This spring and summer I served as a volunteer umpire for the baseball league in which both of my sons played. I have always been a bit of a baseball rules nerd and umpired a few games back when I was a teenager. But this was the first year that I found myself on the field as an adult.
It was a learning experience — and one that gave me some takeaways not just for next season when I return as a man in blue.
For each game, I showed up looking like a professional umpire with a uniform shirt, gray slacks, and black shoes. That helped me get respect from coaches and parents that I didn’t know. In fact, as I was walking on to the field for my third or fourth game, one parent said to me: “Wow, in our town we just have volunteer umpires.” I explained that’s all I was, too, but clearly the uniform sent a message that helped me be more effective on the field.
You Need to Have the Right Tools
It can be very tempting to cut corners to save money. I did that with a few pieces of equipment that I bought early on. And it cost me in the end. It turns out that when you have higher end protective gear, you get hurt less. Sure, i could have worn plain black sneakers instead of professional plate umpire shoes, but then I’d probably have a few broken toes now. It’s important to invest in the tools that will make you more effective (or, in this case, safer).
Nobody Expects Perfection
Being an umpire is a hard job. So is whatever you do on a daily basis. I often talk with colleagues who are concerned about making a mistake. Ultimately, most customers, clients — and even baseball fans — accept that none of us are perfect. They simply expect that we do the best we can given the resources available. At the same time, we need to learn from our mistakes so we don’t keep on making them over and over again. Sure, there will be some malcontents who will gripe no matter what, but it’s more important to focus on the 99% than the tiny vocal minority.
Practice Makes You Better
Each game I tried to take one aspect of my performance and improve it. By the time the season ended this past weekend, I was a much better umpire than when I started out on a cold Saturday afternoon in April. At work, I thought I knew everything when I was a 22 year old punk staffer. I now know that experience has made me better at my day job too — but I still continue to learn and improve every day.
It’s Important to Communicate
When you’re umpiring games with volunteer parents as coaches, chances are there are a lot of rules they don’t know. I always felt it was important to answer their questions about rulings, even if it meant taking a minute or two during the game to talk it through. Sometimes people who are upset just want a reasonable explanation. I generally found that once they understood what my decision was and how I got to it, they were OK. That’s the same philosophy I apply with customers, clients, employees, and anyone else I encounter in the workplace.
Don’t Have Rabbit Ears
Not every coach or fan agreed with every call I made. There was plenty of chirping from the benches and the stands during each game about everything from balls and strikes to tag plays at the plate. And it got more frequent and louder once we got to the playoffs. And that’s fine. Baseball is a sport with passionate fans and a lot of binary (yes/no) rulings that the umpires must make each game. That’s going to bring out some emotion and dissent. But as an umpire, I couldn’t take it to heart or I would think I was doing a lousy job out there. As businesses, we need to take a similar approach. We need to hear criticism and assess it, but we can’t allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by a small amount of negative sentiment or we will start making bad decisions.
Keep Your Smile
Anyone who has met me knows that I tend to smile and laugh a lot. I believe it’s important to enjoy whatever I’m doing and hopefully that helped me get through some situations as an umpire. I know it helped during some of the longer games in hot weather when everyone could share a laugh even as the game was in progress. I have seen other umpires get grumpy about any dissent and who just looked uncomfortable being there. Fans can tell and they don’t like it. Neither do customers.