A couple of random thoughts as the Detroit Tigers embark on another play-off run that they and their fans hope culminates with a World Series victory.
I played baseball for a good portion of my life and while I love the game it was also very frustrating. Baseball maybe more so than any other sport forces you to deal with failure at a high and recurring rate. In Major League Baseball you are considered a very good hitter if you fail 70% of the time. It’s the ultimate test of faith and sticking to your game plan. If you try to change your approach to the game every time you make an out you will absolutely drive yourself crazy! You have to go into each season, game and plate appearance with a set of principles or a game plan that you will follow regardless of the outcome. If you’re playing well it’s easy but when you are struggling you fell lost and hopeless. It’s at this point that sticking to your approach is absolutely crucial to your long-term success. Your principles have to be your guide and the game results (wins/losses, hits or outs) should provide nothing more than feedback. It’s how you use that feedback that will ultimately determine your success.
If you make an out (fail) ask yourself, did I stick with my approach? If you did then that should be considered a successful at-bat. You can’t control your results but you can control your response to those results. If you make an out and start cussing yourself out and start throwing your equipment that is definitely a poor response and will likely negatively affect your next opportunity. These poor responses begin to build upon each other and all of a sudden you are in a prolonged slump without a clue how to shake it off. On the flip side if you base your response to outcomes on principles you will learn from your poor results and you will build a positive momentum that ultimately yields consistent performances, not the dramatic ups and downs that rarely result in championship performances.
I used baseball as an example but this success strategy can be applied to any sport and by the looks of things it needs to be used more often.
Would you care to guess what industry is thriving in the current youth sport culture (aside from youth orthopedic surgeons)? Trophy makers! Business is very good these days, a 300% increase over the last decade. According to the industry the #1 factor for the growth are participatory trophies. 
Now you may be expecting that I will go on a rant about how awful awarding participation is and that kids are soft. But that’s not my point. I think we need to redefine success in youth sports. It must go beyond winning and losing and measuring success based upon statistics. Youth sports should be driven by principles rather than results. And though this is a topic for another day many schoolteachers understand how absurd it is to use standardized test scores to measure the future success and efficacy of their students. It’s time we stop chasing numbers and creating cogs in a system. A better approach is rewarding kids for sticking to their principles even in the face of adversity and not shying away from taking risks but embracing them. They may get knocked down and scrape up their knees and elbows but they will learn to pick themselves up and grow more resilient from those “dust-ups.” The next time they occur they will be better prepared to handle them.
I can’t remember who said this (Larry Oracle?) but it absolutely rings true in this case; “I had all the disadvantages required for success.”
Losing and failure makes you value winning!
Imagine the following scenario the “awesome” 12 and under travel team that is 52-0 and is beating their opponents silly. Is that really a good situation? If competition is supposed to bring out the best in us than that 52-0 season probably isn’t all that impressive. We all like to see our kids succeed and our favorite teams win but what type of a game leaves a lasting impression a blowout or a game that is undecided going into the final seconds of play?
If you look back to your youth I am guessing you were never driven to make yourself better because you won a little league championship… But you very well may have dedicated yourself to pour your sweat and tears into getting in better shape if your opponent had been wearing you out year after year. Failure is a powerful motivator!
I also understand the argument that children are fragile and we don’t want to damage their delicate psyches if they aren’t all given a trophy. I think we need to give kids more credit than that. You don’t hear many adults telling their therapists that they just weren't able to recover after being “smoked” in a little league game. Just doesn’t happen unless the coach does something stupid like yell at a bunch of 10-year olds for losing a game, unfortunately that does happen. After the game pat the kids on the back, stop and get an ice cream and let them hangout with their buddies. This is a guaranteed formula for resolving post game depression.
The media likes to draw our attention to the fact that in America our kids are falling behind other countries academically and our entrepreneurial sprit isn’t as robust as it used to be. As leaders of young people we are the ones in the positions to change that. If it was so great during our time why have we allowed those principles to escape us? Maybe America has lost some of her edge but it’s been on our watch. We can do something about it and for me it begins at home and with the kids that I come into contact with on a daily basis (I am blessed in this regard).
We need to cultivate that inner drive and competiveness but not to make our kids sports stars, cold-blooded capitalists or cogs in a massive bureaucracy. I want to see them provoke the status quo and climb out on that limb. Yes, it can be scary and you might fall but the worst mistake you can make is fitting in and doing what everyone else is doing because it’s safe and what you’re supposed to do.
The best thing we can do for the next generation is to guide and help them define what they want to stand for. These guiding principles will allow them to navigate the tumult of their lives and provide the foundation they need to create their own path, one that they are passionate about pursuing.
Lose often and fail early you will be better off in the long run if you stick to your principles. These principles are what will yield the biggest victories in life. Trophies collect dust and statistics are just a bunch of numbers that only a select few understand anyway.
The fear of failure and the Tigers
I wanted to wrap this discussion up with a quick note that shows how two different styles of play may have originated. The Tigers have two fantastic young athletes on their roster and yet they have very different approaches to the game. Austin Jackson (born in Texas) is the centerfielder with very good running speed. He displays this speed vey well on defense but not so much when running the bases. He is very cerebral (thinker) and not an aggressive base-stealer. He is capable of so much more but it seems like his mindset is to avoid mistakes. On the other end of the spectrum is shortstop Jose Iglesias (born in Cuba). He plays with flair and without restraints. He just reacts and does what comes natural and it usually results in something spectacular. He will make more mistakes than Jackson but he will also make positive things happen with his aggressive and provocative approach. Iglesias plays on the edge without fear and Jackson plays with controlled aggression careful no to approach that edge.
Consider their developmental years. From a young age Jackson likely played in organized leagues where the players were drilled repeatedly by coaches on well-groomed baseball fields. The environment is always very sterile and controlled, not much room for experimentation or free-lancing because it wouldn’t fit the coach’s plan.
Iglesias meanwhile, likely gathered on a dusty lot with other boys and organized their own warm-ups and scrimmages. They would make do with what they have; bricks for bases and milk cartons for ball gloves were likely typical. Improvisation is a way of life for these boys, as the ball tends to take crazy hops when your field is full of debris and divots.
While the above two scenarios likely aren’t 100% authentic they are likely very close to reality for these young men growing up. Is there any wonder why two athletes at the highest level play the way that they do? The foundation for who and what you ultimately become is set during the early stages of development.