular whims of the crowd tend to be a foolish risk. Without fail, an athlete walks away from a haphazardly implemented fad workout worse for their efforts. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of the desired effect. Athletes should complete every session somehow improved, however slight, for their efforts. If this is not the case, reconsider your training script. 

My preference is to engage in proven activities which have successfully stood the test of time. There is one simple reason these practices are still around: they work. Nassim Nicholas Taleb astutely observed in his book Antifragile, that water, black coffee, pure tea, and red wine have survived for thousands of years because their overall impact is known to be positive when consumed in appropriate quantities. The effect of current popular drinks like Coke, Gatorade, or Red Bull is unknown. These beverages have only existed a handful of decades — thus the jury is still out, therefore I abstain from consuming them. 

Same applies to training. That new amazing secret workout will fail, the latest apparatus which promotes a perfect posture is a waste of time, and those recently hyped shoes which make you run faster, won’t. Often I disappoint coaches asking for insights on my training methods by revealing my prescription consists of very basic tasks, workouts, and workloads. However, my paramount aim is long-term sustainability, so each athlete can step up to the plate healthy and be slightly improved than their previous attempt to swing for the fences. 

Understand the foundations of your chosen sport, then practice them, master them, and keep practicing to perfect them. This is not hard to do, but it is incredibly boring. Yet, extraordinarily effective. Sorry, I wish I has something sexier to tell you. 

Babe Ruth Effect on coaching

A coach's role is many things, among them is assisting each athlete to discover the totality of their capabilities. By knowing what ingredients produce home runs and addressing those areas early and often, your athletes will thrive. Contrast this with the far too common reality of coaches over investing in the importance of their frequency of correctness. 

Many coaches want to be right on all fronts, all the time. It is human nature to believe in the illusion of your control. Especially as the leader. You're in charge, need to have a handle on things, and know all the answers. But don’t be a helicopter coach and try to control every little thing regarding your athlete's preparation and lives. It will exhaust you and will destroy your athlete. Save yourself and create robustness and optionality in your program. Know when to execute the designed play or allow the athlete to call an audible based on the conditions in the moment. 

By keeping top of mind the magnitude of correctness is what counts, I need not be as concerned on a variety of topics such as :

  • what warm-up drills they do (do the ones you like and make you feel good)
  • what they eat (seek out nutritious foods and enjoy your meals, hopefully, you enjoy nutritious foods) 
  • what type of shoes they wear in races (wear the shoes that you won’t think about while your competing) 
  •  the timing of the race day warm-up (take as little or as long as you need that is effective for you) 

If the above examples of my aloofness seem counterculture to popular training science/education that is floating around these days that is because it is. While there may be some elements of truth in those revolutionary new training techniques, we must look again to Charlie Munger for a polite reminder, “When you mix raisins with turds, they are still turds.” Make no mistake, despite the raisins, the frequency of correctness approach is inferior to a magnitude of correctness mindset. A brief story from my coaching experience to illustrate: 

A few years ago, I coached an athlete who arrived to the stadium 20 minutes before his race start, had just consumed two Taco Bell soft tacos 30 minutes prior to arriving. He was mildly dehydrated and warmed up with eight minutes of very slow running in Payless brand shoes that cost $10. He did zero strides, maybe 2 quad stretches for 5 seconds apiece, changed into brand new track spikes he’d never worn before, and then proceed to run 7:49.09 for 3,000m going toe to toe with Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein, nearly beating them both. (be advised: I don’t recommend anyone adopt this as their standard pre-race warm up.) 

A prologue to these haphazard series of race day events:  eleven days before the 3,000m race, this same athlete completed a session of 8 x 1,000m repeats in 2:36 - 2:30 w/ 400m recovery jog in ~2:30. He wore bulky training shoes (not flats or spikes), running by himself on a public track while having to occasionally maneuver around walkers and fitness joggers sprinkled on the inside lanes. 

The moral of the story: the magnitude of the correctness of his training and fitness trumped his gross lack of frequency of correctness regarding his warm-up that particular race day. 

As a coach, you need to know what matters and what does not. And keep questioning it. There are no laws in coaching, only provisional rules of thumb subject to change. 

Babe Ruth Effect on the Track & Field industry  

Quick — name the third-place finisher (male or female) in your favorite track & field event in the 1991 IAAF Outdoor Track & Field World Championships. Got it? No? OK. Fine, that was a tough question. I’ll make it easier: name the runner-up. What about the winner? If you don’t know the answer off the top of your head, don’t worry, nor do I. Another instance where the frequency of correctness collapses. 

How about an opportunity for redemption? Name the current World Record holder in your favorite track & field event. Your country’s current national record holder? Who won the Men’s 100m/200m at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games? What about the winner of the Women’s 400m dash in the 2000 Sydney Olympics? The first man to break 4:00 for the 1 Mile? 

Easy, right? 

The quickness those names came to mind demonstrates the truth behind the magnitude of correctness. Michael Johnson is a Babe Ruth. Roger Bannister is a Babe Ruth. So is Cathy Freeman. Those athletes are remembered because their achievements are home runs. They took huge risks, swung big, and nailed it. 

For all the young athletes in the sport of Track & Field trying to make it, listen up, this is how you do it: swing big and swing often.

Our sport rewards the slugger who knocks it out of the park, not the person who can consistently get on base with bunts. Track & Field is about transcending limits of human physical capacities, competing honestly in thrilling competitions, as well as the raw emotion of victory and/or defeat. If you want to succeed, you have to swing big. And know that means you will strikeout — a lot. Meaning, the sting of failure will be far more your companion than the pleasure of reward. 

Know the facts: Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his 22 year major league career. He saw 10,622 pitches. That roughly equates to just under 7 home runs for every 100 pitches. Additionally, he had 8,399 at bats (series of pitches at the plate) and 1,330 strikeouts (series of multiple failed swings at the plate). That is about 16 strikeouts per 100 at bats!

Let’s digest what the numbers tell us. The Babe — considered one of the all time great hitters — was twice as likely to swing 3 times, completely missing the ball each time, and strikeout than he was to connect once and hit a home run. And he is one of the greatest ever in his craft.

Let that sink in. 

He was TWICE as likely to fail miserably at the task he was considered a master than succeed. 

Again, take another moment to let that further sink in. Now compare it to the instant success many impatiently seek.  

My dear athlete — and/or coach — next time you become so upset with a subpar performance you want to pout, cry, and/or quit the sport out of frustration and disappointment, I encourage you to remember the Babe. He was the best ever and failed over and over again. And kept failing. But every time he stepped to the plate he swung hard, with everything he had, aiming to hit a home run. And he did connect on occasion. Less often than he desired, but, save for two men, more often than anyone else who has ever picked up a baseball bat.


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 


*note: This post was originally published by Jonathan Marcus on on January 26th, 2016.

Jonathan Marcus