What Coaching Youth Sports Taught Me About Marketing

Coaching and marketing are more alike than you think. 

George “Sparky” Anderson was a Major League Baseball manager for 26 seasons from 1970 through the mid-1990s. He was the first MLB skipper to win the World Series in the American and National Leagues when he led the National Leagues’ Cincinnati Reds to the 1975 and 1976 championships, then added a third trophy to his mantle in 1984 with the Detroit Tigers of the American League. The White-Haired Wizard, who earned the nickname Captain Hook for his propensity for removing pitchers from a game in an era when hurlers were expected to start what they finished, is credited with being one of the fathers of modern bullpen management. Sparky went on to win 2,194 games, good for third all-time when he retired after the 1995 season. 

I didn’t grow up wanting to be Sparky Anderson. I never saw myself as a coach. I wanted to be Kirk Gibson, a bruiting left-handed slugger who mashed 523-foot home runs into the lumberyard across from Tiger Stadium instead. I actually wanted to be Jason Thompson, but after the Tigers traded the left-hand-hitting first baseman to the Pirates, Gibby was my guy from that day forward.

In my kids’ early years playing sports, I was content sitting in the stands and watching. That ended after my son’s first year playing peewee baseball. After seeing how his coaches ran the team, I said to myself, “I can do that.” I grew up with some great coaches. I figured I had something to add, so the next season, I restarted a travel team that my dad had founded twenty years earlier. 

The day came to coach my first travel baseball game. I was ready. My lineup and pitching rotation were set. The other team didn’t have a chance. I approached home plate for the pre-game meeting with the umpires and opposing coach to go over the ground rules. About 30 seconds into the meeting, I realized I was in trouble. 

The umps greeted the other coach and me and said matter a factly,  “All right, guys, we’re playing Major League rules today.”

To which I astutely replied, “What?”

“Leadoffs, steals, and dropped third strikes,” said the ump.

My head was spinning. These kids were 9 years old. We hadn’t practiced leading off, stealing bases, holding runners on, or having the catcher throw the ball down to first base if he dropped a third strike. My boys were used to Little League rules where none of those things happened. In my eagerness to have the best uniforms and coolest hats, I forgot one important detail—to read the tournament rules. This wasn’t going to be pretty. 

We went on to lose the game 17-1 in three innings. (Thank you to whoever invented the mercy rule.) The other team stopped stealing to their credit after they got up by ten runs.  

During my post-game speech, I apologized to my team for not being prepared. They shrugged it off. There were orange wedges and drink boxes to be had, after all. But I felt like a failure.

I vowed never to go into a game unprepared again. I bought a stack of baseball coaching books and talked to every successful coach I knew. 

After that, I coached my son’s rec and travel baseball teams for the next seven years and served as an assistant coach on my daughter’s basketball and softball teams. I was no Sparky Anderson, but we won our fair share of games and took home more than a few tournament trophies and league championships. 

Over the years, I learned that there are many parallels between coaching youth sports and marketing. These concepts have five main elements:

  1. Start With a Plan
  2. Master the Fundamentals 
  3. Don’t Settle for Being “Good Enough”
  4. Pay Attention to the Numbers
  5. Have Fun

1. Start With a Plan 

Like Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together. After that first tournament, I never went into a game without knowing the rules or a practice without putting together a plan. The same holds true for marketing. The first step in any successful marketing endeavor, whether it’s a website or employer branding campaign, is to create a plan. The fact is over half of B2B companies lack a formal marketing communications (marcom) plan. By simply having a plan, you’re on your way to staying a step ahead of your competition.

2. Master the Fundamentals 

One of my favorite coaching sayings is, “Progress happens outside of practice.” If you want to get better and succeed on the field, you need to do more than just show up to games and the weekly 1-1/2 hour scheduled practices. You must be willing to put in the time and do the work. Learning best practices, like why the logo is always in the top left of the screen on a website or why you need to get your point across in six words or less on a billboard, is a great place to begin. From there, going the extra mile to discover the tips and tricks of the masters will elevate your game.

3. Don’t Settle For Being “Good Enough”

Before J. K. Simmons became the pitchman for Farmers Insurance, he won an Oscar portraying megalomaniacal music instructor Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. In one scene, Fletcher offers his star pupil these words of wisdom, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Although I don’t agree with his tactics, his point is spot on. Being good is tables stakes. Advertising legend David Ogilvy was a proponent of the “big idea” — an unforgettable concept that cap­tures the imagination of your audience and puts your product (or yourself) on the map. Marketers must come up with brilliant concepts that not only catch their best targets’ attention but also sell them on the product.

4. Pay Attention to the Numbers

Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb holds the record for the highest career batting average in MLB history by hitting .366 over 24 seasons. That means one of the greatest hitters of all-time failed 63% of the time. Nobody, not even the Georgia Peach, bats 1.000. The same holds true for marketing. Not every campaign is going to be a winner. Celebrate your successes. Learn from your failures. Savvy marketers regularly review and draw insights from marketing analytics to make business decisions. Like Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” By taking the time to be mindful of the right analytics, you’re setting yourself up for marketing success.

5. Have Fun

Early in my coaching career, I came across an article titled “9 Fun and Effective Baseball Pitching Drills.” The article’s point was to make teaching pitching a lot more fun and drill proper pitching fundamentals and techniques in young pitchers. I used those drills for years. Whether it was a cutoff throw relay or a throwing drill where whoever knocked down a bucket got a package of Big League Chew, I did my best to work something fun into every practice. The reason was simple. When kids are having fun, learning becomes natural and easy. Marketing is the same way. Sure it’s a job, but it’s a fun job. Having fun fosters creativity, promotes new ideas, builds camaraderie, and leads to a more enjoyable work experience. When doing something is fun, we’re more likely to dig in and produce great work.

My kids are in college now, so I’m no longer coaching youth sports. I have some great memories from that time. Little did I know that while I was coaching, I was learning valuable lessons I could apply to my marketing career. Sparky would be proud.

Jason is a Partner and the CEO at Revel, a B2B marketing agency. He is a diehard baseball fan who loves his Detroit Tigers. Family vacations often revolve around seeing games in different MLB ballparks around the country – they’ve been to 21 so far and counting. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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