The son of two civil worker parents, Tony Gwynn grew up in a small home in Long Beach, California. He played baseball with his brother on a narrow strip of yard in his backyard almost every day. When the Gwynn brothers lost their their supply of Wiffle balls by hitting them over the neighbor’s fence, or destroying them by hitting them so hard, they replaced them with sock balls, wads of tape, or figs picked from neighbor’s trees.
Tony’s father, Charles, saw potential in his son from an early age. Charles helped inspire Tony to pursue a career in baseball.
In high school, Tony almost quit baseball to play basketball, even though his hands were so small that he could never palm the ball. But after sticking with baseball, gaining some mentorship from Ted Williams, one of the best hitters of all-time, and a 20 season career, he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.
He is considered one of the greatest and most consistent hitters in baseball history. He had a .338 career batting average, accumulated 3,141 hits and was a 15-time All-Star.
Baseball, like many professions, requires making quick decisions, executing under pressure and performing at a high level for decades. So how did Tony Gwynn rise to become one of the most successful baseball players of all time and how can it be applied to business and personal development? Here’s what I learned from Tony Gwynn.
1. Know your strengths and weaknesses
As a contact hitter, rather than a power hitter, hitting home runs wasn’t one of Tony Gwynn’s strengths — and he was willing to acknowledge that. Watch the video below to hear Tony talk about using his self-awareness to inform his strategy.
“I’m a contact hitter, I’m not a guy who’s going to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
This informed his approach of simply trying put the bat on the ball each time he swung the bat. But Tony’s self-awareness went a step further. He knew that he performed at his best when the pitcher threw him a fastball away.
“If I didn’t get it where I was looking for it, I would take it…and try to work the count to get to where I thought I knew what I was going to get.”
Tony played the game that he could win, rather than the game someone else wanted him to play. Choosing the opportunities that gave him the best chance to win helped him at one point go 39 consecutive games without recording a strikeout.
2. What occupies your mind is your reality
The way we think affects how we perform. However, our minds aren’t great at determining reality. The bad news about this is that even if you have everything you ever wanted in life, you won’t feel that way unless you send reminders to your brain. The good news about this is that you’re not dependent on reality to have a positive mental state.
Here’s how Tony described the importance of having the right mindset:
“If you’re hesitant to raise your hand that you’re a good hitter, than you’re not. The first part about being a good hitter, before you even get in the batter’s box, is number one, mentally, you gotta believe that ‘hey I can have success’.”
There’s science to support this. Attentional Bias is the tendency for our conclusions to be affected by our recurring thoughts. By thinking with positive thoughts, we gain confidence. By gaining confidence, we perform better.
3. Focus on the system, not the goal
The concept of building systems, as opposed to setting goals, was a concept I first learned from Scott Adams’ book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” A system is the thing(s) you do on a regular basis to continually improve and achieve results. Good systems provide support towards achieving just about any goal.
In Tony’s case, rather than focus on factors that he couldn’t control or predict, he executed on what would most contribute to his success.
“…I wasn’t a guess hitter. I didn’t really anticipate a whole lot. I just kind of trusted my eyes and trusted if I got my hands in the right position that I could hit it.”
“My goal was to go up to the plate and put the bat on the ball — pure and simple. I had no preconceived notions of where I was going to hit it.”
The desired outcome — in Tony’s case, a hit — wasn’t something he focused on as much as what he needed to do to achieve that goal.
“We can’t be so locked up on the result, you really have to focus on the process. And the process is if I can go up to the plate and do things right every time, my chances of success go way up.” — Tony Gwynn
Rather than focus on his goal, Tony focused on his system. His system gave him gave him more ways to win and increased his chances of success over the long-term. In Tony’s case, that meant simply putting the ball in play. In order to increase his chances of putting the ball in play, he aimed to keep his bat in the strike zone for as long as possible. (You’ll learn what he did to keep his bat in the strike zone below).
Like all professional baseball players, Tony occasionally fell into slumps. But he stuck with his system through thick and thin, and over the long-term, he won big.
4. Know your leverage points
One component of Tony’s system was controlling the knob of his bat during his swing. Even though the barrel of the bat is what makes contact with the ball (the goal), he focused on the knob of the bat, because you need to control the knob in order for the barrel to make contact with the ball.
“Swing the knob, not the barrel…If you swing the knob of the bat, the barrel will follow.”
Tony also emphasized the importance of having balance and hand position.
“I understood that if I got into a good position and if I took my hands on the right path throughout my swing, that I was going to have a chance for success. And that in the game of baseball is one of those little battles that you have to try to win.”
Swinging a 32.5 inch bat in order to hit a 2.94 inch baseball in exactly the right spot while it’s moving 99 miles per hour into a wide strike zone is a nearly impossible feat. Creating a system simplifies what would otherwise require analyzing a virtually unlimited number of variables into one or more leverage points that increase the probability of success.
Everyone has different leverage points, depending on the line of work. For an entrepreneur, it might be talking to customers in order to test and iterate on ideas in an efficient manner. For a writer, it might be simply writing. For Tony Gwynn, it was using balance and hand position to keep his bat in the strike zone for as long as possible. By continually executing on this system he became one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.