Lew Chamberlin, right, managing partner of the West Michigan Whitecaps, cultivates his mental toughness with help from Eddie O'Connor, founder of the Performance Excellence Center at Mary Free Bed. Photo by Pete Daly
Eddie O’Connor, a sport psychologist and founder of the Performance Excellence Center at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, has made 300 presentations to groups and media on mental toughness — the kind that helps both athletes and business executives overcome the slumps and challenges that can lead to failure.
Lew Chamberlin, CEO and managing partner of the West Michigan Whitecaps, knows all too well about the importance of mental toughness in sports and in business, and right now his organization is relying on it to rebuild its stadium in time for the first game of the season April 8.
O’Connor and Chamberlin got together recently to talk about mental toughness and the psychology of excellence that helps people succeed in business and competition.
The Whitecaps, a Class A minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, marked its 20th anniversary last year with an increase in attendance and overall revenue. The team didn’t make the Midwest League playoffs but did hammer out 90 homeruns — only the second time in Whitecaps history that mark has been achieved.
Then fire broke out shortly before noon Jan. 3 at Fifth Third Ballpark, gutting a portion of it as record cold temperatures hampered firefighters.
“We all took about a day or two to mourn and feel sad about it,” said Chamberlin, but then the entire organization “flipped over into ‘How are we going to fix this?’”
Right now the staff is doing two jobs, he added: their normal work getting ready for the 2014 season by selling tickets, placing advertising and all the logistics, and also “rebuilding a stadium.”
“The way they deal with it is by focusing on what we’re going to achieve,” he added.
Chamberlin said he still doesn’t have a firm understanding of the dollar loss due to the fire, which was thought to have been triggered by a space heater being used by a work crew.
“We had good insurance,” said Chamberlin, with coverage by Chubb Group, represented locally by Wells Fargo Insurance Services.
Wolverine Building Group is at work on the reconstruction, with design work being done by Progressive AE.
“That team has been working together” practically since the fire was put out, said Chamberlin. In fact, when Wolverine built the stadium back in 1993 as the franchise was just getting off the ground, Wolverine’s superintendent on the job was Fred Gilbert.
Word of the blaze ripped through the community the morning of Jan. 3, and Gilbert — still with Wolverine — was one of the first on the scene, already beginning to plan what would have to be done to get the Whitecaps back on the field April 8.
O’Connor said stress is universally seen as a “bad thing,” but everybody has to deal with it. The key is to not let the stress create a psychology of defeat, he said. Mental toughness, according to O’Connor, is having enough resilience to accept “that things are going to be hard … and engage it.”
Being able to take action in an adverse situation, such as the aftermath of a fire that almost destroys your business, is a stress reliever in itself, O’Connor added, “so you’re not stuck.”
“That resonates with me — not getting stuck — because I have been stuck before. I know exactly what you’re talking about,” said Chamberlin. “And as hard as this (fire and reconstruction) is, it’s way better than being stuck.”
It took Chamberlin and his partner, Dennis Baxter, eight years of struggle to bring professional baseball to West Michigan, starting in 1986.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” he recalls. At one point they almost had a deal for a ballpark in Wyoming, but it fell through. A similar thing happened in Byron Township.
“Ultimately, we decided we were going to finance the stadium ourselves,” said Chamberlin. “But there were a series of failures before we ever got to that solution.”
What kept them going, he said, was their absolute certainty that bringing baseball to West Michigan was a good idea.
O’Connor’s work with athletes has convinced him that competitors must be flexible, and sometimes professional athletes are too rigidly committed to a specific outcome, he noted. Often they need more flexibility to accept their mistakes and learn from them.
Chamberlin said he sees that rigidity in some of the young new players in the minor leagues. These are the individuals who were the best players on their school teams and everybody knew it. Then they join a minor league team made up of other young athletes who also were standouts back home. “They start experiencing failure,” said Chamberlin, “and they don’t know how to handle it because it’s always been easy.”
But those who learn how to handle that failure and still maintain a belief in themselves can go on to success.
“It’s true in business, too,” added Chamberlin.
If an individual cannot embrace his or her mistakes, “It will chew you up and spit you out,” said O’Connor. “With training, you can learn mental toughness.”
Star athletes and business people who are very successful tend to get special treatment from the media, said Chamberlin, and the danger in that is when “they begin to believe their own press clippings.”
An organization that has core values and believes in hard work has an edge on those that don’t. The Whitecaps’ core value is the West Michigan community, according to Chamberlin.
But for now, the organization has a major challenge ahead: rebuilding a seriously damaged stadium and being ready for opening day.
Chamberlin admits he worries, although “almost nothing keeps me up at night,” he said. “I worry about the weather,” he said, because winter construction can be very challenging.
“I worry about lead times,” he added, about construction materials being delivered on time to the job site so work can continue uninterrupted. The team of contractors rebuilding the stadium gets bigger every day, he said. “We’re always relying on the next guy down the line.”
As a baseball executive, he has always had to deal with weather delaying or cancelling games, but this is an altogether new type of weather worry.
“This time, it’s no doubt (the weather) is making it difficult. We’re having to work around this weather. My hat is off to the contractors because they’re out there six and sometimes seven days a week,” said Chamberlin.
“We’ll get there,” he said.