Team Management and Culture Resources

 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.


 When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself
(7/15/2021)
 
   

When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Pop quiz: who was the star of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team?

You know, the Miracle on Ice Team...was it the team captain, Mike Eruzione? Maybe it was Jimmy Craig, the goalie? How about their coach, Herb Brooks? Not sure? When thinking back on that team of college hockey players who shocked the world by beating the Soviet Union en route to winning an unlikely gold medal in Lake Placid, it’s really hard to pinpoint one person when the entire team is who everyone remembers. The team did the unthinkable. The team itself was the star.

Fast forward 40-plus years, move off the ice and onto the diamond. Another team represented the United States where again, it wasn’t any individual player who stole the show but rather a collective team who stole the show. With the Tokyo Olympics less than two months away, four nations had already qualified to compete in the sport of baseball. The US was not one of them. Our opportunity to do so came last month in Florida at the Americas Qualifier, a tournament where eight teams would fight for one of the remaining two spots.

A part of US manager Mike Scioscia’s staff as our third base coach, collectively with extraordinary help, communication, and organization from USA Baseball personnel, we spent the better part of three months constructing a roster that we hoped would be good enough to compete for the Olympic bid. One of the unique aspects of putting this team together was the vast player pool we had to choose from; anyone who was not on the 40-man roster of a Major League club was eligible to play. With hundreds of names to consider, we looked at everyone from guys who had never been out of A-ball to former Major Leaguers who were seemingly at the tail end of their careers to everyone in between.

And that’s exactly how our final 26-man roster shaped up; a club made up of guys from every end of the experience spectrum.

When the team convened for the first time at old Dodgertown in Vero Beach for training camp, our players and staff shared introductions during our initial team meeting in the clubhouse. Major League All-Stars like Todd Frazier talked about why playing for THIS team was important to them. World Series Champions such as Edwin Jackson viewed winning a gold medal in the same light, and some of baseball’s top prospects who had previously worn the red, white, and blue as amateurs, excited to do it again. We also had a few journeymen who played almost everywhere, near and far, not to mention a former Olympic silver medal winner on our club...in speed skating!

But most importantly, in that entire clubhouse, we had zero egos.

When the room turned to Jon Jay, a ten-year Major League veteran, his message finished with a simple directive to everyone on our team. “No complaining…” he stated. “…About anything. This isn’t what we are all used to (as professional baseball players), and we are going to have some bumps in the road, but nothing gets in our way of doing our job and winning this thing.” It set the perfect tone for the next two weeks to come.

---

From the first pitch of the first game, we knew this was different. Facing Nicaragua in Port St. Lucie, Florida, it felt like we were playing in Managua, the country’s capital, with their entire nation in the stands. Nicaraguan fans were into every pitch as if each was the 9th inning of a World Series game. As coaches, we often preach to our players how every pitch matters, but over an entire season of 100-plus games in professional baseball, you will overcome some hiccups where teams don’t take that approach. In the format for this qualifier, we didn’t have that luxury. Every pitch DID matter, and we all felt it.

We wound up winning that first game 7-1, but it was much tighter than the final score would indicate. The intensity of that environment was different than anything most of us had ever experienced on a baseball field before. Mike Scioscia described it as having the same feel as an elimination game in the Major League postseason. By the end of that first game, our lens had clearly changed from what we were all accustomed to in professional baseball. No one was playing for a promotion to the Big Leagues. Not a single player was playing for their next big contract. No one was trying to build their brand. It wasn’t about what was next for each individual player; it was about what was right in front of us as a team and what the team needed in that very moment to push us closer to a win. And everyone was on that proverbial bus.

The Dominican Republic would go down next in a tight contest, 8-6. Then Puerto Rico, 6-1, in a rain-shortened affair. In the Super Round, we needed a seven-run 8th inning to break the game open against Canada, on our way to a 10-1 win. And in the clinching game over Venezuela, Todd Frazier morphed back into that Toms River Little League star we first met in 1998, carrying us to a 4-2 win with a 4-4 day at the plate.

Five days. Five wins. One Olympic ticket punched.

---

We had 26 guys on our club. Each one of them did something to help us, even if it didn’t show up in the box score. Luke Williams ignited a game-winning rally…with a bunt. Jarren Duran changed games…with his baserunning. Catcher Mark Kolozsvary had a standout performance with the bat, but we lost count of how many runs he saved with key blocks behind the plate. Three-time All-Star Matt Kemp went hitless in just four at-bats but brought a veteran presence to our dugout that could not be measured. David Robertson hadn’t pitched in a game in almost two years since elbow surgery and managed to close out two wins for us, including the clincher. Anthony Carter left his team in Mexico to pitch in just one inning for us, a huge shutdown inning that kept momentum on our side in our win over the Dominican. A’s prospect Nick Allen finished the tournament going just 1-17, but without his Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop, we don’t even sniff winning this thing. The list can go on for all 26 guys.

This collection of relative strangers had just six days to become a team and prepare for what essentially was five game sevens. We won every single one and qualified for the Olympics. Mission accomplished; we earned the privilege and honor to represent the United States of America in Tokyo. Over the course of my 15 years coaching baseball, I’ve never been around a more incredible group of players, coaches, and support staff where everyone involved was truly pulling the rope in the same direction, all working towards accomplishing the same thing.

On a team full of stars, we made the real star, the team itself. Amazing what can happen, when that happens…


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.


 What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?
(6/18/2021)
 
   

What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees, Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was slated to start Game Four. Those plans quickly changed when New York took a 10-6 lead in the 4th inning. Sox starter Bronson Arroyo was knocked out of the game after just two innings. Two relievers didn’t fare much better over the next couple of frames, and it looked like Boston was about to use every single body in their bullpen. That didn’t happen because of Wakefield, who selflessly gave up his start in order to take a chunk of the middle innings of the game.

The Yankees wound up winning the game 19-8, and Wakefield gave up five runs in his three-plus innings of work; not exactly an outing to write home about. But when he volunteered to work out of the pen in what turned out to be a blowout loss for the Red Sox, Wakefield essentially saved his team’s bullpen, allowing closer Keith Foulke and high leverage relievers Mike Timlin and Alan Embree to be fresh for the next night. And that may very well have been one of the biggest reasons why the Sox were able to turn the series around and make their historic comeback after being down three games to none.

What Tim Wakefield did in Game Three of the 2004 ALCS was exactly what his club needed him to do at that very moment.

I doubt a pitcher out there today dreams of being a middle reliever in a lopsided loss; most see themselves being on the mound for the final out of a thrilling win. Position players don’t envision themselves getting mop-up at-bats in a blowout; they picture the game-winning hit or the game-saving play. By all means, players should be working towards and thinking about their ultimate goals. But the reality is that the game needs players for every single moment, regardless of whether it is good or bad, game-changing or not, from the very first pitch of the game to the last. All of those moments should be approached with the same focus and drive as if they were going to be the most important play of the game, even if they weren’t.

The game today has become so individualized where coaches have the ability now more than ever to cater their approach to help maximize each player’s ability to the fullest. Players are more talented than ever in large part because of that specialized means of training. In the process of doing so, what has gotten lost for many is where that player may fit in the grand scheme of a season or a specific moment of the game.

At the end of the day, the entire purpose of all of the blood, sweat, and tears that players invest in their careers is to do their part to help their team win; that is, after all, the point of the game. Sometimes, that will call for a strikeout on the mound or an extra-base hit in the box. But more times than not, the game doesn’t need the player to be the hero; it simply requires them to do what is needed at that moment to keep things moving towards a win. It may mean doing something that won’t get a headline, like limiting damage as a middle reliever or having a productive ground out that moves a runner as a hitter.

There’s a reason why Major League teams have 26 guys on the roster. There’s a reason why colleges are able to carry 35 players in their programs. It’s not to have an entire club full of stars, but rather an entire team ready, willing, and able to do the specific job that the game needs them to do—nothing more, nothing less.


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.


 The Key to Not Thinking
(5/10/2021)
 
   

The Key to Not Thinking


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


The key to ‘not thinking’—thinking about ONE thing.

“Just don’t think out there!” “I am at my best when I am not thinking.” “They are thinking too much—they need to not think.” How many times have we heard, or even said, these phrases on the field? And while these statements carry with them good intentions… they are often times misinformed… and also impossible.

We can’t ‘not think.’ For one, our minds are not wired that way. And two, we would be dead if we were not thinking. With all of that in mind, the connotation that ‘not thinking’ carries with it, to let our minds and body be completely in the present moment and not allowing anything to take from our focus, is something we should aspire to.

Question: If I gave you an empty water bottle how would you get the air out of it? When asked this most people will say something like ‘crush it down’, ‘stick a vacuum cleaner it in’, etc. The answer is to fill it with water.

When our conscious mind is filled to the ‘brim’ with one single external thought—good things tend to happen. External is also vital to this process. The one thought should be about the outcome of the movement or something outside of our body (e.g. “See the ball early”, “Through the mitt”, “Drive off”, “Stay on top”, etc.) it should not be about the movement or our body (e.g. “Keep your elbow up”, “Drive my knee down”, “Keep my head steady”). NOTE: There are ways to change these statements to external: “Keep your elbow guard up”, “Drive toward the mitt” “Keep my helmet steady”. For more information regarding the benefits of external focus along with why the external focus tends to work better than an internal please click Constrained Action Hypothesis: Why an external focus may work better than internal.  

It is impossible to ‘not think’ (we should work to eliminate this phrase from our coaching vocabulary altogether because it is an impossible task). What we want from our athletes is to think consistently about ONE thing—particularly right before they step in the box or on the rubber. If we can help our athletes repeat that one clear external goal in their head we are on the path to helping them ‘not think’- being completely focused on one thing.


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.


 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.