How to Break Out of a Major League Slump
Factors beyond your control can cause failure but what comes next is all you.
The New York Yankees top pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, has been in a deep slump this season. One of the best pitchers in baseball, the 29-year-old has lasted just four innings and given up 14 runs -- including seven homers -- his last two outings. He appears to be healthy, but none of his pitches are working.
Actually, Tanaka has been off his game this entire season. It’s a real mystery, considering how remarkably consistent he’s been since coming to Major League Baseball from Japan in 2014. The young man is under enormous pressure to justify his $155 million seven-year contract.
“I feel like I’m in a sort of deep hole,” he recently told reporters through an interpreter. “But I can’t just put my head down. I have to lift my head up and work on the things that I need to work on, and try to fix what I need to fix and move forward. It’s a grind. Definitely it’s a grind, and it’s frustrating, but I’m trying to get it right.”
(Editor’s note: Since this was written, Tanaka indeed came back and pitched a solid game. I’m sure he’ll stick with it and eventually return to his old form. After all, that’s what the greats do.)
If you’ve never been through a big slump, you’re either very young, very lucky or lying. It happens to everyone sooner or later. I don’t care how talented or experienced you are. When it happens, it’s like you’ve been infected with an insidious disease that destroys your confidence. You wake up every morning wondering if you’re ever going to get your mojo back.
And you won’t unless you’re tough enough to persevere, work your way through it and come out the other side. I’ve seen remarkably successful people -- founders, CEOs and venture capitalists among them -- fail what I consider to be the only true test of courage and tenacity that every aspiring business leader must face.
When the dot-com bubble burst, the fallout among Silicon Valley startups was devastating. Hundreds of companies went under. One late-stage startup had been planning its IPO when the bubble started to deflate. Its CEO did not waver, even when his top two lieutenants resigned … on the very same day. I know; I was one of them.
This guy was tough. He hunkered down, hung in there and three years later, took the company public in one of the most successful IPOs of 2004. Today he’s very happy, and very rich, as a result.
Not everyone faired so well. While most Silicon Valley VC firms were diversified enough to weather the storm, one company had raised too much capital and over-invested in the sectors that were hardest hit when the market crashed. Its partners did not handle the pressure well. Several left among the infighting, investors bolted and the firm never raised another fund.
I can’t tell you how many times my career and finances have been on the ropes. I’ve botched major deals and blown critical pitches. I’ve been fired more times than I care to remember. I didn’t just blow a fortune when the Nasdaq crashed in 2001; I was CEO of one of those startups that was forced to shut its doors and lay off 40 employees. That’s how I know that VC firm; it was one of our two biggest investors.
After all those experiences, I can genuinely say I know how Tanaka feels. I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to weather a major league slump:
Take a good hard look in the mirror.
You have to resist the temptation to play the victim, rail about the injustice of it all and chalk it up to bad luck. Maybe you played a role and maybe you didn’t, but if you did, the problem certainly isn’t going to fix itself. Once you determine what went wrong, take swift and decisive action to get back on track.
Don’t dwell on it or beat yourself up.
It’s one thing to figure out what happened so you can recover as quickly as possible; it’s another thing entirely to wallow in guilt and self-loathing. If you destroy whatever self-confidence and self-esteem you have left, you will continue to spiral, and that’s never a good thing.
Come up with a new plan and execute.
Forget about your old strategy; it’s no longer viable. Forget about what could have been, should have been or would have been. Once you’ve done your soul-searching, it’s time to come up with a new plan that takes your current situation into account. Just look forward, get to work and execute.
This may sound corny, but the sun will rise again. If you take the right steps, that is.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.