7 Principles Michael Jordan’s Baseball Career Reminded Me About Change

If, like Michael Jordan, I was a betting man, I’d say before laying eyes on this post, you’ve already laid your eyes on The Last Dance documentary.  Ultimately, it’s about the Chicago Bulls and their run for their sixth NBA Championship, but MJ is certainly the focal point.

Episode VII covers MJ’s retirement from basketball to play baseball.  As I watched this, I couldn’t help but see the parallel’s between MJ’s baseball journey and your journey toward a healthier and fitter you.

So, I wanna share with you seven things I learned from Episode VII.

I. You’ve gotta have the skills for “the bigs”

MJ began in Double-A.  Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, said this of MJ beginning his baseball career in Double-A:

“We don’t send anyone to Double-A after they come outta college or high school because it’s too high a level.  We start them out at either rookie ball or A ball.”

(What’s interesting, MJ didn’t start in Double-A because of his skills; it was because the smaller ballparks couldn’t accommodate the media attention and fanfare he generated.)

If you’ve tried improving your health, fitness, and body composition before, were you guilty of trying to play above your skillset?  Did you skip over “rookie ball” and jump straight to “the bigs” only to “wash out”?  (I’m warning you, there may be a lot more quotation marks to come.)

Have you turned your nutrition into a biochemistry class and your training a physiology class when what you need is to eat a few more vegetables and get off your butt?  Start small.  Get in some reps.  Practice doing the “fundamentals” well.  Then work your way into “the bigs”, e.g. carb cycling and undulating periodization.  (Oh, you don’t know what those things are?  That’s my point!)

II. Success comes easy, early

Although MJ started above his warranted level, surprisingly, he started his baseball career with a 13-game hitting streak.  That’s no small feat that he made look easy.

When you begin a fitness and nutrition program, fat loss and muscle gain come easy.

I’ve often share that everything works . . . for a little while.  For someone who’s not been training, anything works for about six weeks.  For “rookies” who’re unadapted to physical work, anything will cause and adaptation and make you leaner and stronger, until it won’t.

III. The hits (and fat loss) stop coming

MJ’s hitting coach asked, “When’s it gonna happen?  [When is the streak going to end.]  It finally did.  He did not see a fastball in the strike zone for probably a month and a half.  Now there trying to get him out with breaking balls, and it’s breaking ball after breaking ball.”

Pitchers got familiar with MJ.  Instead of just throwing him fastballs, they started throwing him curveballs.  Hits no longer came so easily.

After the initial two to six weeks of starting a program, your body gets familiar with the new activity.  Couple that with life “throwing you curveballs”, fat loss and muscle gain no longer come so easily.

IV. It’s harder than you think . . . maybe

Something else Jerry Reinsdorf said to MJ was, “Playing baseball is a whole lot harder than you think.”

You may be thinking, “I know where Adam’s going with this.  Changing my body is harder than I think, right!?”  Actually, no . . . sorta.

Changing your body is hard.  But it’s not as hard as you think it is.  And it’s certainly not as hard as you’ve made it.  But it does take a whole lot longer than you think it should (I’ll talk more about this later).

V. Haters gonna hate (don’t be one of them)

After MJ’s initial success and he started striking out with greater regularity, the critics came out.

They said things like:

“The hitting streak in April was . . . a fluke.”

“I think his chances of being any good are almost nil.”

“Just because you’re considered the best to have ever played basketball, does not mean you’ll find similar success on a diamond.”

When you started your fitness journey, and began experiencing some failures, did your critics come out?  Sure, I’m talking about other people, but more importantly, are you guilty of being your biggest critic?

“Yeah, but like Mike, I’m fueled by this.”  Are you like Mike, really?!

Here’s the thing, although MJ had others criticizing him, I can guarantee he wasn’t criticizing himself.  I’m confident the outside criticism you receive is a fraction of the criticism you dish out to yourself.

VI. When the going gets tough, commit

When MJ his slump, he didn’t tuck tail and run.  It fueled him more.  He wore blisters in his hands.  His work ethic was “the best ever”, according to one of his coaches.

He committed himself to do what needed to be done.  He got into the batting cage and worked with his hitting coach.  He hit off the breaking-ball machine.  He went in early and hit before the game.  He stayed late and hit after the game.  Because of these things he got better and better.

If things get tough on your journey, you too have to commit to what needs to be done.  You’ve gotta get yourself to the gym (or wherever you do your strength training) and into the kitchen (or wherever you do your food prep).  And it helps to work with a [qualified] fitness and nutrition coach.

VII. It’ll take longer than you think . . . certainly

Eventually, MJ got his batting average over .200.  MJ’s manager at the time, Terry Francona (who eventually won a World Series managing the Boston Red Sox), said, “I can’t believe he actually hit .202.  He drove in 50 runs.  We had a lotta good prospects that didn’t drive in 50 runs.  In my opinion, with 1,500 at-bats, he’d a found a way to get to the Major Leagues.”

I did a little math.  A minor-league season is 95 games.  Each game, a player may have three at-bats per game.  At that rate, it would’ve taken MJ over five years to reach 1,500 at-bats.  FIVE!

How long have you persisted with your fitness and nutrition program?  I guarantee you’ve not seen the equivalent of 1,500 at-bats.  And if you have, you’re well on your way to “the bigs”.

I tried quantifying what an at-bat would look like.  Ultimately, it comes down this:

Every time you’ve the opportunity to answer the question “Will this decision/action help move me toward my health, fitness, and body composition goal?”, you’re taking an at-bat.

For every “yes”, it’s a hit.

For every “no”, it’s an out.

But outs are part of the “game”.  Good hitters learn as much from outs as they do hits, if not more.  So, the next time they’ve an at-bat, they’re better prepared.

Even if you face more “at-bats” each day than a minor-league player, have you ever once played an entire season?  Have you ever given a single training program or diet the equivalent of 95 games, or three months?

Four additional nuggets I pulled not from the documentary but after proofing this post are these:

  • He had a goal (to play professional baseball).
  • He was committed (hours in the batting cage).
  • He had coaches that coached, encouraged, and believed in him (“In my opinion, . . . he’d a found a way to get to the Major Leagues”).
  • He did the work (his work ethic was “the best ever”).

The Last Dance is 10 episodes.  To date, I’ve watched nine.  I count it strange that of all the hours I’ve watched, it’s the eight minutes they spend on MJ’s baseball career that stood out to me.

Some would say that MJ failed at baseball.  I disagree.  But even if it was [his] failure, both you and I can learn from it.  Just as we can learn from our own.  But in order to fail, we gotta “step up to plate” like he did.