Unlocking Success: 5 Lessons Moneyball Can Teach Us

Reading Jamie Lyall’s recent article via BBC Sport, on how Coach Logic’s analysis systems have positively influenced Scottish rugby, left me wanting to watch one my favourite films of all time – Bennett Miller’s Moneyball.

For those that have miraculously not seen it before, the story follows General Manager Billy Beane, and economics graduate Peter Brand during their relentless obliteration of traditional baseball methods at the highest level. As the driving force behind the Oakland Athletics’ record breaking streak of 20 consecutive wins in 2002 – a feat yet to be matched today – Beane (Brad Pitt) and Brand (Jonah Hill) tear up the unwritten rulebook of how baseball should be played, adopting a strategy based on a highly sophisticated empirical formula with a tight string budget against all odds.

Whilst the plot remains an interesting spectacle of persistence, courage, loyalty and team dynamic, this ambitious pair leaves many poignant messages for coaches, educators and businesspeople to consider. I’ve picked out five thought provoking moments that perhaps we as coaches can learn something from; or at the very least stimulate some thought regarding our own methods, practices and philosophies in the pursuit of unlocking further success.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball.
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball.

1.Is Not Losing Greater than the Feeling of Winning?
“I hate losing more than I want to win” is one such poignant quote from Billy Beane. Does this resonate with you? Can you relate to it? If you ask the majority of players what they play competitive sport for, a common answer is likely to be “to win”. I had an interesting conversation with a player last month about their attitude to success. The player explained that whilst beating an opponent is of course a source of motivation, he looks at it a different way. He interprets winning (and receives greater satisfaction) from the knowledge that his opponent hasn’t been able to outwit him tactically and technically. Sounds the same doesn’t it? Ultimately the outcome is a victory!

There is a subtle difference however – a difference that perhaps separates the good performers from the elite performers. Have you noticed that football players and managers are already talking about preparing for the next game, despite the fact they’ve just finished a game, or indeed a season five minutes ago?! Is it their constant drive to win? Or is it their constant drive to keep looking behind their shoulder, to see who the next person or team is that are looking to dethrone them? Is it the fear of inadequacy that drives them to be successful, rather than a desire to be the best? Of course, if motivational climate literature is anything to go by we as coaches should be wary of promoting a results driven environment at all! Nevertheless, ask your players what motivates them the most? You might get some answers that surprise you.

2. When the Enemy is Making Mistakes Don’t Interrupt Them
Another fantastic quote from Beane – one that sounds simple enough but is hugely underrated in up and coming players. With new tactics and detailed strategies developing all the time around how you, the performer should approach a certain game or situation, sometimes simple things such as observation and basic awareness become distorted. I like to call it game intelligence. We all go through rough patches as a player when faced directly with a live opponent whatever your sporting discipline. The hardest part? Snapping out of it. The best players are game smart – they pick up on their opponent’s nerves, anxiety or frustration and use it to their advantage.

Novak Djokovic is a fantastic example; if you watch him closely there are passages of play when he really does not do anything particularly special. But that is the beauty of it – during these times Djovokic recognises that his opponent is struggling, and understands that he doesn’t need to force the issue quite as much as he might have needed to. Instead he just remains solid and allows his opponent to get lost in their own frustration, doubt and anxiety. Perhaps the old saying of “concentrate on your own game” needs rethinking – after all, if you’re not aware of your opponents behaviours you may be missing out significant opportunities for exploitation.

3. Defy Convention: Tackle the Unexpected Head On
The single biggest thing Billy Beane and Peter Brand did was to throw traditional and conventional styles of baseball out of the window. They embraced their new concept with such unequivocal belief that it had no choice but to succeed, despite the entire scouting team, head coach and national press dismissing their logic before it had had a chance to weave its magic.

In 2009 when the credit crunch swept across Great Britain businesses up and down the UK were left with no choice but to enforce heavy cuts. One of the easiest and logical things to do was to cut back on advertising – if people were going to be buying less produce, surely it makes sense to spend less on promotion? Kellogg’s were one of the few companies that defied convention and did the opposite; it increased its advertising by a massive 4% compared to its rivals. Rather than follow the rest of the country they were convinced that if they were one of the few companies people kept seeing, combined with the reduced cost of advertising due to the recession, they would benefit from the economic situation. They were right. Kellogg’s not only survived the recession but they re-established themselves as one of the industry’s biggest companies.

How many times are we faced with a situation where we could take the easy option and follow the crowd? By maintaining an open mind, a fierce attention to detail and being receptive to creativity you would be amazed at the opportunities that are available to you. Defying convention can sometimes make you stand out from the rest, for all the right reasons.

4.Stereotyping Can Be the Biggest Prohibitor of Success

When identifying players of the future we all as coaches, have certain things traits, characteristics and skills that we look for. Our criteria is likely to be based on our past experiences, our coaching philosophy and the contextual requirements that best fit our style, team and system. The point is that sometimes we already know what we are trying to look for; we’re trying to take a picture with a relatively narrow lens.

This is what the scouting team of the Oakland Athletics were trying to do in Moneyball – they were trying to replace their perceived ‘star’ player Jason Giambi with a like for like replacement. They were ignorant enough to believe that there was a replica of Giambi and they simply needed to find it; they disregarded unique and unconventional types of player, labelling them as ‘defect’. None more so than Chad Bradford – an unorthodox submarine pitcher who enjoyed significant success in the lower leagues. Beane and Brand embraced Bradford’s style and he subsequently became one of the leading players in the Athletics line up. It’s a stark reminder to us as coaches that the unconventional can sometimes be the most effective – Lasith Malinga and Shivnarine Chanderpaul provide two world class examples in the cricketing world. Can you think of any in your sport?

5.Don’t Make the Difficult Decisions More Difficult
One thing Moneyball does illustrate is that baseball, like any sport at the elite level is cut throat. It is unforgiving; one minute you could be the hero, the next you could be deemed surplus to requirements and be traded or transferred to a different team. Whilst we as coaches have the elation of informing a player they’ve made it, or that they’re going to make their debut, or they have a new contract, we also have to bring them down to earth. We have to explain to them that they haven’t made the cut, or that they’ve been dropped for the biggest game of the season. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the job. That said, how we communicate this news is pivotal for our relationships with players, for we may need them again later down the line.

I suppose the message is not to make the hard decisions more difficult than they already are – be straight with players and explain to them exactly how the decision came to fruition. They will be disappointed inevitably; but they will appreciate honesty and will have a better idea of where you’re coming from, and how they need to get better. Ultimately their respect for you will remain intact.

Many thanks again for the acknowledgements and feedback – if you have a good idea for a blog topic, or just want to discuss all things coaching by all means get in touch (Follow Coaches_Corner on Twitter)!

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