Team Management and Culture Resources

 The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes
(10/14/2021)
 
 
   

The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


As we entered the final weekend of the 2021 Major League Baseball regular season, the game’s best two records resided in the National League West. Both the Giants and the Dodgers had already won over 100 games, and they would probably be spending these last few days setting up their pitching and resting their hitters to be at their strongest in anticipation of a deep October run. But thanks to how baseball’s postseason is set up, neither team has been afforded that luxury because one of the two will find themselves playing in the one-shot, winner advance, loser-go-home, Wild Card Game next week. Anything can happen in just one game, so the stakes of winning the division are huge versus the risk of playing in a single-elimination game after such an incredible year. For both the Giants and the Dodgers, it is every bit a sprint to the finish.

There is a microscope in the National League West and on all of the other tight races here in the final week of the season. Everything seems to be heightened. Each game seems just that more important; each run scored or stranded, that much more vital to a club’s postseason chances. But the reality is that it was an entire body of work that got us to this very point. In the marathon that is a 162-game season, no one game counts any more than another. A win in April has the same exact value as a win in August. The same theory holds true within each game: despite the spotlight that shines in the final couple innings, a run in the 1st counts exactly the same as a run in the 9th. It’s the compilation of every inning that makes up the final score in the end.

Had either the Giants or Dodgers pulled out a win here or a win there earlier in the season, maybe they would be breathing just a bit easier this week. If the Red Sox or the Yankees took better advantage of some great scoring opportunities in a game or two back in the spring that they wound up losing, perhaps they would be sitting a bit prettier than they are right now.

The truth of the matter is that teams never know which run will be the game-winner, nor will they know which win will be the difference in their postseason fate. We figure both out after the fact. Because we don’t know in the heat of battle or the middle of the marathon, it cannot be understated for teams to truly understand the importance of every single run and every single win while in the moment.

“Get ‘em next time.”

“There’s always tomorrow.”

“We still have three at-bats to go.”

Become a fly on the wall in any baseball dugout throughout the spring and summer, and you’re guaranteed to hear one if not all of those phrases. They are all often uttered as a positive and upbeat reaction to missed opportunities. In this game, with so much failure, that type of encouragement is not only invaluable but necessary throughout a game and a season. But it is every bit a coachable mindset to breed amongst your teams and players a sense of urgency to get ‘em THIS time or to not wait for tomorrow and figure it out TODAY, or to take advantage of the FIRST at-bat to put runs up and to not wait for the last. When the collective attitude of a team is built from the foundation of understanding that the value of a run and the value of a win are the same no matter when they take place, that’s a team ready to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter when in the game or the season they are presented.


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.


 Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season
(10/11/2021)
 
   

Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


Focus and concentration are crucial to success in baseball and softball. We need to be locked in on every pitch and every at bat. How often have we heard coaches or players say that the reason they lost the game, or made a costly mistake, was due to lack of focus or concentration? It is ironic that in order to maintain focus and concentration in the moment (i.e. pitch to pitch) or long term (i.e. high school, college, professional) we actually need to take time NOT to focus and concentrate.

Roughly ten years ago a study was conducted on elite tennis players and their physiological arousal levels (how locked in they were at any given time) during the entirety of a match. What the researchers found was that the most successful players, and those who were better able to keep their endurance focus up at the end of matches, were able to “switch off” their focus between points. They went into an idle state in the seconds between each point, and the minutes between each game. They weren’t even thinking about the game and were actually allowing their minds and bodies to go elsewhere. The players who were able to engage in this idle state were the ones who were most energized and focused when the game was on the line.

Is there a good time for an idle state in baseball and softball? Even a few seconds between pitches may trigger a renewed focus on the next pitch. Instead of clinching your teeth when you hear “idle” chat in the dugout about a non-baseball event, relish it. These mental breaks are not mutually exclusive from focus on the game. They do not affect the player’s ability to recognize and appreciate the count, the situation, and the propensities of the batter at the plate. To restate: There is nothing wrong with allowing the mind to wander during breaks in the action of the game. In fact, allowing our minds to wander, and not focus on the game, might be the best way to STAY focused on the critical moments of the game itself.

Let’s take this a step further. We want our players to stay motivated and dedicate the offseason to working on their craft when others will not. But should there be mental breaks during the offseason, comparable to the idle state during the game? Definitely. We know that an over-commitment to one sport can lead to physical and psychological burnout. But it is also true that over-commitment can lead to reduced focus and concentration. Encourage your players to take time out of season NOT to work on baseball or softball. Just like taking breaks between pitches not to focus on baseball or softball, we also need time out of season to take weeks to not focus on baseball or softball (NOTE: This is why this ad campaign may do more harm than good to our young ball players). Our athletes should take time away. Go play another sport. Go on a vacation. Try other creative outlets like theater or music. The best way to maintain focus and discipline toward a sport? Spend time doing things that are not that sport.

Our mind and bodies were not designed to stay mentally focused on one thing. We crave stimulation and variety. To ask our athletes to stay locked in on baseball or softball at all times during a game, or at all times during a year, is not simply impossible—it is also an ineffective to help them maintain focus during a game—and, unfortunately, an effective way to deplete their desire to continue playing at all.



Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.


 Seeing the Stolen Base Signs
(9/16/2021)
 
   

Seeing the Stolen Base Signs


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


From Dave Roberts in the 2004 American League Championship Series to Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League, the stolen base has long been one of the more exciting plays in baseball, a potential momentum shifter with every 90’ in the game.

As the game has changed in recent years, so has the stolen base and the propensity for teams to use it as a weapon. Gone are the days of players like Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman stealing over 100 bases in a single season. The idea behind the stolen base to get into scoring position has been negated a bit by the argument that- in this offensive era of doing damage at the plate- the runner is already in scoring position at first, able to score on an extra-base hit.

Regardless of the climate for stolen bases in Major League Baseball, there will always be an appropriate time and place to look for bags at every level of the game. And it’s being aware of those times within the situation and the accompanying signs from the game that are indicators of whether or not you can steal. With the underlying baserunning idea that every 90’ is 90’ closer to scoring a run; that run which may be the game-winner; that game, maybe the World Series clincher; your players’ ability to steal a base might just be the difference between you winning a title or watching your opponent celebrate one right in front of you.

Every game for a manager or a baserunner with a green light, the question looms: what is the appropriate time and/or situation to attempt a stolen base? While every coach may have their unique philosophy on the stolen base, one thing that is likely universal for all is picking a time and/or situation when they think the runner has a good chance of being safe. With that in mind, here are a few ways to steal bags against some different signs of the game:

STEALING AGAINST THE STOPWATCH
The oldest bag in the book. Take the pitcher’s time to the plate (anything 1.3 seconds and lower is considered quick), add the catcher’s pop time to second base (2.0 and below is very good), and you have their combo time. To get an idea if that combo is suitable for the steal, you can get your runner’s steal time in practice, starting from their lead and stopping on their slide into the base. If that time is quicker than the pitcher/catcher combo time, that’s a good opportunity to be safe.

STEALING AGAINST THE CATCHER
Some catchers struggle to make a strong and accurate throw to second. In the current age of one-knee stances, other catchers don’t put themselves in a good position to throw when runners go. By paying attention to the catcher from the dugout, you may be well prepared to steal a base by the time you get to first, regardless of how quick or slow the pitcher may be to the plate.

STEALING AGAINST THE COUNT
Pitchers are creatures of habit, and catchers can become pretty routine in their game-calling as well. A pitcher often tries to put away every hitter with the same pitch in the same count, or their catchers call for that same pitch accordingly. When a pitcher’s kill pitch is an off-speed pitch down and out of the zone, that makes for a great pitch to run on because of the difficulty of simply catching the ball for the catcher.

STEALING AGAINST THE HOLD OR LOOK
Pitchers are creatures of habit not only with the way they sequence their pitch arsenal against opposing hitters but also how they control the running game. A great jump by the baserunner makes it that much harder for the catcher to throw that runner out, no matter how quick a pitcher is to the plate. So if before delivering a pitch, a pitcher consistently comes set for two seconds every time or only looks once when that runner is on second base, that consistency enables a baserunner to get that great jump that usually results in a stolen base.

Creating an edge on the bases often comes from using the eyes in the dugout. In many cases, when players and coaches pay attention to the nuanced details of the game, those game-changing stolen bases start well before a runner even gets on base. It’s not only a matter of players wanting to steal; it’s as much a matter of them seeing the signs within the game that tell them when it will be appropriate to do so.


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 Uncommon Bond of Common Purpose
(8/26/2021)
 
   

The Uncommon Bond of Common Purpose


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


This was different.

It was transformational.

Three letters, a flag, and a goal changed everything.

U.S.A.

The first time you see those three letters across your chest, you realize the magnitude. That flag takes on greater significance as a unifying symbol and constant reminder of who and what we were representing. When you hear the National Anthem, it hits you; the song isn’t being played for the game; it’s being played for your team. And it gives you chills every single time.

The United States Olympic Baseball Team was unlike any team I have ever been a part of because we truly had one common purpose: an Olympic Gold medal. That was it. That was it for me and everyone else; that gold medal was the only thing on our minds and the only thing we cared about. For 24 players, six coaches, and the other ten or so support staffers, this common purpose amongst every single member of our baseball delegation gave us an uncommon bond that is near impossible to find in the world today. How many times have you ever been a part of something where you could feel that every single person was genuinely on the same page, indisputably pulling the rope in the same direction? Uncommon indeed…

Of the six nations competing for gold, we were the only team who didn’t have our names on the back of our jerseys. Those three letters on the front were all we needed to say exactly who we were. We were not 24 different players, six individual coaches, and some random USA Baseball personnel. We were all on the same team: Team USA.

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In this age of individuality where people are encouraged to have their own voice and motivated to build their own brand, never before has it been more challenging to get a group of individuals to think beyond themselves for the greater collective good. But that’s what we did. And we did it by beginning with only the end in mind, nudged with a handful of symbolic reminders along the way.

On our very first call together as a coaching staff months before the Olympics and the qualifying tournament, manager Mike Scioscia talked about the gold medal and tattooed that image into our minds as our ultimate goal. We hadn’t even punched our ticket to Tokyo at that point, yet that was the vision. In our first meeting in Florida with our group looking to qualify, the message was about earning the opportunity to win gold. At our first gathering as a team, that same message was crystal clear: we were going to Tokyo to win an Olympic gold medal, and within our club, we weren’t scared to talk about it. When your leader believes in something so strongly and communicates it so consistently, a funny thing happens- everyone else starts believing it too.

In subsequent team get-togethers, we were taught things like appropriate decorum when standing for our opponent’s anthem compared to ours, and the meaning behind the backward flag, how it marked going into battle. Martin Dempsey, the retired Army General who served as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed his life experiences in the military and left us with an incredible perspective about teamwork and how our collective result would depend on our individual actions. In a ceremony before an exhibition game before leaving for Tokyo, members of the North Carolina National Guard presented every member of our traveling party with a flag patch… THEIR flag patch, pulled right off of their uniforms. Those patches- with that backward flag- accompanied us overseas with one always attached to each game’s lineup to keep front and center who exactly we were playing for. Outfielder Tyler Austin bought belts for the entire team. I know what you’re thinking; a belt isn’t that big of a deal. But when that belt has a gold buckle, all of a sudden, we were reminded of our goal every time we put our pants on. During workouts or in batting practice, before that last double-play ground ball or in that final round of batting practice, you’d often hear “for gold” right before that play or pitch.

Everything was for gold. And everyone was for gold. A medal, a flag, and three letters. That’s what made our team go.

Societal norms today have become more individualized than ever, and the landscape of sports is no different. High school athletes showcase themselves in hopes of catching the eye of a college recruiter. College baseball players often have one eye on their team and the other on getting drafted. Minor Leaguers are not playing for that Carolina League ring as much as they are playing to move up to the next level and the level after that, eventually reaching their pinnacle of the Major Leagues. And Big Leaguers? Some might just be playing simply to stay there, while others may very well be playing for their next big contract. At just about every rung of the athletic ladder, there is almost always that next rung to reach for, often reaching an individual free-for-all.

For our club at the Olympics, our ladder only had one rung, and we were hand and step reaching for it together.

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Going back to our first days together in late May to our last in the gold medal game, there wasn’t a single thing that we did that was individually driven; everything was about our team and that medal. But if there were ever an appropriate time for the spotlight to be on an individual, we had it in the form of Eddy Alvarez.

You see, Eddy was our second baseman. And a pretty good one at that. But his backstory is what captivated an entire nation. A first-generation Cuban-American, an undrafted professional signee turned Major Leaguer, and oh yeah, a silver medalist as a speed skater in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Eddy Alvarez was the epitome of the American Dream. His story, so impressive that the athletes of Team USA voted him to represent Team USA- all 613 Olympians- as official flag bearer.

With that honor came the well-deserved attention in a seemingly endless media junket. But Eddy, in true Team USA form, always directed the conversation back to the team and often used the words honor, privilege, and sacrifice when he spoke. When everyone wanted to make it about him, he made it about everyone else. There was no better person to represent who we were and what we were all about.

We are currently living in the age of the trademarked buzzword and catch-phrase. The coach-speak soundbites are everywhere to be “all-in,” “where your feet are” and put the “we before me” to “play for something bigger than yourself.” We hear this stuff all the time. Many know the popular words; however, very few know the accompanying action. Our U.S. Olympic Baseball Team never said any of this stuff, but we lived it in every sense.

Some believe in the Olympics, teams play to win gold, they play to win bronze, and are just *given* silver. While we may not have reached our ultimate goal, our fun-loving collection of “has-beens” and “have-not-yet-beens,” as many described us, left Tokyo proud having won the silver medal, and probably even prouder for the manner by which we did it. Some guys didn’t see any game action in the Olympics or played poorly when they did. Even those players- like most of the rest, some who have won World Series and played in All-Star games mind you- left saying this was the most fun they have ever had on a team. That’s the kind of team this was.

People come and go, and teams get built up only to get torn down, but when there is truly a common purpose to drive an entire group, it’s incredible what you can accomplish thanks to an uncommon bond will never break.

#ForGlory


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and 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.


 In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help
(7/20/2021)
 
   

In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


Slumps at the plate are an inevitable part of baseball and softball. We have all seen them or experienced them. From the All-American to the bench player—everyone goes through those stretches when they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. It is important to recognize that slumps are natural and inevitable. But what can we do as coaches to help players going through a slump?

As coaches, most of the time our natural reaction is to go physical and mechanical. “What is going wrong with the swing?” “Let’s look at video to break down where the issues are.” Let’s get in the cage and talk about what needs to change.” “Let’s try to repeat the same swing over and over again.” Unfortunately, though offered with the best intentions, these mechanical suggestions and blocked drills are just not helpful.

Why not? First, we know that the most effective learning occurs with variation not repetition. It is physically impossible to repeat a movement pattern (Bernstein's Repetition without Repetition). We learn most effectively when we engage in variation not repetition. We are not asking our body to do the impossible: replicating a movement. We are asking it to address the same problem (making contact with the baseball) using numerous different methods (swinging from different stances, different velocities of pitch, location, etc.).

Second, and most important to the idea of a slump, is that variation helps the player “get out of his own head.” How many times have we heard the complaint, “I’m so in my head right now, I don’t know how to get out?” This is paralysis by analysis. When we ask our players to perform significant variations of their “normal” hitting stances, different areas of their brain engage and others disengage. Because these stances require different ways to stay balanced in order to make contact with the ball the vestibular system (responsible for balance) and dorsal stream (visual system responsible for balance) are kicked into high gear. Because these areas are engaged to a greater level, the player’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious thought, has to disengage slightly. The variation helps drown out the conscious thoughts and the player begins to “get out of his own head.” (See generally Hypofrontality Hypothesis.)

Remember the variation is to help the athlete mentally work through a slump. It is not a corrective skill as we are NOT asking them to then go into a game and swing from these different stances. Ask players to swing from different stances in the cage (thrown ball, not off a tee”). Feet slightly closed, slightly open, very open, closer together, further apart, off one foot, criss-crossed, etc. Just ask them to have fun with it. For 10-20 swings ask them to try and hit the ball using a different stance each time.

Slumps will happen—it is inevitable. As coaches we want to do what we can to help players work through those slumps as quickly as possible. We should avoid going mechanical or trying to tinker with them physically (nobody just suddenly forgets how to swing a bat). What can help them get back on track, and out of their own head, is to add variability into their drill work. Swinging from different stances, and even different sized and weighted bats, can help players move past the ‘paralysis by analysis’ that often accompanies slumps. There is a reason for the phrase ‘variety is the spice of life’!


Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.