Sometimes Actively Coaching Looks Like Not Coaching At All
By Darren Fenster
Thanks in part to the Minor League season being cancelled this past year, my spring and summer were without baseball for the first time since I was probably four or five years old. Living in central New Jersey where Coronavirus initially hit hard and forced a state-wide lockdown, kids all across the Garden State were without baseball much of the spring and summer as well. But as things started to open back up once we got into summer, knowing that I had a lot of free time on my hands, one of my best friends asked if I wanted to help out coaching his son’s team. Without much going on and while dearly missing baseball, I jumped at the opportunity.
If there were rankings for 10-and-under for fall baseball, which embarrassingly enough there probably are, you won’t find our Jersey Shore-based Tribe Red 10u club anywhere on any list of the top teams in the age group. This group was about to embark on their first experience playing on that intermediate, 50’ mound/70’ base field, with rules now allowing for leading and stealing. With that in mind, our practices focused on having fun while teaching players basic fundamentals as well as new aspects of the game, including taking a lead or pitching from the stretch.
In late September, after a solid month of practicing twice a week, we entered our first tournament, a one-day, two-game deal that gave our team some real competition. This was also my first real exposure to this level of amateur baseball. Walking around the complex with other games going on, the scene shocked me. Seemingly every single pitch, coaches from just about teams were shouting direction from the dugout. It was suffocating coaching.
To pitchers: “Push off the mound. Get your arm up. Get the ball down. Go from the stretch. Pick off. THROW STRIKES!”
To hitters: “Step to the pitcher. Keep your front side closed. Open up a little bit. Line drive swing. Barrel up. Head down. SWING AT STRIKES!”
To the defense: “THREE! THREE! THREE! FOUR! FOUR! FOUR!”
In the rare instance when there was no directive coming from a coach, the game screeched to a sudden halt, with players habitually looking into the dugout, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. These coaches- all well-intended, I’m sure- were creating robots on the diamond, paralyzing them from being able to just go out and play. This experience made me realize one of the most important aspects of coaching that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: active coaching requires us to NOT always actively coach.
The ability to figure things out, I believe, is an innate human trait. Think about it in this light: a child doesn’t learn how to walk by attending an “Elite Walking Camp” at 12-months old. They learn by falling, getting up, and then trying again. Maybe a parent will help the child stand for balance, but eventually will let go as their kid takes his or her first steps. Eventually, the child figures it out with minimal guidance.
Kids who are just learning the game are going to make mistakes all the time. For some perspective, even Major Leaguers make mistakes quite often. Just like a parent when their child is learning how to walk, as a coach, you have to learn how to let go so your players can learn how to play the game. And they will learn, by metaphorically falling down on the field. We have to let them play, let them fail, and let them figure it out.
At its core, coach’s job is to help players, so the urge to instruct whenever we see a window to do so is understandable. The perception of a coach not doing anything when everyone in the ballpark sees a mistake is one of a coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or worse, doesn’t care to help. To the trained eye, however, in many cases the reality is that not only does this coach know exactly what he’s doing, he cares SO much that he is consciously deciding to bite his tongue.
It is easy to be told what to do, and then go out and do it… or at least try. But in order to be able to do things on their own, players need to learn how to think for themselves. Constant direction removes that necessary layer of player development, and for teams trying to win, you may be sacrificing an out or a run in the process that affects the final outcome of the game. But without question, this short-term loss will produce a lot more wins, long-term.
Even though it may not look like coaching to everyone in the stands, some of your greatest impact on your players may come from those moments when you choose not to do anything at all. Stepping back, and letting players do what they think is right will open up the window afterward to teach them exactly what is right. The next time it happens, they will be ready do it right on their own, because you helped guide them to the path that is the way.
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.