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Ted Williams, Expert

40 years later, same stuff.

Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail discussion I had about AP teachers, expertise and parallels in teaching.

An expert recognizes parallels – real parallels – in different activities and assigns the practice appropriately. The best example of this, in my opinion, is with the baseball player Ted Williams who, for those of you who might not be baseball fans, is regarded as the best hitter in baseball history. He didn’t hit the most home runs [though he is 15th all-time in that category], but he could hit any pitch off any pitcher. Last year the average major league baseball player reached base safely [with a hit or a walk] 33.6% of the time. Ted Williams’ numbers averaged over his entire career? 48.2%. He reached base safely – the object of a hitter’s every at-bat – 50% more than the average baseball player. He really knew how to hit. He was an expert.

In 1970 he published a book called The Science of Hitting. It broke down and explained his technique, preparation, etc. There was a memorable section that I won’t ever forget reading when I was 12 or so – he compared hitting to what he called the “dying act” of chopping a tree. To sum it up, an optimal baseball swing is at a slight downward angle with a release of energy at the point of impact between the ball and the bat. It’s exactly like chopping down a tree with an axe. The best part about practicing chopping down trees is that if your shoulder is too low or you’re committing some other mechanical flaw, you’ll feel it the next day and know your mistake.

Ted knew hitting well enough to find a perfect parallel. If you spent a winter with Ted Williams and chopped wood each day, when baseball season hit in the spring, you’d have improved a great deal without ever touching a bat or seeing a pitch. That’s the power of identifying real parallels and making them work for you.

And it’s the same thing with academics. If you know your subject well enough – and know your test well enough, like an AP exam or Regents – it isn’t hard at all to prepare students to score well without trudging through test prep or methodical review. A good teacher makes you a great hitter even when you’re chopping wood.

Experts can do this effectively. Hardly any teachers [HS or college] have this level of expertise in the subjects they teach or in teaching.

7 Responses to “Ted Williams, Expert”

  1. Michael says:

    You’ve taken the best hitter in baseball history (no question) and held him up as the standard by which all experts should be measured, and that they thus aren’t sufficiently expert. That’s like taking Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history, as the standard, and saying that someone 7’6″ just isn’t tall.

    BTW, most college teachers of my acquaintance are sufficiently expert in their fields to do what you suggest, but there’s a hierarchy of expertness in any field, and the best will be better than the good.

  2. Michael,

    Your example with a 7’6″ tall man does not apply. Though Ted Williams is an “expert” hitter – perhaps the greatest, the best, the most expert – he is not the only one. There are many other hitters who would rightly be considered experts, just like a 6’4″ man, while not the tallest, could be called “tall.”

    I highlighted a trait of an expert; that I cited the greatest expert in a given field is of no significance to the argument. I could have pointed to Williams’ excellent, efficient use of angular momentum – same result. Though he may have harnessed the force better than others, all expert hitters take advantage of angular momentum. It isn’t unique to Williams or even Hall of Famers.

  3. Doug says:

    Well, NOW we finally have an explanation for global warming. Too many kids chopping down trees to be like Ted Williams :)

  4. For those of us who heat houses with wood, it certainly leads to household warming. ;)

    It really is a tremendously valuable exercise for almost any sport – the physics side, that efficient use of angular momentum, applies in some way to just about every sports-related physical activity.

  5. tyler says:

    There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.

    I, too, poured over the science of hitting as a kid. I think it sort of helped my mental approach, but I didn’t have the physical skills to back it up, as you might recall from our foray into summer baseball. I’m left with a lasting image of his “hot” zones in the strike zone. It clearly demonstrates that he could hit any pitch at any time, a la Manny or Vladamir Guerrero. It also shows that he was never the same after flying those missions in Korea.

  6. Michael says:

    OK, Matthew, my example applied perfectly well to your post; your addendum, however, makes your example work. You’re still wrong about most college teachers.

  7. Michael,

    Apologies, but your example assigned conditions to my post that were not part of the argument.

    Your second point is one that I won’t address at this time.

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