Fundamental Skills Resources

 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.


 Uncoach the Uncoachable
(5/20/2022)
 
   

Uncoach the Uncoachable


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


*DISCLAIMER*
I recently wrote an article detailing a coach’s responsibility to coach everyone on their team. The subject of this article stands in direct contradiction of that aforementioned piece; words that, despite what I’m about to tell you, I believe in as strongly now as I did when I stressed the importance of coaching everyone just a few short weeks ago.


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Spend a long enough time in coaching, and you will soon be hit with one of the more frustrating certainties that come with the profession: you’re not going to be able to turn every one of your players into a hall of famer. It’s a harsh reality when you pour everything you have into a player and for whatever reason, they are not able to put it all together the way you envisioned. It’s a blow to our egos.

But, for as frustrating as that experience can be, there is one that is worse. Much worse. We’re not talking about the player who just can’t seem to figure it out; rather it’s the player who isn’t open to trying. The player who won’t even listen to a word we say. The guy who won’t fully buy-in. It’s the kid we call ‘uncoachable.’

In professional baseball, when a player gets drafted, they have shown the ability and potential for a Major League club to use one of its select number of picks because someone in that organization thinks they have what it takes to, at some point, become a Major Leaguer. For most players, the process of becoming a Big Leaguer is one that takes years to see through. It’s a process that involves a lot of people, from every corner of the player’s life- both on and off the field- playing their part to help that player reach his potential.

The majority of players truly appreciate how much others invest in them, and they take advantage of the many opportunities available to develop. While only a handful reach their ultimate goal of Major League stardom (it’s just THAT hard), they all tend to enjoy significant growth as players and people when all is said and done. All, that is, except for the rare player who doesn’t want help. The player who is stubborn to change and thinks he knows it all. For as challenging as this type of personality is to coach, there is a simple resolution for the player who doesn’t want to be coached: don’t coach him.

On the surface, as mentioned in the disclaimer, the approach to NOT coach someone goes against everything I believe in at my core. But, if I have realized one thing in the last 15-plus years of coaching, it’s that players must want to be coached in order to actually be coached. For most who don’t, the time and effort spent trying to get through to them turns out to be a frustrating waste of time and effort.

At the end of the day, the players’ careers are their own. So, even if they are doing something that we, as coaches, know won’t work- like a long swing or a disjointed delivery- if they are not willing to change, then by taking a step back from trying to change them gives them ownership of the results, both good AND bad. If you’re right and they do end up failing on their own, a special moment often happens soon thereafter. They will comeback asking for help, and that’s when you got ‘em. The kid that was uncoachable is now open and ready to be coached, in large part because you made the decision to walk away and stop coaching him.

A lot of coaches are under the impression that they have to actively coach their players at all times, in every imaginable way. There is a time and place to be hands on, sure, but just as important, we have to recognize those times when it’s more beneficial to take a step back and not coach. Believe it or not, NOT coaching often IS coaching… especially for those who aren’t quite ready for you to help them. NOT coaching the uncoachable kid may very well be the way you're able to coach him after all.



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.


 It Takes Time
(4/22/2022)
 
   

It Takes Time


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Well… This one may make some people mad.

Not the message itself necessarily, but moreover, very few people in the game today want to hear it.

That message is about time.

A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Falcons’ Head Coach, Dean Pees, gave an impassioned speech about the growing entitlement among the younger generations of coaches. The speech went viral across social media, as it resonated with so many within the sports communities.

“Go work in a high school,” he started. “Go work at a Division III school where you have to mow the grass and you’ve gotta line the field, and then you will appreciate what you have, when you have it instead of being 25 years old and wondering why you’re not a coordinator in the NFL. Everybody gets on a computer for two years and thinks they ought to be a coach.

“Now it’s ‘how fast can I climb the ladder?’ I didn’t climb it very fast, but I feel good about the way I did it.” Pees didn’t get to the NFL until he was 55 years old. He felt like he paid his dues working as a high school teacher and a college coach, and this time made him a better coach and a better teacher in professional football.

In January, at the American Baseball Coaches Association’s National Convention in Chicago, Mississippi State’s Head Coach, Chris Lemonis- who was named College Baseball’s Coach of the Year after his Bulldogs won the National Title- spoke to roughly 5,000 coaches about what it takes to build a championship program. While detailing his path in the game that included 12 years at The Citadel, eight at The University of Louisville, and another four at Indiana University, he finished by saying simply, “it takes time.”

Scotty Bowman is a legend in hockey. He is a legend in coaching. With nine Stanley Cups as a head coach with three different teams, plus another five as a part of the Cup-Winning Club’s front office, his name is engraved on the most prestigious championship trophy in all of sports, a whopping 14 times. Bowman is among the greatest sports coaches of all time. Following his career as an athlete, he spent ten years doing various things within the game- including coaching kids, scouting, and working in Canadian Junior Leagues- before reaching the NHL for the first time.

Three different sports. Three different coaches. One clear message: time, and the experience that comes with it, is really important.

Time is the most valuable commodity in the world. You may go through life always having a roof over your head. You may never go hungry or thirsty. Money may come easy and in big bunches for you. But time… every single one of us on this planet has a finite amount. Every single one of us will run out of it.

We can’t rush time, nor can we slow it down. Time works at time’s pace, not ours.

My coaching career began in 2006, literally two weeks after I had gotten released by the Royals at the end of Spring Training. Energized by a group of players who made up the same Rutgers program of which I was a product, I believed I could really help our team, so I dove into coaching, headfirst. Coming out of a professional playing career in the Minor Leagues, I took the ‘I wish I knew then what I know now’ approach to coaching, as I felt I had learned so much. At the time, I foolishly thought- with no experience as a coach, no time actually spent coaching- that I would turn every player in an All-American, and our team, into a club fit for Omaha.

Hindsight 20-20, I really sucked as a coach for those six years at Rutgers. While I did know baseball well, and there was a ton of knowledge and new ideas that I did bring to our program, I had absolutely no clue how to coach. I had no idea how to work with players. And, I had no sense of how to work with other coaches. Now some 15-plus years into my coaching career, I realize I was the exact type of coach that, today, I wouldn’t enjoy working with. All because I didn’t understand how valuable spending time working in the trenches was. I can say now, without question, that time has been my best teacher as a coach.

As Dean Pees talked about, young coaches today want to jump to the front of the line without gaining the experience that will make them that much better in the role they want, and yet, most aren’t willing to put the necessary time in to truly earn that position. Similarly, many players want the magic pill that will turn them from amateur to Big Leaguer overnight. And, to aid the issue, there are coaches out there who claim to have that magic pill. The funny thing about those who appear to be overnight sensations, you ask, they take years to develop.

The manner in which you invest your time- those same 24 hours of those same days that everyone has- is a clear indicator of what you are truly willing to work for. If you don’t respect those things and the wise people that come with time- those things that NEED time- then you don’t truly understand the value of time. Contrary to the guy who says he can have you throw 95 MPH in a month or the other who claims you’ll be able hit a ball 500’ in two, anything worthwhile in life- baseball or otherwise- will take time. And, doing it is a genuine investment in the most valuable commodity in the world.



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.


 Knowledge is Great, But People Will Always Be Better
(3/18/2022)
 
   

Knowledge is Great, But People Will Always Be Better


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


As the calendar turns to a new year, for the baseball coaching community, that means clinic season in upon us. Whether it be at the American Baseball Coaches Association’s National Convention, or at regional conferences like the World Baseball Coaches Clinic at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, or the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association Convention, there are few better environments for baseball coaches to learn in than those taking place this month.

With spring right around the corner and all of us chomping at the bit to start our seasons, these coaching clinics provide not only a much-needed escape from winter for those of us dreaming of sunshine on diamonds, but also an incredible opportunity for us to grow as coaches to help make our players and teams better. One of the many great things about the baseball community is our openness and willingness to share our thoughts on every aspect of the game. Clinic season is that, brought to life, for tens of thousands baseball community members across the country.

Between on-stage presentations, hot-stove discussions, vendor expos, and countless side conversations, it really is impossible to leave one of these conferences without a number of new information nuggets to use for the upcoming season. A couple of years ago, Kai Correa (the infield coordinator for the Cleveland Indians, at the time) and Tucker Frawley (an assistant coach at Yale) tag-teamed what was THE best presentation on infield play I have ever seen. The year prior, the Head Coach of the Dallas Baptist, Dan Heefner, gave THE most simplifying talk on hitting: a space in the game that has grown more confusing and combative than any other. Companies like Blast, Rapsodo, and Trackman each present the most current technologies to advance player development through a lens that didn’t exist ten years ago. The landscape of our game has markedly changed in the way it is coached and evaluated in recent years, and clinic season provides a great opportunity for coaches to remain as current as possible.

Many times, by the end of a conference, you leave thinking how you have to re-write your entire playbook because you learned THAT much. Because of the competitive nature of those who work in sports, we are always looking for ways to do things better to give us an edge over our opponents. We want to be at the forefront of the latest and greatest in our respective sports- hoping that others will chase behind us.

With the countless advances that are displayed and discussed every season at various clinics, and for as much time spent conversating about how to better develop players on the field, relatively little is spent on a part of coaching that is arguably even more important: developing people, off the field. We’ve all heard the saying; they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. While I don’t whole-heartedly believe this- as players seem to still listen and care on day one playing for a new coach who hasn’t had the time to develop a true care for the player- I do know that they absolutely care more when there is a personal connection between player and coach. So, rather than just asking yourself, how can I teach *insert baseball skill* better, you should also be constantly asking yourself, how can I become a better leader? You’ll find your greatest impact, as a coach, in the answer to the latter.

In a world full of people competing to see who the smartest guy in the room can be, many have forgotten how vital… PEOPLE really are. You may know everything about the slickest new tricks in your respective area of the game; however, if you can’t connect with and lead those you’re trying to teach and impact, your knowledge is comparatively worthless. Invest in your own personal development, as a leader, in the same way you do as a coach.

So, as you are constantly- and admirably- working to become smarter and adding stronger skills to your resume, just remember this: the right people with the wrong resume will yield far better results than the wrong people with the right resume. People drive culture. People make up teams. People lead.

Knowledge isn’t the engine.

People are. And they always will be.



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.


 Coach Everyone
(2/18/2022)
 
   

Coach Everyone


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


You know what makes great coaches? Great players. It’s easy to coach great players. It’s also a whole lot of fun. Working with players who can do the things we want them to do, getting closer and closer to reaching that unlimited potential, makes us feel like we are pretty good at our jobs as coaches. There is an incredible amount of satisfaction when we can have a hand in our players’ successes. It’s a large part of why we do what we do.

But here’s the thing: we also have to coach those who are far from great. The players who are a challenge to work with for whatever reason are also our responsibility because they are every bit a part of our team just as much as the superstar is. The outfielder who may struggle to make contact and may never actually play in a game; he’s on your team, and you have to coach him. That pitcher with the awful attitude who takes the air out of the dugout the second he arrives; he’s wearing the same uniform as you. It’s your responsibility as his coach to actually coach him.

As a Minor Leaguer coming up with the Royals, I never held any legitimate prospect status, and my $5,000 signing bonus hardly qualified me as a bonus baby. I was simply a player who helped fill out an affiliate’s roster. During that time with Kansas City, some coaches didn’t even bother to get to know my name, let alone spend any time helping me get better. To them, I wasn’t good enough. Conversely, some coaches treated me no differently than they did the first-rounder or top prospect. In their eyes, I was someone with a uniform, and I deserved to get their best. Both ends of that spectrum left an incredible impact on me and unquestionably shaped my approach to working with players… All players.

Former coaches of mine shaped me as a player. They shaped me as a coach. And they undoubtedly shaped me as a man. That’s what coaches do; we shape those around us, and in many cases, far more than we can ever imagine. The reason our players- every single one of them- deserve to be coached is that you never know the impact you may have on someone’s life, even if that someone can’t necessarily help you win.

No coach shaped me more than my coach at Rutgers, Fred Hill. I had the privilege of playing for him and was on staff with him to begin my own coaching journey. In March of 2019, he passed away. In the days and weeks following his death, the stories of his influence were fascinating. Those anecdotes weren’t just from his former players who felt similar to me; they came from players who barely played, players he cut. They came from players he didn’t even recruit. His impact came because he gave his genuine time to people who, in the scope of Rutgers Baseball’s success, didn’t matter, and he changed their lives because of it.

In the softball world, Sue Enquist is a legend. The former UCLA coach was a part of nine national championships with the Bruins. One of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, she credits John Springman, her brother’s little league coach, for her developing a love for baseball (that eventually opened doors in softball) when he simply decided to include her as ‘forever shagger’ in practices that she had just been coming to watch. At the end of the season banquet, that coach gave Enquist the team’s most improved player award. She fully admits if that didn’t happen- when she was seven or eight years old, mind you- she wouldn’t have lived the life she led in softball.

Think of the superstars of coaching, and what is always alongside their name is winning, a natural measure for evaluating a coach. However, we often go wrong when looking at what exactly those coaches are winning. We shouldn’t judge a coach by how many baseball or softball games they have won. Instead, the true barometer of a coach’s success should be found in how many wins their players have notched in the game of life. Those life wins are entirely independent of talent and require nothing more from the coach than their title: to coach every player on your team… and then some. You never know whose life you may change tomorrow because you decided to coach that kid today.


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.