A Winning Team


Leadership lessons from the World Baseball Classic tournament in Seoul.

By Dan Rootenberg, PT, DPT

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a team physical therapist and strength coach in the recent World Baseball Classic tournament. As I was sitting on the airplane en route to Round 1 in South Korea, I thought deeply about management, leadership, and what style of coaching resonates most with elite athletes and how it relates to what we do in our clinics. I had the privilege for the next three weeks of observing and sharing ideas with some of the top coaches and players in the world. These observations and conversations revealed a lot about coaching, giving me insight into which styles of leadership are most influential and effective. Not surprisingly, the leadership concepts I discussed with these professional baseball players and coaches translate very closely to the leadership philosophy we live and breathe daily in private practice.

Bursts of Focus
The lifestyle of a professional athlete often features a large amount of downtime followed by shorter bouts of extremely focused effort. In baseball, focus is extremely important, as is the ability to identify the moments that require focus. A full three-hour game equates to just nine minutes of pure, intense, steely focus. Hearing that made me reflect how similar this is to how a successful physical therapy visit unfolds. There is a period of soft, open focus, followed by more intense interpersonal focus. This focus is what distinguishes a successful treatment session with a loyal and healing patient from a disjointed treatment session during which the patient/therapist relationship is out of sync. We have an open awareness whether with a patient or on the baseball diamond. The ability to identify the moments requiring intense focus make the difference between a star physical therapist or athlete and mediocrity. In the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman says, “Though it matters enormously for how we navigate life, attention in all its varieties represents a little noticed and underrated mental asset.”

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Coaching to Strengths Instead of Weaknesses
Beginning my journey with Major League Baseball, I naturally assumed I would be working with a great group of performers who had been influenced by great coaches at some point in their lives. It was evident that these players possessed the talent needed to get to where they are today; however, what I also noticed was that talent alone does not “make” a major leaguer (nor a successful actor, artist, physical therapist, or airline pilot for that matter).

According to Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, there are two progressively linked formulas for converting talent into achievement:

Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement

As evident in Angela’s formula, talent—an essential contributor to achievement—appears initially because without it, no amount of coaching or effort would significantly “move the needle.” Effort and grit will lead to success as long as there is some baseline of talent.

Very often, we see teachers attempting to groom students by spending a lot of time and energy focusing on students’ weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengths, states, “Suspend whatever interest you have in weakness and instead explore the intricate detail of your strengths . . . The real tragedy in life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have.”

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Growth Mindset Trumps Pure Talent
So how does this look in the real world? We must coach to people’s strengths and put them in positions to succeed. Their natural strengths should match their position (whether on the baseball field or in the business world). Additionally, in terms of coaching, the people being coached should ideally possess a growth mindset, which makes them more coachable and open to learning and development. Individuals with a fixed mindset are more difficult to coach, as they view themselves as having a fixed intelligence and fixed ability to learn and grow. They often take failure too personally. According to Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, people with “growth mindsets” feel they can develop their abilities through dedication, hard work, and coaching. Talent has a role to play, but it’s just the starting point; the rest is up to them. Those with “fixed mindsets,” by contrast, view talent as an innate gift that you either have or you don’t. They spend their time proving their abilities instead of working on developing them.

Fundamentals (Back to Basics)
Navy SEAL Lt. Commander Leif Babin, coauthor of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, preaches fundamentals. Leif paid us a visit at our company, and our leadership team had the privilege of speaking with him about his experience in the Battle of Ramadi during the war in Iraq. When asked about the top factor in success, where failure will cost people their lives, we expected a complex answer. However, Leif stressed that the key is perfect execution of the fundamentals. Back at the baseball field, this means making routine plays consistently and reliably. The athletes who do this are those who thrive. Comparatively, those who thrive in the clinic are the directors who routinely lean into difficult conversations instead of ignoring them, hoping they will smooth out on their own . . . to me that is a leadership fundamental!

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Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today
What does this mean for leadership in our health care clinics? Rather than having one default growth track that everyone feels pressured to take, I believe there should be a bifurcation of leadership training—different leadership tracks for different talents/goals.

At our company, we have two leadership programs: a management program for those who want to lead a clinic and a clinical program for those who want to focus on specific clinical skills. Our Future Leaders Program focuses on case studies in leadership, fostering positive culture within the workplace, and managing different personality styles. Our clinical program offers monthly interactive manual therapy workshops, a physician lecture series, mentor/mentee meetings as well as monthly journal clubs.

One of the most powerful tools we use in our program is 1:1 leadership coaching. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ask the right questions since our monthly 1:1 coaching sessions have a clear structure (see the diagram). The coach or giver of the 1:1 is responsible for asking the right questions, active listening, and probing. The receiver must prepare a thoughtful agenda that includes 4-8 items to discuss, at least 1 of which should be an opportunity. We train to find opportunities and not just issues. At the conclusion of the 1:1 should be a personal action summary that both parties review for completion at the next month’s 1:1. A key to remember about a 1:1 is that this is not a conversation! The designated giver versus receiver should have a 4:1 ratio of listening to talking, while the subject should still perceive the meeting as an even 1:1.

The skills that are often neglected in our graduate schools are leadership, management, communication, and emotional intelligence. As private practice owners, we have the opportunity to expose tomorrow’s leaders to the concepts that will make individuals successful both in and out of the workplace. On the last day of each yearlong Future Leaders Program, I always ask our graduates to recall how they felt during our very first class. If they realize how far they have come and how much they have grown and developed, then the class was a success. This process brings the idea of self-actualization to life—becoming the best possible version of oneself. And while physical therapy does not have a World Series trophy to hoist over one’s head in victory, becoming a notable leader in private practice can yield the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.


1. Goleman D. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins; 2013.

2. Duckworth A. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner; 2016.

3. Buckingham M. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press; 2001.

4. Dweck C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books; 2016.

5. Willink J, Babin L. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2015.

6. King Strategic Development.

Dan Rootenberg, PT, DPT, is the chief executive officer of SPEAR Physical Therapy, a 15-location practice based in New York City. SPEAR was the 2016 winner of the Jayne L. Snyder Private Practice of the Year Award. Dan is a former pro baseball player and loves coaching Little League. He can be reached at dan@spearcenter.com.