Little League – like business and life – is imperfect.  Umps in our home league are mostly volunteer umps.  Some of the umps have inconsistent strike zones. The good ones have consistent strike zones and of course the best ones have consistent and tight reasonable strike zones.

Bad umps are the toughest because hitters can’t approach things in a systematic way. Rarely do we get the best umps.  That’s youth baseball.  When umps are consistent batters and hitters can adjust to the strike zone.  Often volunteer umps – even ones who have been at it for awhile – have a penchant for a given pitch.  Some like the outside corner.  Some like the low pitch.  Others see the high pitch as a strike.  With youth umps I typically chalk this penchant up to being able to see or not see that given area well.  Volunteer adult umps who like the high pitch typically see it better because it is at their eye level.  We deal with this alot.  Other umps call strikes frequently off the outside corner because I think they miss it  as it comes in.  Same with a low pitch.  They lose it as it comes in.

Once we’ve identified the area a given ump likes to call, we want our pitchers to pound that area.  Likewise, we want our hitters to guard against that area when they have two strikes and need to protect the zone.  Often a player will come back to the dugout sulking because he doesn’t believe the strike three he just watched was a strike.  But if the pitch was in the area favored by the ump (and one we subsequently warned against) then the hitter has to be ready to protect.

In little league you have to first figure out what you are going to be given – and then you have to work the plate accordingly.

Successful start-ups pound areas ripe for innovation. Businesses find opportunity and then take advantage of that area incessantly.

A few weeks ago, I wrote my first lessons from little league post on motivation and then my second post on building a team.

As I previously mentioned, my life seems to be increasingly immersed in baseball.  While the daily exercises of work and life never slow down, as spring rolls around I somehow figure out how to sleep less so I can squeeze yet another job into the mix. This spring I coached 4 teams and helped with a 5th. We have all 3 boys on individual little league teams.  And as if this were not enough, in the summer of 2011 I started a travel/select baseball program for which the older two boys play on the 8U and 9U teams respectively. When it comes to baseball, we are all in.

Each of my boys have baseball nicknames which have long since replaced their “real” names in our house. My wife tallied 55 little league games she would attend for the three boys across just 10 or so weeks. This doesn’t include the 4-6 games each of the two older boys will play over Memorial Day Weekend or the 10-12 travel games I scheduled in March prior to little league really getting underway. Rescheduled games because of rain a few weeks ago and the tournament over Memorial Day Weekend have us playing 22 games over 14 days. Needless to say, washing baseball uniforms is a near daily routine at our house.   To add just an ounce more baseball to our lives, this year we have a professional baseball playing living with us – giving us yet one more “son’s” baseball games to keep track of – even if he can tie his own cleats. We are all-in.

But with all of this, I know this time is fleeting.  In not many years, the boys will move on from dreaming of the Majors. Their mitts will land on a shelf, their bats will grow dusty. Days grow to months and then onto years. But as I mentioned in my previous post – there are life lessons and business lessons on a baseball field so I try to point these out when I can.  I don’t know that they internalize them much now, but my hope is that these lessons will stick with them. As I come across these lessons, I’ll take occasion to write and reflect upon them briefly. This week I want to make a few points on learning from mistakes. Obviously, in business or baseball – we need to learn from our mistakes.  A few key take-aways:

  • Minimize Errors. Know that you are going to make a dozen errors today.  Figure out how to minimize them quickly when they occur. Ball gets away from us all – move to minimize errors quickly.
  • Don’t Let Errors Compound. Too often in little league – or in business – we allow errors to compound.   In a game I coached recently we had runners on 1st and 2nd when the player at the plate ripped a shot to the outfield.  The player on 2nd scored easily, but the defensive team relayed the ball in quickly and so the runner from 1st held at 3rd base.  The ball was slightly over thrown  as it came in and the runner who had scored was yelling, “go – keep running.” Consequently we ended up with both runners on 3rd base and the lead runner began running home despite the fact that the catcher now had the ball and had good position blocking the base path home. The lead runner was tagged out by a mile for the third out of the inning and both players came in frustrated and upset.  In this play we had a series of running errors and we never gave ourselves a chance to recover.  The runner who scored shouldn’t have provided bad intelligence, the runner at 2nd should have looked for the third base coach before coming to third, and once he realized what he had done he should have swallowed his pride and run back to 2nd.  It took 3+ running errors to give-away the 3rd out of the inning. In this instance, the out was a culmination of several errors and not just a single mistake. I see this behavior in business all of the time. Companies tighten-up and retrench within a previously committed to strategy – even when the outs are evident ahead.
  •  Don’t Let Errors Take You Out of the Game. As I mentioned above, after this play produced the third out, both players were frustrated. Tears were shed.  They had to immediately take the field and I subsequently had to sit one of the boys – one of our better defensive players – for the half innings so he could regain his composure.  He had let the prior inning’s error fester.  He couldn’t move on. In little league baseball there are dozens of errors in any given game. There are managerial errors, there are umpire errors, and there are of course player errors. In business you have to figure out how to move on.
  • Make Adjustments. The key to learning from our mistakes on and off the field is to make adjustments. In little league it isn’t uncommon to see a given boy make the same mistake repeatedly. Each boy often has a unique set of fielding or hitting flaws. They might back-up on a hard hit grounder or not take the one additional step they need to make a play. It isn’t uncommon to see them make the same mistake over and over – each time failing to make the small adjustment needed. I see this same behavior in business. Small, repeated errors because small adjustments are never made.

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.