Time Out: July 28, 2010

The difference between average and superior performance is much narrower than the average person thinks. Often superior teams have an aura of invincibility, a swagger that builds an impression that they simply cannot be beaten. On the surface, average performing teams don’t seem to match up. Actually, the gap between the two performance levels is not nearly as large as most people believe.
Case in point, consider the current standing of my New York Mets. The All-Star break proved lethal for the Mets. The Metropolitans returned from the break going 2-9 on a West Coast swing that has literally knocked them out of the National League pennant race. The horrendous second half start leaves the Mets at 50-49 as they return to Citi Field this week. Average at best.
Now consider the fact that the Mets have suffered 12 walk-off losses, losses where the game is tied or the Mets hold a slight lead during the last inning, only to see their opponents wrest the game away in their final at bat. A game decided in the final at bat is highly competitive, a game that could go either way, but this season, in the case of the Mets, these games have almost always been won by their opponents.
Let’s pretend that instead of losing all 12 times, the Mets were the victors in half of these hard-fought contests. Notice how this modest change would alter the perception of the Mets’ performance as average. Six additional wins and six fewer losses would give the Mets a record of 56-43. The shift is dramatic, boosting a very humdrum win-loss percentage from .505 to .566, and moving the Mets from the ninth best record of 16 National League teams to the top five. That modest change would improve the Mets’ standing from trailing the Eastern Division first place Braves by seven and-one-half games leaving them only one and-one-half games behind. And the Mets would move from sixth place in the Wild Card race to a tie with the San Francisco Giants.
A modest change in Met performance when they are at bat with the bases loaded would also make a dramatic difference. With the bags loaded this year, the Mets are hitting just .209 with no grandslam homeruns. That’s the worst of all 30 teams in baseball. Counter that with the Yankees’ .417 average and nine grandslam homers in similar situations. Modest gains here, too, would give the Mets overall performance a notable boost.
On a local sports level, I saw this principle played out this winter on the hardwoods with my Andes basketball team. We finished the regular season at 8-9. Of the seven Delaware league teams that qualified for Sectional playoffs, we were the only qualifying team to lose a game to either Windham, Downsville, or Jefferson. We lost to all three.
By almost any reasonable measure we underperformed in these three contests, especially in light of a late season surge that saw us come within a whisker of reaching the Section IV championship game. Had we turned these three losses the other way in the win/loss column, a lackluster 8-9 record becomes a more than decent 11-6.
On the flip side, improving performance occurs incrementally, too. In his book, The Plus 10 Percent Principle. How to Get Extraordinary Results From Ordinary People, author Barrie Richardson claims the difference between average and extraordinary performance is an additional 10 percent. To realize performance improvement, consider a stairway model. Rather than try to leap from the bottom rung of the stairway to the top, simply work your way to the next step by increasing your outputs by 10 percent.
Counseling students to make academic gains, I would encourage a student with a 75 average, a solid C, to seek a 10 percent gain; which would boost his average to an 82, bearing down on a B. The trick, of course, to figure out what behaviors would help realize those gains.
The 10 percent principle is a realistic improvement strategy that works hand and hand with the fact that far less distance separates average from superior performance in any field.