When I read Moneyball I knew it had an impact on me. I thought it was because as a mediocre athlete, I was constantly looking for ways to play better by being smarter, and this is a key theme of the book. But reading the Sunday Chronicle today, Jonah Hill has clarified what resonates for me:
“It’s a movie about being undervalued,” he says. “That’s really what I saw. There are times in life when you feel undervalued and someone is courageous enough to shine a light on you or sees something in you and gives you the courage to execute what you have to say, what you believe in. My character really gets that opportunity through Billy.”
This encapsulates the essence of coaching. Whether you call it mentoring, teaching, or
managing, as soon as you have a group of people gathered for a common reason, you have a team. Within every team the opportunity exists for development and improvement. Whether you find yourself with formal authority as coach, teacher or executive, or holding informal authority as a peer, the possibility is there.
Chances are your team has competition. It will be measured by how well it performs. One way to do this is to get the most out of everyone you have. This requires seeing what everyone is capable of, especially that which they might be able to do that they are unaware of. If someone’s contributing five and you see a way they can give twenty, that’s like free money. Seeing someone’s potential and developing it through tough challenges. encouragement, and trust is the way forward.
Traditionally, many fail to seize the opportunity to find talent in hidden corners and instead opt for assessing talent myopically. They may take shortcuts and consciously exclude diverse candidates. Today, this can show up as favoritism, nepotism, ageism or sexism. In Moneyball, it often took the form of “lookism”, the practice of rating a prospect by his body: height, shoulders, or muscles. Scouts were mired in tradition and groupthink. A telling anecdote involved the Oakland A’s finding and signing Jeremy Brown, a catcher that no one else rated because he was heavy-set.
I spend a lot of my time and energy with the Hammer trying to inspire higher levels of performance from boys who seem to think they are bit-role players. In fact, we often play against teams who reinforce this sporting caste system. The typical opponent has two or three boys identified as the go-to players and the job of the others is to feed them the ball. I call those special few the “tent-pole players.” These superior athletes are usually better than the boys on my roster, but we can sometimes prevail by fielding a better eleven, as well as a stronger bench. Because when you let your players know that a few of them are extra-special, you are also telling the majority that they aren’t. And it is these messages that create future performance, for better or worse.
If we are to identify potential and cultivate it, a key skill is creating a vision of the future where your player can see him- or herself excelling. The way you talk to a player is crucial, and a great way to craft a vision of future performance is by bestowing nicknames. This passage about nicknaming comes from Robert Coover’s UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC., J. HENRY WAUGH, PROP.:
“The dice and charts and other paraphernalia were only the mechanics of the drama, not the drama itself. . . . Call Player A ‘Sycamore Flynn’ or ‘Melbourne Trench’ and something starts to happen. He shrinks or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle.”
If there’s a beauty in Moneyball, it’s in the stories of discarded players finding a chance to contribute when someone with vision saw their potential and believed in them. I think we have all had people in our past who have done this for us. And every day we have the same opportunity to see it in others.