Ken Ravizza, who brought the practice of sports psychology to professional baseball, recently passed away at the age of 70. Ravizza began this work four decades ago at a time when talk of a “sports psychologist” would cause chuckles in the locker room. Today, thanks to in no small part to Ravizza and others he worked with and influenced, nearly every Major League baseball team has a director of “mental conditioning,” and players are increasingly evaluated on six skills: running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power, and psychological resilience. Ravizza’s last job was as an assistant to Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon in the years the Cubs won the World Series.
What did Ravizza do that was so special?
According to Chad Bohling, the first sports psychologist hired by the Yankees, “Ravizza was skilled at taking generic concepts in psychology and applying them to high-level athletes in a manner in which they could understand.”
Put another way, Ravizza’s gift was not as an inventor of new psychological concepts, nor was he necessarily on the cutting edge of psychology itself. Rather, he was a teacher and a translator, taking the best that field had to offer and bringing it to a new audience to help them perform at a higher level. Ravizza knew how to make simple but profound concepts, like “forget your last mistake” and “stay in the moment,” tangible, sticky, and therefore impactful to the players.
Two Ken Ravizza vignettes:
In 2004, when working with a slumping Cal State Fullerton team, Ravizza gave each player a tiny toilet small enough to fit in their gloves to remind them to flush away anything that was in the past and let it go.
During spring training of 2015, what would become the Cubs’ championship season, he, according to the New York Times, gathered the full team on the field “where he had lined up 162 baseballs, plus about a dozen more, and separated them with seven bats.”
The objects represented the number of games the Cubs would play over the course of the season, including the playoffs, and the bats divided them by months.
‘How long the season is, yet how individual it is and how each game means something’ said Adam Warren, a Yankees reliever who spent the first half of that season with the Cubs. ‘For an athlete, it’s easy to say ‘forget about that’ or ‘focus on the next pitch’ or ‘one game at a time.’ But if you have something visually that you can see that symbolizes that and resonates, it’s going to stay with you as opposed to something you hear and then forget about two minutes later.’
What a perfect summary of our jobs as creators, authors and sense-makers in our fields (let alone as managers, coaches, and leadership trainers), and a great antidote to the ever-pervasive “I have nothing new to say.”
What Ken Ravizza models is that, to be impactful, we needn’t be in the business of inventing brand new ideas that no one has ever thought of.
Rather, our job is to take our dedication to something we believe is important—for example, the mental game in baseball—and became highly skilled at selecting the most important concepts, ideas and insights that we have access to and to translate them in ways that players (our tribe) can hear them.
I’m reminded of one of my first full-time jobs, working at IBM to partner with U.S. public school districts to support their adoption of new technologies. Every time I and my IBM colleagues showed up to speak to school administrators, one of the first questions we were consistently asked was, “are any of you educators?” Why? Because they wanted to know, “are you one of us?” Or, more specifically, “are you close enough to being one of us that I should believe that you understand our context, and believe your application of these ideas to our reality?” Because if not, then I’m going to tune you out.
With this lens, we see what are two most important jobs are as creators, neither of which is “creating absolutely brand new things.” Instead, we must:
Become “one of us” to the tribes to whom we are speaking, a practice of self-authorization that grows out of the way we show up, how consistently we show up, and the clarity and generosity with which we share our articulation of the ideas we believe need to be translated to this audience. Most important is, like Ravizza, speaking in a language this tribe can hear—the first indicator of whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’—and using a form of communication that is meaningful to them.
Effectively tell stories, like the one with the 162 baseballs and the 7 bats, in a way that can be heard and remembered. This is what allows lessons to penetrate the psyche of those to whom we are speaking. We can choose to use physical objects—tiny toilets, baseballs and bats—or vivid, concrete stories. But no matter what the medium, our job is to speak in ways that engage, in ways that are easily remembered and repeated, so that our audience can tell themselves and others those stories again and again, long after we are gone. Our job is to leave behind, in the form of these memorable stories, tiny mementos of our message.
This view is a chance to free ourselves from the terror of the blank page—whether a page we are trying to fill with a blog post, an article, a video draft, a speech, or our story garden for a training session—by reminding ourselves that the question we have been asked to answer is not “how do I say something that no one could find if they Googled these ideas after the fact,” but rather, “what, of all that I have been exposed to, are the most important ideas, concepts and frameworks that I can understand, process and translate to generously support the people to whom I am speaking.”
New ideas are a dime a dozen.
Ideas that land in a way that people can hear, remember, digest, practice, and internalize…those ones are priceless.