Business Lessons Learned at the World's Largest Amateur Pool Tournament

by Nico Scopelliti

In 2014,  I spent my summer vacation in Las Vegas, and I got there in what may be the best possible way — on somebody else's dime.

I play on a team in an amateur pool (billiards) league that awards its successful members with trophies, cash, and the ultimate prize:  a week in Vegas to compete in the national tournament, airfare and lodging paid. As you can imagine, the competition is fierce. The seven other members of my team and I made it through a year of challenging play and multiple local and regional tournaments to win our spot in the 34th Annual APA (American Poolplayers Association) Team Championships. My experiences on the path to Vegas and then at the national tournament itself rank among the most important learning opportunities I've ever had.

Although I shouldn't be surprised, it still amazes me that the vast majority of the lessons I've learned playing pool have direct and powerful business applications:

⦁    One bad apple can spoil the bunch, but a strong leader won't let that happen.
⦁    Management is not leadership, and supervision is not management.
⦁    A team's success depends more on its cohesion and attitude than on the skills of its individual members.
⦁    Good sportsmanship is not just a matter of courtesy; it is a critical element of success.
⦁    Defeats are inevitable, and it is crucial to manage the emotions triggered by defeat.
⦁    You cannot judge a book by its cover, nor a true performer by their outward appearance.
⦁    Good tactics become increasingly difficult to sustain over long periods. Mini-cycles of focus, execution, and relaxation are critical to endurance.
⦁    A simple but well-timed defensive maneuver can be worth eight incredible offenses.
⦁    Encouragement and positive reinforcement (balanced with accountability) wins out over derision and criticism any day.

And that's just to name a few. In this article, I'll focus on the first two, and I'll occasionally return to this list in future articles.

"One bad apple can spoil the bunch, but a strong leader won't let that happen."

While it was by no means a grand revelation, never in my life has the difference between leadership, management, and supervision been as blindingly clear as it was during my week in Vegas. Allow me to provide you with some context. The APA has more than 270,000 members, and more than 700 qualifying teams from all 50 states travel to Las Vegas once a year to compete for cash prizes totaling over $1M and a first-place award of $25,000. The week-long tournament often requires teams to play back-to-back rounds for up to 10 hours straight. While everyone is there to have fun, the pressure is on and the stakes are high. Either you show up intending to win, or you're knocked out in short order.

Pool is most often played head-to-head. Team pool is also played this way, except that two teams of eight people play five head-to-head matches in a given round, and there are rules governing what combination of players a team can field in the round. Each team consists of a mix of highly skilled and less-skilled players, which puts a strategic onus on the team's captain to select which players do or do not get "put up" in a given round.

While good teamwork and leadership are obvious prerequisites for victory in sports like football and basketball, the role they play in a game consisting of multiple one-on-one matches may not be so clear. When you are put up to play, it's just you and your opponent. While you're allowed one timeout per game to confer with a teammate, you're the only one at the table making shots, and once that timeout has been used, it's all on you. Yet I can assure you that good leadership is no less crucial in this context than it is in any other endeavor.

It was ultimately due to a lack of leadership that my team advanced only a little more than halfway through the tournament. We could have gone much farther, but our captain did not behave as a leader should. He did not lead, and he barely managed. At best, he supervised. And not only did he watch as our team lost cohesion, he contributed to its disintegration. At least Nero only fiddled while Rome burned — he wasn't running about Rome pouring fuel on the flames.

The drama began the very day we arrived. "Jen," a 47-year-old single mother of four and one of the less-skilled players on the team, is not known for her mental stability. She and our captain, "Tom," a construction company project manager in his mid-thirties, have never gotten along very well. But upon their arrival at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, things got out of hand. The league had rented four rooms for the team, which meant we'd each share a room with one other person. That shouldn't be a big deal for adults, but Jen decided that she was entitled to a room of her own, citing the fact that she is a woman, suffers from various incurable maladies, and has been a victim of domestic abuse. So, as if any of those were legitimate excuses for her behavior, she registered one of the rooms to herself, kept both key cards, and locked herself in it.

After various protracted and insult-laden arguments via text message between Tom and Jen, she refused to join our team meetings or come to any practices. We were not even sure if she'd show up to play.

The tournament began the next day, and Jen did show up, but she refused to wear the team shirt or participate in team discussions. All the same, I tried to keep her and the others in good spirits and encourage everyone to focus on the goal — winning. We made it through the first round.

But Tom wouldn't let it go, and Jen continued her drama, and after two more rounds the entire team was simmering. Tom took no steps to rectify or even de-escalate the situation, but rather chose to complain about it, call Jen crazy in myriad fashions, blame her for distracting us, and make empty threats to get her thrown out of the room. He invested a great deal of negative energy into the situation, without investing an erg into a positive solution.

"We need to put Jen out of our minds," I implored him and the rest of the team. "We can't control her, and the more we time and energy we spend on her, the less we'll be able to focus on our practice, our strategies for winning, and the tactics necessary to effectuate them. The more we complain about Jen, the less we'll be able to support each other and maintain a positive attitude. Let's just stop talking or thinking about her and focus on what matters." But no one could hear me, least of all Tom, who should have been the one setting the tone.

 [Image: This year's champions, "You Got Action" from Cabot, Ark.]

So, when Jen showed up to our next round drunk and behaved horribly, putting us at risk of disqualification, we fell apart and got knocked out of the tournament by an opponent whose skills, while respectable, were well below our own.

Rather than support and encourage us, rather than discuss game plans with us, rather than organize practice sessions or review our performance, rather than work with us to keep control of our emotions, rather than keep his eye on victory, Tom just sat back and watched.

Jen may have been the bad apple, but Tom is responsible for not removing her from the barrel and redirecting the energy wasted on her back to the real mission. Tom is responsible for not enforcing discipline, not taking charge, and allowing the team spirit to dissolve.

"Management is not leadership, and supervision is not management."

A supervisor observes a team's performance and records it. It's a robotic role, one easily filled by a collection of sensors and some software. A manager, on the other hand, sets objectives and then compares the team's performance against them. There are good and bad managers. A bad manager will only study the numbers and punish and reward the team on that basis. A "whip-cracker, spreadsheet-tracker," the bad manager is essentially an enforcer who contributes little more to the team than would a prison guard. Conversely, a good manager supports the team in reaching their goal. The numbers are important, but real success is the good manager's focus. He will support your strengths, help you overcome your weaknesses, work to understand the situation at hand, and guide you toward your goals.

And then there are leaders. A leader gets out there and fights with you. He doesn't merely perform the function of a good manager; he also enforces discipline and makes the tough calls required to win. He constantly seeks not only to strengthen his team but to strengthen himself, and knows that the ultimate responsibility for victory or defeat is his. He inspires his followers to give their all because he has a vision of victory and shows them how they each play a role in that.

Let's look at something that Dave wrote recently on the subject of leadership and management; we're often on similar wavelengths. He writes: "But to me, management is an activity. Yes, there are people called managers who engage in the activity of management. We manage a process. The people who lead the company are not management, but leadership. That leadership may consist of managers, but their function — their activity — is leadership." You may also want to read Dave's series of articles on the leadership behavior exhibited by Winston Churchill during WWII.

Although he is a really good guy otherwise, Tom is not a leader, and he doesn't really even manage. In Vegas, at the biggest and grandest event an amateur pool player can participate in, he functioned merely as a supervisor. He would do well to read Dave's series linked to above, but I don't know if he has the inner strength and spiritual fortitude to benefit from it. It will come as no surprise to you that I've since quit his team and joined a new one with a captain I believe aspires to real leadership. And while I don't have many good things to say about him as captain, I'm grateful to Tom for the opportunity to learn what a leader does not look like, so that in the future I can make better decisions about whom I follow, and build my own leadership skills as well.

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