Know When to Play Small Ball and When to Swing Big

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Small ball has benefits in sports & business, but knowing when to swing big is important

Spring brings with it several sporting events that casual sports fans or even non-fans are likely familiar with. The NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness), Major League baseball’s opening day, the Master’s golf tournament, and the end of the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association regular seasons.

Each of these sports has a variety of tactics and strategies. One consistent across sports is the “small ball” approach, a strategy for progressing towards a goal by proceeding in small steps or by addressing small matters. So-called “small ball” is often derided for its incremental and slower-paced approach relative to the big splashes and headline-grabbing stories. Yet small ball has its benefits.

In basketball, a small ball is a style of play that sacrifices height, physical strength, and low post offense/defense in favor of a lineup of smaller players for speed, agility, and increased scoring (often from the three-point line). We saw Connecticut utilize a physical style of play to win the tournament earlier this week.

In baseball, small ball is based upon advancing baserunners into scoring position, often sacrificing outs to do so. Runners are moved into scoring position via stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, and situational hitting. Living or dying by the home run is risky, as Rockies fans have realized. The old Blake Street Bombers were fun to watch, but the more successful Rockies teams of 2007 and 2009 embraced a bit more of a small-ball approach.

In the long run, any strategy in sports or business that relies on one big win is going to be suboptimal. The balance between the big play and small ball needs to be recognized and embraced. We need to make incremental progress – improving our systems and building better processes – while keeping an eye out for things that can create big wins.

A small-ball approach requires diligence and consistency and anything worthwhile requires hard work. Like a good sports team, communities and businesses need to be diligent to overcome the fear of change. Hard work and information and an open mind are necessary to overcome the fear of doing things differently. Much like small ball, organizations should focus on speed and agility while recognizing when to swing big to avoid missing opportunities.

Managing your organization by playing it safe and consistently winning the small battles has merit, but you also risk missing out on breaking out and accomplishing a big goal. Big things happen because organizations create a force multiplier. A force multiplier is some action that when added to the current business significantly increases the business. This could be a marketing strategy that immediately increases your prospecting customer base or a housing initiative that allows for increased density.

Consider Senate Bill 213, a land use bill facing municipal opposition, as an example. SB213 is a much-needed big swing at addressing workforce housing across Colorado. This legislation as proposed has some significant drawbacks and would benefit from a “small ball” approach by requiring deed restrictions and increasing local collaboration to accomplish its goal.

It’s not all bad, though. Municipalities would benefit by recognizing that the state taking a big swing to allow/require up zoning and increased density requirements have benefits. Both sides should be flexible to address housing challenges, with the state recognizing the value of small ball and the municipalities recognizing that a big swing is sometimes necessary.

Just because you play small ball does not mean that you don’t enjoy home runs, and vice versa. The key is to be ready to play the right strategy when appropriate.


Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at