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What Baseball and John Smoltz Can Teach Us About Being a Great Teammate

When All Else Fails…Adjust
They know how – and when – to adjust their game plan

With the start of another Major League Baseball season on the horizon, I figured I’d toss this month’s dialogue of Greatness around Atlanta Braves legend John Smoltz. Throughout a 21-year career, his talent and drive as a pitcher created Hall of Fame worthy statistics, but he’s far from the typical success story. He challenged himself in ways that the average player (or person, for that matter) probably wouldn’t dare.

Apply this Characteristic: Think of a time in your life where you solved a problem.  Think of a time in your life where your second effort proved to be much more beneficial than your initial attempt.  Now thinkabout where you would be had you not made the adjustment and given that challenge another attempt.  Could a fear of failure be preventing you from the success you desire?  Match any and every disappointment with a desire to adjust and find a better result.Smoltz was part of an Atlanta Braves era that featured 14 straight Division Championships and even a World Series title. He teamed up with pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery to form a pitching rotation that made opposing hitters tremble in the on-deck circle. They each embraced the craft of being a dominant starting pitcher and their mental approach created an abundance of victories and a huge fanbase. But as great as Smoltz was, success was far from a simple stroll to the pitcher’s mound.

A balky right elbow claimed most of the 2000 and 2001 portions of his career; his pitching prowess as a starter could no longer be sustained for the seven innings needed to be an effective piece in an MLB rotation. Due to trades, pending free agency, and other injuries, the Atlanta Braves needed a closer to add some stability to a struggling bullpen. In 2002, the Braves decided that pitching more often but for fewer innings would be easier on Smoltz’s surgically repaired elbow. So, despite contract offers from the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks to become their starting pitcher, Smoltz made the adjustment to become Atlanta’s closer. The 1996 Cy Young Award winner agreed to put his Hall of Fame caliber statistics as a starter aside in order to embrace the role of a closer. He knew his arm would only allow him to toss two innings instead of the demands of a starter. Rather than waiting a year to recover and try again in the starting role, Smoltz adjusted his mindset and his image to take over the closer role in order to help his team win sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t easy. In 2002, his second outing as relief pitcher was a relief to no one. The New York Mets torched him for eight runs in one inning. It was the kind of performance that had his doubters patting themselves on the back. That same season, Smoltz also gave up a flimsy, broken-bat single in the ninth inning against the Montreal Expos to blow another save. But rather than buckle under the criticism, Smoltz used those failures to unlock Greatness.

Reflecting on his blown save against the Expos, Smoltz said: “I’ve carried that and the eight-run inning with me every time I go out now. That helps me.”

John Smoltz

I had the pleasure of learning a great deal about Smoltz and his relentless approach to Greatness while working on his book, Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year. It was a national best-seller that actually is being released this week in paperback form.

In fact, one of the quotes he offered during our conversations while writing the book seems instrumental to his success story. He said, “The greater I fail, the more I learn.” After further review, it’s clear that the greater he failed, the more he adjusted to ensure that failure wouldn’t be as likely an outcome.

After a few rocky relief efforts, Smoltz settled into the type of performances as a closer that created Cooperstown comparisons completely aside from his starting pitcher qualifications. From 2002-2004, Smoltz recorded 144 saves and just five losses.

John Smoltz

“I reinvented myself in the middle of a season. It was a huge risk to take, but I really thought I could be effective, and I was,” recalled Smoltz in our book. “I could have sat out and waited to feel better, but I never wanted to do that . . . Had I played it safe, I would have missed pitching in five postseason games that year, including Game Four of the World Series. Taking the risk and making the adjustment gave me one more opportunity to win, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

As if successfully making the move from starter to closer wasn’t difficult enough, Smoltz had another adjustment to make in 2005 when he devoted his efforts to returning to the starting rotation.

After a series of changes to the franchise, Smoltz realized that the best way he could help the Braves was to jump back into the starting role. Again, many doubted the move. Again, his beginning attempts were met with failure. And yet again, Smoltz met failure with eventual triumph. He logged more than 600 innings, struck out 577 batters and recorded 44 victories in the 3 seasons after returning to the rotation. He even stretched his career to the 2009 season. After 21 years in the Majors, the now 45 year-old Smoltz can boast about a resume that includes 213 wins, 154 saves and 3,084 career strikeouts–numbers that will likely make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Tips from the Great Ones

Great leaders don’t fear failure. Instead, they use it as a measure for potential improvement, meeting obstacles head-on and applying the work ethic needed to make any necessary changes.

Great leaders don’t fear failure. Instead, they use it as a measure for potential improvement, meeting obstacles head-on and applying the work ethic needed to make any necessary changes.

You've got to be able to cross the line when it counts and be able to trust the thing you're working on.  And if it doesn't work, you've got to trust that you can go back to the bullpen and find something that does.In a passage from the newly released paperback, Smoltz revealed what paced him through the many adjustments during his career:

“Very few people today go out and, on their own desires, set a path toward their goals and then follow that path to its complete end. They don’t let their natural ability be the determining factor. They let all the exterior things come into play–the doubts and the doubters–and they never reach their goals. Heck, a lot of them don’t even get started. They never even give themselves a chance to fail . . . They’re too afraid to even risk the possibility. So many people are busy coming up with reasons why they can’t do whatever it is they really want to do that many never even let themselves wonder, why not?”

Great leaders understand that flawless situations, although possible, are rare. Great leaders also understand that the way they react to failure is what fills them with the lessons necessary to build Greatness. “Had I always waited for things to heal and for conditions to be perfect, I wouldn’t have experienced half the success that I did over the course of my career,” said Smoltz.

John SmoltzHere’s to meeting your failure, smiling in its face, and then embracing the challenge of finding a better way of achieving your Greatness. Remember, that when all else fails . . . adjust.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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