Do you hear that? Those sounds? It’s spring training and baseball is on its way back. I care because for many years baseball was my life.
I coached Baseball at the collegiate and international professional level (Germany) for over fifteen years in total. Starting as a player and then transitioning into coaching after I was done playing.
The saying by Shaw, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches” held especially true for me.
Coaching and leading is very natural to me. I could not wait to get to the field to practice and teach my players. The best part was – I was the pupil, too. It was what I learned from coaching that made me a better leader today.
I knew from my early playing days that I wanted to coach because I kept a running list of all the things my coaches did (and didn’t) do that I liked (or didn’t like). Every day in class or after practice I would catalogue drills, plays, workouts, speeches, roster moves, and everything else in between.
I learned very early on that there were specific things coaches did that made all the difference with players and their performance. When I finally transitioned into coaching, my experience only solidified that knowledge.
Consistently throughout my playing and coaching days, there were themes that always popped up and these are the three most important things I learned as a coach.
1) People want to be pushed past their comfort zones.
Most of us enjoy our comfort zones. If you ever see me on the couch drinking coffee, that’s my comfort zone and I do not want to move.
It’s in these comfort zones that we primarily exist in our daily lives. Your employees are the exact same and so were my players at one particular college early in my coaching career.
I had a fairly veteran team. I was coaching pitchers and almost all of them were upperclassmen. They were, in college terms, set in their ways. They liked knowing what was coming and it made my early transition into coaching easy. That was until I saw that their results and development were stagnant.
I knew I needed to get them to push past their comfort zones. But I wanted them to do it on their own. I even wanted them to do it for each other.
In order to get real growth or change – it has to come from inside. I also knew that one of the strongest motivators amongst teams is the social element. No one likes to be called out or look inferior amongst those you essentially compete against. To combat this I came up with a way to get them out of their comfort zones.
We walked to the longest and steepest hill near our small complex. With the entire pitching staff in tow, I told them to stand at an imaginary starting line and explained that they were there to do 20-yard sprints that day. But there was a catch.
They would run sprints until all agreed they were done. If one person said “go on” they all had to keep going.
I also told them that in order to grow as individuals and as a team they had to get past their own comfort zones and that I wasn’t going to be able to do that alone. They had to push each other.
What I saw that day was incredible. It was straight out of Remember the Titans or something.
I waited for almost 2 hours as the entire staff pushed themselves past exhaustion. They came back to me with no words. Sweat was running down their faces as one senior came to me and said “We get it”.
He explained to me that as they grew more tired, one person would say “keep going” or “one more” and each time they would all cheer each other on. In fact, from one sprint to the next the person who said “keep going” would then be begging to stop the very next sprint. They literally felt themselves pushing beyond their comfort zones.
They all agreed they could do more now and would push themselves to test that limit as often as they could. Because they now knew – they could.
I was a proud coach that day.
2) Communication has nothing to do with words.
I coached baseball for one year in Germany. Yes, that Baseball. I’m serious. Baseball is actually quite popular in good ole’ Deutschland. It ranks as one of the fastest growing sports amongst youth players in the country. Fans enjoy the sport because of its slower tempo followed by flashes of excitement. Not unlike that of their favorite sport- fusball (soccer).
I loved coaching the sport there because every player was excited to soak up everything they could about playing the game. It was intoxicating as a coach. Every day there were fresh eyes ready to learn something new. That made it easy.
The German language, however, was not as easy for me to learn. Most tell me it’s easy to learn and I did learn quite a bit. In fact, I can order any food in German. And beer.
Luckily for me, most of the players spoke English. I learned quickly though that understanding their “language” has almost nothing to do with actual words.
One particular player, we will call Remmy (to respect his identity) had an issue in his home life, only I had no clue. He played baseball for me and was a pretty solid backup player. I especially liked Remmy because he always had an upbeat attitude and was inquisitive about the game of baseball. His English was solid and we could communicate about most things on the field but it wasn’t his language ON the field that troubled me. It was his lack of language off of it.
Remmy had a tough home life but I didn’t know that at first. The typical signs of struggles at home are easily lost in translation in a foreign country I learned. I was focused on words. I had a blind spot.
His play on our 2nd-league team struggled as the season went on and yet Remmy showed up every day, cleats shined, glove ready, head up, ready to go.
That was until he wasn’t.
Remmy began to miss practice regularly and eventually I had to remove him from the team. To this day, “Remmy” is the only player I’ve had to remove from my teams. I was completely shocked. Here I was seeing the continued assumed success of someone I rooted for and I figured everything was okay.
One of my other players came up to me after Remmy’s dismissal and said “Coach, how could you not see he was struggling”. I was heartbroken.
As leaders, your employees are probably not telling you everything through words alone. Pay attention. Watch for signs and if you sense anything -speak up (respectfully). You’ll be glad you did it.
3) Winning or losing is everything.
Ya, ya, ya- I know what you’re thinking. That’s a bit zealous, coach. I’m here to tell you that it’s true. Everything in life is about winning or losing. There’s nothing about winning or losing that requires an actual winner or loser and that’s the real meaning of this one.
As leaders, we must understand that winning or losing is just opportunities to learn in disguise. Failing might hurt – but you will learn something and THAT is invaluable.
When I lost “Remmy” from my team – I learned how to read people’s cues. Or better yet, I learned to trust my ability to do so.
When I watched my players struggle that day on the field (they lost I guess), I learned that my players could push past their comfort zones. We went on to the conference tourney that year for the first time in five years. That win taught them somthing about what they could do.
Oh, and “Remmy”? He rejoined the team. He’s doing great now. We talk often and I regularly tell him that he taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.