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What You Can Learn About Focus From the World Series MVP

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Series MVP Madison Bumgarner pitches during the World Series last week. Series MVP Madison Bumgarner pitches during the World Series last week. David J. Phillip/AP

If I ever write another book, I want to interview Madison Bumgarner for it. That dude knows how to focus and I’d love to know more about how he does it. As you may have seen last week, the San Francisco Giants starting pitcher came on the mound in the fifth inning of game seven of the World Series and pitched for the rest of the game. The scene was set in Kansas City, and the Giants had a 3-2 lead over the Royals when Bumgarner took over. He shut the Royals down pretty much exactly as he had when he pitched a nine inning shut out just two days earlier in game five.

As reported in this summary, the World Series MVP pitched a record 52 innings in the postseason with a 1.03 ERA. He threw 32.7 of the innings in the Giants’ 17 postseason games and 34 percent of the innings in their World Series games. In an era when starting pitchers typically work on a five-game rotation, Bumgarner pitched in three of the seven games of the series and allowed only one run.

Watching him pitch in game seven was mesmerizing. In a rocking stadium filled with a sea of Royals fans wearing blue, Bumgarner just kept doing what he was there to do -- retiring batters. As I watched him between pitches, I was totally struck by how calm and focused he was. There was no psyching himself up between pitches. As he looked down at the mound, you could see him take a quiet breath through his nose and then turn to face the batter and release his pitch. Every time, it was the same thing. When the inning was over, he would quietly and deliberately walk back to the dugout, take his seat and fix his gaze on an indeterminate point in the distance.

Bumgarner is a man of few words, and I’ve been unable to find any interviews where he talks about how he’s learned to focus like he does. This brief quote from an article in the New York Times offers a few clues:

“I was just concentrating on making pitches. I wasn’t thinking about how many innings I was going to go or how many pitches or any of that. Just thinking about getting outs.”

That’s pretty much it. Don’t focus on the distractions. Focus on what you’re there to do. In Bumgarner’s case, his focus was pitch by pitch leading to out by out. In the last half of game seven he got 15 of them. Little steps -- pitch after pitch, out after out -- led to a big result: the World Series championship.

What’s the takeaway if you don’t throw a 95 MPH fastball? For me, it’s focus on your breathing and then focus on what you have to do. What’s yours?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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