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Practice Makes Perfect

By the time the inaugural World Baseball Classic was played in 2006, Ichiro Suzuki was already an established international superstar. His credentials spoke volumes about his elite talent: five Gold Glove awards, two American League batting titles, an AL MVP award and an AL Rookie of the Year award in five MLB seasons.

A few hours before Japan played Cuba in the WBC championship game, there were only a handful of fans present inside San Diego’s Petco Park as the Japanese players took batting practice. Those who paid close attention were treated to a rare glimpse at the secret behind Ichiro’s mastery as a hitter.

The left-handed-hitting Ichiro proceeded to hit one ball after another the opposite way, each ball landing within a few feet of the left-field line. There was nothing accidental about Ichiro’s approach. He wasn’t peppering the left-field line to impress anyone or to simply show he could do it. 

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With each carefully placed line drive, Ichiro was demonstrating the key to his offensive greatness: his preparation.

This was an expert perfecting his craft, like a guitarist seeking tonal clarity while practicing his scales, or an actor staying in character while going over lines repeatedly for an audition. Ichiro’s attention to preparation gave him the best opportunity to perform at the highest level that night. 

Fast forward to the fifth inning hours later. With a 2-2 count against Norberto Gonzalez, a tough side-arming lefty, Ichiro hit a down-and-away breaking ball into the left-field corner for a leadoff double. Just like he practiced.

While athletes may have innate qualities that predispose them to excel in certain areas, the great ones know the importance of devoted preparation. Ichiro might be blessed with outstanding eyesight and superior hand-eye coordination, but it’s more likely that his uncanny bat control and precision can be attributed to thousands of hours of concentrated work, both seeing and reacting to pitches.  

The same tried-and-true methods of preparation can be applied to other areas of life. To prepare for a job interview, you conduct a thorough examination of the company, learn everything about what the job entails, and practice your responses to a host of possible interview questions. In studying for a chemistry test, you pore over your study notes and make sure you have a firm grasp on the material.

When you consider just about any worthwhile endeavor, there are three undeniable truths about the importance of preparing well: 

       1. Preparation requires focus: There must be a significant mental investment, but that doesn’t come without passion. Do you strongly desire to be the best student, entrepreneur, accountant, basketball player, real estate agent, etc.? Our passion sharpens our focus. The more passionate you are about being the best, the more conviction you will have to pursue that goal.

One of Ted Williams’ expressed goals was to have people call him “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” His passion for hitting gave him the mental incentive to turn his goal into a reality. With a career 1.116 OPS (on base plus slugging) in 19 seasons, some would argue that he succeeded.

        2. Preparation is hard work: Once the mind is fully committed, the actions should follow. But there is nothing easy about preparation. The faint of heart need not apply.

There is a great quote from the movie “Top Gun”: “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” In other words, we say we want to be the best, but are we willing to commit to the physical toll? 

True preparation is a sweaty and tedious job done behind the scenes, often in complete solitude. For our best work to be performed for an audience of many, it must first be done for countless hours with an audience of one. That’s when the magic happens.

Look at Stephen Curry. The Golden State Warriors guard has no exceptional physical qualities, nothing that would suggest he is anything special on the basketball court, yet he is considered the greatest shooter in NBA history. That title was never handed to him; it was earned only one way -- through tireless, disciplined, meticulous repetition shooting a basketball in the gym. 

       3. Preparation breeds success: There are zero guarantees that success will immediately follow a period of arduous preparation. At the same time, there is nothing more than a slim chance of succeeding when preparation is either de-emphasized or disregarded. 

It’s easy to overlook the details, but a steadfast commitment to preparation means taking every little thing into account, knowing how to react in every possible scenario and leaving nothing to chance. 

For a team preparing to play a game, it also means knowing your opponent well – being a keen observer, studying their tendencies, and finding any way to gain an edge.

When I was coaching at the high school level, part of my team’s pregame preparation involved standing along the dugout fence and watching the other team take infield. The purpose was to make mental notations, gleaning valuable information that could be useful during the game. 

Do they make the routine plays? Do they play with enthusiasm or nonchalance? What kind of range does the shortstop have? Do the outfielders track the ball well and have strong, accurate arms? Is everyone communicating with each other? If my players were paying attention, they could learn not only about their opponent’s skill level, but also about their attitude and effort. Then they could find opportunities during the game to exploit any perceived weaknesses. 

One time my team was set to play a doubleheader against a powerhouse private school team from a neighboring state. Given the 3-hour distance between the schools, we had never played each other before. From my online research, all I knew was the program regularly produced college prospects and rarely, if ever, lost a game, often blowing teams out by double digits. 

After the opposing team’s bus arrived at our field, I introduced myself to the coach, who – while being cordial – spoke to me like I was just another coach whose team was about to take a beating.  

Our first look at them was during pregame infield. It was easy to spot the skill level and athleticism. But just as evident was the arrogance. They looked sloppy and undisciplined – more interested in style than substance. Their body language conveyed an attitude that showed a general lack of respect for us, as if they could win by just showing up. 

I remember saying to my assistant coach: “They aren’t taking us too seriously.” He agreed. My players noticed the same thing. While my team might have been less talented, my players were disciplined, focused and fundamentally sound – and, thankfully, they played that way. 

To the other team’s surprise and chagrin, my team ended up sweeping the doubleheader. I have no doubt that 3-hour bus ride back home was far from a pleasant experience. 

Preparation offers no shortcuts to glory. It can be boring, exasperating, tiring, and at times painful. It can lead even the most diehard among us to think about quitting. As Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” 

There is no discounting the truth: Preparation is at the heart of excellence. And like Ichiro, a slightly built man equipped with nothing more than a determined mind and a relentless work ethic, it can enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results.

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