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Beating the Odds

Becoming an Expert

As Melanie Oudin enjoys her status as tennis’ newest sensation, a few paragraphs tucked into the bottom of an Associated Press story tell her secret.

According to the story, Oudin, who has reached the quarterfinals of the U.S.Open, has followed the classic pattern for achieving expert performance.

“Melanie and (her twin sister) Katherine began hitting tennis balls out of a bucket with their grandmother at age 7,” the story said. That means Oudin, who is now 17, has been playing for 10 years — a magic number.

“Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years,” according to a 1993 paper by researchers K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer.

Oudin took her second step toward expert performance at age 9, when she began working with her coach, Brian de Villiers. A good coach adds two elements: a carefully designed program and feedback.

As the AP story goes on to say, at about 12, the twins arrived at a fork: “Melanie decided she wanted to be home-schooled, so she could focus squarely on tennis. Katherine, meanwhile, plays in national junior tournaments, but has other interests, and is now a senior in high school.”

While Katherine was spreading her focus, Melanie was putting all of hers on tennis. It is no wonder that Melanie has achieved expert performance.

The story describes another factor that accounts for Melanie’s great skill: massive repetitions.

“As little kids, the sisters would play matches on a makeshift court, piling up jackets in their home’s cul de sac to serve as a net until Mom or Dad said it was too dark to be outside.”

So how do you build a champion? The classic way: 10 years of experience, with strong feedback and a program specifically designed to improve performance, plus a blazing focus and massive repetitions.

Melanie Oudin is more than a tennis sensation: She is a living blueprint on becoming an expert at anything.


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