I must readily confess that I have enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball. Although I played football, basketball, and a number of other sports, baseball somehow always was more than just another athletic activity. As a boy, my love of the game seems to have correlated with the seasons of the year. Baseball signaled Spring for me. The sun came out and the grass greened up, just so I could spend long days at the ballpark. I loved everything about baseball, including the smell of my baseball glove, the feel of the ball in my hand, and the crack of the bat when I got a hit.
I still enjoy those things, and Spring training every year is like a rebirth for me. As young men and young women begin to gather on diamonds around the world, there is something magical in the air, at least to me. All of that said, I’ve come to appreciate baseball even more as an adult. It has become a wonderful metaphor for life and leadership. It is in that regard that I write this article today.
Here are a few of the extraordinary lessons I’ve learned from baseball:
- Baseball, like life, is a game of imperfection. Those who are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown have a collective batting average of .303. In other words, they failed to get a hit 70% of the times they stepped into the batter’s box! In most of life’s endeavors, we would likely see a 70% failure rate as something far removed from success. And yet, I feel emboldened to suggest that in most of such endeavors, a 30% success rate is really quite astounding.
- The key, however, is not to become satisfied with your present batting average, regardless of where it stands today. Every time you step into the batter’s box (in baseball jargon, these are your At Bats), you have a new opportunity to get a hit, to improve your batting average. So it is with life. Every day provides new Life At Bats, new opportunities to swing away, to improve our outcomes. Here is the improvement process:
A. You must own the outcome of your At Bat, whether it is good or bad. If you get a hit, own it; enjoy it! Take a few seconds to revel in your accomplishment. For a home run, you may want to extend your celebration to a few minutes along with your teammates. It’s absolutely appropriate to take joy in your success.
If you make an out, own it. You may have hit the ball straight to an opposing player who made a great play. Now it may be tempting to blame him or her for the out. Don’t go there! You were the one to hit it to them; no one else swung the bat, no one else can be charged with responsibility for the outcome.
Perhaps you strike out, swinging wildly at a pitch. Or maybe the umpire calls you out on a pitch that clearly was not a strike. Should you own this outcome? The answer is Yes…if you are wise. You will own your reactions, your emotions. You may accurately feel that you have been shortchanged by a “bad call.” But rather than allowing yourself to be a victim, you acknowledge that baseball is an imperfect experience for umpires as well. You quickly get past reactively blaming the ump. You move on!
Don’t miss the metaphor here. There will be jubilant moments in many of your Life At Bats. Don’t miss your chance to enjoy and celebrate them! And when you fall short of success, own that as well, remembering that you had the courage to step into the batter’s box and give your best effort.
B. You learn from your At Bats. If you hit the ball well, what did you do? Is there something that you might replicate in your next At Bat? Did you hit a fastball, a curve, a change-up? What was your batting stance? How did you time your swing? What can you learn from your success?
If you hit a pop-up or a grounder, what did you do? Is there something to change in your next At Bat? What kind of pitch did you hit? How might you adjust your swing? Might your coach, or perhaps a fellow player, have ideas that could help you improve?
And if you struck out, what can you learn from your three strikes? Did you foul away some pitches? Were you close to getting a solid hit?
Every At Bat in baseball, and every experience in life (each Life At Bat) provides an opportunity to learn–and improve!
C. You need to have a short memory. This may seem a bit strange at first blush. Shouldn’t you, in the process of owning your shortfalls and errors, keep remembering them? Can you really improve if you don’t keep your mistakes as your focal point?
Clearly, owning and learning from your mistakes are fundamental to improvement and progress. But an over-focus on our errors can become self-defeating. If you are going through a slump (as does every hitter and every person from time to time), you can easily become discouraged. You begin to see yourself as a loser, as an imposter, as unworthy to stay in the game of baseball, or even in the game of life. By dwelling on the negative outcomes you’ve experienced, you risk buying into a false narrative of who you are and what you can become.
Having a short memory means quickly abandoning negative self-judgment, returning quickly to a positive view of your future, even if your last ten At Bats were outs. By the way, you should know that every Hall of Fame player had times when they struggled. No one ever attains excellence in baseball, or in life, without some time on the lower rungs of the ladder.
A short memory also applies to your successes. Too much dwelling on your home runs (real or metaphorical) often leads to two unfortunate outcomes:
- You begin to live your life in the rearview mirror, gradually disconnecting yourself from the challenges and opportunities of the future.
- You forfeit the humility that you will need to continue to grow and improve.
D. Adopt a long view of yourself. See yourself for your potential to be a .300 hitter, maybe even .400 or better. The player you are today is not who you can and will be tomorrow. Whether you continue to improve is not only a function of your hard work in owning, learning, and having a short memory. It also depends on your long range vision of yourself.
That vision should include many more At Bats, many more hits, and ultimately a life, while not perfect, of great growth and accomplishment.
E. Engage! Keep stepping into the batter’s box. When you are playing in the field or pitching, want the ball. Want to make the plays. Be willing to make errors. That is often how we learn–and improve–best!
See every day in your life as a series of At Bats, opportunities to learn and grow. Don’t stay on the bench–GET IN THE GAME!
- Seek great coaching–and to become a great coach. Some of my best baseball experiences came from those who coached me. They taught me the importance of owning my At Bats, learning from them, having a short memory and a long view, and engaging every day.
Whether you see yourself as a player or as a coach, you have the opportunity to not only learn true principles for yourself, but to teach them to others. The essence of great coaching is to create great players, who in turn create other great players. As you endeavor to put these principles into work in your life, remember that you can, and should, help others to do so as well.
Your life, and mine, only have a finite number of At Bats, and none of us can know for sure how many still lie before us. These Life At Bats will take the form of family interactions, work opportunities, physical, mental, and spiritual development challenges, etc.
To truly experience and succeed in those most important Life At Bats, please consider the extraordinary lessons I’ve learned from baseball!