The most recent Astros game I attended was an exciting one. Their opponent was up 5 to 0 when the Astros fought back to make it 5 to 4. The Astros were up in the bottom of the 8th with runners on 1st and 3rd. Michael Bourn, a speedy runner, was at the plate. I said to my friend, "All he has to do is hit a flyball or grounder and the tying run will score. The only thing that could get him out with the run not scoring would be a popout, a line out to an infielder or a strikeout." He struck out -- when it counted. The Astros lost 5 to 4.

Delivering when it counts is something we all strive to accomplish. Sometimes we will succeed and sometimes we won't:

  • When it counts, success or failure has implications - winning or losing a large sale of your company's product, a decision as a doctor about when a patient should be hospitalized, solving a network problem that is keeping users from accessing needed data, a decision on whether to approve the funding for a significant capital project, etc.
  • When it counts, the pressure is on. We experience butterflies, nerves, anxiety and other physical and emotional reactions. Hopefully, we are not like former Boston Celtics legend, Bill Russell, who would throw up before every game because of nerves.
  • When it counts, We feel like we are under the magnifying glass and that everyone is judging our performance. We may not have a stadium of fans that will boo us if we fail but if we need to deliver something when it counts, people will be watching (and most likely commenting on the outcome).

Baseball as a Metaphor

If you have read my Goodfriend Insights articles in the past, you know that baseball as a game drives a lot about how I think. I have been a baseball fan since I was very young and always have studied the game. I was a baseball manager and coach for my son's teams in numerous seasons. I also have played baseball in the Houston Hardball League for almost 9 years now. I believe baseball is a great metaphor for how we conduct our business and personal lives. I have learned so much from my baseball experiences about how to apply leadership and teamwork principles to the workplace - including how we can deliver in business when it counts.

First, let me set the record straight. I am not and never was a baseball star. I never played high school baseball. I stopped playing at age 13 and didn't start playing again until age 44. I was always a good fielder. I have become pretty fast for my age of 52 (no, it can't be that the other players my age are getting slower). My primary position is right field, although my favorite position is first base. I have always had good instincts for scooping low throws to first base in the dirt. I have never been a great hitter. My batting average is generally not real high and I have historically been one of the last few batters in the batting order. I don't hit for power and have never hit a homerun in my life. I also don't get many doubles or triples. I have a good eye at the plate so I get a lot of walks and my speed sometimes forces some errors.

I want to be a better hitter, but at my age, I am not planning on making the major leagues. Baseball is recreational for me, nevertheless, I have very high expectations of myself as a hitter. I don't practice enough in the batting cage. My mechanics are very inconsistent and I feel like I am always changing my mechanics from at-bat to at-bat. I definitely think too much and am often very nervous when I bat. Not about getting hit with the pitch, just feeling like the whole world is watching me (maybe an exaggeration since our games rarely have fans and many of the other players on the other team don't even know who I am).

The Big Game - When It Counts

Strangely, I have always been a better hitter in the big games -- especially championship games. It is hard for me to remember now but I believe I have played in about 6 to 8 championship games over the course of 20 to 25 seasons (generally 3 seasons per year - spring, summer and fall leagues). For awhile, I didn't understand why I have been a better hitter in championship games. I am just as nervous if not more in those games. The caliber of pitching is better in the championship games. The fielding is better in the championship games. I have never kept these statistics but my batting average has to be 100 to 150 points higher than in regular season games. The number of extra base hits (doubles/triples) per at bat has to be 4 to 5 times higher in championship games than in the regular season where I might get one or two during an entire season.

One championship game, we were tied going into the bottom of the 9th. I already had a double down the left field line earlier in the game. I was the last batter in our lineup and the first to bat in that final inning. I was in the on deck circle getting ready to bat. I was about as nervous as you could get but it was like the nerves were helping me feel like Superman. I felt stronger and more confident. The only thing that went through my mind was to get a good swing. I was hyper-focused on just getting a good swing. I don't think I would have heard a thing if someone had said something to me in the on deck circle. I walked up to the plate and got a fast ball down the middle and hit a hard line drive single into medium deep left center field. My hits are typically grounders through an open spot in the infield or just over the infielders head. Not this one. Their center fielder got the ball in quickly and held me to a single. Our no. 1 batter in the lineup was next and he tried to sacrifice bunt me to 2nd but I was forced out. He then stole second and came home on a single to win the game. My hit was key to winning that game and I know I delivered when it counted. The pitcher on that team is about as classy of an opponent as you could get and he has complimented me a number of times since then about that hit.

Last fall, my team was playing in the championship game. We were playing the perennial champions of this division -- they had been champions 95% of the time for the last 5 years. I had been sick during the day. I took my temperature before the game and it was over 101 degrees. I took an Advil and went to the game. I was not going to miss that game. We were up 10 to 3 in the latter stages of the game. But this team we were playing knew how to win and they knew how to come back from 10 to 3 so I was very nervous but again very hyper-focused. I had one hit going into this last at bat. All I could think about was getting a good swing. The outfielders were playing in and not too deep -- like they should have been. They had seen me play numerous times. One of the other team's players had been my teammate in the championship game I described above. The other team's player/coach was the pitcher I faced in the championship game described above. Maybe all the weak grounders and bloopers were more in their mind than the hit in the game I described above. This time I hit a deep line drive probably in the same spot or even deeper than the other championship game but this time since the outfielders were in, it went over the center fielder's head for my first ever triple -- at 52 years old. That scored two runs to make it 12 to 3 and I believe that was the final score. In the end, my triple wasn't needed but I know I delivered when it counted.

But I'm not telling you these stories to convince you that I really am a great hitter despite my inconsistent, undisciplined and mediocre regular season batting. What I have learned is that delivering when it counts is a mindset and with the right mindset, I can deliver during all games, not just the championship games. But more importantly, I have learned how can I help leaders coach their direct reports to deliver when it counts.

The Overachievement Model

You have probably read in one of my past Goodfriend Insights how I went to see a speaker for our Little League about 5 or 6 years ago. The speaker was a sports psychologist at Rice University named Dr. John Eliot. He told us about how he had worked with some athletes and business people who had to deliver when it counted. He told us about the characteristics of an overachiever -- including how athletes and business people have to deliver when it counts.

That night, I asked my son about his motivation about hitting a baseball. He had always been a good hitter but he had been struggling at the plate. It seemed like it didn’t bother him that he was striking out a lot. My son’s father (that would be me) has been known to give him too much advice about baseball, to the point where he stops listening. So I asked him, “What do you like about batting?” He said, “It’s fun hitting the ball.” I then asked, “What’s fun about it?” He replied, “I like sound the bat makes when I hit the ball.” To be honest, I was “floored” by his response. My 8 year-old son (at the time) communicated what drives him internally at his core about playing his favorite sport. It wasn’t because his dad likes baseball. It wasn’t because all the parents cheer when he gets a hit. It was because of the “ting” sound of the aluminum bat hitting the ball.

I bought Dr. Eliot's book "Overachievement - The New Science of Working Less to Accomplish More." I am glad I did. I have used this Overachievement Model with my son and I can see it in his mindset in his schoolwork and in his sports. I am using it for myself in improving my mindset for baseball this season and my hitting has improved. I am definitely not ready to declare this improvement as due to the Model but I know my mindset is better.

But the real application for me is with the clients I work with. I have begun using this Model as part of the leadership development program I deliver and also with some of my leadership coaching assignments. One of the competencies in my Goodfriend Leadership Competency Model is "Developing People." It is an important for a leader to be competent at coaching their direct reports to improve their performance and overachieve. The following describes the Overachievement Model and what I learned from Dr. Eliot's book about how a leader can coach his/her direct reports to deliver when it counts:


Whether I am up to bat with the game on the line or whether I am facilitating/coaching at a moment of truth for the client, I find myself enjoying those moments more because I am doing what I love to do. A leader needs to help a direct report verbalize their core motivator (like the "ting" of the bat for my son), that excites them to get up in the morning to perform that skill/activity. I have found that when it counts, it is your core motivator that helps you enjoy the pressure and the opportunity to be in that situation.


One of the other players on my team and I went to a batting cage recently to work on both of our swings because we were both in a slump. We both were much more confident when we finished. It showed in our next game because I had 2 hits and he went on a tear after that. Confidence is not just about expressing that you will be successful, it is about being prepared to be successful. When I began facilitating meetings over 20 years ago, I knew I needed to be good at listening but I didn't know what to listen for, to move the meeting in the right direction. Confidence is about being confident in your methods or approach for your expertise and also being ready to handle the pressure of a moment when it counts. My leadership development program focuses on practice and implementation of leadership skills. For instance, each participant gives a presentation to the group on one of their areas of expertise -- to practice their skills in giving presentations in a business setting. Then when they have to give a presentation when it counts, they will be more ready and more confident. As a leader, think about the practice opportunities for your direct reports to develop the skills they will need when it counts.


"Being in the Zone" is an expression in sports about having a higher level of concentration, being totally engrossed in an endeavor to the point where time almost stands still and outside distractions almost disappear. One of the prerequisites for entering the zone and staying in the zone when it counts is Commitment and Confidence. Pre-performance routines also help a person focus and concentrate to get them in the zone. If you watch baseball, you will see players do these crazy things like loosening and tightening their gloves before every pitch or make a motion in the sign of the cross to help get themselves ready in a meaningful way. Then when you are in the zone, you have the opportunity to do what you love and be confident with your approach so you are just doing, not thinking about what you are doing. When you are in a situation that counts, there will be more pressure. Don't avoid pressure and nervousness, just channel it for your advantage.

Recommendations - Coaching Direct Reports to Deliver When It Counts

• Read the book "Overachievement" by Dr. John Eliot.

• For one of your own areas of expertise (one that requires you to deliver when it counts), think about the key internal emotional motivator (not money, promotions, etc. that are controlled by others) that makes that activity exciting, fun and something you want to do more of. It should be something like my son's "sound of the bat." Share your motivator with a mentor, peer or advisor.

• Select a direct report who you believe has the potential for advancement but sometimes struggles with delivering when it counts. When you have your next developmental discussion with the individual, do some brainstorming with them about the situations when it is needed for them to deliver when it counts. Then be a sounding board for them as he/she brainstorms their core motivator. Tell them the story about your own motivator or even my son's "sound of the bat."

• Work with the direct report and brainstorm with him/her about the skills that are the key to delivering when it counts. Coach him/her to develop a practice plan to become more competent/proficient in the skill so they are confident enough that they will not need to think about their methods when they have to deliver. Give them an opportunity to test their improvement in those skills in a situation where it doesn't count.

• Find situations for the individual where it does count so they can concentrate their focus and "be in the zone." Coach the individual to start using pre-performance routines to help them be in the zone when it counts.

• Get feedback from the direct report about your coaching approach so you can improve how you coach direct reports to deliver when it counts.

*      *      *

If you are a leader, one of your key competencies should be your ability to maximize your direct reports' business performance. People are different and they all are motivated differently, to overachieve and deliver when it counts. In the business world, many people shy away from being up to the bat with the bases loaded and two outs with the score tied. As their leader and coach, your job is help them to feel like Superman.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2011

Sign Up for new Insights

From Our Readers

“I loved your article about Team Offsites. I have been to many offsite meetings that failed because one or more of the items you mentioned was missing."

“I thought the insights you provided were thought provoking and on target. You have a gift at taking these "common life" situations and drawing strong parallels with the business world. Thank you!”

"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

"Awesome news letter! It made me smile and refresh some great memories I had as a kid.   Greatest lessons in life I ever learned were on a baseball diamond as a kid. Thanks." 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

"Well done.  Your best Goodfriend Insights yet."