Become a Part of the (Book) Club
By Darren Fenster
Over this past year, the entire baseball community was knocked on its heels thanks to coronavirus. The Big League season didn't even start until July and lasted only 60 games. College programs across the country had to send their student-athletes home before getting into their conference slate. There wasn't a single Minor League Baseball game in 2020; the entire year a wash for player development. Many high school teams suffered an identical fate.
For a few months beginning in the middle of March, from Little Leaguers to Major Leaguers, just about every single baseball player was in the same boat: living without the game. How were players supposed to get better when living in a region with significant quarantine restrictions? How could teams get better as collective groups when they couldn't get together as collective groups? The spring of 2020 became a free-for-all with most everyone on their own when improving on the diamond.
As a coach and coordinator, I was in the same predicament. No players to work with; no coaches to help guide through the summer's ups and downs. For the first time since probably pre-school, I was without a baseball season. What first started as what we all thought to be a temporary pause turned into an off-season right in the middle of what should have been the regular season. So just as is the expectation in a true off-season, we still needed to find ways to get better, albeit in a completely different environment thanks to such an unforeseen circumstance.
We started sharing different resources that would enable us to grow professionally and personally. Some might have shared various podcasts with content to help make us better leaders. Others posted articles that may have included a relevant story to what we do or a lesson for a better way to do it. Videos from past coaches conventions that displayed productive drills on specific parts of the game helped keep our baseball minds sharp. While it wasn't ideal for any of us who all yearned to be off of Zoom and on a field, it was a way for us to continue to move forward on several different fronts.
During this time also came an idea that had been around forever in academia, despite rarely being welcomed in the alpha-male athletic world: the book club. One of my New Year's resolutions back in January was to read more, and the pandemic offered an unexpected opportunity to do so. After soliciting some recommendations from friends and colleagues, I bought several different books on leadership and culture, having become very interested in both in recent years. As we began to spitball creative ways to engage our minds while in quarantine and off the field, I mentioned to our group that I had just started reading the book Legacy, and if anyone wanted to discuss it along with me, they would be more than welcome. To my delight, a handful of guys joined in.
In the book, author James Kerr takes a deep dive under the hood of the New Zealand All-Blacks, a professional rugby team, which is arguably the most successful team of all time in any sport with an overall winning percentage of .773 through October 2019. It is a commonly recommended and referenced book, not just in the sporting world but also in business. The principles dissected throughout under the scope of leadership, culture, and teamwork provide a translative blueprint for developing and sustaining an effective organization.
On the surface, baseball and rugby couldn't be more different. One is played with a detailed skill and an athletic grace as the defense has the ball; the other with equally impressive brute force and tenacious grit as defenders seemingly try to kill the guy with the ball. On the surface, you would be hard-pressed to relate what happens on a rugby field to a baseball diamond. But if you were to go below the surface…
We spent the better part of a month reading and discussing the book, chapter by chapter, creating the conversation around what Legacy's rugby world contents would look like in our baseball environment. We found principles that by no means were specific to rugby, or even sports as a whole for that matter; they were pillars that help enable organizational success, skillfully scaled to anything that operates in a group. Upon completing the book, I was surprised at how productive the discussion was after hearing how we interpreted these principles from our own individual perspectives. That initial book club went so well that we did the same with Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code a few weeks later.
Even though it was new for us, book clubs have been commonplace among some of the most successful athletics programs. While coaching USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, Louisville skipper Dan McDonnell had his club read The Gold Standard by Mike Krzyzewski, a book that chronicles Coach K's time as the head coach of the US Olympic team. Glenn Cecchini, the head baseball coach at Louisiana power Barbe High School has his teams read one book together each season. Over the years, they have read titles including Self-Discipline by Dominic Mann, The Power of a Positive Team by John Gordon, and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willinik. Anson Dorrance, a voracious reader himself, the legendary North Carolina Women's Soccer Coach selects specific books for each of his Tarheel classes; a different one each for freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, most of which have nothing to do with soccer.
Different times and different situations call for different measures. While I can't imagine many baseball coaches had a pandemic playbook handily ready back in March when our world stopped, there are countless playbooks out there that can help us better prepare for when it starts moving again. It's just a matter of us reading some of them…together.
Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.