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Leadership Lessons from a 4th Grade Baseball Team

What a Season of Learning Can Teach Us About Leading


by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School


As has been widely noted and quoted over the centuries, baseball is a game of failure. Consider that in a sport like basketball, a great superstar like Kevin Durant will always, even on his worst shooting night, score 20 points. In baseball, on the other hand, there are games when Aaron Judge will go 0-4 with four strikeouts. In soccer, a goalie is considered great if they record a clean sheet roughly 33% of the time. In baseball, if a pitcher throws a shutout 3% they are considered great — all-star worthy even! Baseball is not just a physical grind, but a mental grind. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”



Since I was 16-years-old, I’ve always coached baseball in one capacity or another, irrespective of geography. When I lived in Morocco, I founded an intramural wiffle ball league; in China, I introduced competency-based progressions by setting up my classroom to resemble a baseball diamond; and, when living in South Africa, I coached baseball year-round in a local township. Each of these experiences was meaningful and resonant, but perhaps none more so than this spring when I coached my school’s 4th-grade baseball team.


The composition of the team was unique, even by the standards of the diversity and breadth of my own coaching experience. Of the 13 students on the team, only four players had ever set foot on a baseball field before. In fact, a large majority of the team didn’t own a glove when practices got underway. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.


From our very first practice, players demonstrated an authentic alacrity for learning the game. They had an insatiable appetite for all things baseball, but no amount of enthusiasm can truly offset the fact that we had almost no collective experience swinging the bat, fielding a ball, or running the bases, much less a sliver of familiarity with the many distinctive, unwritten nuances of the game. The thing is, our inexperience in hitting, fielding, baserunning, and pitching was really only a secondary concern.


Controlling the Controllables


More than any other sport – or, really, any other activity in life – baseball requires us to be comfortable failing — failing many more times than we succeed. The greatest major league players recognize the value in their failures. As Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to my next home run.” But, for many professionals, this reality can be borderline debilitating, which is why all 30 MLB teams employ a sports psychologist on their staff.


My players were not professionals and I’m not a sports psychologist – and yet, this aspect of the game couldn’t be ignored. I had to figure out how to help my players appreciate the nutrients that failure provides in our growth as ballplayers. We started by learning how to control the controllables.


In baseball, you can’t control the weather, the umpires, or the opposing pitcher. What you can control is yourself. You can control your routine in the batter’s box; you can control your breathing when you’re faced with a crucial moment in the game; you can control your body language when a teammate makes an error.


For the first half of each of our practices, we spent our time on visualization exercises based on the work of Dr. Ken Ravizza, learned the benefits of focal points, and worked together to establish reliable routines in the box, in the field, and on the mound.

Perhaps, it was because I was so immersed in planning practices, but I soon found myself speaking to the faculty or conversing with parents/guardians using the language of my 4th-grade baseball team. It happened naturally and without premeditation, but I quickly realized that what I was teaching to our 4th graders was actually benefiting me in my daily practice as Middle School Director.


Baseball is such a perfect parallel for educational leadership: past performance is not predictive of future success; failure is foundational and unavoidable; perfection is both a futile goal and a virtuous pursuit; learning never stops. I hadn’t realized it, but coaching the 4th-grade baseball team might have been the best professional development I’ve done since taking the job.


From Errors to Excellence


1. Attitude


Attitude is a choice. On the diamond, we each have it within our control to react to our teammates' foibles in an adaptive and supportive way, rather than get down on them or ourselves. In schools, our positivity and optimism are within our control. What does it take to cheerfully greet a student in the morning? Nothing. What does it mean to that student to receive a cheerful greeting? Everything.


2. Effort


How hard you work is up to you. On a team that was just learning to play baseball, one of the success criteria for every game was for players to leave the field with dirty uniforms. To serve others requires us, at times, to subordinate ourselves, dig deep, and muster the energy to be there for our students and faculty. The effort we put in is something we are in control of. So much of servant leadership is predicated on the effort we’re willing to put forth – and that effort is something we control.


3. Preparation


As Bobby Knight once said, “The will to win is overrated. It’s the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.” As Muhammad Ali said, “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” You can’t go out onto a baseball field and expect to be successful if you haven’t put in the necessary preparation. Similarly, educational leaders can’t show up to meetings without an agenda, observations without a template, or morning meetings without a plan. Our preparation implicitly signals to our faculty and students how much we value them and value their time.


4. Communication


Communication should be positive, assertive, frequent, and clear. On the baseball field, this might sound like a catcher calling to his outfield, “Looking good out there! We got two outs. Left field, remember to shift towards center.” In schools, it means foregrounding what’s working and highlighting what’s not. We can be positive without being pollyannaish and assertive without being cruel.


5. Be where your feet are


To be successful, you have to live in the present moment and focus on the task at hand. If you just made an error in the field and you’re carrying that with you into the batter’s box, the chances of you having a quality at-bat have dropped dramatically. As Ted Lasso would say, “You have to be a goldfish.” In educational leadership, we all have busy schedules and inboxes that never seem to get to zero. And yet, when we’re in a meeting, speaking with a student, or conducting an observation, it is our responsibility to be where our feet are.

For all of the great literature and professional development on educational leadership, it was working with a group of 9-year-olds that reminded me of the fundamental truths that distinguish a good leader from a great leader. What leadership lessons can you learn from a 4th-grade baseball team?

 

Core Collaborative Leadership Coaching provides personalized leadership coaching for schools and systems as they reimagine education to work for ALL students, families, schools, and communities.




 

Meet the Author

Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.

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