A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend umpiring a baseball tournament for 9 and 10 year olds. For two days, it was baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and…well, I don’t remember seeing any Chevrolet’s. Anyway, the weather was great, the teams were competitive, and after 13 games, there were no major confrontations with coaches or parents. As I’ve thought about that weekend, I’ve come to see that there are several lessons about leadership that can be gleaned from umpiring. Both are required to manage, to call it as they see it, to work with other leaders, etc. As a matter of fact, I’m sure an entire book could be written about the leadership lessons from umpiring. But since I don’t have time to write it, I’ll simply share a few umpiring tips, as well as parallel lessons we can take away as leaders…
At the age of 9 or 10, few kids understand the balk rule. Heck, few adult fans understand it. The rule is simply this: the pitcher is not allowed to make any illegal motion that deceives a base runner. Most of these 9 and 10 year olds had no idea what a balk was. So, throughout the weekend, we had to explain it to each pitcher so that he would understand it, and not commit the infraction.
The Leadership Lesson: As leaders, it’s not just our job to provide information. It’s our job to communicate, then confirm the information was received AND understood.
In one game, with a runner on second, the batter popped the ball up to shortstop, who in turn caught it. The runner had left the base, and the shortstop threw to second to try and get the double play. They would have “turned two” if the second baseman had had his foot on the base. I called the runner safe. The coach came out of the dugout, saying “He was on the base when he received the throw”. I said emphatically and decisively, “No he wasn’t. There was a gap between his foot and the bag”. I only had to say that twice before the coach went back to his bench. Argument avoided.
The Leadership Lesson: Those whom we lead don’t want wishy-washy action. They want to have confidence that their leader has confidence. As a leader, analyze the play, make the call, and stand by it. Your confidence will trickle down to the rest of your team.
Clarify Up Front
One of the toughest things about umpiring 9 and 10 year olds is the strike zone. It’s so dang small, and if you call it “true”, you’ll be there all day. So, the best approach is to “widen the zone”, which encourages the kids to swing, put the ball in play and keep the game moving. The key to successfully implementing this approach is explaining it to the coaches BEFORE the game. I would tell each coach during the pre-game meeting, “We’re going shoulders to knees, and generous on the corners”. As the games progressed, there was very little arguing on balls and strikes.
The Leadership Lesson: So much drama can be avoided by taking time up front to explain things. Don’t avoid this, even if the information to be shared is perceived as negative. Clarify and set expectations ahead of time!
Give Them Space to Vent Appropriately
There was one game however, where an assistant who was coaching first base began chirping about balls and strikes. I stepped back and looked at him. He put his hands up and said, “I won’t argue balls and strikes anymore”. After the inning was over, I called him over, and said, “I’m glad you said you weren’t going to argue balls and strikes anymore”. He apologized, then said he was frustrated because it was his son at bat, that his son should have swung, how it looked like balls were in the dirt, etc. I just listened. When he was done, he said, “Thanks Blue”.
Leadership Lesson: Sometimes, those we lead just need to “get it out”, to have a safe place where they can appropriately share their thoughts and feelings. We as leaders can and should work to be or create that safe place.
Don’t Engage The Crowd
One of the best parts of umpiring is to make a call on an obscure rule that the common fan doesn’t understand. For example, it’s a common misunderstanding that once a pitched ball hits the dirt, it’s a dead ball. Not true. For example, if the ball hits the dirt, then hits the batter, the batter is awarded first base. This happened in one game during the tournament, and sure enough, from the crowd behind me, an ill-informed mom kept yelling, “It’s a dead ball…it’s a dead ball”. I was tempted to turn around and tell her to clam up, but what was the point? My responsibility was to the head coaches, not the crowd.
Leadership Lesson: Know to whom and for whom you are responsible. Don’t waste energy and cycles explaining or communicating to those for whom it doesn’t matter.