Friday, June 10, 2011

Things I Learned on the Little League Diamond

For those of you that know me personally, you know that a significant portion of my spring and summer are spent on the baseball diamond coaching youth baseball for my sons, Ben (10) and Alex (8).

I believe that sports moments are often great analogies for business. There is a true scoreboard in sports, which we don’t often have in business. Leadership, performance, teamwork and inspiration are all a part of winning the game. But during the past two weeks I was given the gift of two great lessons coaching baseball that I thought I would share.

I have a philosophy on youth sports that sometimes does not make Type A parents of my players happy. When I start a season, I try to remind the parents that of all of the kids in Little League, at all ages and levels, it is likely only one or two will play college baseball and, statistically, none will make it to the major leagues. I would love to be wrong and would happily eat that crow, but the numbers are what they are. Therefore, we need to focus on why kids play ball. What is important to me about youth sports is that my players learn how to be a part of a team, challenge themselves to improve, put forth their maximum effort and have fun. All of these are good life lessons.

What I have hated about youth sports is ESPN.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ESPN personally. But kids, mine included, have become so enamored with the glory of professional sports and the Play of the Day on SportsCenter, that they sometimes forget that they have to master the fundamentals before they can execute a diving catch or a 360 degree dunk. In the past I have often said that, “the SportsCenter cameras are not here” when a player tries to turn a routine play into a spectacular one.

And I was wrong, at least in one aspect.

My son Ben plays on a USSSA 10U team called the Riders (the high school is the Roosevelt RoughRiders). As they have played in tournaments, the outfielders, including Ben, were not being aggressive. They seemed to not want to make a mistake and let the ball go by them, so they would hold up and take many fly balls on the one-hop, letting the hitter on base safely. Furthermore they didn’t have confidence that if they went to make an aggressive play, that their teammates would back them up.

In our last tournament, I was working with the outfielders in warmups. I wondered why they weren’t going for balls and making plays. Just for kicks, I told them that the SportsCenter cameras WERE at the game today and they should go make plays. Their teammates needed to back them up because we were going after the ball, even if we dived and missed it. Their eyes lit up. “The cameras are really here?” they asked. “Sure,” I said. “Can’t you see them?” (That’s motivation, not lying, right?)

Their demeanor immediately changed. They were aggressive going after fly balls. Their teammates were hustling into the other fields to back them up. They played as a unit of three, rather than three individuals. They knew that each player was going to be aggressive and they had a role to play – either to make the play or back it up.

It was amazing the change in their attitude. Now there were no plays that probably qualified for SportsCenter that day, but we did play much better baseball in my opinion. I think there’s a lesson in this story for us in business.

Are you playing to win or not to lose?

The outfielders were basically playing not to lose. We can do that as adults as well. If I “lay out” for a “ball” in my job and miss, my reputation and my pride could be hurt. Sometimes I’m not sure if a teammate will be there backing me up. But what if everyone played all out every day? What if we played as if the business equivalent of SportsCenter was watching every meeting, proposal and sales call? (Maybe CNBC would build a show based on that!) I think we would be better off because the hesitation and tentativeness that can creep in would be gone. We’d just go play, and our customers, teammates and our companies would be better for it. If the fear of losing was diminished, we’d focus on being the best we could be every day, rather than on making sure we looked good, even if the proverbial ball dropped in front of us for a base hit.

The second lesson I learned was on incentives, or maybe even bribery.

My son Alex is eight-years old. His Little League allows the kid-players to pitch, but if they throw four balls, the coach from the hitter’s team comes into pitch. This rule is to encourage players to hit the ball, rather than wait for a walk. Our team was doing well early in the year, really hitting the ball well. But our coaches had noticed a disturbing trend – instead of players trying to hit off of the pitcher, they would wait for four balls (or sometimes watch three strikes) with the hope the coach would come in to pitch. We tried intervention – we told them the coach was going pitch faster, hoping that it would encourage our players to try and hit the pitcher, because the coach was hard to hit. That really didn’t work.

You also need to know that generally I hope players are intrinstically motivated. That they want to do well for internal reasons, not for external rewards. But it was in the 90s on Saturday in Des Moines and so I told my players that I would bring a Gatorade to the Sunday game to each player who hit the ball solidly off of the kid pitcher. Hits off of the coach did not count. I had my list as the third base coach and was marking off each time a player hit the ball well – out or not.

Amazingly, nearly every player hit the ball.

Maybe I should not be surprised, but I was. Out of 10 players, we had eight hit the ball solidly, including two that went three-for-three and two others that were two-for-two. Two players didn’t hit it, but they took good, hard swings at pitches. In the end, the players who got multiple Gatorades gave them to their other teammates (which was a good display of teamwork) so everyone got a Gatorade on Sunday. We have not hit the ball as well as we did on Saturday all year. And while it didn’t exactly translate the same way into our next game, but we were remarkably better than before Saturday.

So what’s to be learned? That we can all be bought? Not exactly. I have always believed incentives are as much about focus as they are about pay. They are certainly about pay, but there is a significant component that is about what is important. If you, as my boss or board, incent me to do something, it must be important to you or our company. Sure I want to get the payout, but many times that is just about keeping score. The piece that it critical is that I clearly understand that some action is important to our shared success – just like hitting the ball in baseball. The Gatorades I paid out were really not of monetary value – each player probably had plenty of Gatorade at home. What was important to the players was that a coach said he would incent them if they did something. It was a game within the game. And when they succeeded they heard me say, “There’s a Gatorade!” and make a checkmark on my roster. To start the game, they wanted to know the rules (what happened if they hit the ball but got out, what if they didn’t get a good pitch to hit, etc.). I said that I wanted them to focus on hitting pitches from the player pitcher, not the coach, and that is what would count. Period. And that’s the result I got.

There are probably two lessons from my coaching experience that are pretty obvious:
  1. When we play to win, we often do win.
  2. We get the behavior we incent, not always because of the monetary value of the incentive, but because of the focus we put on the behavior.
That being said, sometimes we need to look at our children to see ourselves. I find many things that apply to coaching my kids apply to our companies, but I would certainly love to hear your thoughts. Comments are open and feel free to post. Maybe I’ll buy Gatorades for those who post a comment!