Tag Archives: Major League Baseball

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

Is Your Culture at Risk of Extinction? How Sports Can Help Us Remain Current

bull jumpingHave you ever watched a game of bull-leaping? You know, the sporting event where girls (painted white) grip the horns of a bull while trying to catch the boys (painted red) who are acrobatically leaping over the bull. What about the Mexico-based sport ōllamaliztli? It’s similar to racquetball expect it ends with a player being sacrificed on the temple’s altar.

These sports amongst hundreds of others no longer exist. In Minoan Crete and Aztecan Mexico, respectively, they were a cornerstone of their culture, but an inability to remain current expunged them to the point where today historians are only scarcely aware of their existence and no one has the knowledge necessary to accurately reenact the game.

While there is no need to long for the days of ritualistically executing athletes, it is worth considering how we can learn from these all-but-forgotten sports to ensure that our organizations and well-constructed cultures avoid disappearing into obscurity.

The Olympics is one of the few internationally embraced sporting events. People like to taut its long, illustrious history, but besides the name and four year frequency, it bares little resemblance to its Greek origins. Until it was revived in the 1890s, the Olympics had not been held for 1,500 years. Once resumed, the Olympic committee discarded a few of the more archaic rules. They invited the whole world to participate (versus just the Greeks), women were welcome (versus holding their own event), athletes wore clothes (versus competing naked), races were now timed (versus just marking the winner), and they standardized the distances of races (versus changing topographies and venues).

Those in charge of the Olympics did not just modernize it by a millennium; they set a precedent where events can change or be discarded. At one time, Tug of War was a major draw. There has also been swimming obstacle races, solo synchronized swimming, and ski ballet.

pirates moundThe Olympics are not the only ones updating their regimes. Before every season, Major League Baseball rolls out new regulations. This year they set a time limit on how long the manager and pitcher can gather at the mound during a game and limited breaks between innings to 2½ minutes.

The National Football League also initiates annual updates, sometimes by choice and other times due to public shaming. For instance, in the midst of a public relations nightmare, they instituted additional precautions to protect the physical health of their players. Independent certified athletic trainers have been designated to notify game officials to stop the game if a player exhibits signs of disorientation and have that player evaluated by the medical staff.

The athletics of yesteryear show us what can happen when we don’t remain current. Until they vanished, these sports were played for hundreds of years. They were heavily entwined with religious rituals and were at the core of their society. In their heyday, no one could have ever suspected that they would no longer exist. Your culture is just as susceptible.

How many companies dominated their industry and are now disregarded? Remember Pan Am Airlines? Tower Records? Circuit City? Blockbuster Video? Like the extinct sports, these companies were going to be around forever…until they weren’t.

Take a page from the Olympics, don’t be afraid to discard practices that are no longer anticipated. Learn from Major League Baseball, adapt to meet the changing needs of your customers and staff. And follow the National Football League, be mindful of changes in social moray so your culture remains current. The other option is to dig in your heels, but that will just make you yesterday’s Fox Tosser (a 17th century competition to see who could through a fox the highest).

Alyssa Milano’s Three Leadership Lessons

Alyssa MilanoWhen you think about sportswear, what is your first thought? If you did not think about Alyssa Milano, it is time to change your mindset.

You know Alyssa Milano from such shows as Who’s the Boss? and Charmed. What you may not realize is that she is also a leader in sportswear geared towards female fans. It all started at a Dodgers game. Milano was cold so she went into the stadium shop to find a sweatshirt. When she walked in, she couldn’t find any women’s clothing that wasn’t pink.

And I’m really offended by the pink, being a huge sports fan. I just didn’t understand why there was nothing in the team colors and everything looked like the cuts were cut for kids.

Milano didn’t buy anything that day. Instead she founded a company called Touch that specializes in licensed fan apparel that is flattering for a woman’s body – clothing made by a woman for women with nothing pink. Ten years later, she is leading one of the most successful clothing lines in sports. How did an actress with no prior experience make the shift into sportswear? Here are three leadership lessons that can benefit all of us.

Sell It Yourself

To pitch her clothing line, Milano hit the road.

That first year, I went with G-III [Apparel Group] to every stadium, to every sales meeting, because I felt like I didn’t want a sales man representing what the line was about.

Once you come up with a great idea, it is unwise to rely on others to pitch it for you…especially in its infancy stages. No one understands your product, intent, or objective like you do. So don’t sit back and let others interpret your thoughts. Cut out the middle man and be the front lines.

Remain Current

It would be easy for Milano to create a line of clothing and relax. After all, the logos of sports teams don’t change from year to year. But Milano is smart; she is preparing for the other companies that are ready to pounce on her great idea.

So to me, we are always staying a step ahead of what these corporations are doing as far as fan apparel.

She does this by remaining up-to-date on fashion trends. Milano is regularly experimenting with different fabrics, updating the styles and cuts of the clothing based on what’s in vogue, and remaining vigilant for potential encroachment. Leaders must also remain educated on current trends and anticipate change before it occurs. While this can be time consuming, it is a core component in how leadership provides value.

Make It Bigger Than You

For Milano, creating her company was more than having a non-pink Dodgers hoodie or earning a huge profit.

My mission was for other people to embrace what we were doing. It wasn’t just about me. I was fighting for females who love sports. That was super vital to me, that we had a voice and that people were listening because we made up half the audience.

Leadership involves inspiring others to act for a “greater good.” To do this, you need a mission statement. Not a bunch of words to hang in the conference room, but a real goal that motivates people to follow you. Think big.

Baseball, Favoritism and Matthew Effect: Why Leaders Should Not Try to Be Umpires

You may have heard the workplace adage – “Treat ‘em good, treat ‘em bad, treat ‘em all the same.” It’s a popular saying in our politically correct world where everyone expects to be treated equally. This is not unreasonable, except, I disagree. I want to endorse discrimination, discrimination in favor of my top performers.

A new study out of Columbia Business School has found that Major League Baseball umpires give All-Star pitchers more latitude than their less talented peers. According to the research, umpires make a mistake on approximately 15% of all called pitches. These percentages go up during high-stakes games. Professor Jerry Kim, who conducted the study, stated:

Our empirical evidence proves that most of the wrong calls during at-bat scenarios are in the star’s favor. 

I do not condone an umpire’s favoritism when calling a game. Their job is to serve as a neutral, unbiased party. Leaders, on the other hand, serve a different purpose. Leaders are responsible for bringing everyone together to accomplish a goal, and maintaining a neutral attitude will not push the team closer to the vision.

What do I mean when I support discrimination for top performers? I’m more willing to accept the errors of someone with a track record of success. I’m more willing to give leeway to those with a positive approach versus their curmudgeon counterpart. And I’m more willing to go outside the established incentive model to reward individuals and teams who go above and beyond.

Bottom-tier staffers may cry foul, but leading is not umping. My All-Star team is open to everyone and the rules to get there are the same for all – I’m looking at work product and attitude.

If this sounds like a practice you might be interested in, be mindful of avoiding the ‘Matthew Effect’ that befell the umpires. Matthew Effect occurs when we are influenced by status and reputation. This is the downside of favoritism, when we show preferential treatment because we like someone, not because they are actually top performers. Thankfully, we have tangible, quantitative data showing who our top performers are. And you can use 360 performance reviews to assess attitude.

If you are leading to win, identify your top performers and treat them like the All-Stars they are. Publicize what makes them All-Stars and encourage everyone to be part of this not-so-exclusive elite group. Provide opportunities for everyone to develop skills and be partial to those who take advantage of these opportunities. Keep it fair, keep it transparent, and keep your All-Star lineup.