About a year ago, I worked with a client whose 9 year old (we’ll call him “Jacob”) was trying to deal with the pressures of being a little league baseball pitcher. Despite the self imposed pressure of throwing more strikes than balls or hits, he had to deal with the periodic setback of a poorly played game. During one particular game, Jacob was slow to respond to a bunt that rolled toward 1st base. After finally retrieving the ball, he dropped it, picked it up again, and then threw it to 2nd base where the batter had swiftly run. Jacob grossly overthrew the ball into the outfield which allowed the batter to come all the way around 3rd base and reach home plate to score a home run. That run broke the tie and resulted in Jacob’s team’s loss of the game.
Anyone who understands baseball knows that scoring a home run on a bunt results from a comedy of errors that can only occur in little league. Jacob wasn’t laughing. He was crushed at his performance and the heckling from his 9 year old opponents.
Jacob’s mom came to me concerned about his ability to “bounce back” from setbacks. Every time Jacob loses, he gets a “funny feeling” in his stomach, frowns incessantly, and worst of all, blames everyone else on the team for their errors without addressing his own.
We got to work on right away on building Jacob’s emotional intelligence skills of resilience and accountability. Many strategies helped him along his way, but one in particular stood out.
We asked Jacob to point his finger as if he was blaming a teammate for the loss of a game. When he pointed his index finger we asked him where his middle, ring, and pinky fingers were pointing. Jacob replied “back at me!”
After that, every time Jacob blamed others (and that was A LOT!) his very dedicated mom and dad firmly yet lovingly reminded him to use the other three fingers pointing back at him to focus on what he could do to be accountable for his own actions.
It worked! Within a month, Jacob and his parents even created actions ideas for the three fingers. They all started with the letter “s” which made them easy to remember.
The middle finger stood for “study and strength”. After losing a game, Jacob was encouraged to study his errors and learn from them. Of course, his parents helped. After that, he would focus on very specific strengths that he brought to each game. Jacob particularly liked to recall the number of strikes he threw with his famous curve ball and that made him happy. With prodding from his parents, he learned to add additional strengths such as “I gave John a pat on the back after he struck out”, and “I hit a line drive when I was up to bat.”
Jacob’s ring finger stood for “slide off.” He liked his mom’s idea of letting a loss or a poorly played game slide off his shoulders. He would literally lean back to act out the thought. By viewing the loss as a temporary event, Jacob could start focusing on the next game. (This thought process is part of a larger approach to learning the important emotional intelligence skill of optimism)
That led to “strategies” which was represented by Jacob’s pinky. Jacob’s dad was particularly helpful in helping him to think through his plays and practice them. They would spend a couple of hours at the baseball field every weekend. Besides improving his game, Jacob enjoyed the time with his dad and the feedback he received.
Jacob and his parents are to be congratulated. They were active participants in the coaching process and worked hard in between sessions to overcome unproductive approaches and implement new ideas in order to achieve success in their goals.
This exercise didn’t just help Jacob improve his game or his mood after a loss; it helped him understand how to be resilient, optimistic and accountable to himself. Research proves that these emotional intelligence skills will serve Jacob well in the problem solving arena for the rest of his life. If he slips back in to the finger pointing blame game and its ensuing negativity, he just has to remember where the other three fingers are pointing.
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