As a schoolboy, like many other kids, I played Little League baseball. In high school, I ran cross-country and track.
I was never a star athlete. My baseball career ended when I was too old for Little League. And my long distance running times were mediocre, at best. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself or get a lot out of the experiences. I’m still a baseball fan, and continued running recreationally into my adult years, including competing in a half-dozen marathons.
Aside from the fun of competition, the lessons I learned from participating in sports were deep and have stayed with me to this day. It’s why I feel strongly that children should compete in sports – aside from the obvious health benefits.
Lesson number one is the importance of preparation. Second is tenacity. Lastly, there’s also what we learn in being a member of a team.
The best ballplayers in the Major Leagues are the ones you see on the field before every game taking batting practice. Even the veterans. Especially the veterans. They take multiple swings. Meanwhile, the best infielders will field countless grounders in practice.
In my brief high school career in cross-country and track, our best runner always ran before school and after school – even in the off-season. When we finished our after-school practice, he’d keep running. The rest of us were too exhausted from our workouts and never felt the urge to join him in his extended runs. He was singularly dedicated.
As a senior, he won both the California state mile and cross-country championships. I wasn’t surprised, though I was certainly impressed.
The same holds true in business. We do our best work and feel most confident when we know what we’re talking about – and I mean really know it. Conversely, when we come into a meeting without previewing materials, without preparing, without thinking through the purpose of the meeting and our role, we often make fools of ourselves. Worse, we waste other people’s time.
It’s a lesson we learn in Little League, and other youth sports. If you showed up for a game having missed practice, chances are the coach was not going to let you play – not as punishment, but because you weren’t ready.
Being involved in sports also teaches you to be persistent. Clearing a given height in high jump or pole vault is an immediate goal. After failing on the initial try, true competitors don’t stop. They give it another go. Same with the miler, the shortstop, or the running back when their efforts fall short.
I would take third place (or worse) in the mile at a track meet, running slower than I knew I was capable of. My coach spoke encouraging words after such performances and helped me appreciate my true abilities. I came away with a desire to go back the next time with renewed determination, a resolve to practice harder, and a yearning to push myself harder during the next race through the pain that had held me back.
Again, it’s an important lesson for business, where we may fail to win an account, or fall short of performance metrics. We don’t quit. Instead, we carefully examine what we did that led to the less-than-satisfactory outcome and make appropriate adjustments for future such endeavors. And that generally means putting in a more strenuous effort and, likely, more time.
While the foregoing lessons are valuable, perhaps the most important one learned as an adolescent team member is one’s role as a contributor to a larger entity. Though every team has its standout members, the collective unit, as a whole, succeeds on the sum total contribution of all its members.
Superstars in team sports cannot beat the other teams alone without his/her teammates and their varied contributions.
Similarly, no business succeeds on the genius and drive of its founder and/or leadership team. Instead, it depends on the collective genius and efforts of many people at all levels of the organization, each doing his/her job well, each striving for excellence in their own area of responsibility, each focused on business goals.
Our individual knowledge and awareness of our unique role and responsibilities as part of the larger operation is critical to the organization’s succeeding or failing. The best leaders are those that not only communicate the importance of the individuals’ contributions and the significance of their excellence, but also really comprehend and appreciate its value, and lead the team accordingly, identifying and addressing overall weaknesses.
In the end, aren’t we all striving for the level of performance we sought as young sports enthusiasts? Isn’t our role as members of a business team ultimately an extension of the roles when we played on a Little League team? Those were valuable lessons we learned as kids, and we’d be wise to think of them not only as nostalgic memories but also as life lessons to be held dearly.