Coaching in the Majors: Advice from Cardinal’s Hitting Coach

Linda Henman

Coaching in the Majors: Advice from Cardinal’s Hitting Coach

When it comes to accepting direction, star performers, especially those in the major leagues of their industries, show caution and restraint. They offer raw talent, expertise, discipline, and excellence, so they want to see the same qualities in those who lead and teach them. Members of the St. Louis Cardinals see these traits in their hitting coach, John Mabry.

Mabry, a former Major League Baseball player, had 898 career hits in 3409 at-bats, for a batting average of .263. That included 96 home runs and 446 RBI.  During his fourteen-year MLB career, Mabry played for eight teams, including three different stints with the Cardinals. In December of 2011 he joined the Cardinals as assistant hitting coach and in 2013 took the position of hitting coach. In his first year as hitting coach, the Cardinals made it to the World Series, and the team set a new baseball record for hitting efficiency with runners in scoring position.

When they seek a coach, professional sports teams rely on stars who have proven track records of success. Because these exceptional performers know what it takes to succeed, they can impart their wisdom to those who come after them. But how? How do these legends in all professional sports pass on their knowledge and talent to the next generation? And why do they succeed so admirably in sporting venues when so many fail to reach the same level of stellar coaching in corporate settings? I asked John Mabry.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” Mabry agrees. By the time a major league player asks John Mabry for help, the player has established his talent. Every star player on the field has talent—copious amounts of it—or no one would have given him a chance to be there in the first place. But, according to Mabry, that won’t guarantee success.

Professional ball players have to do the same things other star performers have to do: balance work and family, perform when they’re tired or don’t feel good, work long hours with people, whether or not they like them, but professional athletes have to do it all with the cameras rolling. They have to have the confidence to deliver consistently above-average performance—as compared to other star athletes who make that average pretty high—and do it all without developing the arrogance that they have nothing left to learn.

Mabry doesn’t have a “one size fits all” approach to coaching. Each hitter needs a slightly different approach. Overall, however, Mabry does believe in the power of positive reinforcement and accentuating the player’s strengths.

As Mabry pointed out, above all, the player must trust the coach. The player will ask himself, “Do you have the integrity to keep my confidences, the expertise to teach me, the predictability of your performance and responsiveness, and a sincere belief that you care about my success?” Answers to all questions must be “yes.”

Mabry offered the following advice to those in business who would like to improve their own coaching:

  • Coach with empathy. Think about what a person is going through and meet him there.
  • Communicate to others your vision and desire to do what’s right for everyone, not just yourself or a chosen few.
  • Think of coaching as serving others.

When I coach executives for promotion, one of the objectives we almost always address involves their need to give more coaching and feedback to their direct reports. Most of the executives have played sports, so intellectually they understand the importance of receiving constructive feedback. No Little Leaguer would ever meet John Mabry or those like him if it weren’t for dedicated coaches who took the time to watch the swings, give correction, and pat a back. They all know this intellectually but fail to translate their experiences to the corporation.

Leaders who aspire to lead exceptional organizations know they have to do better. They understand that they can observe gold standards of coaching all around them by turning on the television during virtually any season and witnessing the hard work these professional coaches put into the development of others.  Leaders who find themselves fortunate to have stars in their organizations know they can’t rely on hands-off, laissez-faire leadership. The stars won’t shine without the leader’s help or each other’s.  Top performers want to win the World Series of your industry, and ordinary leadership won’t allow that to happen.