Fundamental Skills Resources

 When No One Is Watching
(4/15/2021)
 
   

When No One Is Watching


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The ball was squared up. Red Sox centerfielder Jarren Duran broke back on a beeline straight to the wall. Unable to make the play, he quickly recovered the ball on the warning track, threw it to the cutoff man who unsuccessfully tried to gun down the batter who finished standing on 3rd with a triple. That’s what everyone saw on television.

What very few saw, or even cared to look for, for that matter, was Marwin Gonzalez and Hunter Renfroe, Boston’s left and right fielders during the play. As the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator, my eyes don’t always follow the ball. Sometimes I will watch a baserunner’s route down the line from home to 1st. Other times, I may lock in on an outfielder’s approach to the ball. Often, I look to see if guys are moving into their correct backup position, a foundational staple of our culture among outfielders with the Red Sox. During this play to Duran, I didn’t purposely take my eyes off the batted ball. Rather it was the sight of both Gonzalez and Renfroe running across the entire outfield in a dead sprint to back up the play that was headed off the wall in center that grabbed my attention. Neither touched the ball, but both were there just in case they needed to.

Just in case. Even though no one (besides me) was watching.

Flashback to the fall of 1996. As a wide-eyed freshman just weeks into my first year as a member of the Rutgers University baseball program, I would often get to my locker where a newspaper or magazine article was waiting, courtesy of our head coach, Fred Hill. One stuck out in particular; a New York Times article about Derek Jeter, who was about to finish up his Rookie of the Year season with the Yankees.

In the article, he noted the impact that then-star first baseman Don Mattingly had on him regarding developing his professionalism to go about his business the right way. One previous Spring Training, before Jeter had even made his Major League debut, he told a story about how he and Mattingly were the last two guys on a backfield getting some extra defensive work in to finish their day. As they started back to the clubhouse, Mattingly said to Jeter, “let’s jog it in. You never know who is watching.” I carried that article with me for years after graduating and still think of it often when trying to get our players to be pros, whether someone is watching or not.

You never know who is watching, even when no one is.

The player was an intriguing prospect. We had gotten reports from some local coaches who we trusted that this second baseman might be a really good fit for what we were looking for at Rutgers. So, as our recruiting coordinator, I began the process with him and planned to watch him play. Wanting him to know of our interest, I made sure that he knew I was coming to his game that day. He was indeed a very good player, had some passion to play the game, and hustled everywhere on the field. I reported back to Coach Hill that this was someone we needed to stay on.

Coach Hill was happy to hear that I liked the kid, and then told me to see him again, but this time instructed me NOT to tell him that I was coming; a little trick that Coach Hill did all the time just to see if the player acted any different when he thought no one was there to see him.

This second time I saw him, it was like I was watching a completely different player. He jogged slowly when he should have been sprinting down the line. He walked out to his position in the field between innings as if playing defense was the last thing he wanted to do. And worst of all, he was a horrible teammate, showing up his double-play partner on an error, which came after yelling at his pitcher following a walk. Though he had the ability to become a Scarlet Knight, his attitude wasn’t one that we wanted in our program, and the only reason we saw that was because he thought no one was watching.

When he thought no one was watching, he wrote the end to his story with us.

There is a term amongst baseball circles as it relates to only doing something because someone else is watching. It’s called eyewash, and it is not a term of endearment. It’s easy to do the right thing when you know that all eyes are on you. But it’s when people aren’t watching that it’s that much more important to do the right thing because that’s what is truly inside of you. It’s when no one is watching that players are truly made.


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.


 Making It Safe...Even When They Are Out
(3/19/2021)
 
   

Making It Safe...Even When They Are Out


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


A few years ago, during Spring Training, Brian Butterfield, then a part of our Big League staff with the Red Sox, led a discussion amongst Minor League coaches about the nuances of coaching third, a role he has had at the Major League level for more than 20 years. He detailed everything from how he gave signs to where he positioned himself on the field to what he looked for when deciding whether to send a runner home.

He also discussed the importance of body language.

Using the example of a baserunner who got thrown out by a mile because of a poor decision to go or a missed sign, Butterfield said that he always made it a point to help the player up off the ground and give them an encouraging pat on the butt, regardless of how bad the play. He said plainly that giving that simple pat on the backside might just be the most important thing he does in a game. It tells everybody in the ballpark- including sometimes 50,000 fans booing them off the field- that he had his player’s back, even though they were out. His support for his players essentially made it safe to mess up. That left a lasting impression on me.

Spend enough time coaching in baseball, and you will see some incredible things happen on the field- many that you can’t believe just happened and many that you CAN’T believe just happened. One euphoric, the other, maddening. In those instances that make your blood boil, it is easy to react without thinking. It is easy to give a death stare to someone across the diamond who just missed the hit-and-run sign. It is natural to throw your hands up in the air and yell without even thinking when your defense makes a dumb mistake. It is completely normal to get mad when things don’t go as planned. But when players see those reactions, inherently they can become scared to make a mistake. And when players play scared, the end result is usually not a good one.

While managing in A-ball, the first full season of professional baseball for many on our roster, we had an infielder who had a bad habit of constantly playing back on ground balls. He could get away with it while playing second base, but with the longer throw across the diamond at third, he would routinely play what should have ground ball outs into infield hits. Coming in on the ball was a challenge for him. He was that player who played scared, afraid to make an error by doing something he wasn’t used to doing. We worked on it all the time during his pre-game defensive routine, but the old habits crept back in when the lights came on.

Then, it happened. On a ground ball that he would typically back up on, he finally came in aggressively to field the ball. The ball clanked off of his glove for an error. I have never gotten more excited about an error in my life. When the inning ended, he came back to the dugout dejected after mishandling the play, and I think I gave him a hug, so pumped that he went after it the right way. He looked at me like I had three heads. The end result wasn’t what we wanted, but it was a distinct moment of progress. And from my reaction to his making an error, it was almost as if he had permission to screw up. He wasn’t scared to make a mistake by trying something new. So, he kept trying until he figured it out.

One of the many unique aspects of professional baseball is witnessing each player’s journey as they progress over time. We get them at various points of their development, each guy at their own individual stage. Some may already have polished skills and great habits from day one and simply need to keep doing what they are doing, while others might ooze potential with their raw athletic ability but make a lot of mistakes and need to turn that talent into a useable skill that works on the field. But regardless of where a player may start, we want them all to have the attitude they will never finish, constantly pushing the envelope to get better. More times than not, that improvement comes from failure. So as a coach, when you find ways to encourage and embrace failure, especially in practice, you are breeding the exact kind of growth you want in your team where success will eventually follow. It’s not accepting failure; it’s creating an environment where it is okay to fail; it is making it safe for your players…even when they are out.


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.


 Catch Greatness by Chasing the Right Things
(2/18/2021)
 
   

Catch Greatness by Chasing the Right Things


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


It’s easy to fall into the trap. We’ve all done it, myself included, many times. Societal norms can pull us in the wrong direction and leave us chasing the wrong things. We chase the things that the world tells us to, that will give us a better outside appearance when the reality is that we should be chasing the things that transform us on the inside.

Money.

Status.

Titles.

Possessions.

Companions.

It’s common to chase all of these things at various points in life, I’ve been guilty of this many times, but happiness doesn’t always follow even after these things you think you want are attained. When you chase the right things, personal fulfillment is often what follows, and that’s far more valuable than dollars or fame.

The same premise holds true on the diamond. Over the past fifteen-plus years, from working as a college assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Rutgers, to becoming a Minor League hitting instructor turned manager turned coordinator, there have been far too many instances of people going after the wrong things in the wrong ways. This includes Minor Leaguers chasing the Big Leagues, the high school kid chasing the scholarship, college coaches chasing their next job, hitters chasing hits, or pitchers chasing punchouts. Whether you are a player or a coach, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “are YOU chasing the right things?”

Chase PASSION: truly enjoying what you do makes you want to do it more and inspires others in the process to do the same. Coaches’ love for the game gets ingrained into the players they get to work with. Players’ love for the game energizes their coaches to work even harder to make them better. It is a two-way street, and it happens all the time.

Chase PEOPLE: those who will make you better from the inside, out. A few years ago, I had the chance to leave the Red Sox for a higher profile job and a bigger salary. Had I been presented with this opportunity ten years prior, I would have signed on the dotted line before the offer was made because money and status were my compasses. Luckily, my new compass points to people. I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave the people with the Red Sox, who gave me a second life in the game. Turning that “better” job down was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Chase PROCESS: when you work with the belief and the effort that you never arrive, one day, you will. Every Minor Leaguer wants to have a long Major League career, while every hitter wants to get a hit whenever they step foot in the box, and every pitcher dreams of throwing an immaculate inning, striking out the side on nine straight pitches. It’s easy to chase those results. But when people learn what exactly goes into those results and focus on controlling the things that they can control, the results they want often take care of themselves.

Chase AUTHENTICITY: surrounding yourself with real people helps you learn that you don’t have to be fake. Throughout life, we all go through insecurities. That same self-doubt is all over the place on baseball fields everywhere. “Am I good enough?” “Why can’t I break the lineup.” I don’t throw hard enough.” We all have our own unique gifts, both on and off the field. When we truly appreciate and embrace what those gifts are and stop yearning for what are don’t, we are in a far better position to find success by simply being who we are and doing what we do, both on and off the field.

Chase GROWTH: the smartest guy in the room is the one who doesn’t know a thing. When I first started coaching in 2006, I was the dumbest guy in the room because I knew it all. Once I began to understand what I, in fact, did not understand, I was able to transform myself as a coach and continue to chase knowledge every day, in some way, shape, or form. A player who chases growth welcomes their small wins but quickly moves on to their next challenge. What does that player’s progress look like after a week, a month, a season, or a career? They are the epitome of the compound effect of simply trying to get one percent better every day.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great. In fact, this world is in desperate need of people with great aspirations. Greatness won’t come overnight, and it surely won’t come from running in the wrong direction. But once you understand exactly what to chase, you can’t help but reach that greatness, no matter what it may look like.



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.


 The Smartest Guy in the Room
(1/14/2021)
 
   

The Smartest Guy in the Room Is the One Who Doesn’t Know a Thing


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The New Year is upon us. When the ball drops in Times Square, not only does it represent a calendar change, but it is also the moment for many of us on the diamond when we realize that baseball is right around the corner. And to prime us for the crack of the bat and the pat of the glove, every January, convention season often acts as the unofficial kickoff to the baseball new year.

Throughout the country, various organizations put on clinics where coaches from just about every level of the game discuss and dissect just about every facet of the game. From topics as detailed as fielding a slow roller to as board as developing culture within a team, these conventions offer so many different perspectives on our game with one common theme: sharing ideas with a coaching fraternity who wants to help their players and teams get better. Those who attend these annual events also have a common bond: they are smart enough- and humble enough- to know that they don’t know it all.

In January of 2007, just months into my own coaching career, I attended my first American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) National Convention, the circuit’s marquee event. Listening to speakers from professional baseball, to big-time Division One head coaches, to high school skippers that I had never heard of, I was completely blown away by their knowledge of the game’s smallest details and even more so by their passion and willingness to openly share with other coaches, some of whom were trying to knock them off of their pedestal. During those few days in Orlando, I truly got to know how much I didn’t know.

At its core, our game is the same today as it was 50 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Teams try to score more on offensive and prevent runs when out in the field; that part hasn’t changed one bit. But what has evolved and always will evolve is the scope under which we look at, and in turn, teach the game. That ability to continue to grow as a coach right along with the game is a direct result of simply being open to learning new ways to do things. Staying current doesn’t mean year in and year out you completely throw what you know out the window, but rather being able to build from your foundation from previous years with potentially better or more efficient ways to get the most out of your players and clubs.

Now some 14-plus years into my own coaching journey, I have had the privilege of speaking on the main stage of many of the events of convention season where I previously have sat in the audience. I often end my presentations with the following sign off:
The dumbest guy in the room is the one who knows it all. And the smartest guy in the room is the one who doesn’t know a thing.
The know-it-all isn’t in the crowd at these clinics because, in their mind, they have nothing more to learn. The coach who “doesn’t know a thing” always knows that there is still something to gain with the end result of helping our game grow.

With convention season set to begin here in 2021, the pandemic has forced much of the circuit to go virtual this year, making it easier for coaches across the country to learn from more coaches across the country. USA Baseball has established Online Community Clinics that are part of the USA Baseball Coaches Certification Pathway. USA Baseball also offers Regional Clinics, two-day immersion events hosted in Major League cities and coordinated in conjunction with Major League Baseball clubs. Day one is spent with clinic speakers in a lecture style format; while day two is on the field, typically in a big league stadium, applying the content speakers referenced the day before.
USA Baseball Virtual Community Clinics
USA Baseball Coaches Clinics  


Below are links to a handful of other clinics:
ABCA National Convention
World Baseball Coaches Convention
i70 Clinic
Be The Best
CatcherCon
Slugfest
Pitchapolooza
Bridge the Gap


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.


 Become a Part of the (Book) Club
(12/17/2020)
 
   

Become a Part of the (Book) Club


FUNdamental Skills
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.