Fundamental Skills Resources

 Invest in Others the Way Others Have Invested in You
(11/18/2022)
 
 
   

Invest in Others the Way Others Have Invested in You


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Everyone wants to feel like they matter. We all wish to have a voice that is heard, and people innately desire to be seen by others. There are few things more deflating than being made to feel like you’re invisible, muted, or insignificant. Sadly, in sport, the latter is far too common of an occurrence within the dynamic of many teams. It’s one of a leader’s primary jobs to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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Back in the spring of 1997, as a freshman playing at Rutgers University, I was taught a vital lesson that would later become the core of who I am now, as a coach. About ten games into my first season, Central Florida crushed us one night, behind what seemed like 15 pull-side hits down the left field line past our third baseman. As our shortstop, I was responsible for telling our third baseman when off-speed pitches were coming, so he could anticipate when the ball may be hit his way- a responsibility given to me by our head coach, Fred Hill. I didn’t relay a single pitch the entire game.

After the game, in front of half the team, Coach Hill ripped me for not doing my job. I was embarrassed. I was upset. I was mad. I was mad and upset at Coach Hill for embarrassing me. Literally in tears on the bus ride back to the hotel, I was ready to transfer. When we arrived at the hotel, he was waiting for me to get off the bus and asked me to come back with him to his room. It was there when he said this: “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but the reason I’m riding you so hard about every little thing is because I think you have a chance to be a great player for us. You shouldn’t be upset when I get on you; you should get worried when I’m not.”

From that day forward, I my ability to handle criticism was completely transformed. No matter how loud these messages came, I knew they were coming from someone who not only believed in me and what I could become, but more importantly, was willing to invest his time and energy in helping me reach my potential.

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In the world of professional baseball, and specifically in an organization’s Minor Leagues, high-profile prospects and big money signees generally get the bulk of the spotlight from the outside. Future Major League stars grab the headlines from the media and, in many cases, often grab the attention from their coaches as they work their way through the farm system. The running joke was that you were either a prospect or a suspect. In that light, as an undersized, under-tooled, middle infielder who couldn’t really hit or run, I was by all means a suspect as a Minor Leaguer coming up with the Kansas City Royals.

Two years into my professional career, made evident by the nature of interaction with some coaches were the prospect/suspect classes of players, and they were clear as day to me. That was until I got to Wilmington, Delaware in 2002, where I would play for a manager named Jeff Garber. He was different. In his eyes- at least to the player version of myself- there was no prospect/suspect status. To him, if you had a uniform, you were going to get coached. And if he was going to coach you, if didn’t matter if you signed for $1,000,000 or $100, he was going to coach you as if you were going to be a Big Leaguer one day.

It wasn’t about what Garbs taught me as a player that got me better. Sure, that helped, but it was far more how he made me feel in his approach to doing so. He made me feel like a prospect. He made me feel like I mattered. Because of the attention he always gave me, he always had mine. THAT is the power of investment. While I didn’t realize it at the time, now in his shoes as a Minor League coach myself, with the Red Sox, I know how truly special that was. In large part because of feeling like I always got the very best from Jeff Garber, I make constant effort to give every player the very best from me.

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The Cape Cod League is the preeminent summer circuit for college players. It’s a proving ground for the best in America to play one another and permits the cream of that crop to typically find itself atop Major League clubs’ draft boards the following year. Since 2001, Kelly Nicholson has spent his summers coaching in Orleans, the last 17 seasons as the team’s head coach. In 2008, based solely on the recommendation of a mutual friend, Kelly offered me the opportunity to join his staff that summer in what, still today, I consider one of the most impactful breaks of my coaching career.

Put simply, with this role, Kelly gave me the opportunity to think. Still at the infancy of my own coaching career, which had begun just two years prior, I knew baseball, but didn’t know the nuances behind coaching it. At the time, I was on Coach Hill’s staff at Rutgers, so my approach to helping our players there was to be an extension of him and his thoughts and his beliefs. While in Orleans, I didn’t have to play to Coach Hill, and Kelly didn’t want me to play to him either; he encouraged me to think for myself. In charge of making our lineup, running our offense, and coaching third base, I was given responsibilities that forced me to think for myself, and often, on the spot. I got some things right and some things wrong, but regardless, every day, I had him there for support, insight, and encouragement.

Kelly took a chance on me when he offered me the job- a stranger at the time without an interview- and spent the entire summer pouring into me, because, well, that’s what he does. His Orleans coaching tree has branches that run high and wide into all levels of the game, from high school all the way up to the Big Leagues. As one of those proud branches, I feel a sense of duty to plant seeds in other coaches the same way he planted seeds in me.

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The most valuable commodity in the world is time. It’s the ONE thing that every single one of us have but will eventually run out of. We show what we value in the time we invest. And when we invest time in those we are charged to lead, they feel valued. When people feel valued, the possibilities for what they may become are boundless. As leaders, we are in our positions because someone gave us their time, as Fred Hill, Jeff Garber, and Kelly Nicholson did for me. Now it’s our time to do the same for many others.



Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.


 Transfer Away from the Transfer Portal
(9/23/2022)
 
   

Transfer Away from the Transfer Portal


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


If you’re an athlete, a parent of an athlete, or a coach and happen to scroll through social media on any day ending in the letter ‘Y,’ you are bound to come across something like the following post:

“Honored, blessed, and humbled to announce my commitment to attend The University of ABC to pursue my athletic and academic goals. I couldn’t be more excited to wear the XYZ’s uniform. Thanks to all who helped me along the way.”

High school kids cannot wait to announce their college commitment to the world. After years of the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, it’s a proud life moment to be celebrated, as it should be. When athletes share their college plans with their followers, they do so while envisioning the perfect college experience. They see themselves in the starting lineup from day one as a freshman. They picture themselves leading their team to multiple championships. They finish their collegiate careers as high draft choices. They imagine all the good that they want to happen.

We always hear about the commitment. We rarely hear the times when it doesn’t work out. And more and more now, things aren’t working out at a rampant rate.

A month ago, there were more than 2,200 college baseball players in the transfer portal. TWENTY. TWO. HUNDRED. To understand how significant that number truly is, consider that the traditional Division I program carries 35 players on their roster. More than 60 entire rosters can be filled with players looking to transfer this summer.

That’s a lot of bad decision making.

That’s a lot of poor advice from “trusted” people.

That’s a lot of college programs and their coaches going back on their commitment.

Having spent six years on the Rutgers University baseball coaching staff from 2006-2011, I had a front row seat to see the depths of recruiting and everything that went into it from both the program’s perspective as well as the student-athletes’. Selecting a college to attend is arguably the most important decision teenagers will have to make up to that point in their lives, and it isn’t one that should be taken lightly. Understanding the significance of that decision as essentially being a four-year experience that sets someone up for the next forty years of their life, we, as a program, made the conscious effort to educate families on everything that should go into that college commitment, to make sure it was a good fit. Baseball was just one of those things, albeit a pretty essential one.

Our guidance with recruits and their families simply revolved around figuring out what things were important for them in their college experience, in all aspects of the college experience, not just baseball. We found that when decisions were made solely based on baseball, as they often were, things had to be perfect on the diamond for it to have a chance to work out, and even then, it wasn’t guaranteed.

First and foremost, academics had to be the priority; that is what college is all about, right? Good grades create options, while poor grades will limit them. If a kid had grades good enough to get into an Ivy League school but decided to go to a poorly regarded college just for baseball, he is sacrificing his academic prowess. There are good academic schools with baseball programs that attract some of the most talented players in the country. There are also some incredibly good academic colleges that are perfect for someone who may not be the cream of the baseball crop.

Naturally, baseball is the next piece of the puzzle. While the focus should always start on the educational side first, there is absolutely nothing wrong with investing a lot of time in finding the best fit on the diamond as well, especially for those who have a passion for the game and dream of playing in the Big Leagues. Different kids have different baseball goals. For those who aspire to play professional baseball, the opportunity to get significant at bats or meaningful innings then must play a part in the decision since few players will ever get drafted if they don’t ever play.

Some players love to play so much that they can’t stomach the thought of being redshirted or holding a backup role for a year or two. Well, then it’s important for that player to find a program where his talent would enable him to play right away. Often that opportunity is going to be found at a smaller school, possibly at a lower division. Conversely, others might feel the need to be a part of a big-time college program and would be perfectly happy being a role player for the duration of their playing career, some maybe even turning down a scholarship from a lesser program so they could walk-on at a major university.

The last major piece of choosing a school comes with the social aspect of the experience. Colleges and Universities come in all shapes and sizes. From vast campuses in the suburbs, to concrete blocks in the city; from small student bodies of a couple thousand, to huge enrollments that could fill football stadiums every Saturday, the options for campus life are almost endless. Much like finding the perfect fit in the classroom and on the baseball field, many should also consider what kind of campus life they would enjoy the most. Some might be completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a big-time ACC or SEC school by sheer numbers, just as others need to be at a place where half of the students don’t go home on the weekends. Is the campus a short drive from home or a long flight away? Do you have to be in warm weather year-round? Homebodies probably will be much better off at a school with closer vicinity to home, while those with a greater sense of independence will be fine farther away.

Between Division I, II, and III, not to mention NAIA schools and junior colleges, there is assuredly a fit for everyone who wants to play a sport beyond high school. To find the best fit, recruits and their families need to do their due diligence. It is clear, with more than 2,200 baseball players registering in the transfer portal, that many do not. Time after time, while I was coaching in college, we watched countless recruits commit to other schools where we had a pretty good idea that things were not going to work out. Sadly, we were right far more than we wanted to be. The perfect fit is there; it’s just a matter of you taking the time to find it. Do that, and the only place you’ll be transferring is away from the transfer portal.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.


 Buy Into the Boring: The Process that Makes the Plays
(8/19/2022)
 
   

Buy Into the Boring: The Process that Makes the Plays


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Last month, we discussed The Play Before the Play, detailing the importance of those seemingly unimpactful plays in a game that directly set up the plays we see on SportsCenter the next day. The more we make our players aware of how impactful those ‘insignificant’ things are, the more likely they will buy into doing the things and playing in a way that will help make those things happen more often. The same can be said for how we go about our drills in practice and pre-game.

The professional season is a long one. Starting from the beginning of Spring Training in early February until the end of the year in September, there is a ton of monotony to our days at the ballpark. We stress the importance of routines for our players to become consistent in their play. You know what another word for routine is? Boring…

There is a prevailing sentiment in professional baseball where we challenge our players to become great at boring. While everyone loves to work on the highlight reel play or to just be loose and have fun during pre-game, it’s the boring stuff that comes up most often in the game. If our Minor Leaguers can’t learn how to master the mundane, they will have no chance of ever becoming Major Leaguers.

This season, our infielders implemented a new routine to finish off their daily throwing program, called Four Corners. It is the mother of all infield drills, where almost every type of catch and throw an infielder will ever have to make in a game can be practiced with a lot of reps in a very short period. With three different size boxes, the smallest with each corner about 30’ apart, medium at 45’, and large spread at 60’, we do everything from underhand flips around the horn, to jump turn double play feeds, to forehands, backhands, and chopped ground balls… and a whole lot more. Each specific four corner variation is done for about 30-45 seconds at a progressively increasing speed and intensity to allow for the technique to set in first, with the skill’s quickness following suit.

Just as with anything else, some players took longer than others to perfect the technique to be able to do it at game speed. Some struggled to pick up the quarterback option DP feed. Others grappled with cleanly fielding and throwing the chopper play. Different players with different abilities take different periods of time to develop. Once we started playing games, I made it a point to mention various instances when a play between the lines mirrored something we did during Four Corners because I wanted to make them aware of exactly how the work translated directly into the game. When they were conscious of that translation, the more buy-in we could get the next day during Four Corners… and the day after that… and so on and so forth. The better we became at Four Corners, the better we became in the game.

Over the course of the long year, throwing that ball around the horn at the end of our throwing program can indeed get boring. But when they understand how that ‘boring’ game of catch in pre-game work is what helps them when the lights go on for the game, they are far more likely to buy into the boring, because that’s the process that makes the plays.



Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.


 The Play Before the Play
(7/22/2022)
 
   

The Play Before the Play


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


“Little roller up along first… behind the bag… IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER! HERE COMES KNIGHT AND THE METS WIN IT!”

It’s one of the most iconic plays in World Series history. Vin Scully’s call of that final play of Game Six is one of baseball’s timeless soundbites. But without what happened just three pitches prior, the 1986 Fall Classic may have ended with a different winner and all that we remember today with such reverence just might have never been.

With the count 3-2 against Mookie Wilson and the Red Sox just one strike away from their first championship since 1918, Boston’s Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score from third. Because of the way that the game ended, etching itself in baseball lure forever, very few remember the wild pitch that not only tied the game, but as things would turn out, as important, allowed Ray Knight- the eventual winning run- to advance to second.

That wild pitch is the ultimate example of the play before the play; something that happens within a game that, without it, the big play might not even have a chance to take place.

As a Minor League manager across three levels for six years, one of my responsibilities was to simply teach the game to our younger players coming up through the system. While the bulk of their development was found in physical work on the field, it was important to make sure they understood where their physical talents fit within the flow of the game and how their ability to play the game and do the little things directly affected the end result.

Just about every day prior to team stretch, we would gather as a group a review the previous night’s game. Rather than lecturing the club about what I saw myself, it was important to get the players to see those things for themselves, so I would often open things up with the simple question, “alright guys… what do we got from yesterday? What was the most important play of the game?”

In the beginning, the players who spoke up would recognize the big, obvious plays that everyone at the ballpark would notice; the plays that were the next day’s headline like a walk-off homerun or a key strikeout to escape the bases loaded jam in the 9th. With a little guided line of questioning, like “what happened right before that home run,” or “why did the bases stay loaded just prior to the strikeout,” they began to understand what I was getting at. Hitters could see how that two-out, twelve-pitch walk extended the inning to allow the next hitter to even have the opportunity to step up to the plate and send everyone home. Pitchers could grasp how the pitch up and in that went for ball two set up that huge strike three low and away.

Every single pitch and every single play in a game is its own experience. But the amazing thing about each one of those plays and pitches is how they can play a significant role in what happens next. Something as simple as an outfielder throwing to the correct base on a hit can be the reason a key double play is even possible against the very next batter. A great baserunning play to advance to third with less than two outs puts a team in a better position to score what may just be the game-winning run. A pitcher who backs up an errant throw and prevents a run from scoring in what ends as a one run victory. The many little plays that don’t show up in the box score but factored into the end score were the ones that our players needed to become aware of, in order for them to execute them better.

As they slowly caught on, they started to recognize those types of plays before the plays more and more. And the more they were recognized in those pre-game meetings, the more they were celebrated in the game when they happened, even if the ‘big’ play didn’t follow. The more they learned the game through that lens, the better they played it… and that’s what player development is all about.



Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.


 Baseball: A Game of Decisions
(6/17/2022)
 
   

Baseball: A Game of Decisions


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast hosted by Luke Gromer, a youth basketball coach from Arkansas. In it, he was discussing how he teaches his team of 11-year-olds the importance of taking good shots in the game. Using a scale of three (for a poor shot that was well-defended or out of range) to nine (wide open or high-percentage shot), players scored points based on the quality of shot, regardless of whether it went into the basket. Coach Gromer was coaching his players about making the right decisions, rather than focusing on getting the best results.

This approach really resonated with me, because when it comes to coaching baserunning specifically, coaches are often blinded by a runner being out or safe instead of determining whether the decision to go for the extra base was a good one. If a guy was safe, it was a good decision; out, then it’s a bad one. That is most definitely not always the case.

For instance, if it takes a perfect throw from the outfielder to get our runner out, that result will generally be on our side because throwing with that kind of arm strength and accuracy isn’t a common skill. It’d be a good decision to go. If we are down by four in the 9th inning when a runner tries to steal second and the throw beats him by a mile but is high or off-line, even though he got the stolen base, that’s not a good decision within the situation of the game and will likely come back to bite us if it happens again.

As our organization’s Minor League Baserunning Coordinator, I often found myself talking to our coaches about coaching the baserunning decision and not the umpire’s call. In a results-oriented game, that’s a really hard thing to do… especially when an out on the bases is a costly one that ends a rally or gives the opponent momentum. As coaches, our emotion regularly kicks in whenever that happens. I know it did for me. But that’s when we must take a step back and look at the play beyond just the outcome.

We often hear baseball as being a game of failure, but when you look under the hood, you can see it is a game of decisions. Every single part of the game has some element of choice. Every pitch. Every play. Decision after decision after decision.

Think about hitting. Are our hitters swinging at the right pitches? Their swing decisions- not just ball or strike, but hot or cold spots within the zone- will directly correlate with their ability to hit the ball hard. A rocket lineout is a good swing decision even when the result wasn’t there. When it comes to pitching, every single pitch is a decision between the pitcher and catcher (and at many amateur levels, the coach, too) as to what pitch to throw the hitter. A bloop single on a bad swing against a perfectly executed pitch does not make it a bad decision to throw that pitch because bad swings on good pitches usually lean heavily in favor of the pitcher.

On defense, infielders must make decisions about how to get a ball and create an easy hop. Outfielders must decide what base to throw the ball to either throw a runner out or keep the double play in order. Those types of decisions are everywhere, all game long.

When our players consistently make good decisions, the positive outcomes we all want tend to follow, so let’s learn how to coach decisions, not results.



Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously 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.