Breaking the Curse

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs finally broke the 108-year streak of not winning the World Series. Theo Epstein, the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs, was immediately seen as some sort of baseball god or superhero. One journalist called him the “breaker of curses” and claimed, “No one is as good at their job as Theo Epstein.”

Over the last decade, Epstein’s leadership of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox broke two of baseballs longest droughts.  But people quickly forgot the hard road he took to get there, and the criticism he received along the way. They only saw the man at the top of the mountain.

At the end of the 2011 season, after the Cubs had just lost 91 games, Epstein took over. One would think it would be hard to lose that many games again, but Epstein and the Cubs managed to lose 101 games in 2012 during his first year as president. Immediately, people started to question Epstein and his methods to turn the Cubs around. The ultimate doom and failure of Theo Epstein became a common prediction in the sports world, as many did not see him digging his way out of this hole.

After the first season, things didn’t get much better. The Cubs finished in last place of the NL Central Division for the first three years of Epstein’s presidency. The mounting doubt and criticism only grew during this time, and many were calling for his removal.

Many coaches in sports today endure criticism and doubt from players, families, and fans. So, we can relate to the emotional and mental challenges that a leader like Epstein faced during this period.

The effects of this criticism on coaches varies: some coaches are forced out; some burn out and quit; and others struggle to find fulfillment and joy in their vocation. Anytime we struggle to achieve the results that others expect of us (and that we expect of ourselves), we also struggle with doubting our own abilities. We start to wonder, “Am I the right person for the job? Should I be doing things differently?”

When this happens, it’s very easy to start listening to those outside voices. But doing so can easily derail us from our principles.

Surviving Criticism

So, how did Epstein overcome all the criticism and stay the course? In The Cubs Way, Tom Verducci tells the story the Chicago Cubs’ rebuild, which started when Epstein left Boston to take over in Chicago. What’s most fascinating about the story is not Epstein’s unique vision, process, and principles to win the World Series, but how they would keep the club’s growth prioritized over the outcomes.

Epstein endured the hard road by sticking to his approach from the onset. The following three tactics that Epstein used can be applied by any coach, regardless of their level:

  1. Ground Your Expectations in Reality: Epstein saw the Cubs as a 5-7-year rebuild. He made sure everyone in the organization knew this would be a process. Struggles in their first three years were expected and seen as part of the process.
  2. Don’t Sacrifice Character for Talent: From the people in the front office to the players on the field, Epstein made sure to bring in high-character people who wanted the club to succeed above their personal success. The result was a clubhouse in which people genuinely enjoyed their jobs because they were more concerned about others than themselves.
  3. Commit Deeply to the Process, Not the Short-Term Results: Epstein didn’t like losing 101 games in his first year. But winning a certain number of games in a specific period of time was never part of his process. Instead, he had very detailed goals for everything in the organization, from food and nutrition to mental training, player development, and even scouting. So, by many of Epstein’s metrics, the Cubs were very successful—even when they had the second-most single-season losses in franchise history.

Change Your Approach

Sometimes, getting through a losing season isn’t just about fighting harder or toughening up mentally or emotionally; it’s about proactively addressing the things that make it emotionally and mentally hard.

In the case of the Cubs, they brought in good people whom they enjoyed; they under-promised or didn’t promise short-term results; and they measured success and growth far differently than any outsiders.