Category Archives: Leadership

Winning’s the goal, but it isn’t the point

A couple of years ago, I had the chance to attend a pitching clinic that Jonathan Papelbon gave for kids. My eldest son, who was about 8 at the time, was one of his 40-or-so students that day. The night before the clinic, Pap had blown a save against the Yankees, so we were all a little worried about the mood that he would bring to the clinic. And he did look exhausted and beaten down, but he was tremendous with the kids, teaching them a lot of important pitching basics and spending some one-on-one time with all of them. And after the clinic, he stuck around to sign autographs for the kids and to answer all of their questions.

Pap said a lot of great things that day — things that a parent really wants his son to hear from an all-star major leaguer — but what I remember most was what he told the kids about winning. Someone asked him about how he bounces back after a painful loss to the Yankees, and he went off on a philosophical rampage. “Hey, I feel bad because I let my teammates down. But you young kids, you need to remember that playing baseball is supposed to be all about fun. Winning and losing — it really doesn’t matter when you’re young, as long as you’re having fun.” He went on to say, “Now, when you start getting paid to play, winning becomes the  main thing. But not until you get to the pros. And you all have a long way to go ’til then. So don’t get all caught up in winning and losing. Remember, baseball is all about having fun.” It was a message straight from his heart, almost like he wished he could go back to those days when fun was the main goal of pitching – not beating the Yankees, not making a living.

This past summer, my son played on a summer baseball team of very good 9/10 year-olds. I was one of the coaches. We had practices or games perhaps 4-5 nights per week, and we ended up going 20-2-1 and winning the league championship on the last day of the season. At the end of the championship game, we presented the kids with their championship trophies and they all felt really marvelous. All of us coaches high-fived and embraced – after all, we were champion coaches, and we had helped to give our children and their teammates the unique feeling of being champions (plus, we had successfully avoided the uncomfortable feeling of coming oh-so-close and then losing).

I received congratulations from many people for winning it all – parents of our players, other coaches in the town, and some close family and friends who had followed my son’s team’s season. Being the last team standing is just such a rare achievement, and it’s a fantastically simple, no-nonsense way to evaluate the success of a team’s season.

But the success of our season shouldn’t be defined only by our win-loss record or the fact that we won the league championship. Winning was the goal, but it was never the point, and the allure of winning makes this easy to forget.

The point was, as Papelbon said, having fun. The point was improving young baseball players’ physical skills. The point was teaching them how to think – before the game and in every game situation. The point was teaching kids the value of practicing in the right way. The point was teaching them to play as a team. The point was teaching them to never give up, and to bounce back from disappointing at-bats, plays, or games. The point was improving their resilience and focus. The point was developing leaders. The point was teaching kids to have the courage to dream about winning but to avoid becoming attached to that outcome. The point was teaching them to cheer for each other and keep each other “up” at all times. The point was teaching them to stay loose and to smile. The point was giving kids an experience, through a series of practices and games, that would not only give them joy today — for joy’s sake — but also help them to grow into happier, more self-confident people, better equipped to face challenges in the future.

We coached with these objectives in mind all summer, and this is why I’m proud of our team’s season. The goal of winning simply gave us a context for teaching all of these other vastly more important lessons.

Lots of coaches achieve these objectives with their youth athletic teams, but fail to win the championship or even to have a winning season. And, I fear, plenty of youth athletics coaches “win it all” and point to that accomplishment as justification for everything they did  — even though their coaching methods may have totally missed the point of youth athletics.

So I have my championship trophy, but its value isn’t its inherent symbolism of our team’s ability to score more runs than almost every other team. The value of the trophy — to me — is in the memories it holds of the players’ happy afternoons and evenings  playing the wonderful game of baseball, and in my son’s and his teammates’ evolution as competitors, as teammates, and as human beings.

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Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and the Red Sox

jackie-robinson.jpgOn Friday night, February 1, the day after Jackie Robinson‘s would-be 89th birthday, I attended the Red Sox’s celebration of his life in the EMC Club at Fenway Park. The event featured a panel of speakers, the star of which was the legendary basketball hall of famer, Bill Russell (who, on February 12, celebrated his 74th birthday). Russell, one of the greatest Celtics of all time, shared some memorable stories and insights (transcribed below), but first, panelist and author Steve Jacobson reminded us about Jackie Robinson’s own connection to Boston – one that is painful for members of Red Sox Nation to hear.

pumpsie-green-1960-baseball-card.jpgIt is fitting and ironic that the Red Sox are the only team that formally celebrates Robinson’s birthday, for while the Red Sox were the last team to field a black player (Pumpsie Green in 1959, three years after Robinson’s baseball career ended), the Sox were the first team to give Jackie Robinson a major league “tryout” – in April 1945, two years before he was named Rookie of the Year as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Of course, the tryout was a sham, and it only happened because of public pressure that was thrust on the Red Sox by Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnik, who threatened to revoke the Red Sox’s permit to play Sunday games at Fenway Park unless the Red Sox offered a tryout to three black players. Those players were Marvin Williams, Sam Jethroe, and Jackie Robinson.

tom-yawkey.jpg“The workout was supposed to be supervised by four Red Sox hall of famers,” writes Jacobson in his new book, Carrying Jackie’s Torch. “Joe Cronin, the manager; 78 year-old Hugh Duffy, a coach; owner Tom Yawkey, a South Carolina lumberman; and Eddie Collins, the general manager. Cronin refused to give an evaluation of the players he’d seen. Duffy said one workout wasn’t enough. Yawkey said any judgment had to come from his baseball people. And Collins said he couldn’t be there because of a previous engagement. Don’t call us, we’ll call you — and the Red Sox never did call.”

It’s mind boggling that the Red Sox had “first dibs” on Jackie Robinson. Can you imagine how different Red Sox history would be — indeed, Boston history — if Jackie Robinson had played second base at Fenway from 1945 to 1956? Writes Jacobson: “The Red Sox, who won the American League pennant in 1946, the last year of the all-white major leagues, did not win another pennant until 1967. The effect was clear.”

I didn’t know the whole story of Robinson’s bogus tryout with the Red Sox until Jacobson retold the tale. And when he was finished speaking, it was Bill Russell’s turn. I took notes of everything Russell said, and I’ve done my best to represent his words below.

bill-russell-2-2-1-08.jpg“I’m proud to be here tonight, and I’m so glad the Red Sox are honoring Jackie Robinson on his 79th birthday, and anytime the Red Sox want me to be part of something honoring him, I’d be glad to do so, even though I live in Seattle and you can’t get here from there.”

“I remember Jackie liked to bunt the ball down the first base line – that meant the pitcher would have to run over and field the ball as Jackie ran past, and Jackie was a football player….” Bill Russell smiled. “Slight collision!”

“The day after Jackie died, I got a call from Rachel Robinson, and she asked me to be one of the pallbearers in Jackie’s funeral. And I asked her, ‘Rachel, why would you ask me?’ And she said, “Bill, you were Jackie’s favorite athlete.” And when I hung up the phone, I remember thinking, “How does a man get to be a hero to Jackie Robinson?

“There were people along the way who tried to discourage me. But I lived a charmed life, because there were many people – black, white, Jewish, Christian – who pushed me forward, too. My high school basketball coach was one of those people. [Russell mentioned that Frank Robinson and Curt Flood attended his high school in Oakland at the same Russell was there.] He just looked at kids and saw baseball players or basketball players. And that’s what I encountered in Boston with Walter Brown and my coach – and my friend – Red Auerbach.”

bill-russell-and-red-auerbach.jpg“Now I came to Boston believing I was the best player in the land. But I didn’t get along with my college coach [at University of San Francisco] for one single day – yet we managed to win 55 straight games and two straight NCAA championships. And my Olympic coach was from Tulsa, and we didn’t get along at all, either – but we won the gold medal. So when I came to Boston, I expected not to get along with the coach. But the first time I met Red, he said, ‘You’re among friends.’

“I was with a friend of mine in an airport and a stranger came up to me and said, ‘You’re tall. Are you a basketball player?’ and I replied, ‘No.’ Then another person came up to me and asked, Are you a basketball player?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’ So my friend asked me, ‘Bill, why do you keep telling them no?’ And I told him, ‘Because basketball is what I do, but it’s not who I am.’

At one point, a woman stood and asked a question about what Bill Russell thought about urban kids all wanting to become athletes or entertainers, like the heroes they most admire. Bill’s response:

“I think it’s a myth that black kids today all just want to be athletes or entertainers. And my view is, we shouldn’t discourage kids from wanting to be special. I teach that we have to make changes inside-out rather than outside-in. I tell kids if you do work hard and use your intelligence, there are people who will give you a helping hand. But just giving help all the time [outside-in] can become a negative.”

“I don’t see any problem with a kid wanting to be an athlete or an entertainer, and I reject that the only thing all these athletes are teaching kids is to be athletes and entertainers. That’s just not true. You know, almost all of the best players in the NBA have foundations and are doing a lot of work with kids in the community – almost all of the best players – and we rarely hear about that, but it’s true. And these players are teaching kids a lot more than how to be a professional athlete or entertainer.”

russell-ali-brown-jabbar.jpg“In schools across the country, physical education programs are being cut as budgets are slashed. And this is a big problem. P.E. programs aren’t about creating pro athletes, they’re about creating healthy people. In my case, I have a mild case of diabetes, and my doctor tells me that the only reason it’s not severe is because of the active life I led in my youth and young adulthood. Mind and body are both important in a child’s education.”

“I remember the first time my mother said we could play in our front yard. Until that time, we had only been allowed to play in our back yard, but then one day my mother said we could play in the front. But she said to us, ‘Now people may walk by on the sidewalk, and some of them may say things to you. Some of the things they say may be good things, some of them may be bad. But whatever they say, don’t pay any attention to it. Remember, they don’t know you. And when they say bad things, that’s their problem, and they’re wrestling with their own demons.’ So, growing up, I was determined that no one would stop me. Particularly no one I didn’t know.”

“My daughter was one of Professor Ogletree’s students [at Harvard Law School – Ogletree moderated the evening], and her mom and I went our separate ways when she was 12 years old. So there I was, a single parent with a 12 year-old girl, and to this day, it’s been the single greatest adventure of my life. And back when she was 12, I made two promises to my daughter: 1. I will love you ’til I die. 2. When you leave this house, you’ll be able to take care of yourself better than any many you’ll ever meet. And I told her that because I wanted her to feel the same way my parents made me feel. And that’s what I’m trying to do today with kids – to teach them to have confidence in themselves and not to be afraid. Jackie Robinson was never motivated by fear. He didn’t see obstacles, he only saw opportunities, and he saw every challenge as a chance to show what he could do.”

“I’m looking forward to the next great baseball player, but I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t care what color he is.”

red-sox-retired-numbers.jpgThe Red Sox will never shed the facts of the team’s racist history; but the birthday party at Fenway for Jackie Robinson, featuring Bill Russell — not to mention our two World Championship teams featuring players from a variety cultural backgrounds – shows that those facts truly are history. History to be remembered, but never to be repeated.

Sports Center Missed These…

Some of the greatest sports moments of the day never make it onto ESPN’s Sports Center. Two perfect examples:

amaker-at-harvard.jpg1. On Saturday night, Harvard’s men’s basketball team defeated the Michigan Wolverines before a sell-out crowd at Lavietes Pavillion in Cambridge, 62-51. That’s right, an Ivy League team that has NEVER won the Ivy League Title (a drought that’s comparable to the Red Sox’s 86-year ordeal) beat the one-time Big Ten powerhouse, a team full of Michigan’s best high school players, almost ALL of whom are on scholarship (Ivy League teams cannot give scholarships). I’m not a Harvard graduate, but I was in attendance and I was rooting hard for the underdogs.

At the end of the game, hundreds of Harvard students stormed the court. Has that EVER happened at a Harvard basketball game? And has there EVER been a bigger win in Harvard men’s basketball history? I think the only win that comes close was a victory over Boston College, at the Heights, several years ago.

amaker-at-duke.jpgSports Center loves great stories, and this victory has a doozy…. Harvard’s new coach, former Duke guard Tommy Amaker, was fired as Michigan’s coach last year. He could have taken a major division 1 coaching post this season but opted for Harvard and the challenge of winning their first-ever Ivy title. Amaker is too classy to call this victory “revenge,” but it is what it is — a coach who was fired by a big-time program went to a coaching graveyard against the advice of his old mentor (Coach K) and then defeated the school that fired him. Awesome.

roberts-final-pitch-11-07.jpg 2. Last weekend, I played the 355th game of wiffle ball vs. my 8 year-old son and his best friend in our backyard, and the way the game ended will be talked about for years and years at our family’s kitchen table. In over three years, I have never beaten these two kids. (Yes, to handicap myself I do bat lefty and I let them hum the ball from a pitcher’s mound that’s about 25 feet from home, but these guys don’t win because I’m not trying, they win because they earn it.) Last weekend, for about two and one-half seconds, I thought victory was mine…. and then, it was snatched away.

Bdaddy-hits-it-deep-11-07.jpgases were loaded, two outs, I was down by two runs, bottom of the last inning, 2-2 count. My son hucked a fast curveball over the plate and I pulled it, driving it deep to right field… way back, way back…. could this be Daddy’s first victory ever at Fenway West?… then his friend soared over the plastic green fence, glove arm outstretched, caught the ball, and slammed to the ground. GAME OVER. My son and his friend screamed, ran to each other, and chest-butted. I just stood there, stunned at what I had just seen.

christopher-makes-the-game-saving-catch-11-07.jpgI knew at that moment that I would write about the game on this blog, and I knew exactly what I would say – that sometimes, the most elegant, miraculous, unbelievable sports moments happen right in our own backyards, when no fans are watching and nothing is at stake except individual pride. That catch was, truly, every bit as good as the best Coco Crisp catches, and the fact that it saved the game and a three-year unbeaten streak made it an instant classic. No film crews were there to record the incredible play – it will never make it onto The Best Damn Sports Show’s 50 Greatest Catches of All-Time – but the three of us who were there may never forget it. Indeed, our heroic, 8 year-old right fielder may never make a catch as great as that one the rest of his life. Don’t you just love sports??

Professionals

I remember when I was a young boy, sometimes in the summer my father and I would walk down to the baseball field in Cleveland Circle to watch a men’s amateur league game. We’d stand right behind the backstop, and I vividly remember the terrifying velocity on those fastballs, and I can hear in my head the deafening wham of the ball smashing into catcher’s mitt, and I recall watching hitters barely flinch when a pitch went zinging by, and I remember the exact feeling I had watching all this. I thought, “These guys are so incredibly, inconceivably good. And they’re not even professionals.”Collings guitar

In my 20s, I actually played in that men’s amateur baseball league and enjoyed several good years pitching for Avi Nelson Club. But even the best players among us were not nearly good enough to play at the lowest levels of minor league baseball. There were no scouts at our games. We were all amateurs. Happy amateurs.

I was reminded of this amateur-professional idea last Wednesday night, when I had the good fortune to accompany my friend, songwriter Dan Page, on guitar and background vocals at his show in New York City. Dan is widely admired in music circles, and about fifteen of his musical friends (including the amazing Mark Nadler and many members of the extraordinary Sullivan family) came from all over the country to perform in this show, which featured Dan’s most enduring compositions. Dan asked me to back him up on two songs – the first two songs of the show – and, humbled and honored, I quickly agreed.

The thing is, I was the only amateur musician who participated. Everyone else that plugged into an amp or sang into a mike that night was a pro. And, my God, was I out of my league.

I played all the chords just fine, and I sang my harmony nicely. But I had prepared only for things to go exactly as we had rehearsed, and that’s rarely the way things go when the show is on. The order of verses can get switched without warning, the bridge can get skipped, the pause before the final chorus can get extended, etc. Pros handle these “invisible blunders” with grace and ease. I think they actually love it when things don’t go according to plan. I may have risen to the occasion last Wednesday night, but I sure didn’t feel like a pro when the surprises came along.

The bass player that night, Ritt Henn, was a true pro. He was reading the sheet music for all of these songs for the first time, on stage, and not only performing the songs flawlessly, but adding flourishes at just the right moments and rolling with all the “invisible blunders” of the guitarists, pianists, and vocalists with which he shared the stage – and doing it all with a big smile on his face. (I wrote to Ritt and referred to him as “the Derek Jeter of bass players,” and he wrote back, “Hey, wait a minute…you guys are Red Sox fans, right? Is that some kind of insult or something? (insert appropriate smiley faced icon here) Thanks for the kind words…it’s fun winging it, and it was a kick playing with all those different folks, and thank you (and the entire Red Sox Nation) for recognizing and admiring Mr. Jeter’s prowess…. y’know, the year you guys won, I was actually rooting for you.”)

Trot NixonPerforming with Ritt Henn and all those pros was like being asked to play right field for two innings of a Major League Baseball game. I thought, “I can catch a fly ball. I’ve done this a million times.” But in real games, easy flies are intermingled with screaming line drives in the gap, violently bad hops, jeering Yankee fans (see photo), and split-second decisions about which base to throw to. Pros react to these unpredictable challenges as though they expected them — because they’ve practiced for the unexpected their whole lives — and even in the most unusual situations, they execute flawlessly. A pro hits his tee shot into the sand on the 18th hole at Augusta National — and still saves par.

That’s what I learned last Wednesday night in New York. I may know how to play those chords and sing that harmony – I may know how to catch a fly ball – I may know how to drive a golf ball into the fairway – but I’m an amateur. A happy amateur. (Although it sure is fun to hang out with and learn from professionals…)

Never Say “I Could Have Done That”

Creative ideas.

Images of a different, better future.

We all have five or ten compelling ones every day. Sometimes they hit us in the shower. Sometimes while we’re driving. Sometimes when we’re sitting in a meeting oMJ on the Baronsr while talking with a friend. Sometimes they wake us up at 3 in the morning.

And I bet at least one idea we have per day is one that, if acted on, could make a quantum, dramatic difference in our lives or the lives of others. It’s one that could help define our lives and our purpose on this planet if we could execute it. If only these gem-like ideas could be highlighted for us, and we could be guided by a higher power to follow-through on them immediately….

Frequently, I see the work someone else has done – the book or song they wrote that I know I could have created as well, the product they invented that I had the concept for a few years ago, the eye-opening presentation they gave at the conference, the physical condition they’ve gotten themselves into and the accomplishments they’ve achieved because of this – and my impulse is to say, “Well, I had could have done that, too.”

But I didn’t, and that is all that really matters. I may have had the idea. I may have had the ability. I may have had the desire and even the intention. But all the credit goes to the one who takes the idea and, at the very least, strives to forge it into a real thing, a real accomplishment, a real victory, a real process, a real piece of art, a real conversation, a real relationship, a real habit, a real action.

The line between “having an idea” and “executing an idea” is thin – and yet the difference in value between the two is infinite. An idea or goal that stays in your head is as good as an idea or goal that never existed.

I love the example of Michael Jordan’s short baseball career for two reasons:

1. Michael says he always dreamed of being a major league baseball player and believed he could compete at the highest levels in that sport. Most of us forget that he retired from the NBA as reigning MVP in order to follow through on this dream and start a new career in baseball. Is there a better example of never saying, ‘I could have done that?’ That was one of the most inspiring career leaps I’ve ever seen.

2. M.J. never made it to the majors, but you won’t hear Michael say, “I could have done that,” while watching David Ortiz or Ichiro Suzuki hit a 97-mph tailing fastball for a game-winning hit. He tested out his idea and learned that baseball was much harder than he imagined. But, at least with regard to this single idea, Michael can sleep at night knowing he didn’t let it die in his head.

Then there’s my sister-in-law, Christina Harding. She heard about the Antarctica Marathon a couple of years ago and said to herself, “I never want to just say, ‘I could have done that.’ Therefore, I must do it.” Last week, she competed in the Antarctica Marathon. Like Michael Jordan, she can now say, “I followed through on my idea.” Unlike Michael Jordan, Christina can also say, “And I reached the pinnacle.” Because she won, defeating all other female entrants in the race and passing two competitors in the race’s final two miles of glacier-covered terrain. Incredible.

I have learned to never say, ‘I could have done that.’ Because I didn’t.

Swamped+Exhausted=Happy

climbing cliffI am swamped. Work. Family. Volunteer work. Creative projects. It’s a feeling of overwhelm that keeps me awake at night. There’s a fear that originates somewhere in my large intestine that whispers, “You can’t get it all done in a ‘good enough’ way – you can’t be everything to everyone you’ve committed to.” This is a level of busyness that can squeeze exercise, sleep, good eating, and thinking time right out of my life – for a period.

But I chose this. This is what I signed up for. Would I change my situation at work? No. We’re talking exciting, challenging projects with smart, interesting, talented people. Would I change my family situation? Are you kidding? I am blessed and my family is my greatest joy by far. Would I change my volunteer commitments? No way, I’m involved with great people at great organizations making a one-of-a-kind impact. Would I dump my creative projects? Well, these would be the easiest things to clear off my plate, but creative projects are the icing on the cake. Do I really want to scrape the icing off my cake? No.

The truth is, this feeling of overwhelm and exhaustion is a pure form of happiness. Winning the lottery wouldn’t hold a candle to this state of challenge, usefulness, connectivity, creativity, synergy, and struggle. This is what we live for. I’m in the middle of the soccer field with the ball rifling towards me and other players yelling my name. The game is on, baby.

The Origins of Expertise

boy practicing tennisWe can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?

An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:

“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.

It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:

“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”

Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.

Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)