Spring Training: Applications from the Diamond to the Boardroom

This spring marks the first time in my professional career that I will not be heading south to spring training. For the past 30 years, I’ve been a professional baseball coach. More specifically, a pitching coach whose time included unforgettable years with the Oakland A’s during the famed Moneyball era as well as with the Mets in the pressure cooker of New York.

As I transition into the world of corporate speaking and coaching, I’m astounded by the parallels between my former career and what I’m learning about the business world. In a recent conversation with Judd Hoekstra, my Crunch Time co-author and Vice President at The Ken Blanchard Companies, we discussed how the approach we took in spring training is equally relevant to the baseball diamond and the boardroom.

While many baseball fans think of spring training as the time for players to get physically ready for the season, I put equal if not greater emphasis on mental preparation. Why focus on the mental as much or more than the physical? Because baseball games are often decided by razor thin margins; often just a couple pitches per game are the difference between winning and losing. Sound familiar to what you face in the business world?

When we gathered the team together in the spring for the first time, we shared our lofty goal in the form of a rally cry. For example, one year it was “Hunt for October!” meaning we’re preparing to play in the playoffs and World Series. The rally cry generates energy and optimism. What is your 2017 version of Hunt for October?

While this rally cry is typically motivating, it’s just the beginning. It’s important to quickly move on from the ‘what’ and ‘why’ to the ‘how.’ As I worked with the pitchers, I’d ask them to share their goals with me for the season. Most had the kind of long-term, outcome goals you find on the back of a baseball card — winning a certain number of games or pitching a certain number of innings.

The problem with focusing on great big goals is that you’re distracted into focusing on factors outside your control. Winning a ball game involves more than just the pitcher’s performance — it hinges on how many runs his team scores, how well his team fields, how well the opposing hitters handle good pitches, and even the umpire’s calls. When we don’t hit that big outcome goal we get demoralized, creating doubt and anxiety can hurt our performance.

Instead, I refocused our pitchers by chunking the larger goal into a short-term, bite-sized process goal. I told them they were professional glove hitters with one simple goal: Hit the catcher’s glove as often as possible — with the right pitch. The mantra for the pitchers was intentionally simple: Hit the Glove!

If a player focuses on hitting that glove, he can’t focus on the pressure of a loftier outcome goal. He has to concentrate on hitting that glove. He’s not distracted by things outside his control. Hitting the glove on a high percentage of pitches is also the most probable path to achieving our Hunt for October! For the key roles in your organization, what is their version of Hit the Glove?

Once our pitchers and I were aligned on our process goal to Hit the Glove, in typical Moneyball fashion, I dove into specifics using analytics to provide our pitchers with a GPS, a game plan that showed them where the catcher’s glove—their target—would be located the majority of the time. For example, the major league batting average for balls pitched at the bottom of the strike zone or lower is .193. For our non-baseball readers, a hit less than 20 percent of the time is terrible for batters, great for pitchers. As you consider the parallels with your business, are all of your people tuned into the metrics that matter most in their respective roles?

Then, we’d show how small, achievable improvements in execution lead to big results. For example, we showed how we could significantly improve our outcomes if the pitcher could throw just two percent of his pitches in a better location. Remember, the difference between winning and losing a game is often just a couple pitches per team. Multiplied over the course of a 162-game season, these couple pitches are the difference between playing in October and watching from home.

In order to achieve this two percent improvement, we emphasized the importance of training the mind to do the simple things perfectly. I’d regularly remind our pitchers that your mind is your master and your body is your servant. Your body will never outperform your mind. What small, achievable improvements in execution can lead to dramatic results in your organization? What changes to your team’s mindset are required to achieve these results?

The same approach we used to kick off our year in spring training will also work for you

Rick Peterson has coached some of baseball’s best pitchers in the past twenty years, including Cy Young Award winners and Hall of Famers. He was the Oakland Athletics’ pitching coach during the famed Moneyball era and has served as a coach with the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Milwaukee Brewers. He is currently director of pitching development with the Baltimore Orioles. He holds a combined degree in psychology and art.

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