Learning to Compete, Lead, and Give Back with Coach Fran O’Brien

Recently, I attended the visitation in Reading, Massachusetts for Francis O’Brien, my college baseball coach at MIT.[1]In his eulogy, Kevin, the oldest of Coach O’Brien’s five children, said, “As Jackie Robinson said, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on others.’ My father took this message to heart.”

When Coach O’Brien arrived at MIT in 1969, he inherited a no scholarship team expecting to lose. During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired stories and a book, Beaverball. In honor of Coach O’Brien, this post includes excerpts and examples of his leadership, humor, toughness, and how he and his family impacted me and many others.

Meeting Coach

I first met Coach O’Brien during a trip to visit colleges in Massachusetts after my junior year in high school. When I entered his office, Coach O’Brien sprang up from behind his desk and greeted me with an energetic two-handed handshake. Coach looked the part of the long-time baseball coach with silvery hair and tan skin. However, his most distinctive features were his smiling green-grey eyes and sharp nose. His face beamed charisma and you could just as easily picture him managing a Major League Baseball team as you could coaching college players.

Communicate Expectations and Listen

Coach established his expectations with the team from the start. “Go take care of your school commitments first. And if you need to talk about school, or anything else, my door is always open.” 

One time, in the spring of my sophomore year, I visited Coach to talk about school. Coach listened and his eyes smiled, and then he said, “Remember, Brooks, this is one of the toughest schools in the country. You worked hard to get here. Now keep doing what you’re doing, guy, and go get that degree!”

During my years on the team, there had always been a steady stream of players strolling down the second floor hall of the MIT Athletic Department in Rockwell Gym headed for Coach’s office. Often Coach would be listening to a player frustrated by school or trying to work through a decision associated with a job, grad school, or a relationship. Players cycled in and out, and Coach always put down his pencil and held his calls. In the end, his most valuable gift to us may have been his sympathetic ear.

Toughen Up and Expect to Win

Coach told me once that the biggest adjustment for him at MIT was the attitudes of the players. When he arrived in 1969, he inherited a baseball team that batted .196 in 1968. He would get angry and yell, and players would say, “Relax Coach, we’re supposed to lose.” Coach did not like that one bit, so he focused on clearly communicating his expectations and creating a winning attitude. You arrived at practice and games ready to play and expecting to win.  

For years, Coach cultivated competitiveness in MIT baseball players. In 2000, he shared a story with me about how he knew his teams were getting tougher. One weekday afternoon in the 1970s, the baseball team was practicing while a bunch of local guys were playing an informal soccer game in deep left field. Coach approached the group and asked, “Hey, could you guys clear the field and come back after our practice?” 

One of the soccer players looked directly at Coach and pulled a knife out. While startled, Coach, held his ground. Suddenly, the guy turned and started running away. Coach, impressed with himself, thought, “Hey, I’ve still got it!”

Then Coach turned around and saw the entire baseball team sprinting toward him, bats in hand, ready to back him up. He didn’t realize they were there, but he was proud of the way they had responded. 

Stay Positive and Optimistic

Coach O’Brien founded The Friends of MIT Baseball to help finance team travel and field maintenance. He organized alumni baseball games and kept former players updated with annual newsletters. Like Coach, the newsletters were enthusiastic and optimistic, regardless the level of talent in the program.

For example, the 1984 newsletter opened with “We are so close to having an outstanding opportunity for raising a little hell with New England college baseball…If enthusiasm and dedication are necessary ingredients, then this team should fly early.” That team ended up winning seven games and losing 11.

In 1990, following a 1989 team that had gone 17-12 and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament, the newsletter said, “As we all know, getting to the top is a difficult process for any team…but staying on top in 1990 is the real challenge for this year’s team.” That year, my freshman season, saw nine wins and 16 losses. When former players get together, we relive our struggles to remain competitive and, through the fog of memory, call them “good times.”

Learning to Hit with Kevin O’Brien

Our team loved it when Kevin O’Brien, Coach’s son, came to our practices. He was a taller, leaner version of Coach, with the same smiling eyes and a sharper version of the O’Brien nose. And Kevin knew hitting. He had a detailed understanding of the batting stroke and worked with what we had to help us get better. He didn’t say, “Too bad you have a crappy swing.” Rather, he’d say, “Okay, you’ve got good balance there. Now let’s focus on those hands.”  

Kevin always left us mentally ready to step into the box to take good hacks. He boosted your confidence at the plate. And for hitters, belief in yourself was everything.

Like Coach, Kevin had played college ball at Tufts where he was a two-time team captain. In 1978, Kevin led the nation in hitting, batting .484. After Tufts, Kevin played minor league ball with the New York Yankees. Later, he worked as a scout and instructor with the Toronto Blue Jays. To this day, he runs hitting camps around Massachusetts, and the name says it all: The Sweet Swing Hitting Academy.

Together

At the end of each practice, Coach gathered the players around him. He looked around the circle and often shared a message like, “What night is tonight? Friday night. Go out, relax, have a good time. But be focused. We start tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Not 9:35. Not 9:45. 9:30.” He had a captive audience and got his point across. Then, we would put our hands in the middle of the circle and say in unison, “Together!” 

Legacy

This idea of expecting to win and pushing a team past where it might be comfortable was powerful. It changed the conversation from drowning in an opponent’s supposed superiority to focusing on our strengths relative to their weaknesses. Coach taught us to think, “What could we do to put ourselves in a position to be successful?” With strong pitching and error-free defense, games remained close. And when games remained close, anything was possible, no matter how good the opponent or how big the challenge. I believe that to this day.

I remembered this lesson after starting Forisk Consulting, my forestry research business. At first, my team often asked, “How can we bid on projects against larger, more established firms?” But for me the question was, and is, different. I constantly ask, “How do we demonstrate to potential clients our ability to add value?” To do this, we write articles, publish research, and teach courses. Each of these activities builds credibility, strengthens skills, and, ultimately, grows the business. Gradually, after two years of struggling to meet payroll, the phone started ringing.  

Through practices and games at MIT, Coach emphasized key lessons: work hard on the things we can control, be mentally ready to perform every day, expect to succeed, and have fun. Coach always told us, “You have to give something back to the game.” Many of us went on to coach little league teams and volunteer in our communities and support the MIT baseball program as alumni. Coach not only graduated improved baseball players, but he also graduated player-coaches who valued integrity, professionalism, and fair play. Coach O’Brien developed leaders.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/bostonglobe/name/francis-o-brien-obituary?id=36769001

Shooting Diameters with Danny Hamsley

When I missed the mark in my role as a log buyer and harvest manager in northeast Georgia in the 1990s, Danny Hamsley had a way of setting me straight. It would start with a phone call. 

“Brooks, I’m riding with you in the woods tomorrow.” 

Early the next morning, I would pick Danny up in the parking lot of a restaurant, or wherever he parked his red Jeep Cherokee, for a day of visiting logging jobs, wood suppliers, and customers at mills. When riding down county roads, Danny could look out the window and identify any tree, calling out its Latin and common names in quick succession. Then he’d test me. To that point, I had not taken a formal dendrology class or spent hours studying tree species. My knowledge was limited. Sure, I could name a magnolia or Japanese maple, but hornbeam? Could I pick a scarlet oak from a Shumard? No, I could not.  

At some point, standing near a logging job or reviewing a thinning operation, Danny would directly and succinctly reinforce expectations and help me better understand what really mattered in my work on behalf of the company. For example, in my first year, I was slow to finish paperwork and contracts. This delayed payments to our wood suppliers. While we received regular paychecks, my suppliers depended on this paperwork to get the monies owed them.

In this instance, Danny told me about a call with a supplier. “Look, this guy likes you well enough, but he doesn’t like you enough to not get paid.” Message delivered and understood. He emphasized the business implications to our operations, to my supplier, and to me. To this day at Forisk, I try to pay our vendors and contractors quickly. I want them to view us as reliable, responsive, and appreciative of the value and services they provide to us.

When walking the woods, Danny and I had little competitions like throwing rocks at trees to test our arms, or “shooting DBHs”, a game foresters play to see who could better estimate the diameter at breast height (DBH), to the tenth of an inch, of trees. From 20 feet away, we’d say, “That one is 10.2” or “that’s 9.6 inches.”  Then we’d tape it to see who was right and the loser bought lunch.

Danny’s knowledge ran deep. One time, I travelled with him to Bruce, Mississippi to visit a sawmill that had installed the latest “curve saw” technology, which could cut straight boards out of banana shaped logs. After the tour, we ate lunch with one of the machine operators, who had spent his career in the mill. He asked Danny, “how do trees grow? Why are they crooked?” Danny pulled out a napkin and diagramed the twisting nature of tree growth and how it reaches for the sun and leans away from shade to maximize available resources. The tree corkscrews itself up and away from any hinderance and goes to the light.

Fifteen minutes later, Danny got up to get more sweet tea, and the guy said, “well, that was more than I wanted to know!” and we laughed. Danny, who passed away unexpectedly three weeks ago[1], was a scholar of many things, and his tendency to offer exhaustive explanations to basic forestry questions earned him the nickname “Mr. Big Words” on The Forestry Forum, where he served as a moderator since retiring from a thirty-year career in the forest industry.

Danny and I often discussed the challenge of being human and raising children, long before I ever married or had children of my own.[2] Danny called this the “curse of the big brain.” Kids don’t fall out of the womb ready to program iPhone apps. Human development from babe to self-sufficiency includes a long apprenticeship supervised by parents, and along the way we communicate and reinforce dozens of expectations. Our job includes loosening the reigns as they grow and mature and, ultimately, letting go.

When you do something long enough, like shooting diameters or working with teams or reading widely, you develop a sense for what matters and what does not. William Danny Hamsley, a man who thought deeply about how we live on this planet, taught me many things about forestry and people, and I will miss him.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.watsonhunt.com/obituaries/William-Hamsley/#!/Obituary

[2] The relationship Danny and I built extended to his oldest daughter, Amanda, who became my business partner a decade ago.

Verbalize: Practice Your Presentations Out Loud

I’ve given a lot of presentations, mostly about forest finance, timber markets and communication skills. When preparing, I use current data and recent research overlaid onto basic “themes.” Then I practice with new stories or examples. Even though I may be fluent and experienced with the themes, I always practice the presentation out loud. Why?

Verbalizing is an effective way to connect ideas, verbs, and nouns in actual language. Speaking the presentation, even if just to yourself, smooths transitions, and uncovers examples. Relevant stories and experiences come to mind while practicing out loud, and the exercise creates a form of muscle memory that builds confidence for the talk. Over the years, I have given hundreds of presentations to myself while driving to conferences and client locations.[1]

People in many professions, from comedians to singers to politicians to teachers practice, out loud, the words they plan to say to improve their delivery and effectiveness. I read a story about former NFL Head Coach Jason Garrett, who used to be the backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Early in his career as a player, when Garrett was learning to call plays, he would review the plays in his head and then shout them out load, as if in the huddle on the field, while driving to and from the Cowboys’ facility. Garrett said, “People thought I was crazy, but I still do it.”

My friend Jim King, a retired forest industry executive, would also verbalize key points to prepare for presentations. He asked the same of his team, to impress upon them the importance of developing tight messages and clear communication skills. When preparing his team for Board meetings, Jim would have the managers practice presentations multiple times in the actual Board room to finalize slides and reinforce how one person’s presentation linked to the next. 

Verbalizing messages and doing “dry runs” does not require more time, it simply requires an organized schedule to make it happen. The payoff from verbalizing in advance, which gives your brain extra time to process, is realized in the room. Clicking through slides is insufficient for presenting at your best, just as swinging a baseball bat in the living room is insufficient for improving as a hitter. The shorter the talk or the more exclusive the audience (e.g. Board of Directors), the more effective, relevant and powerful this advice becomes. 

Practicing out loud scrubs the messages and preselects appropriate words. It requires you to know, even intuit, the “structure” or flow of the talk. For example, a 15-slide deck may cover three topics, with 3 to 5 slides per topic sandwiched between an intro slide and a concluding slide. In my head, I know this; it provides a map for the talk.

My experience taught me that being nervous is natural and not indicative of whether a talk will go well or not. I have also learned that failing to verbalize is, for me, failing to prepare. It is a practical and effective way to deliver a better talk.

Future posts will continue to focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.


[1] Yes, I literally give talks while driving to my destination. This can be distracting, like talking on a cell phone. I once missed an exit while working through a talk and ended up driving an extra hour north to Tennessee instead of south into Alabama.

Information Overload: Brains and Homo Sapiens

We share the brain of our ancestors. The humans of one hundred thousand years ago, as they started migrating from Africa, toted between their ears brains similar to the ones we carry today.[1] The average homo sapiens on the street, with a comparable mental engine to our own, was simply at a different phase in the collective understanding of how things worked. They cut with sharpened stones while we etch with lasers. They hunted and gathered while we order online. They walked while we drive.

Today, we have a different challenge. Rather than make our way with roughhewn tools and limited knowledge, we flounder under an avalanche of information when making decisions. The sources of the information, from social media to corporate advertisers to political campaigns to entertainers, are incented to produce a flood of content, and they do so with a jovial disregard for the implications on our mental or community health. It’s a numbers game that requires capturing and retaining monetizable volumes of eyeballs and attention.

In 1971, Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon wrote, “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

“What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Herbert Simon

The implication from Simon’s observation is that the pain of dealing with this information overload falls on us. And we are not well-prepared for the task. We share the scarcity mentality of our ancestors, who scavenged for food and knowledge, while we live lives of relative and absolute abundance. We hoard and consume and struggle to manage inboxes. We stuff offsite storage facilities with so many “precious” belongings that they could furnish a small planet.  We are simply not that good at sifting, sorting, and deleting.

Anything we can do teach our children and ourselves how to filter and capture useful information, to appreciate the fertile nature of how lessons in one area may enhance our ability to understand things in another, the more we advance positive self-care, confidence, and our collective ability to learn. In this way, we prepare our minds for navigating and battling the overwhelming noise of a chaotic world.

In future posts, I will focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.


[1] S. Neubauer, J.-J. Hublin, P. Gunz, The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science Advances. 4, eaao5961 (2018). Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aao5961

How to Deliver an Educational and Insightful Talk

The question “how do I teach this to them” has puzzled presenters, professors, and parents since the Greco-Roman god Apollo taught Chiron, his foster son and polymathic centaur, how to throw a curveball.

In this post, I share an approach for outlining and preparing the delivery of educational presentations.

##

My general preparation for an educational or invited talk at a conference, in a classroom, or for a client event includes five steps.

First, confirm the theme and audience.

When invited to give a talk, ask about (1) the objectives of the event (and my host) and (2) the background of the primary audience. Talking to 5th graders about trees differs from presenting on the forest industry to a Rotary Club. 

At times, the specific theme is less important than the role you serve for the audience and your host. If you are the after-lunch speaker, focus on a (relevant) subject you truly care about and know deeply, one that allows you to bring extra energy to the room. This may or may not match exactly what you were asked to speak about, but in my experience, a really good, engaging talk that captures the attention and interest of the audience is a success, regardless the advertised theme. 

Then, select your insights. 

If your theme is bears, which two or three things about bears do you plan to focus on and communicate? What bears eat? How bears walk? Who’s smarter than the average bear, Smokey Bear or Yogi Bear? Your choices comprise the “modules” or parts of your talk, and they are selected with the objectives of the event and the primary audience in mind.  These are your key messages, the main points you want to share.

Third, choose your examples.

Relevant examples, evidence, and data that you know well will help the audience absorb and appreciate your ideas. Select examples – stories, maps, figures, graphs, movie clips or any other tightly packaged information – that support your insights, simplify your job as the presenter, and make it easy for the room to appreciate your message.

At times, a presenter dumps data or stories on the group without an organizing framework or clarifying idea. This confuses the room. Don’t do this (unless you’re the next Robin Williams). 🙂

Fourth, incorporate your introduction and transitions.

Choose and practice your opening and what you will say to move from one insight to the next. The introduction could be as simple as “Hi. My name is Dave. Today, I’m going to share three things related to bears.” Transitions could be simple phrases (“now to the second point”) or they could be brief stories that emphasize the insight just shared or introduce the relevance of the insight you are about to share.

My point here is less about the content of the introduction and transitions and more on the importance of simply deciding and practicing what you will say in advance. Practice out loud. Verbalize your opening and transitions. Help your brain and mouth work together to find the best word combinations. THIS WORKS. You will think of new and better ways to strengthen, tighten, and smooth the talk by practicing out loud, even by yourself.

Finally, construct a conclusion.

Well-constructed conclusions could be the most neglected part of the educational talks I’ve heard (and delivered). The conclusion is an opportunity to reinforce the most important points and manage the educational experience for the audience. This includes knowing what you plan to say after the Q&A concludes. You would rather choose the final thing heard by your audience than have the final thing be the product of a random question. This leaves too much to chance. Know your close.

##

Developing and delivering an educational talk – a presentation that shares or transfers knowledge, skills, and expertise from presenter to audience or from teacher to student – requires a clear understanding of your objective in the room and your audience. Having a clear, systematic process to organize and prepare your comments increases the likelihood of success in conveying your message to the group.

Good luck!