Lessons from Little League – 6 Things I Learned about Leadership from Helping Coach Youth Sports
I was sort of “voluntold” to help coach my son’s little league team this year because the league was in need of a second set of coaches to avoid having 25 kids on one team (Two years of high school softball 27 years ago does not an awesome coach make, by the way!). I wanted these boys to be able to play and enjoy the season, so I agreed. I also helped out at practices this past winter with my older son’s basketball team.
I don’t consider myself a coach at all. I consider myself a REALLY good cheerleader who also knows a tiny bit about shooting foul shots and catching a baseball…and a LOT about being a good teammate and the importance of working hard for what you want to accomplish. So, I figured at a minimum I could help teach some fundamentals and assist the coaches. Little did I know, these two experiences would teach me more about leadership than I ever taught those boys about playing ball.
Lesson 1: People don’t need to be told what they did wrong. The boys never needed me to tell them what they did wrong – they knew it. They were harder on themselves than necessary most of the time, especially the pitchers. Not once did a kid come off the field or court with a smile when they had made a mistake. They knew it. What they needed from the coach was to be told that mistakes happen and to help guide them to avoid the mistake the next time. As a leader, that’s the role we play in the workplace – to help people pick themselves up after a failure or a mistake, dust themselves off, and, as the song goes “start all over again.”
Lesson 2: If they don’t know it was wrong, THAT is on you, the coach (or the boss). My son slid into first base – he had never been told not to – and he immediately was called out. That was NOT his fault – that was on us, the coaches. We hadn’t clearly explained that rule – and he had no idea that it was the wrong thing to do. After all, we’re always yelling “slide, get down!” when he’s approaching other bases with a defender on the bag. As the leader in your organization, it’s your job to make sure you have clearly explained roles, responsibilities, and expectations. As a mentor of mine has said – make sure you have clearly defined the backyard and what is inside the fence. People can make decisions and take actions within the fence, but when they go beyond the backyard fence, they need to consult with you. Make sure you’ve clearly defined the backyard and the boundaries of the fence or they have no way of knowing where their boundaries are.
Lesson 3: Behaviors that are rewarded are replicated. I have a long-time client who has always said “Attention is the currency of leadership.” That simple saying packs so much wisdom. From the time we are babies, we learn what gets us attention – either negative or positive – and when we want attention, we act accordingly. As a coach, our praise is like gold. When you compliment a player or high five them, you’re saying “job well done.” So coaches have to be sure they are praising behavior and actions that they want other players to emulate. As a leader, where are you putting your attention? Is it on your core values? Is it on your most promising employees – growing their abilities? If not, it should be – because otherwise you’re wasting your currency.
Lesson 4: Do as I say, not as I do does NOT fly. NOTHING burns me up more than a kid coming off the court and slamming his water bottle down or throwing his glove in the dugout out of frustration. But, if the coach is slamming down her water bottle or kicking the bleachers when something goes wrong, the players see that – and then imitate it. They learn that this is HOW YOU ACT – be it celebrating success, confronting unfair or unreasonable situations (anyone else seen a coach go off on a referee or umpire and been embarrassed FOR them?!), or handling moments of disappointment or failure. How WE as leaders act demonstrates to our team how we expect them to act in all situations. Mirrors are powerful tools – hold one up to yourself the next time you react in a situation in front of others and ask yourself if it is a true reflection of who you want to be.
Lesson 5: Respect is the foundation of any successful team. The only time I lost it and yelled at the boys during a practice was when they had told each other to shut up about 25 times in the first hour of practice. I’d had enough. Respect for ourselves, respect for coaches and officials, respect for other players, but ESPECIALLY respect for our fellow teammates is key to a successful team – and any successful organization. As leaders, it’s up to us to instill a foundation of respect in our organizations, while also taking swift action when we see that it’s lacking.
Lesson 6 (and perhaps the most important): When you work hard and have fun, winning is usually a nice bonus! We had two rules on our little league team – “Work hard. Have fun.” When the team followed those rules, we almost always won the game. But when the boys weren’t having fun, were taking things too seriously, or were being lazy or uninterested in the game, it usually resulted in a loss. Same goes for the office – when you work hard and have fun together, the result is a team that not only enjoys working together, but also reaps the rewards of that work in the form of success and growth. As a leader, it’s your job to focus on creating a culture of working hard and having fun, and you have to model that behavior (see Lesson 4!).
As a coach, a manager or a business owner, we are given great power of influence, and along with that comes even greater responsibility to be a GOOD influence. Every word, every action, where we focus our attention and where we don’t – these are all being watched by the team we lead. However, we don’t have to be perfect – we just need to be authentic, intentional and supportive. As Magic Johnson once said, “All kids need is a little help, a little hope and someone to believe in them.” I would argue that this goes for adults, too. It certainly does for me.