Man, Line, Ball

There is a concept in polo known as “man, line, ball.” The sequence helps novice players prioritize their actions on the field, which is important in this fast-paced and often confusing environment.

A polo team consists of four players, each with a number (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4). The #1 position is the most offensive-minded player, the #4 the most defensive, and the others fall between. The #1 player on one team typically marks the #4 on the other and vice versa. The #2 covers the opposing team’s #3, and so on. An open/undefended player is a danger, as in many team sports, so the concept of marking your man is paramount.

The tendency, especially with newer players (and yes I speak from personal experience!), is to rush to the ball without giving much thought to the man or the line of the ball. The line of the ball, by the way, is a fundamental concept in polo. The line of the ball is an imaginary line which extends in front of and behind the ball’s current trajectory. Many of the game’s safety-oriented rules revolve around how the players interact with this line.

Rushing to the ball without respect to man or line causes numerous problems. The players tend to clump together (akin to the “beehive” of youth soccer), lose field awareness, and more, which ultimately makes the game more chaotic and consequently more dangerous for horse and rider. As player skill increases, the field opens up and the awareness of the positioning of the other players and umpires grows exponentially. As a result, better play decisions are made on the fly and the game moves faster, flows better and the reactive chaos known as beginner polo gradually gives way to strategic play.

It occurred to me while scrimmaging the night before last that man, line, ball might serve as a useful way to prioritize in the business environment as well. Every business involves people, a specific trajectory, and a focal point of activity, all of which constrain to organizational goals.

The order – man, line, ball – fits neatly in the business world. We’ve all heard the mantra “people first” and I must say that in my experience organizations and leaders who put other people first, whether they be coworkers, clients, or any of the other stakeholders that interact with a business, greatly increase not only their likelihood of survival, but they also improve the odds of achieving their established goals.

The line represents an organization’s trajectory. This, too, must be carefully considered as the company – its culture, people, and the central current of its goings-on – is always moving. Failure to manage this line can be just as dangerous as the failure to recognize the line and coordinate one’s efforts with it. Competing interests inside a company can create unsafe cross-currents and internal disagreement on the company’s general trajectory can quickly blow apart a team and a company.

The “ball” in the business environment symbolizes the focus of activity at the moment. This focus shifts throughout the day, from quarter to quarter and from year to year. Inexperienced team members will tend to zero in on the “ball” at work, which can have disastrous consequences. On so doing they risk crossing others, blurring established lines, leaving their post, and a host of other complicating consequences.

Effective team play requires “field awareness.” Rather than rushing to the “ball” by putting out fires, or mindlessly gravitating toward the supposed center of activity in any given moment, a more experienced team player will constantly refresh his awareness of the men and women with whom he is privileged to associate, that is, his associates, clients, and strategic partners, while maintaining an awareness of the general trajectory of activity in the organization.

Following this formula for prioritizing your efforts – man, line, ball – in the business environment is an effective way to improve your job performance. It will make you a better team player and as a result, tip the odds of your team’s success to your favor.

4 thoughts on “Man, Line, Ball

  • What a terrific analogy! Thanks for the succinct explanation. Because it is so fast paced watching from the sidelines can seem confusing. I’ve tended to watch by singling out a rider and following their movement. Understanding the main rules of the game will certainly change what I watch. And so it is with business, we don’t have to know the details of each other’s responsibility but we do need to understand how we intersect. Gaining a field awareness would certainly assist in one of the major pitfalls of business which is departmental defense. Respect for each other gives every endeavor, sports or business, the essential material to be a increasingly creative activity for the betterment of all.

  • Thanks for the analogy Gregg – it makes a lot of sense. We can learn the same lessons from most every team sport as well. I have noted over the years, for example, that the team with the ‘best’ players usually does not win the championship as the team with the better team spirit, coordination of team members, and trust in each other in the end has both the better experience and wins the championship!

  • Thank you for articulating how to prioritize regarding business. Your analogy also applies to personal affairs as well as professional. Something that is striking me relates to not only the business I am in as a sole proprietor but also the field associated with my business. Your words make me think more on looking at the man line ball analogy as it relates to my fellow health practitioners and humanity as a whole. There has been such a tendency to be so focused on making enough money rather than seeing how the improvement of the health of individuals and the whole of humanity can be improved. This is a large large topic for now though I feel very thankful for your words in that they do open a much larger picture regarding our specific purpose and function.

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