In the business world, we often talk about working as a team. And if a group of coworkers is a team, I guess that makes their manager a coach of sorts.
But do managers in an office and coaches on a field have much in common? After performing both roles during the last few months, I believe there are some interesting similarities.
A few months ago, we registered our 6-year-old son to play T-ball. He played last year, too, as I mentioned in a column at that time, and my wife, daughters and I had a wonderful time helping with the team and watching him play.
When we signed him up this year, the league organizer mentioned that he was having trouble finding a coach for our son's team. He asked if I'd be willing to help, and I jokingly said I would if he was desperate, sure that someone else would step up to the plate.
As opening day grew closer, it became apparent that no one else was going to be available. The organizer called me, and I officially became a T-ball coach.
I played baseball as a kid, and I like to watch the sport, but I haven't played in decades and certainly never coached. As such, I was more than a little worried as I contacted parents to schedule our first practice. How was I going to organize and motivate five boys between the ages of 4 and 6, several of whom had never played baseball before? What could I teach them? How would I keep their attention and help them develop new skills? And what if their parents were disappointed in my coaching? Surely they'd see that I didn't know what I was doing and ask for me to be replaced.
As I think about it, I felt much the same way when I was asked to be a manager for the first time. How was I going to organize and motivate people when I had never been a manager before? What could I teach them? How would I keep their attention and help them meet their deadlines while developing new skills? And what if they didn't like my management style? Surely they'd see that I didn't know what I was doing and report that to my boss, resulting in a quick demotion ... or worse.
But I survived that first management experience, and I've so far made it through my T-ball coaching career. I called on experienced coaches — my father-in-law and brother-in-law — who gave me some good, concrete pointers about keeping the team "baseball ready" and building their skills. It also helped that I could tell from our first practice that the players' parents would be supportive, coming out on the field during games to direct the boys and giving me encouragement along the way.
In fact, they've reminded me of some of the best supervisors I've had in the workplace, the ones who were willing to get their hands dirty and help when I needed it and who gave me encouragement and good advice.
As for the boys themselves, they've been amazing! There's nothing like the enthusiasm of a little boy who gets to run around on a baseball diamond under a sunny spring sky.
Of course, there are times when when coaching the little fellas requires some patience. Last week, for example, my son had a school field trip in the morning on game day and was over-tired when it was time to play. He refused to come out of the dugout until my wife arrived in the second inning and worked her magic. (I'm still not sure why her words of encouragement saved the day when I couldn't make him budge, but I'm also not surprised.)
Other boys have had struggles in one game or another. Sometimes they're tired and really don't want to play. Other times they get distracted or just want to draw squiggles in the infield dirt. And they often ask when the game will be over, because they want the treat they get as a reward for playing hard.
It's at those times that I've had the most fun as a coach. I try to get around to all of the boys, teaching them how to stand while they're playing a position in the infield, calling out words of encouragement and reminding them to keep their eyes on the ball.
Again, I see parallels to the work world. All employees struggle at times. Sometimes they're tired and really don't want to trudge into the office for another day. Other times they get distracted by projects that aren't important to a looming deadline. And they may daydream as they look forward to the upcoming weekend and fun away from the office.
It's at those times that I've had the most fun as a manager. I've tried to talk to the people on my team, helping resolve the problems that stand in the way of them accomplishing their goals. I also try to offer words of encouragement and urge them to keep their eyes on the metaphorical ball, whether that's a set of project requirements or a rapidly approaching deadline.
Whether in the office or on the T-ball field, coaching can be frustrating at times. Sometimes it's hard to get through the day or the game, and the work is almost always exhausting.
But on those days when you feel like you've done it correctly, coaching also brings great rewards. In T-ball last week, one of the boys got a hit off a pitch for the first time, and all of the guys did their best job thus far of staying focused on defense. Seeing them make progress while still having fun is enormously gratifying.
Back in the office last week, I watched as several members of my team pulled together to overcome unexpected obstacles so they could complete an important project. Seeing them play to each other's strengths and work to the top of their abilities was, again, enormously gratifying.
It's never easy trying something new, whether it's working as a manager or coaching a T-ball team. But when we agree to take on a task that's outside of our comfort zone, we always learn something that helps us grow, even as we try to help others do the same.
That's why I'm thankful both for my job as a manager and for the opportunity I've had to lead a T-ball team. Both occupations teach me every time I walk through the office doors or step onto the field, and every day brings a fresh chance to become a better coach.
To which all I can say is, "Batter up!"