Swinging for the Fences

From the Headmaster's Desk, October 31, 2017

My half term involved a brief trip to the States for some quality time with my family. Another highlight of travelling in America in October is that it is the baseball playoffs.  And I love baseball.

Have any of you ever been to a baseball game?  Are any of you aware that tonight is Game 6 of the World Series in Los Angeles?

In case you don’t know, the World Series is the championships of the American Major League Baseball season. Now I appreciate the irony of a competition that is exclusively American being called the ‘World Series’ – it is as bad as winners of the NFL Super Bowl claiming to be ‘World Champions’ in a sport only played in North America.

But I do want to explain what I find to be the most fascinating aspect of baseball – it is dominated by failure.

Nonetheless, without a doubt, baseball is my favourite sport. I should add – it is not my favourite sport to play. In fact, when I tried as a young boy, I was so rubbish that I gave up early in primary school, but I love to watch it.

I will not try to explain the intricacies of baseball. It has similarities to both rounders and cricket, and I would argue that it is as complicated as cricket, with multiple positions, a seemingly endless number of ways to get out, and a myriad of statistics.

But I do want to explain what I find to be the most fascinating aspect of baseball – it is dominated by failure. And herein is a lesson for all of us.

The best batters in baseball fail, every game, several times. Each time a pitch is thrown, a batter has a chance to hit the ball, the same as in cricket. But in baseball, unlike cricket, they normally miss. This is because pitchers in baseball often throw the ball at 100 mph, or they throw pitches with incredible movement, known as cutters, sliders and curve balls – similar to spin from a cricket bowler.  This means that the best baseball players in the world fail, every game, throughout the season and through their career, especially when facing a good pitcher.

The most important statistic in baseball is the batting average of a batter. This translates into the percentage chance that they have of getting on base each bat. A good player has a batting average of 0.25, or 25%. This means every time they go up to bat, three out of four times they get out, and walk back to their bench or dugout as a failure. A really good player might have an average of 0.33, so one in three times they get on base. Still, the majority of the time they fail as well.  The best player in baseball this year was a Venezuelan player called José Altuve, who had the highest average of any player this season at 0.346.  He did hit a memorable home run in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night, but the majority of time he goes up to bat, he also fails.

There are few sports, jobs or activities where failure is such a regular part of the routine.  Imagine a taxi driver claiming that one out of every four rides is a success and reaches the desired destination. Or a surgeon who said they get it wrong 75% of the time but 25% they operate with success.  Or a teacher who admits the majority of their pupils fail their course, but one in four might just pass.  If you do meet a taxi driver, surgeon or teacher boasting of such statistics, my advice would be to find another.

Yet, what I admire about these baseball players is that they are great because they learn to live with their failure. Not hitting the ball is a regular part of their daily work.‎ Yet they must have the resilience to bounce back, and try again, often just an hour later in the same game, facing the same pitcher.

Yet, what I admire about these baseball players is that they are great because they learn to live with their failure.

And we all learn from failure.

Research shows you learn from mistakes and failures, because the emotional stigma attached to not remembering stings, and causes you to remember better in the future. So don’t just stare at your vocabulary lists in languages – test yourself until you fail, because it is then that you will remember.  In fact, educational research shows that testing is the best kind of revision.  After tests, you learn and make progress, because it is in a test where you have to think carefully and realise the limitations of your knowledge, and then you’re better prepared for the next test.

The thing to bear in mind when failing, is not that you’re a failure, but that getting things wrong is part of the learning process. The only reason you’re even competing is because you’ve gotten that far to compete. No one gets up to bat in the World Series by mistake – they have to win games all season and beat other teams in the earlier rounds of the playoffs. And no one gets into Blue Coat by mistake either – you’re here because you have done well in the past and you have the potential to do well again in the future.  You are all here because you belong, but just like in baseball, you might occasionally experience setbacks or disappointments.

‎One of my high school coaches used to say: The greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising each time you fall. So go out there and, as they say in baseball, swing for the fences. And if you fail this week, then dust yourself off, try again, and get better every time. And one of these times, when you get it right, you will smash a home run out of the park – and that’s a great feeling.  Just ask José Altuve.

‎Have a great week, and a smashing second half of term.

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