Lessons from Little League: Building a Team

After my writing my last post on Lessons from Little League, I happen to catch a similar post on Roger Ehrenberg’s blog.   Clearly he and I are both so immersed in baseball during the season that we tend to relate everything to baseball and baseball to everything around us.  Like Roger, I’ve gained a tremendous number of insights about strategy, human psychology, and life through coaching youth baseball.  All the lessons learned on the field – as a coach or as a player – relate to much bigger principles of success.  I plan to make Lessons from Little League a regular feature of my writings where I’ll relate what I’m seeing between the baselines to broader issues of leadership, management, and success.

Roger hits on some great points about building a team in his post.  I especially agree with the following and have seen it countless times:

Year after year, in my experience newer managers tend to underperform more experienced managers. Why is this? My hypothesis is that the newer managers tend to draft based on the theory of “best athlete available that meets my position requirements,” while the old timers tend to draft with a particular team construction in mind. This means taking into account factors such as “Is the kid a team player? Does the player show up for practice on time? Are they humble and do they work hard? Are their parents over-involved and stressing out the kid (and the coaches and other team members in the process)? Is the player a potential leader? Has the player previously been on teams with other kids where they’ve been successful?” In short, the objective function is building the best team, not assembling the most talented group of individual players. And in Little League, as in life, teams win when they function as a single unit and not as an amalgam of autonomous parts. So I have consistently passed up more skilled players in order to draft players who are good, but even more importantly, are good kids and fit within the team concept.

I’ve even joked that I don’t need to see the kids play at all before a draft, I just need the parents to answer a simple survey that might look something like this:

  1. Does your family intend to take vacations in March, April, May, or June?
  2. Do you allow your child to play other sports, take musical lessons or enroll in cub scouts in the Spring?
  3. Do you think homework is something your child must do or simply something nice for him to do if he can fit it in?
  4. Are you ok having your child practice 5 days a week until 10 minutes after dark?
  5. Do you consider all of your children as equal or do you give your baseball playing children extra support during the season with rides, etc?
  6. From a scale of 1-10, how well do you like to rake and drag fields and prepare them for games?
  7. Do you think parents should coach from the bleachers?
  8. Do you think parents should email their coaches asking the coaches to play their children in certain positions even though you and the coaches both know your kid doesn’t play that position well?
  9. Do you ever use “no baseball” as a punishment for your child?
  10. Do you have a batting facility in your house?

Of course these are exaggerated in jest but in my experience what hinders the growth of a team the most is the dedication and commitment of the players and parents.  An 11-man roster is only successful if 11 players and 22 parents are moving in the same direction. Winning masks friction within a team, but as soon as things start to turn against the team – and in little league or business things always do turn against the team at least once in weird and unexpected ways – friction will finds its way to the surface.

New little league coaches often overlook parents as team members when they draft players, but experienced coaches recognize parents can be the x-factor that brings a team together. When I taught in the MBA programs at GWU and GMU I saw a similar sentiment often from my grad students. Many wanted to start companies and gain venture financing. They looked at venture financing as a bank – not as a partner – so I would often bring VCs into my class each semester to teach what came along with the check was often more valuable than the check itself.  VCs see themselves rightly as part of the team.

I’ve coached at least two teams with more underlying potential than was ever realized on the field. In both cases the team never jelled. Conversely, I’ve taken teams much further than I thought their underlying skill warranted – but the collective team aspect of the team made-up the delta. Teams need to be collectively coachable and as soon as they lose that collectiveness it will be difficult to reach their full potential.