By Christopher Ahmad
Head Team Physician New York Yankees
Columbia University, Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine
Baseball Health Network
As a child, I spent hours staring at my favorite soccer players on television, completely and utterly mesmerized by their sheer skills. I lay in bed at night surrounded by my posters of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, wondering what it would take to get from mimicking them in my backyard in their jerseys to scoring the winning goal in a World Cup match.
While my daydreams might’ve stopped there, I dug deeper than the awe these players evoked in me. I studied their every moves; I dissected every pass, every improvisation, every steal and every save. Each player had his own set of skills he had worked to perfect. Pele had his speed, agility and goal-scoring sense; Beckenbauer had his composure, creativity and improvisational skills and Carlos Alberto: his physical presence, leadership and confidence.
Recognizing my love of medicine at an early age, I went to engineering school first. I didn’t want to just learn medicine, I wanted to learn how the tools of the body worked at a more mechanical level. Here, the concept of reverse engineering struck a chord with me. Taking something apart and putting it back together seemed the best way to understand how an object really worked at its core. Why couldn’t this reverse engineering of machinery apply to learning the ins and outs of the human body? I carried this obsession with dissecting the details into my medical training after engineering school.
To really learn the skills you admire—whether it’s athletic ability, surgery techniques, presence when public speaking—you’ve got to take it apart piece by piece and study how to duplicate it. The process is slow, it’s deliberate, it’s strenuous, but it’s necessary to continue to improve your skill level and reach your peak performance. While completing my residency at Columbia, I dissected the skills I admired in those around me—calm under pressure, biomechanics expertise, and patient interaction. Every person you meet will have a unique set of skills they have worked hard to build. Once you recognize their strengths, it’s up to you to hone in on those specific skills and actively observe them in detail. The best surgeons, like the best chefs or chess players, break it down, master it, and reassemble the pieces.
Oftentimes, you’ll find a skill is difficult to duplicate. When that happens, slice it into smaller and smaller pieces. Instead of working to perfect the optimum baseball throw, break it down. What makes the perfect throw? It’s in the wind-up; it’s in your stance; it’s in the positioning of your fingers on the ball. Instead of overwhelming yourself with all of these at once, try starting with the perfect wrist flick to release the ball. Do it over and over again. Study that specific motion in professionals you admire. Videotape yourself doing it and study how you could have done it better. Once you’ve perfected that, move on to your grip. You can apply this technique to learning almost anything in life. You can’t cook the perfect pasta dish if you don’t perfect the flavors in the sauce, the firmness of the pasta and the plating technique individually.
By breaking down what makes something great, learning the individual techniques and adding those skills into your repertoire, you can push yourself to be your best—no matter what it is you’re trying to achieve.