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The Baseball and Business Connection for Peak Sales Performance

By May 25, 2011Article

When I was the pitching coach for the New York Mets and the Oakland A’s, finding players with the right skills was critical. But finding players with the right mindset was even harder. Some of the game’s great athletes would not have achieved their success without adjusting their mental approach to the game. As we watch the players in the World Series, it becomes even more clear that the psychological aspect of succeeding in professional baseball can be readily transferred to business results in the high-tech industry sector.
Like in sports, sales organizations should focus on the right performance-based behaviors in order to achieve success.
Understanding the winners
As a coach of professional athletes, it became a mission for me to understand what separates the true winners from the rest. It became very clear that talent does not always equal performance. Very often, two players would have the same talent and physical conditioning but the better player would be the one that was mentally and emotionally superior.
If you look at the accomplishments of two sure to be hall of famers, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, both are excellent pitchers and have great records. But their average pitches are clocked at only 85 MPH – a velocity that wouldn’t get you a contract today. What makes them superstars is their mental focus and ability to call on the right performance based behaviors at critical times.
I have coached some of the greatest athletes of this era like Michael Jordan, Barry Zito, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Frank Thomas, Al Leiter and Kenny Rogers. Without question, what allows them to consistently perform at the highest levels is their execution of the key performance-based behaviors.
When I co-directed the sports psychology program for the Chicago White Sox, I got to know Michael Jordan. Here is an athlete who is universally recognized for his ability to perform in the clutch. When the game was on the line, he always wanted to take the last shot. When I asked him about the thought process he went through leading up to the “last shot,” he said that he made that “last shot” thousands of times in his mind before he ever took it on the court.
In his mind’s eye, he rehearsed various situations against a wide range of opponents all leading to that last shot. Michael mentally rehearsed and visualized this play over and over in his mind. When it came time to do it on the court, he focused on his visualization practice and just let it flow. What he didn’t do was say to himself, “Oh my, this is the shot to win or lose the game. I have to get my feet right, the ball in the right position, and manage the timing sequence.” Instead, Jordan simply called on the right performance-based behavior by recalling his visualization. From that point forward, his mind executed the steps flawlessly.
Most athletes, like business people, need to be reminded of the right performance based behaviors regularly. This is the coach’s primary role.
You would be surprised at how many times I would go to the mound during a game to talk with a pitcher and he would nervously ask.”How is my delivery? Is my arm up in the right position? Is my leg kick right?” I would have to calm him down and remind him that he has the skill – that’s why he is in the majors. In about 60 seconds I would have to get him to refocus and recall the behaviors we practiced that are required to execute as a peak performer.
It was a 60-second therapy session that often made the difference with that batter, that inning and that game. In my opinion, this level of coaching is what business leaders need to do more often. People tend to over-think the process at critical times. The time for planning is before the activity or event. Like Michael Jordan did so many times, sales professionals need to relay on their coaching; they just need to let it flow.
Yogi Berra had a great quote on this topic. He said, “Fifty percent of the game is 90 percent mental. When it comes to hitting, I can’t think and hit at the same time.”
The connection between baseball and business
The issues in business are similar to those we see in baseball. We often focus too much on “skills.”
To be a great sales professional one must have the skills associated with getting prospects, doing sales presentations, negotiating and closing – in a variety of situations. The great sales professionals have the unique ability to shift and adjust their behavior from situation to situation and circumstance to circumstance in order achieve more successful sales calls and ultimately close more business.
The “A”-level sellers call on the right performance-based behaviors at the right time to win more often. Looking at the sales organizations in high tech companies over the past few years, what has driven their success? What are the right behavioral tendencies and attributes needed to be successful?
When I speak with executives, they often point to a short list of top performers. They stress the results. But when pressed further, it’s obvious that they failed to identify what makes this group of peak performers so special. I can tell by the look on their faces that they realize they better figure that out if they are going to continue to be successful. Especially with the uncertainty that faces so many firms today.
Sales management is very similar to baseball coaching in the major leagues. We both have talent levels that vary. However, to be consistently successful, we must somehow get maximum performance from everyone.
My observation of sales leaders is that they need to better understand their role as a coach. Too often, sales leaders avoid coaching they want to sell for their sales professionals.
It is like me walking to the mound and saying to Tom Glavine, “Tom, I understand this batter better than you do. Give me the ball, I’ll pitch. You go back to the dugout.” Sounds funny when you think about it, but how many times have you or your sales leaders done this with and customers at some point in a critical sales transaction? Instead of coaching for peak performance, sales leaders try to run the sale themselves.
The root of the problem is that sales leaders are missing the tools to measure or coach effectively. CRM and SFA systems are not tools for peak performance coaching. Today, sales leaders need something else to help them coach and mentor more effectively.
Achieving peak performance during difficult times
The economic times we are facing right now can cause focus issues for some business leaders. This can lead to an organization’s version of a “slump.” Most teams find themselves in a slump at some point in the season. Currently, many companies find themselves in the middle of the most challenging business cycle witnessed in over three decades.
When our baseball team gets into a slump, we tell the players to focus on the process. We stress that we have identified a proven peak performance process and if we focus on that, we will surely come out of the slump. Teams that react to slumps by making reactionary changes are the ones that actually extend the slump.
My observation is that when times are tough, businesses of all sizes tend to obsess heavily on outcomes absent any respect for the process. They constantly want updates with a heightened focus on sales, profits or cash-flow forecasts. For example, some organizations will go from one pipeline meeting a week to three. Sales leaders will constantly ask “When will you close this or that deal?”
There is a better approach. While outcomes are important, it’s even more critical to drill down and examine the best-in-class processes you have in place for your sales organization. Focusing on the process of performing rather than the outcomes will help get you through a slump, even in an economic slump.
It can be hard for salespeople to stay motivated during these times; but if sales leaders know the right buttons to push, they can motivate peak results with significantly more consistency.
The momentum available to your organization can make a difference every quarter and provide a foundation for peak performance that can be parlayed into world class results in a very short period of time.
The peak performance triangle
Over the years, I have summarized my coaching philosophies into a set of guidelines called The Peak Performance Triangle. The Triangle blends the three key elements great athletes constantly focus on to achieve peak results. The Peak Performance Triangle was developed on the baseball field, but it has been used with executives who have achieved equal success. We have seen companies make great sustainable improvements by applying these principals.

  1. Skills and competencies – You must identify the specific skills and competencies needed to be successful. If you apply this to your sales organization, you will know what to measure and where development is needed.Most companies need to improve the identification of their existing skills and competencies.
  2. Physical conditioning – Does your sales team present themselves in a way that shows confidence and success? Are your individual contributors taking care of themselves so they can perform through a long season (four quarters) of performance?
  3. Performance-based behaviors – What are the dominant dimensions of behavior required to be successful in your organization?This is where companies need the most improvement. They need help identifying the behavioral elements and then implementing effective coaching strategies required to achieve peak performance results.

Understanding performance-based behaviors
Each organization has a unique Success DNA. This DNA is the blend of skills, competencies, and behaviors that exist among the peak performers in your company.
The same is true in the major leagues. When a team acquires a new player, one critical success component is the player’s ability to play in that market. For example, New York is exceptionally demanding for major league players. The media critically analyzes each game and players have to be able to handle the pressure. Not every player can perform at their best in the NY pressure cooker. Fans see this all the time. A great player comes to a team but he doesn’t perform as he well as he did previously. When this happens, everybody loses.
Technology companies often make the mistake of hiring stars from other teams. If an individual contributor does well at SAP, will that person do equally as well at Oracle? Can a software company hire a storage company sales director and expect similar success? The Success DNA at one company is rarely identical to that of another. If you knew your Success DNA, then you could hire much more effectively.
Identifying your Success DNA
Data are what great baseball organizations use to understand their talent and that of the opposing team. You would be amazed at the amount of data coaches and managers process before every game. We look at player tendencies in more ways than you can imagine.
When I speak to companies about achieving peak performance, they are always shocked at how much data we process to prepare for our success. I have this motto, “In God we trust. All others must have data.”
Companies have all kinds of analytics and data that reveal the condition of their business. Much of it comes from the CFO’s office. However, most firms I meet with have limited insight regarding the three anchors comprising the Peak Performance Triangle, the skills and behaviors required to be successful.
I joined the Advisory Board at Spring Lake Technologies (SLT). SLT has built and delivered a version of the Peak Performance Triangle that achieves great results for sales organizations. They are doing for business what I have been doing with great athletes for over 25 years. They have created a best-in-class process and technology to identify a company’s unique Success DNA.
In developing the applications, SLT examined the individual results from peak performers across a range of industries and identified 20 performance-based behaviors and competencies that are critical to sales success.

At first some of these may seem like foreign terms. For instance, take number 10, “Need for harmony.” In some companies, harmony is a dirty word and doesn’t matter at all. In other companies, it is a very important concept.
By understanding how each of the 20 characteristics impact the selling process and identifying the gaps that exist, SLT provides specific coaching to help the leadership team improve sales performance.
Focus on the behaviors that matter
This process is especially important for “B” and “C” players in a sales organization. By focusing on the performance based behaviors that are critical for success, sales managers can help these players perform more like the “A”-level sellers. This is where real ROI can be achieved – performance based coaching. Firing and rehiring is too expensive. Utilizing performance coaching to boost results from sagging players is far less expensive.
We recently worked with a client to evaluate potential sales hires that would have cost the company $1 million in turnover cost. Luckily, we helped the company realize in advance which candidates had a poor Success DNA rating and consequently were highly unlikely to be successful there. Another client saved $2 million in turnover costs compared to what they experienced in the previous 18 months before using these technologies.
High-tech executives can take a play from my book and help their sales team realize their potential by concentrating on performance-based behaviors and the Peak Performance Triangle. The result may not be a trip to the World Series, but it is very likely to add a lot more notches in the “W” column and provide the foundation for repeatable success for years to come.
Rick Peterson is a special advisor to Spring Lake Technologies. A lifelong “baseball guy,” Rick has developed a unique approach to coaching that has produced revolutionary results. Over three decades, Rick has combined athletic skills with the science of human behavior to achieve help his players set new milestones. Rick has applied his unique methodologies with some of today’s most successful athletes including Michael Jordan, Barry Zito, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Tom Glavin, Roger Clemens, Frank Thomas, Jim Abbott, Jason Giambi, and many others. Known as the Pitching Professor, Rick was the pitching coach for the New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics for the past decade. Under his guidance, the A’s finished in the top three in ERA from 1999-2003. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder all flourished under his tutelage. Each became a 20-game winner and Zito captured the 2002 American League Cy Young Award. Contact Rick at or send an email to

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