Lessons We Can All Learn from Little League
Last spring, my then 11-year old son was in a pressure cooker situation. He was on the mound in the bottom of the last inning of a Little League game. The bases were loaded, the score tied with no outs, and he was behind the batter with a 3-0 count (meaning three balls and no strikes). If he threw one more ball, his team would lose the game.
I’ll let you know what happened, but first, some observations: As a parent in a world of coddled children, I consider this situation, and others like it, to be a blessing. Our family has been involved with Little League for the past six years. Or son has enjoyed the thrill of winning a championship, the crush of close losses, and the devastation of being on a team that lost every single game in a season. We’ve had amazing coaches, lousy coaches, and coaches who are so inappropriate they’ve gotten kicked out of the league. We’ve met many wonderful people as well as a few complete raving lunatics.
But, most importantly, the lessons our son learns from baseball beats almost anything in this soft age of overprotective and snowplow parenting. What our son is learning are skills that not only help people become stronger, more successful, and happier in life, but also—if embraced by all of us—could lead to a better society as a whole in my opinion.
Here are just some of those lessons:
No One Can Get On Base But You
A parent can brown-nose a coach all they want. They can sponsor the team and buy fancy uniforms and bats. But it doesn’t matter how scheming they are or how willing they are to part with money; the only way their kid can get on base is if that child earns it through a solid at bat.
Through baseball, my son is learning to take responsibility and accept accountability for his actions. If he has a great hit, he’ll probably get on base. If he strikes out, he strikes out.
Too many of us aren’t responsible for our actions. Some might take credit for their successes but not for failures. Some assign blame to others, completely forgoing accountability.
If we learn from the black and white world of Little League baseball, we’d realize that it’s all on us. And those of us who are responsible and accountable look to work with and associate with others cut from the same cloth in business and in life.
The Most Important Thing is to Bounce Back
Baseball is a sport that revolves around failure. Kids inevitably strike out and pitchers routinely give up walks and critical runs. This happens to the best of them. Worse, mistakes can affect the outcome of a game: infielders will overthrow first base, outfielders will drop easy fly balls.
The most important key in each of these cases is to move on. If a kid strikes out, then he can fight back on his next at bat and hit the ball or he can come back all deflated thinking, “I’m going to strike out again.” Well, guess what? That latter frame of mind is almost a surefire way to ensure failure.
As a player, our son is learning to move on from failure. And this resilience is one of the most critical (if not the most critical) determining factor in success, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Angela Duckworth. She calls this attribute “grit.”
In her book of the same name, she writes, “Grittier students are more likely to earn their diplomas; grittier teachers are more effective in the classroom. Grittier soldiers are more likely to complete their training, and grittier salespeople are more likely to keep their jobs. The more challenging the domain, the more grit seems to matter.”
You’re Going to Get Bad Calls
All umpires are human. Most of their calls are right, but they do make mistakes. (For us, the combination of the hot, brutal Florida sun and the advancing age of a few of our umps has resulted in some really terrible calls.) Also, on one occasion, we had an umpire make an blatantly unfair call at the end of a close game, apparently so that he could end the game quickly and go home. It’s just part of baseball.
So what do we teach our son? Sometimes you have very bad luck. Sometimes you get treated very unfairly by people. You just have to deal with it, keep your cool, and move on…that is, unless you want more bad calls coming your way.
You Can’t Hit if You Don’t Swing
There’s nothing that drives a coach crazier that a strikeout looking. This occurs when a ballplayer has two strikes and doesn’t swing the bat at a perfect last pitch. This leads to the maxim “You‘ll never hit the ball if you don’t swing,” which is a parallel to Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote about hockey, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
In other words, you have to take risks. You have to put yourself out there. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to achieve whatever it is you desire. For our son right now, that might be a great hit or even a homerun. However, that lesson will serve him so well in so many aspects of the rest of his life.
It Really Isn’t Over Until It’s Over
When my son was eight, his team at the time was losing by one run going into the last inning. He was at bat. With one kid on base and two outs and two strikes, we were one swing away from losing the game. Most of the kids in the dugout were all deflated, saying things like, “We lost. The game is over.” But my son’s coach kept encouraging them, telling them they could still pull through and win the game.
Then, in a moment that he will remember for the rest of his life, my son hits his very first homerun, bringing in a total of three runs. This dramatic finish known in sports as a “walk-off,” meaning that the game is over and the teams walk off the field. Afterwards, my son’s coach gave the team one of the best post-game speeches I have ever heard. He didn’t just talk about the game. He talked about the fact that you never quit, even when the odds are really stacked against you. That’s how winners are made.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how close you are to failure. If there’s still a chance you can succeed, you have to do everything in your power to make it so. Even if the window is closing, you need to explore every possibility and fight every odd to come out on top. (If you’re in doubt, just watch Ray Allen’s epic three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA finals.)
Focus on the Pitch, Not the Situation
In the pitching situation I described at the beginning of this article, where a single errant pitch could have lost the game, my son has to block out everything that’s come before or everything that might come after. He has to learn how to self-soothe. He has to concentrate on each and every pitch, one by one.
In baseball, this very Zen-like discipline is called a “one pitch at a time” mentality. Similarly in tennis, Rafael Nadal is known for his “Play the point, not the score” philosophy.
So often, when facing difficult situations, we do ourselves a disservice if we focus on the bigger picture. If we can focus on the immediate task at hand and execute that to the best of our abilities, we reduce stress and are able to succeed instead of crumbling under the weight of something enormous.
Each Member is Critical to the Success of the Team
In recreational Little League, children can sign up at age 12 even if they’ve never picked up a bat before. While that case may be rare, every team can have a huge diversity of ability.
Some coaches don’t develop the less able kids, instead focusing on the most talented kids on the team and figuring out a way to “hide” the underdeveloped players.
When I was a coach a while back, that was not my philosophy. My focus was to develop each and every player. Not only do you want the kids to have a great experience, but what happens when the championship game is on the line and one of these kids is at the plate?
This is exactly what happened to my team when we did, in fact, make it to the championship game. One my players who started the season behind most of the others came through with three hits and several RBIs. Another child, who started the season at the bottom of the lineup, crossed the plate for the winning run. We won the championship, not just because of a few star players. We won because every single kid on that team had improved throughout the season. Every single one of them contributed to that exciting win.
I extend this philosophy to personal development at my legal software company, Rocket Matter. When every member of a team is given the training and leadership to perform at their highest level, it makes the entire organization stronger. Everyone at my company is required to move the organization forward, and the better equipped they are to perform when needed, the more likely the whole group is to succeed.
The Lessons Roll On…
Baseball, and sports in general, allows kids to fail in a society where we typically try to prevent them from doing so. Everyone’s equal? Not quite. There are no winners and losers? Totally untrue. In baseball and in life, for those who work hard, don’t quit, bounce back, and have a little luck, the world is there for the taking. For those who think otherwise, the world will walk all over them.
So what happened with my kid on the mound in the pressure situation I described above? If you’ve ever seen a pitcher battle back from a 3-0 count to strike out a batter with the game on the line, it’s a thing of glory. And my son did just that. But then the next batter came up and hit a single, bringing in the winning run. A dagger like that hurts. To be honest though, as nice as it might have been to win the game, for me it was even more special to see my son bounce back and learn such a critical life lesson.