10 Powerful Lessons Every Team Can Learn from the Chicago Cubs

Sports fans witnessed history in this year’s October Classic. The Chicago Cubs broke their 108 year World Series Championship drought. They did so in dramatic fashion and displayed all that we love about sports on the biggest stage in baseball. While there was certainly exceptional play on the diamond, I am most interested in what the Cubs have done behind the scenes to build a championship organization. I believe every team can learn something from how the Chicago Cubs select, train, build, and field their team.

An October Classic for the Ages

I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the 2016 World Series. There was history, young superstars, tradition, and high caliber competition from the front offices all the way down to the diamond. Both teams were battling to end their championship drought. The Chicago Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908. The last World Series title for the Indians came in 1948. Needless to say, there was a lot at stake (not to mention the curses).

Allow me to refresh your memory with a few highlights. In the series, Cleveland jumped out to a commanding 3-1 series lead. They headed back to Cleveland looking to clinch the title in game five. The Indians pitching staff was dominant and the bats which had been hot for Chicago throughout the season had been silenced.

Before we knew it, the Cubs had fought back to even the series and were headed to a decisive game seven in Cleveland.

The final game started with a bang when the Indian’s ace, Kyle Kluber, gave up a solo home run to Dexter Fowler on the fourth pitch of the first inning. In the fourth inning, the Cubs manager, Joe Maddon, suddenly pulled his starter, Hendricks, who was on cruise control to a 4-1 lead.

Maddon brought in his closer with a 6-3 lead in the eighth with a man on. Brandon Guyer doubled making it 6-4. Then Indian’s Rajai Davis crushed a two-run homer to tie the game at 6-6. Indians fans cheered. Cubs loyalists feared the curse of the billy goat would strike again.

Ultimately, the game went to the tenth, punctuated by a 17 minute rain delay to build suspense. The Cubs scored two runs in the top of the tenth and Cleveland couldn’t tie it up. Cubs win!

10 Lessons Every Team Can Learn from the Chicago Cubs

How did the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years? While the list is long, I’ve found 10 lessons every team can learn from the Cubs about what it takes to be a championship team.

1. You Must Believe You Can Win. The Rickets family bought the Chicago Cubs in 2009. At the time the team was an embarrassment. Their clubhouse felt like a high school locker room. The club lost 101 games in 2012. It was a long uphill climb before the Cubs were contenders again. But from top to bottom, everyone in the organization believed they could do it, that they could build a championship team.

2. Be Optimistic. Remember the Cubs were shut out twice in the NLCS series. Then they struggled at the plate again in the World Series and were down 3-1. But they never gave up. They kept fighting, trusting in themselves, and remaining hopeful that they could pick things up.

Optimistic teams outperform pessimistic teams and perform better under pressure. They bounce back after losses, focus on what they can control, and work harder than pessimistic teams.

3. Select for Resilience. In 2011, the Chicago Cubs hired Theo Epstein, who helped the Boston Redsox end their drought. To bring an edge to Chicago he focused on intangibles, such as how a player responds to adversity. Epstein requires scouts to provide detailed accounts of how prospects respond to adversity on and off the field. The Cubs seek players who demonstrate resilience, optimism, a growth mindset, and grit.

4. Learn to Manage Emotions. Looking at the stats you might think Cubs young stars struggled. Through the first four games, Russell, Baez, Contreras, and Bryant combined for 6 of 59 at the plate. That’s a batting average of .102. Not the slugging that carried the Cubs the best record in baseball.

Speaking about the club’s young stars after game four, veteran Miguel Montero said, “I feel like they’re trying to do too much. There are a lot of emotions going on. They’re all trying to be the hero. We’ve got to be able to control our emotions a little bit.”

However, the wisdom and experience of Cubs veterans finally rubbed off. In one example, Ross, the retiring catcher, encouraged Rizzo, the young first baseman, to breathe during the early innings of game seven.

The youngsters seemed to regain control of their emotions as the series went on. There are a number of strategies to keep emotions from sabotaging performance. The same four players went 14 of 43 with a .326 batting average in the final three games to seal the win.

5. Remain Adaptable. While it is important to stay true to who you are as a team, to play your game, it is also important to be adaptable. The Cubs were successful throughout the season in part because they could adapt and find ways to get wins.

As the series progressed, Chicago made adjustments at the plate. Some hitters moved in on the plate, others choked up more on their bats. When struggling earlier in the playoffs, Anthony Rizzo even changed to a shorter, lighter bat so he could get to more fastballs. Remember, champions find a way to win.

6. Embrace Pressure. In Spring Training, Joe Maddon introduced a mantra for the team to carry throughout the season, “Embrace the target.” After a successful season in 2015, the Cubs had a target on their backs. He wanted them to embrace being the hunted. Plus, their goal was more of an expectation this season – to win the World Series. Again, Maddon’s message was to admit it, accept it, and embrace it, rather than trying to pretend the pressure wasn’t there at all.

To further drive home this message, the Cubs have a sign hanging in their home locker rooms which says “Don’t Let the Pressure Exceed the Pleasure.” Athletes need to learn to have courage under pressure, deal with nervousness, and use diaphragmatic breathing in order to embrace the pressure and perform at their best.

7. Know What You Stand For. Everyone in the Cubs organization is committed to the same things. When someone demonstrates that commitment, they say, “That’s C.U.B.” Josh Lifrak, Director of the Cubs’ Mental Skills Program said it’s just “what we believe in. The Courage to do things the right way, the Urgency to do it right now, and the Belief that we’re going to get it done.” That’s unity, when everyone on the team is on the same page, committed to the same goals, and pursuing one vision.

8. Ask Why Not? Often athletes and teams get caught up asking the wrong question, “Why?” However, champions ask questions like, “Why not us?” “Why not now?” “Why not break the curse of the billy goat?” The Chicago Cubs might have even asked themselves, “Why not be the fifth team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series?”

Or, there is the “Legend of Kyle Schwarber,” as David Ross puts it. It’s the comeback story of the year. Schwarber blew out his knee in April, rehabbed like crazy and convinced the Cubs to let him take some swings in the Arizona Fall League as soon as doctors cleared him to hit. After one hit in eight at-bats, the Cubs put him in the starting lineup as a designated hitter for the World Series. Careless or brilliant? It turned out to be brilliant as Schwarber hit .429, responsible for two RBIs. Left fielder Ben Zobrist (winning his second consecutive World Series) said, “No one’s ever seen anything like it.” But hey, why not? It’s part of the power of optimism.

9. Have Leaders in the Locker Room. No championship team relies solely on coaches to lead the team. Team leaders can share strategy, experience, and wisdom. They can inspire and motivate teammates. They hold others accountable.

Montero talked about encouraging his teammates. He said, “Sometimes I tell the players, ‘Just chill.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re 0-for3 or 0-for4…If you keep carrying one at-bat over to the other one, when the big at-bats show up, you’re not going to be ready. You’re still thinking about the past. You’ve got to move on.” Leaders can help others focus on the present moment.

Another locker room leader rallied the troops during the rain delay, right after Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run. Jason Heyward called a team meeting to “remember how good [his teammates] were, how good we are.” David Ross said, “He just said, ‘We’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Continue to play our game, support one another. These are your brothers here, fight for your brothers, lift them up, continue to stay positive.”

Would the streak be over without Heyward’s rally cries? Maybe. But leaders in the locker room made a huge difference in the Cub’s clubhouse all season long.

10. Celebrate Successes. There are many reasons championship teams celebrate successes. Celebrating successes builds momentum, fuels motivation, and fills our bodies with restorative positive emotions.

Whether or not the Cubs know the science behind celebrating success, they know how to celebrate. Joe Maddon set up a strobe light in a designated party room at Wrigley Field for the team to celebrate home wins. Celebrating success drove Chicago to a league-best 103 wins on the season and perhaps a World Series championship.

Free Download

To help you keep these 10 lessons visible, I created this free poster you can print out and hang on the wall in your office or locker room.

To Become a Champion Do What Champions Do

Champions have a growth mindset, meaning that they are always looking for ways to get better (not simply win more, but actually improve their abilities). Have a growth mindset as you look to learn from the Chicago Cubs. Improve your process, your coaching, or the mindset of your team. Choose to be a championship quality team.

In order to be the best you have to do the things that will make you the best. That’s true of teams just as it is of individual athletes. Every team in sports can learn something from this year’s World Series Champions. What will your team learn? Which of the 10 lessons will make the biggest difference in your team?

Question: Which of the 10 lessons will make the biggest difference in your team? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.



Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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