“Hi, my name is Michael and I coached Little League Baseball for six years.”
That line is either a confession or my opening line at a group therapy session (maybe both). For those of you that know, it is a rewarding experience to be involved with a Little League Baseball Team especially as the manager. You quickly learn that you are the leader of a small community of people, the players and their families. You are all in this together and everyone looks to you to bring them success. Yes managing a team is very demanding and challenging. I had my low points. I had some amazing high points. Through it all I developed personally as a leader and more importantly I helped, in some small way, to develop the kids as leaders in their own right.
It is early May and Little League is in full force across America. It is a great time to look back and remember the lessons I learned from my years as a Little League Manager.
In my last year managing I remember sitting in the dugout during a game with my two coaches and we just sat and admired the kids playing hard in the middle of a tough game. I saw true leadership on the field from several kids. They spoke up and communicated. They encouraged and they even coached each other. As coaches we talked about how these kids are future leaders. It was cool to recognize our impact on them. These kids experienced bad defeats and wonderful, come from behind, victories. I am convinced that they learned much from these highs and lows and their involvement with a team.
Here are some additional leadership observations from my time as a Little League Manager:
- In baseball there is practice time and game time and coaches have little impact once the game starts. We are there to prepare the kids in practice to perform during the games. During the game itself we can have some impact, but it is there for the boys to perform. For us in business we certainly have more say in the game performance, but we are served better if we do a good job to prepare our staff to lead and make their own decisions “once the game starts”.
- Kids (and grownups) will surprise you. I experienced several amazing situations where I tried a kid as pitcher during a game even though in practice he did not pitch well. What was the difference – to start the kids in question really wanted to pitch. They reminded me often. Also, there is something about the game when concentration is so important. Some kids just could not focus well during practice (and yes we tried), but they brought it together for the games. As the coach I certainly reminded them of how they could be even better with more focused practice. As leaders we need to prepare people and then give them a chance to perform. Trust me, you will be surprised too. Your next starting pitcher may be sitting on your bench.
- Politics are always present. You have a choice on how you address politics as a leader. A leader needs to remain solid in his or her beliefs and approach and know you have the support of key folks. Just like in the work environment, politics exist in the intense environment of Little League Baseball. One of the techniques I used with problematic administrators, difficult coaches and demanding parents was to follow the line, “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer”. I worked hard to find common ground with difficult people while coaching baseball and I remember these lessons today back in the office.
- Encouragement and focus on continuous learning will take your far. As coaches we are teachers. Leaders encourage through a variety of means and celebrate the little successes. The small successes from my ball players served to build to bigger contributions later. As a sports coach for youth players you need to be creative in how your celebrate the little things as well as the big victories. I made it a point to acknowledge many small contributions to our victories as well as the obvious big contributions such as the game winning hit.
- Remain in charge, but let others share decision-making. As my players gained experience and grew older (I coached kids up to age 14), I worked to pull them into decision-making concerning the game plan and in-game decisions. I could veto their ideas, but they knew that I wanted to hear from them and respected them to share. If I decided on a different path I told them why. Now how is this different from how we should run our workplace and work with our staff?
Hopefully many of you reading this post have experience in coaching youth sports. In America and other parts of the world Little League is huge. I have to imagine that soccer (futbol) may serve as a similar testing ground for leadership too, both for the coaches and the players involved. Let me know of your experience with coaching youth sports and your own related leadership lessons.