Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Lessons From the Field



It happens every year: a sports team pulls together, overcomes incredible odds, and wins a national championship.  Their fans go wild, strangers hug each other, and parades are planned.  Then, without fail,  the "more important things" crowd shows up.

"Imagine," they say, "what these people could do if they got this excited about something that really mattered, like [insert cause here]."

Cue the sad trombones.

I have a fundamental problem with this statement, for several reasons.

First, if people aren't excited about your cause, then maybe there's something wrong with your delivery.  When was the last time that people cheered someone for haranguing them?

"You're a worthless pack of human beings and you're all going to hell if you don't do exactly as I say!"
"Yay…" 
"How's that hamburger tasting?  Did you know that 100,000 children starved to death in the time that it took you to swallow that mouthful of processed meat byproducts?  Can I spread some more guilt sauce on there for you?"
"You're awesome.  Thanks for coming by to brighten my day!" 
"Go ahead and keep exercising!  Some form of cancer is gonna get you in the end, no matter what you do!"
"Woo-hoo!  I feel so inspired!"
Second, behind this snotty party-pooping is a basic assumption that sports add no value to society.  Setting aside some of the obvious benefits of participation in sports -- like teamwork, patience, and a healthy interest in exercising and maintaining a healthy body --  what can we learn from a bunch of overpaid professionals who play a game for a living?  Well, let's look at this year's 2013 World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox, to see if we can find any lessons that are applicable in our everyday lives.

1. Trust Yourself, not the Critics
Here's how the Boston Globe's sports writer, Dan Shaughnessy, greeted the new world champions when they started spring training:

"It's Hard to Get Excited About These Red Sox"

When your hometown paper expects you to be "bad, and worse, boring," it's easy to give up.  In fact, why not just live down to everyone's expectations and take it easy for a year?  It's not your fault, right?  The deck's stacked against you already, and no one will blame you if you're mediocre.  Play it safe and maybe next year will be better.

That's how this team started out, but they decided to go against expectations.  In fact, they ignored them altogether and held themselves to a higher standard: their own.  They said, "We're not just going to be OK; we're going to be the best."  And they did just that: they ended the season with the best record in the American League and went on to win the world championship.  At every opportunity, they pushed themselves to do better, to work harder, and to show their critics exactly where they could stick their predictions.

How many times have you faced low expectations from friends, family, or coworkers?  How often has your competition said, "Don't worry about them, they're no threat."  How did you respond?  Did you settle in, play it safe, and coast, or did you kick that low bar across the room and set your own goals?  Here's a secret to success: the champions know that the only voice that matters is their own. 

2. Rely on Your Teammates
With their wild beards and crazy eyes, the 2013 Red Sox were a funny-looking crew. In fact, baseball hasn't seen such a scruffy bunch of players since the 2004 "idiots" who broke the Curse of the Bambino and brought a World Series championship back to Boston for the first time in 86 years.  And like the 2004 team, this year's Red Sox hid a secret under all that hair: unity.

The 2013 team bonding began in spring training, when Mike Napoli and Johnny Gomes, two new players, decided to let their beards grow.  Soon, the entire team had stopped shaving, and the American League was learning to "fear the beard."  New team traditions grew up around the beards, including a face-tugging salute in the dugout for players who did well.

To an outsider -- and, probably, to most of the players' wives -- this ritual looks ridiculous.  Who wears a beard in Boston in the summer?  The players looked scruffy and silly, a look that only intensified as the season wore on.  If you saw the starting pitching staff walking down the street, you could be excused for mistaking them for a group of particularly well-dressed homeless men.  But those silly beards did something magical: they took a group of individuals that was known for backbiting, complaining, and laziness and turned them into the hardest-working group in baseball.  Instead of turning on each other when they faced setbacks, these guys supported each other.  Instead of claiming all the glory for themselves, they went out of their way to recognize each other's contributions.  In short, they became a team.

Who can you count on to lift you up when you stumble?  Who lifts you up to make sure that everyone can see you shine?  Here's another thing that champions know: when we work together, we can lift the heaviest load.

3. Do Your Job
The Boston Red Sox are, collectively, one of the highest-paid teams in baseball.  You would expect, then, that the players would all have an accurately high sense of their own worth.  Most of these guys would be the stars on another team, so you wouldn't be surprised if a guy kept a list of the tasks that were appropriate for a player of his caliber and, more importantly, the tasks that were beneath him.  And if a player started to struggle to do his job, you might expect that he would start looking for reasons why it wasn't his fault.

Throughout the playoffs, the Red Sox were remarkable for one thing above all others: every time they needed someone to make a big play, someone stepped up and did it.  The remarkable part, though, wasn't just that someone made a play, but that it was always the least likely person who did it.  The guy who hadn't had a hit in the last three games suddenly hit a grand slam.  The last-second substitute made a game-saving play in the outfield.  The starting pitcher who, a year ago, was the poster boy for rotten attitudes was willing to risk his next start to pitch in relief.  One player's only role was to serve as a pinch runner, and he did it gladly.  In hardship and in sacrifice, these players held firm and did their jobs, playing whatever role the team needed them to play in service to the collective good.  Their perseverance paid off in critical moments, and each of them had his time to be a hero, to lead the team to victory.

When it comes down to it, how do you do your job, as an employee, as a boss, as a parent or student?  Are you willing to do the dirty work just because someone's gotta do it, or are you too good to get your hands dirty?  Are you willing to serve when the world needs a servant so that you can be ready when it needs a hero?  

4. Keep it clean
Finally, this team learned that, in order to thrive, you have to maintain a clean environment.  I'm not talking about hygiene, because, honestly, have you seen the floor of their dugout?  Disgusting.  I'm talking about getting rid of the spiritual and emotional toxins that can poison an organization.  Whether it's the a long-held grudge that remains unforgiven or a lazy tongue that blames everyone but its owner, these poisons can turn a previously healthy organization into a sloppy mess, and this is exactly what the 2012 Red Sox looked like.  Before that miserable season was even over, the team began a purge.  They brought in new leadership, cut players who had made it clear that they didn't want to be part of the team, and rebuilt around a solid core of people who were willing to live humbly and work hard.  The message was clear: if you want to be here, then you had better be ready to work together and lift each other up.  If you're not interested, then there's the door.  They created an environment that encouraged excellence and forgave mistakes, and because of that, they won.

We all tolerate some level of day-to-day toxicity in our relationships, but we need to recognize the difference between a bad mood and a bad attitude.  One is temporary and deserves forgiveness.  The other is permanent and needs to be quarantined before it spreads.  As the meme says, "Haters gonna hate."  Some people are so miserable that they can't abide happiness in another person.  They feel the need to pull others down to their level, thinking, "How can you be happy when there's so much to be miserable about?!?"  If you have a person like that in your life -- maybe even the person who encourages you to find something "worthwhile" to get excited about -- you need to seriously consider whether they should stay.  Someone who can't find joy, who never forgives a slight, who hoards misery like gold, is a weight around the neck of any group, from the workplace to the family.  They poison the atmosphere, weakening those around them to the point that any contributions they make are canceled out by the toll they take.  Sometimes, for their own good as well as the good of the group, they need to be removed before they do permanent damage.  To make the body healthy, sometimes you have to cut out the cancerous tissue.


So is it okay to be passionate about sports?  I think so.  Should it be your only passion?  Probably not, because there are all kinds of worthwhile activities and causes out there just waiting for our attention.  But can we learn from them?  Absolutely.  I learned some of my greatest lessons on a field, some of them as a player and others as a fan.  It's all about what you do with the knowledge.

So go.  Play.  Cheer.  High-five a stranger.  And when the haters come by, cheer even louder until you can't hear their complaints.  We're learnin' here!

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