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Want to level up as a leader? Leverage the power of play.

Six Lessons from Top Performance Coaches, Tom House and Jason Goldsmith

Tomorrow is opening day of the Little League World Series, and I can’t wait to see youth baseball’s best and brightest take the field. Not only is it inspiring to watch these young athletes from all over the world play their hearts out, it’s a powerful reminder of the importance and impact of good coaching. In celebration of this occasion, I’m tossing the ball to Tom House and Jason Goldsmith—two elite coaches who have turned their passion for sports into highly successful businesses. Tom is a former major league pitcher and renowned coach and expert in the biomechanics of throwing. Jason is a performance coach and my good friend and co-author of Take Charge of You: How Self-Coaching Can Transform Your Life and Career. Together they founded Mustard, an app and video subscription service that democratizes access to elite coaching, so young athletes at all levels can receive personalized instruction from the world’s best coaches. In this week’s post, Tom and Jason share six lessons from the field that you can use to level up your leadership game.

By Jason Goldsmith and Tom House

Between the two of us, we’ve coached hundreds of the world’s top athletes, but there’s nothing like coaching kids to reinforce the tremendous power of play. Kids aren’t in it for the paycheck. They’re in it for the process—the pure joy of the activity itself. The growth that happens when we’re not focused entirely on outcomes is just astonishing. That’s why we’ve devoted the latter part of our careers to getting kids to stay in sports longer. The research has shown that if we can get a 14-year-old kid to stay with sports through high school, the power of play will make them stronger socially, physically, and emotionally. That’s because the lessons young people learn through sports are also life lessons we can apply anywhere—including in business and leadership.

Here are six that come to mind right off the bat. (See what we did there?)

  1. Preparation is paramount. Say it with us: “My job isn’t to be the best—it’s to be the best prepared.” That’s why athletes spend the majority of their time at practice, preparing their minds and bodies for all of the scenarios that can arise during the big game. When you focus on being the best prepared at work, you open your mind. You learn as much as you can about an issue, you anticipate questions, objections, obstacles, and a variety of possible outcomes, and think about how you’ll respond. When you think your job is to be “the best” at what you do, you close your mind to possibilities and avoid failure at all costs, because every move you make is about proving yourself, rather than improving yourself.
  2. You can’t control the outcome. As Tom likes to say, “The outcome you want is out of your control. Work backwards to find what is.” We all want to win, but life and business are team sports, and the outcomes will never be entirely up to us. That’s why it’s important to set goals that are not outcome oriented and are within our control. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to win the sales pitch”, you might set the intention to “be an active listener during the pitch and come to the table with a thought-provoking question that will show you understand the prospect’s challenges.” Plenty of things can stand in the way of you winning, but nothing can keep you from listening well and asking good questions.
  3. Fail forward fast. Kids learn more from their failures than from their successes—and the ones who learn how to fail forward fast, are the ones who make it to the big leagues. Accepting failure as part of the process is key to success in sports—and in business. And what it means to fail forward fast is that you absolutely refuse to dwell. Rather, you make a mistake, ask yourself why it happened, and articulate how you plan to course correct. After that, class dismissed. Do not invite the failure back into the room.
  4. Success is a four-legged stool. Top athletic coaches know that there are four aspects of optimal performance: mental/emotional, nutrition and sleep, biomechanical, and functional. They devote ample time to each and don’t encourage players to prioritize one over another. The same goes for you as you practice self-coaching. You can think of peak performance in the business world as a four-legged stool as well. David touched on the first two “legs” in last month’s article Let Them See You Sweat, showing that the impact of sleep, nutrition and exercise on mental health cannot be overstated. The other two legs are mastery of craft (how good you are at your specific role) and business fundamentals (how well you know and apply the rules of the game). While each of the four impact one another—it’s helpful to think of them as four distinct areas worthy of individualized attention. You might, for example, think “I’m excellent at my job, but there’s a lot about our business that I don’t understand.” Identifying those blind spots and making a conscious effort to address them will ensure your career is built on the strongest possible foundation.
  5. Never stop becoming. It’s so disappointing to see a once successful person who has stopped learning. It’s great to have been exceptional at something—be it a sport or a business breakthrough. But if your entire identity is based on what happened in the past, you’re no longer adding value to whatever world you’re playing in. That’s one of the reasons coaching young people is so inspiring—they have voracious appetites for information, and they’re all very much in the process of becoming. They share what they know freely and enthusiastically with their teammates—which raises everyone’s game. The same is true in business. When we admit we don’t have all the answers, we not only incline ourselves to continuous learning, we create a growth culture where people feel free to share ideas—and everyone gets better as a result.
  6. Play ball. The best teammates in sports and business are the ones who are all in. They’re here to play ball. They bring their whole selves to the job at hand. At the same time, they never forget where the emphasis belongs, and that’s on the word play. In all our interactions with elite athletes, we have met very few who didn’t approach their work in a spirit of play—savoring the joy of the process. Leaders like David bring a spirit of playfulness to their work—even while achieving serious results. Play is about having your head in the game—instead of on the outcome. And it may be the greatest gift we can bring to the world of work.

We feel enormously lucky to make our living in a world that prizes play, and to have the privilege of coaching athletes of all ages. While we’re credited with teaching others, coaching also ensures we learn something new every day—which is a gift we don’t take for granted. What lessons have you learned from coaches or team sports that you carry with you? Which of the concepts above would you like to explore further?

August 16, 2022