Don Yaeger: Greatness Made Special

Many of my best days these days, at least professionally, involve getting the chance to talk about the 16 consistent Characteristics of Greatness I’ve witnessed in great winners.  This past month alone, my speaking engagements included travel to Los Angeles, Louisville, Costa Rica, and Puerto Vallarta.  However, there’s one date on the calendar that ranked higher than all else.  A tiny adjustment to my schedule allowed for a coast-to-coast flight, a dynamic lesson about Greatness, and a memory that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.  I was able to make it to my four-year-old son Will’s final T-ball game of the season.  There was no way I was going to miss that!

This is a team with so many young characters and concepts of baseball that the only thing uniform about it might actually be the black and orange team uniform.  When the season began, there were kids who would make contact with the ball and cheer instead of running to first base.  There were kids who knew to run after hitting the baseball, but didn’t realize that third base wasn’t the desired option.  My son Will—normally dressed in his team jersey with his cap pulled down over his eyes –soaked in all the antics of his teammates.

He also witnessed a remarkable head coach by the name of J.R. Long. Coach Long is actually a Tallahassee real estate guy who took up the challenge of teaching young four- and five-year-olds how to play baseball.  I was impressed, but it went deeper than his patience and ability to deal with the challenges of a baseball team rich with young emotions.  At the end of every game, Coach Long gathered the team together in a circle. Sometimes it was on the infield dirt; other times it was near the benches.  It was during this postgame circle that Will’s T-ball experience went from good to Great. 

Coach Long, one-by-one, looked at each kid and asked, “What was your favorite thing that happened in today’s game?”  Each kid would look him in the eye and then blurt out their favorite moment of the day.  “Jason, what was your favorite thing?… Cameron, what about you?”  He gave every child their spotlight in front of their teammates and parents.

Some said the homerun they hit, or the catch they made, or simply running the bases.  In week one of the season, my son Will quickly crafted an answer that oozed emotion and excitement.  When it was his turn in the circle, Will’s answer was “EVERYTHING!”

He just loved the entire experience—of being with that team, playing with those kids, and learning from that coach.  Everything in that experience was special because the coach made it so. I talked to Coach Long about that postgame circle and expressed how much it meant to me and to Will. His response was Great.  Coach Long stressed that he wanted to make sure that at the end of every game, each kid would be more enthused about playing the next one.

The role of a coach is so important to the success of a team.  They can make the playing experience special or they can make it miserable. By simply calling on each child by name and inviting them into the circle to express their excitement, Coach Long created a memorable and enjoyable culture.  For at least one second after all of the cheering died down along with the spirit of competition, each kid was able to feel like they were the center of attention.  And in Will’s final game of the season, yet again his favorite part of the game was “Everything!”

The lesson here draws heavily from the concept of a Great leader’s ability to create a special culture that sparks excitement and passion in each member of the team.  Great leaders create an atmosphere where each member—and even a happy parent—looks forward to coming back the next time and giving another maximum effort toward a Great outcome.  A great leader in business can make his or her employees excited about coming to work the next day instead of dreading the experience.

Have you had one coach that stood out to you, your child, or someone you know?  What’s something that makes you want to come back the next day?  Better yet, what’s one way you’ve helped create a memorable experience for someone else?


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