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How to Win

The Day They Turned Down Muhammad Ali

Former big-leaguer Al Leiter tells a great story about team focus and chemistry.

In the MLB network’s airing of the “20 Greatest Games,” Leiter recalls a key point in the 1997 World Series between his Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians.

With the Series tied at one victory apiece, someone offered to fly in boxing legend Muhammad Ali to visit the Marlins clubhouse. Ali would just walk around, say hello, and let the Florida players rub elbows with greatness.

Florida Manager Jim Leyland declined the offer. He said he felt the team needed no further motivation, and that the players were exactly where they needed to be mentally.

And Leyland proved to be right! His team won the Series in seven games. Leyland had measured the mood of his team perfectly, and it resulted in a title.

Knowing the pulse of your team is too often overlooked by coaches, who are often consumed by practice planning and other matters. All the practice in the world will not help a team that is divided, unfocused or unmotivated.

You might say that you’re simply not very good at reading a team’s mood. But that raises the familiar question: Is that skill innate or developed? Perhaps you’ve not paid enough attention to your team’s emotional makeup. If that’s the case, you can start right now. Take the time to talk to your players. Notice any cliques. See who is included or excluded.

You won’t become an expert overnight, but you must begin somewhere. And with a little practice, you may surprise yourself with your ability to know what your team needs.

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Mike Tully speaks to sports, business and educational groups. He also works one-on-one with students athletes on skill-building and game performance. He is co-author of “Ten Things Great Coaches Know.”


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