There is a small market pro baseball team working hard to get their players “Ready at 7.”  This is the time of most single, regular-season games, and the maximum number of games in the World Series. They are also challenging their sport’s traditions in the areas of learning.

I have been sharing ideas for several years with the Pittsburgh Pirates Director of Mental Conditioning, Bernie Holliday. In my post-Olympic year free time, my USA Volleyball work schedule gave me the chance to share in person at their “Think Tank 4.0 – Best Practices in Coaching, Teaching and Instruction.”

I was honored to be in Pirate City, Pittsburgh’s spring training site in Bradenton, Florida. They have their own hotel, fitness center, at least three full-sized baseball diamonds and, of course, the dining hall (where a large percentage of the collaboration took place).

Sharing were dozens of the Pirates staffers and an eclectic group of learning leaders, from Special Ops/Navy Seal types to corporate CEOs; neuropsychologists to university athletic directors; and some sports coaches outside of baseball too. It was a remarkable three days; a study in “Embracing the Nuance” and “Training to the Truth,” two phrases oft repeated. And, to honor Jon Hammersmith, a lot of LOVE. What I loved most of all is the Pittsburgh Pirates Mission Statement, both simple and powerful; “Changing the World Through Baseball.” Their staff, from top to bottom, are walking that talk.

What follows are the phrases and ideas that were either improvements on what I knew, or totally new to me. 

  1. White Belt Mentality – The Pirates embrace the lifelong learning focus. After a dozen speed-date-like, 45-second participant interviews, they opened the session with the story of Jigoro Kano. He was the founder of modern judo who asked to be buried in his white belt (the first belt he earned). It’s not the highest level (black belt); his reasoning was that he was starting anew in his next life.  
  2. Vision Without Action is Just a Dream, and Action Without Vision is a Nightmare – A Japanese proverb I had never heard – adding it to my list of favorite proverbs.
  3. Up-Downs Changed to Up-Forwards – After every session, my breakout group spoke in awe about Pirate Manager Clint Hurdle having four of his past players speak in front of the whole staff. The topic? One good and one bad thing he had impacted them with. This brief feedback idea on a game, a presentation, even a single part of a practice is clearly effective and simple.
  4. Be the Guide on the Side, or the Sage on the Stage? The importance of guided discovery in learning was a thread throughout the think tank, which really had no “Sage on the Stage” presenting their own brand of wisdom.
  5. There is a Big Difference Between Listening to Someone and Hearing Someone – I shared this image I drew for my clinics on “the ideal coach.” An excellent discussion ensued on how we all can listen better.
  6. What Is the Quality of our Purpose-Driven Storytelling? You can never go wrong learning from the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. In the book Legacy by James Kerr, this is what resonates with me most, as we as teachers/coaches all need to be better storytellers.
  7. The Story Lives Through You – Former Pirate Kevin Young, now on the team’s staff, spoke in my first group of six about how current players shared the 100-plus-year history of the Pirates in stories. “This is how we do things here” saves the legacy of past greats.
  8. Find Your Own Light Giver – It is important to find mentors and people who can help guide you, especially when things might be difficult or even dark.
  9. To Be an Over-Achiever, You Must Be an Over-Believer – I could feel and see the power of belief in what was being accomplished.
  10. Build Your Own Mount Rushmore – On the flight home, I read a book that Rod Olsen, one of the participants, gave away called The Wisdom Lunch Warrior. Rushmore was one theme in the book. Identify four people who have most made an impact on your life so far and make sure that you have spoken with those four, if they are still alive, recently.
  11. You Can’t Make a Thoroughbred out of a Donkey – The Pirates are doing something right in their athlete-development pipeline, as they said 12 of their farm-club players are with the top team. You may be a great coach and doing all the right things, but without talent, you lose.
  12. I Am 80% a Mental Coach/10% Psychologist/10% Politician – Credit this to Hector Morales, part of the Pirate mental conditioning staff and former West Point professor/Army officer/NCAA judo coach. I love that he recognized the sales/politician side of his work.
  13. Growth That Starts from Thinking –  I learned of the website where they promote a public dialogue about belief, one essay at time. This “Growth” line is from an essay by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1950s.
  14. Leadership Will Either be a Performance Enhancer or a Performance Killer – Painful examples were shared of people who pronounced themselves leaders, or were appointed into that position, who simply killed performance by not leading.
  15. Our Stubbornness Will Outweigh Your Apathy – The process might be slow, but when it’s known to be better, you have to hang in there long enough to outweigh those who slow the learning down.
  16. Accountability That’s Positive Not Punitive – This positive way of framing accountability sends a strong message.
  17. A Human’s First Language is Visual – In motor learning, we know that words have little meaning to a beginner of any age. This statement reminded me that when we are babies and learning at a massive rate, we have no verbal language, only visual.
  18. Conscious decision to OUT-TEAM Your Opponents – This reminded me of Hugh McCutcheon’s national team “rule” that the things said to one another in the gym, by staff and players alike, must always be constructive. Ways to be a better team was core to the discussion, even with people who came from business.
  19. Over-Drilled and Under-Trained – This is a big concern shared about baseball’s traditions, which are the same in many other sports. I would add that most athletes are over-trained and under-coached, when coaching is guiding discovery and getting the game to teach the brain.
  20. Liquid Networks This TED talk addresses where ideas come from and explains why I work so hard to bust down the “silos” between Olympic and even-non Olympic sports.
  21. You Cannot Know Greatness and be Safe – There were many examples shared of leaders who had to risk to achieve greatness, in a good way.
  22. Not Allowed to Go into the Video Room and See if the Umpire Erred – This example statement got the biggest cheer from the group. It is a reminder to feedforward and forget what you can’t control (AKA the past). The game has umpires and they make errors just like teammates in the randomness of the competition. Crying about it after the fact is something the scouts and other staff are working hard to eliminate.
  23. You Have to Win to be Relevant – The Pirate staff knows that dozens of MBL teams want to win the title, and pondered a lot about how, once they win, the process will be validated – much like the Oakland As and the book Moneyball. On that note, I urge ALL readers to get the new book The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
  24. You Want to Know when Your Car is Leaking Oil – Sarah Castillo, lead faculty member of National University’s sports psychology program, shared a story about what emotions we go through when we are on a journey and someone observes that our car is leaking oil: disbelief, frustration, even anger. What we need is to be thankful that the problem was seen now and not “discovered” when the head gasket blows and the engine freezes up. Focus on the solution.
  25. Teach Them to Climb Mountains Rather than Moving Mountains for Them – Mentioned time and time again was the way parents are bulldozing, bombing and eliminating the obstacles for their kids, as sport has gone from play to learn, to pay to play.  Going from “I coach for the kids to learn to grow up as a good teammate, person and player” to “I get paid to coach.” 

Team sports are remarkably similar in their pursuit of excellence. More than once, I found myself quoting the late volleyball coach Carl McGown, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I look forward to watching the Pirates’ season unfold, and thank all their staff for their hospitality and willingness to change for the better.vThe staff shared dozens of pages of notes and “aha” moments from every participant, so there is more to share. I am simply sharing the ideas that resonated with me.

Looking forward to a return to Bradenton to learn even more, after all, ancora imparo… and thanks guys for the new challenge coins and Pirates swag.