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Focus, Big Al. Focus.

Focus, Big Al. Focus.

In the month of June at the tail end of my senior year of high school, I learned that I had been invited to walk-on to the Western Michigan Softball team. An invited walk-on really just is a walk-on who doesn’t need to try out for the team in the fall. That was fine with me! I didn’t care what it was called, I knew this was a special opportunity for which I should take advantage. I was happy to say yes to Western and to be given a jersey.

Circa 1998: I’m in back row most left (#3)

I proved to be of decent ability. I mainly was the bull-pen catcher ceaselessly warming up pitcher after pitcher, inning after inning. Can you feel me back-up catchers?! I worked hard to be a starter – but I usually was not. I loved double headers because I often earned the honor of starting the second game as to allow the starting catcher a rest.

It was my junior year that my coach regularly used me as a pinch hitter. It was not an official role. No one sat me down and said, this is how we see you contributing. Yet, game after game, I would find myself sitting the bench, or warming up a pitcher in the bullpen only to be yanked from my comfortable place off the field to suddenly standing in the on-deck circle with a bat in hand and a girl on second who we must get home.

Circa 2000: Captains (I’m on the left, #3)

Being a pinch hitter is strange. You cheer for your team for innings watching and giving your teammates insight into what you see from your opponent. You know the idiosyncrasies of the opposing pitcher as you’ve discussed them with your fellow bench players for the last hour. You’ve kept your legs warm by running to the fence between innings when you also have a moment to get some sun on your face and laugh at silly stuff with your bench buddies. But, basically, you are completely cold. You are just minding your own business and suddenly you’re sporting a helmet expected to “get the job done.”

For obvious reasons, this induces stress. The game is on the line. The other team has heightened concern as they have no “chart” on your past hits because you have no past at-bats. They are all chattering and talking as their awareness increases. The coach standing next to the third base, steps towards you as you stand one foot in the batter’s box saying encouraging words but showing eyes that say, “do this or the bench will be your middle name.” The girl on second is clapping and cheering loudly and is highly visible standing just behind the pitcher on the mound. Meanwhile, your dad in the stands who drove three hours to watch you sit the bench is stoked you’re suddenly in the game and is shouting, “Focus Big Al. Focus.” You stand in the box and breathe hoping to calm your heart and hands enough to swing steady.

The times I was most successful as a pinch hitter, I stopped thinking. I remember “not thinking.” I actually can confidently say that was exactly the key to success as a hitter, but especially as a pinch hitter. I would repeat a mantra in my head, “watch the ball hit the bat.” That was it. So easy. No thinking. I could remember the hit after it occured, but I was not “planning” or “plotting” my hit. I just swung the bat to hit the ball. My entire energies of concentration were to watch the yellow ball off the hip of the pitcher coming at me. On my best at bats I could see the seams of the ball as they spun in the air getting bigger as they got closer and closer to the plate. I could also point to the spot on the bat the ball had hit. That is total and utter concentration. And this is the key to sport…any sport. A freethrow. A field goal. A slap shot. A power clean. An ace. An eagle. All require concentration for success.

In contrast, when I failed my head was in a completely different space. I was worried. I felt the pressure. My bat was slow because my white knuckles held my grip so tight with anxiety. I thought of the past – I struck out last time I did this. I thought of the future – my team will be so mad if I get out. I felt intimidated by the pitcher knowing she was a better athlete than I was. I felt insecurities as the catcher shouted to her team, “easy out, let’s get this done.” I may even be mad that my teammates put me in this position; if she had just laid that bunt down, I wouldn’t have to save the day. In these moments the bat felt heavy. My hair blowing in the wind bothered me. My shirt didn’t seem tucked in just right. The sweat seemed to drip right into my eyes. All of these are pieces to the puzzle of failure and all demonstrate the lack of concentration. A lack of focus.

We can see this happening in the workplace all the time. Instead of focusing and getting our grading or paperwork done, we ruminate and allow distraction of the wind and our untucked shirt to rule our minds. Instead of making a decision and moving on, we waste time ruminating and feeling insecure predicting a negative future outcome that most likely has no foundation in reality. This decision still remains unmade. We blame others and don’t see how we can make a change ourselves. “If our principal had only done this, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

But considering the mentality of the pinch hitter – maybe we would be more effective when we stop thinking…or maybe I should say stop “overthinking.”

We can make decisions and allow our organization to move forward. We can let go of ego, when we are called to the hypothetical plate and just do our best. We can live in the present not consumed with failures from the past or worry about the future. We can work as a team to problem solve instead of feeling isolated and insecure. Maybe instead of blame we learn to act. Maybe we can find that we get more done in the given 8 hour work day if we learn to stop overthinking. Maybe we can even be more effective if we learn the tools of mindfulness. Maybe we can win and find success by thinking less about things that waste time and energy creating a negative environment for us and others allowing time and space to be productive and maybe even happy!

Another thing a pinch-hitter does, is she always returns to the bench. Her time at the plate comes and goes with success or failure. Her job is done. Employees, go home. At the end of the day, your job is done, you’ve been called to the plate and had your shot win or lose and now it is time to go home. Exercise, be a parent, a spouse, or a Netflix watcher and to sleep.

Tomorrow, there is another game and you need to recharge so you can focus. Focus Big Al. Focus.

Me circa 2017: Visited WMU for a recruitment fair and stopped by my old bullpen – many hours were spent behind that plate

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