Spring Training: Team Building Lessons from Baseball

In her iconic 1952 gospel single “The Ball Game,” Sister Wynona Carr tells us, “Life is a ballgame, but you’ve got to play it fair.” Fair play includes things like building your strengths, overcoming your weaknesses, and developing the chemistry that allows your team to work together as something greater than the sum of its parts.

The ballpark is the source of many great lessons for teams of every type.

The Great American Pastime has been compared to all sorts of life situations, and the analogy is usually apt, because baseball, while adhering to a complex set of rules, can be remarkably surprising in its outcomes. Teams in the business world can learn much from baseball, including team building and leadership development skills. Here are just a few of the many lessons we can learn from baseball about success, teamwork, and professionalism.

Build Your Bench Starting Now

Leadership development requires that your team have breadth and depth, and putting together the right combination of talents is an art form. Sure, you’ll have one or two stellar “specialty” players, but you’ll also have some utility players who can step into new roles with ease, and a core of rock-solid, dependable players who you can count on no matter what. Of course, team building isn’t something is once and done. Lives change, markets change, and “players” change. That’s why it’s important to add depth to your bench when outstanding opportunities to do so arise.

Hit to Where the Opposing Team Isn’t

The left-handed batter who swings late often has a hidden advantage when playing against an unfamiliar opponent. Everyone’s ready to play near right field, but that late swing results in a ball that drops between center and left field, where they’re not expecting it. The outcome: often a base hit. In business, the analogy is meeting a need that hasn’t yet been articulated. Leadership development involves recognizing those needs. Identifying and solving a problem, or finding a market need and fulfilling it are team building activities that can lead to a solid, winning record, a great reputation, and momentum to keep going when things get tough.

Statistics and Data Are Your Friends

Leadership development and team building require understanding all the relevant data.

Baseball and statistics go together like ballpark popcorn and butter. Back in the day, you could see fans in the stands with their programs, penciling in the results of plays from the first pitch until the last out. Today, of course, there are apps that help fans do this, but the point remains: Measuring data allows people to identify trends – sometimes before everyone else notices them. In the business world, there’s just as rich a trove of data as there is in baseball. Leadership development involves learning how to get your arms around it and make sense of it so it can be of benefit. Excellence in gathering and analyzing data is a sure foundation for strong team building.

The “Infield Fly Rule” and Honest Play

Intentionally letting a short pop-up fall to the ground to force a double-play (or occasionally a triple-play) with runners on base and fewer than two outs, isn’t really playing fair, and that’s why umpires can invoke the infield fly rule if they believe the pop-up was catchable with ordinary effort. In the business world, this translates to avoiding even the suspicion of impropriety. Honest play and avoiding taking advantage of customers are two imperatives for long-term success. The less-than-ethical play that puts you ahead today can cost you far more long term.

When team building is done well, everyone’s ready to go out onto the field and get into the zone once that first pitch is thrown. Team members know their roles and responsibilities, and the rules they have to follow, and, within those constraints, they know how to get ahead of their competitors. As the inimitable Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” That’s certainly true in business. There’s far more going on, but there’s more transparency, more technology, and more of an opportunity for the start-up or the underdog to build an amazing team by understanding the game, overcoming deficiencies, and strengthening advantages within a framework of fair play.

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