Team Management and Culture Resources

 Players Aren't the Only Ones Who Need to be Who They Are

Players Aren't The Only Ones Who Need To Be Who They Are

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

As coaches, we often talk about the importance of our players being who they are and doing what they do. We want them to use their gifts, play with their personalities, and not try to be someone else. Players who truly know themselves have the best chance to maximize their unique potential.

It may be just as important for coaches to be who they are and to do what they do to enable them to help maximize their players’ and their teams’ full potential. Last winter, HBO aired a documentary profiling the relationship between two football coaching legends, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Unquestionably, coaches across America watched intently with pen and paper in hand, feverishly taking notes and fully prepared to be the next Belichick or the next Saban by the time credits rolled. Unfortunately, that is impossible. There is only one Bill Belichick. There is only one Nick Saban.

And there was only one Fred Hill.

In the spring of 2006, upon the sudden end to my playing career, Coach Hill created a position on his Rutgers staff for me because, 1) he thought I would make a good coach, and 2) I had nothing better to do and no plan B in life. At the time, I thought this would be a simple stopgap as I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know that this would be the start of my second life in the game.

Assistant coaches are the unsung heroes of a coaching staff. They are the epitome of the behind the scenes worker who gets little reward and even less recognition for the job they do. An assistant coach has to be an extension of the head coach. In order for the relationship between the two to thrive, both must be aligned in their organizational standards as well as their strategic beliefs so that their players will get a single, consistent message. With all that in mind, when I entered the coaching profession, I thought I had to be the next Fred Hill.

Being able to work under the guy I played for in college- and who immensely helped me develop as a player- made for a pretty natural transition at the start. I knew his sayings. I knew how he coached. I knew what he believed. But as I began to find my own voice as a coach, I quickly learned that it was impossible for me, a new coach with NO experience as a coach, to be the same as an ABCA Hall of Famer with more than 1,000 career wins.

The process of finding yourself as a coach can be as long of a journey as it is to find yourself as a player. The funny part was that baseball was the least of my worries, as I was pretty confident in my foundation of knowing the game. It was actually the coaching in general where I was all over the map. It was a challenge at times to understand how to handle players on the field and off, how to create cohesion on a staff, or how to disagree with something without causing dissention.

By the time I left Rutgers to join the Red Sox in 2012, I had grown leaps and bounds both personally and professionally over the previous six years. But as the new guy in the organization as an A-ball hitting coach, I was much like a rookie in the clubhouse, unsure exactly of my place in this new environment. The general rule was the same in professional baseball, where hitting coaches and pitching coaches are not only an extension of their club’s manager, but also a vital branch of an entire organizational philosophy. I was hired to coach hitters in Greenville and I needed to figure out the best way to do that. How hands on did I need to be? Could I implement different things with different hitters? What would our daily routine be?

There was no handbook to answer all of my questions, but it was clear that experience through trial and error would be my best teacher, along with leaning on my colleagues who had been in my shoes before. Slowly but surely, I started to settle in. The more comfortable I got in my own skin, the better I become as my own coach. But I wasn’t entirely me. I wasn’t THAT comfortable. I was getting there, but I wasn’t there.

Then came the ground out that marked my arrival.

About one month into the season in early May, one of our best hitters came up with a runner on 3rd and less than two outs. His job, plain and simple, was to drive that run home. We preached situational hitting and the value of getting the job done when it came to developing into a productive hitter. The result of this particular at bat was a roll-over, ground ball to the second baseman. The run scored. The job was done. And I was pumped. Our hitter… not so much.

He sulked off the field. Banged his helmet on the bench. Slammed his bat back into the rack. If there was one thing that always got under my skin both as a player and now as a coach, it’s playing selfish. As I’m watching him come down towards me in the dugout, my blood is starting to boil. By the time he was standing next to me, he started complaining to himself. I snapped. “WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM,” I politely asked. “You just did your job. You helped your team. Now stop being a baby, grow up, and pick up your teammate who is hitting right now.”

What I didn’t realize at that impulse was that Chad Epperson, one of our roving coordinators from Boston, was in the dugout at the time. Had I been conscious to his presence, I would have been much more guarded with my words, as I had been to that point, if I said anything at all. I was still the new guy. Still finding my way. Still finding my place. After the game, Eppy came up to me and said that if I didn’t address that situation in the dugout, he would have himself, and he absolutely loved the way I handled it, reassuring me that sometimes players need some messages louder than others.

That meant everything to me, and not because he was ok with me getting on a player who acted unprofessionally. But rather because that was the moment when I knew I could truly be who I was as coach. I didn’t have to be cautiously filtered like I had been to that point. Eppy gave me that freedom to be me. That moment, yet so small in the grand scheme of everything, baseball or otherwise, was, still to this day, one of the most defining moments of my entire coaching career. A coach who knows who he is and does what he does is in the best position to help his players do the same.

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.

 Soundtracks, Part III

Soundtracks, Part III

Coaching Absolutes
By: Dave Turgeon

A couple of years back, I used to do a segment with staff called “Soundtracks.” Before diving into it I would always talk about what a soundtrack is. Most of us have heard of them and been impacted by them when watching a movie. Some of us (myself included) have been moved to purchase the soundtrack of a movie. Soundtracks, the music of a movie, evoke and stir emotions and amplify a scene in some way. For example, most of us remember the opening scene from “Jaws” where the young woman goes for a swim and some music begins to play that makes us all feel the impending doom to come. And it did. Another example of a soundtrack that brings about some emotions is from the classic movie called “Rocky.” The scene starts with Rocky doing his road work (running) and ends with him running up the stairs to a song called “Gonna Fly Now.” It absolutely is an inspiring scene that was brought to life from that iconic song.

Just as movies have soundtracks, we also have our own personal soundtrack. When someone walks in a room you can usually feel where they are at by their energy, body language and facial expression. Whether we realize this or not, our soundtrack is playing when we enter a room or walk down the street or engage with others. This is about self-awareness and the impact our soundtracks have on players and our personal lives.

The Dominican Experience

The first time I went to the Dominican Republic I realized it was different than anywhere I had coached, starting with culture and language. In addition, the age range in the Dominican Republic is 16 - 17 and the paths of each player that took them to this point were unique in every way. So, I started from the beginning with my “serviceable Spanish” and started getting to know players and watching a lot. I coached very little. The Latin player is always so appreciative to coaches that make the effort to speak their language but also get to know them personally. When you need to get in there and coach them they receive it so well.

How is this different from coaching here in the States? It’s not! It is coaching 101. Get to know your players personally, watch them a lot, and then if they need coaching they will receive it.

So, what did I learn in this experience? I learned two HUGE lessons. First, your soundtrack is even more important if your language skills are limited. They realize you are trying to help them and care for them even if your Spanish is bad because your tone and body language speak volumes in the absence of words. The volume of your songs is especially big here also because they are so young and inexperienced you could be in danger of losing a player quickly if it is too loud too quickly. When they cannot understand the words always remember that they can FEEL you!

The second HUGE takeaway came to me a couple years ago when speaking with the legendary coach, teacher and author Frans Bosch. He said to me “players’ bodies really have no interest in your words.” I realized I may be a better coach in the Dominican Republic because my words are always distilled down to extreme simplicity and low numbers. I usually quickly transition to show and do, or watch (video) show and do. This is also coaching 101! Talk less and show and do more!

Before I knew anything about the science of skill acquisition I learned about what is needed for some real skill acquisition. Bernie Holiday, the Pirates Director of Mental Conditioning, said to our group a couple of years back another nugget on coaching and the use of words. He said our first language is not English, Spanish or whatever language we speak. Our first language is pictures, and it will always be our first language because we think in images. To Bernie’s point, if I said the word HORSE to you, your thoughts do not think of the word HORSE but an image of a HORSE. In teaching, master your Soundtracks, limit your words, and default to watch, show, and do more often!

To be an effective coach, having command of your soundtrack is critical. Further, having command of many songs of your soundtrack will allow you to reach more players. When I say command, I am talking about having your self-awareness get to a point where you can adjust the song and volume of that song in order to connect and reach who is in front of you.

As a coach, there are two huge questions we must continually ask:
Which song does the individual need?
What song does the collective group need?

Transitioning from song to song and adjusting your volume along the way is what good coaching looks like. It is seamless and constant.

Turgeon is the Coordinator of Instruction for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turgeon played in the New York Yankees farm system from 1987-1990 under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted out of Davidson College. Before playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in 1998 he spent eight years playing abroad. From 2000-2001 Turgeon began coaching in the Cleveland Indians organization before entering the college ranks where he coached with Boston College, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Virginia Tech. Turgeon was also the Bench Coach for the 2019 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. 

 Reducing Anxiety to Make Game Day as Good as Practice

Reducing Anxiety to Make Game Day as Good as Practice

How to best support your team

Game-day performance anxiety is common in athletes of any age, but the worst possible time to start tackling it is, unfortunately, on game day. Yet most coaches ignore the potential for pre-game jitters until the last minute, when a pep talk is the best anxiety-reducer that they can provide.

But with a few shifts in your coaching throughout the season, you can help foster a team that’s as mentally prepared for game day as they are physically prepared. Specializing in sports-based anxiety, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, breaks down how you can best support your team.

Set expectations for competition that are process-oriented

According to Chapman, process-oriented goals give kids tangible things to focus on that they can control in a game. The more in-control your athlete feels, the calmer they will be.

“The reason outcome occurs is because certain athletes follow a process,” says Chapman. "To reduce anxiety and realize success, we can focus on processes like positive self-talk, game day tactics or strategies, mechanics or techniques, imagery and visualization, getting better, and having a learning mentality. When athletes focus on learning those things and perfecting them out of the love of the game, there’s always a successful outcome regardless of how bad or awesome an athlete plays.”

Watch your language around competition

Often, parents and coaches accidentally play into competition nerves. Telling your athletes that they are ‘absolutely going to wipe the field with the competition,’ screaming at competitors, and generally focusing on the score rather improvement is going to show athletes that winning matters most and everything else is a cause for distress.

Statements like “This is the big game,” or “This play could make or break the season,” are also likely to add to an athlete’s anxiety.

Help your athletes create rituals

To calm their nerves and focus on process, encourage athletes to create their own ‘down to business’ routines. That could mean creating a certain mantra, finding a lucky ‘talisman,’ or developing a ‘secret routine.’

“Most pro athletes have some kind of ritual, talisman, or secret pre-game routine that they do, and that's how they get into that game-day state,” says Chapman. "I think we really should be letting kids figure out what their secret routine is. What is going to help them feel focused and in the zone?”

Encourage your athletes to come up with their own rituals and stick to them on game day. For younger athletes, helping them write a mantra or practice visualization might work best.

Make practice like game day

If you can make some practices more like game days, then game days will feel more like practices, Chapman says. In more severe cases of performance anxiety or in higher-level sports, he actually will have hecklers in the stands during practice.

That may be extreme for a school or youth team, but as a coach, you can set up some practices to be like timed or scored competitions. Make it as realistic as possible: Set aside pre-game time for the usual pep talks and the time spent waiting for the game to start, have athletes do their own pre-game rituals, set up start and finish lines, put out the same food and drink you would normally have available on the sidelines, and even encourage athletes to wear their uniforms.


Game-day performances often look different from practice performances due to anxiety, which means that athletes need to focus on their mental preparedness as much as their physical preparedness. These strategies will get athletes mentally prepared and ready to manage anxiety to perform at their best on game day.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 3 Coaching Strategies to Manage Ongoing Rivalries

3 Coaching Strategies to Manage Ongoing Rivalries

How TrueSport Expert, Nadia Kyba recommends coaches put a stop to rivalries early.

In some team dynamics, there are going to be unavoidable rivalries: teammates will struggle for starting spots, personalities will clash over leadership responsibilities, and issues will arise with other teams. Conflict is normal and not always a problem on its own, but ongoing rivalries can slowly poison a team. Nadia Kyba, MSW, TrueSport Expert and President of Now What Facilitation, has seen teams go through rough patches navigating these types of situations.

Here’s how Kyba recommends coaches put a stop to rivalries early.

Set Standards Early in the Season

Jealousy within the team can start from simple, easy-to-avoid misunderstandings. Inter-team rivalries tend to stem from competitive urges and athletes feeling as though they’re being unfairly treated. As a coach, you can set the team guidelines and rules of play early in the season to minimize some of these issues.

“Team guidelines help if there is some sort of conflict or rivalry between teammates,” says Kyba. “Having a system in place where they're clear on what the expectations around behavior are, and that everyone's bought into, gives players a sense of ownership and understanding.”

Check in with your team by scheduling short meetings throughout the season to ensure that there aren’t lingering undercurrents of problematic jealousy or rivalry.

Be Transparent

Discuss how players can get into the starting lineup, expectations for how practices are run, and explain the metrics that are important to you as a coach.

“If a coach is really clear about how they're making decisions, that takes away the opportunity to make assumptions, which can lead to rivalries,” Kyba adds. “One things I’ve noticed that leads to the rivalries is that coaches don't meet with athletes ahead of time to talk about how they're making decisions. In team sports, like soccer, basketball, or volleyball, oftentimes a coach will announce the starting lineup right before a game. And then players are left to have to process everything on the spot rather than having that team meeting a few days ahead of time to discuss the lineup and how the selection was made.”

Assess the Situation

What a coach perceives as a rivalry might be as simple as two people on the same team not being friends  — and that’s okay, as long as they aren’t actively engaging in fights, bullying, or disrupting the team. There’s an undertone in team sports that everyone on the team should be friends, but with young athletes, that’s not realistic or necessarily healthy to promote. And some jealousy can lead to healthy, not harmful, competition.

“It’s okay if athletes don’t love each other, they don’t have to be best friends,” says Kyba. “That diversity is actually what will make a team really strong, as long as they understand that they’re there for a common goal and a common purpose.”

At the end of the day, it’s easy to tell athletes to be good sports, but you need to also model that behavior on and off the field. If you’re yelling at the referee, cursing another coach, or complaining about players on the opposing team, you’re creating a culture where that kind of commentary is accepted and encouraged.

“I think the coach might not realize just how much kids necessarily soak up from them,” Kyba says. “If coaches are yelling at the referee, they’re modeling that it’s okay to question and yell at officials.”

Kyba adds that it’s also important to share guidelines and expectations with athletes’ parents. Make sure they understand that complaining or yelling at the opposing team, referees, umpires, and especially at the other athletes on the field isn’t acceptable behavior in the stands, ever.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 Be Ready for When Your Number is Called

Be Ready for When Your Name is Called

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Unless you followed the Rutgers University Baseball program in the mid to late 90’s, you probably have no idea who Joe Waleck is. Even if you were a fan of the team, he wouldn’t likely be one of the first 15 players from that roster who you’d remember. Why would you? He was the team’s third-string catcher, and in 1998, the fifth-year senior finished the season with a grand total of 28 at bats after appearing in just 19 games. But for those who closely watched the school capture its first Big East Conference title, you know exactly who Waleck is, and are quite familiar with one of the greatest moments in history of Rutgers Baseball that he authored.

On Wednesday, May 13, 1998, our top-seeded Scarlet Knights opened the conference tournament against sixth-seeded and in-state rival Seton Hall. With two outs in the top of the 9th inning, the tying run on second base and us clinging to a 6-5 lead, a routine ground ball was hit my way at shortstop. As the classic, good-field, no-hit infielder, most people in the stadium in that moment probably thought the game was over. They thought wrong. The ball kicked off of my glove for an error, and instead of shaking hands, we were headed for extra innings.

In the bottom of the 16th inning, our starting catcher reached base and was lifted for a pinch-runner. With our backup catcher hurt, in came Joe Waleck to catch the top half of the 17th. By the time he came up to hit in the bottom half of the frame, records had already been set for, among others, the longest game in league history. After sitting on the bench for more than five hours, Joe Waleck stepped to the plate for his first at bat of the day, ready to seize the opportunity that every player dreams about. He hit a three-run, walk-off home run that, he would tell you, is the greatest moment of his athletic life.

Still to this day, I thank him for hitting that home run and he thanks me for making that error.

It is hard being a back-up. It is a challenge to stay motivated and to feel like a part of the team when the stat sheet says otherwise. But the truth is, every single player who has a uniform has an opportunity. It may not be the opportunity that you want, but it is an opportunity for you to be ready to take advantage of. The biggest challenge of being a reserve player often is simply not knowing when your chance is going to come. It is incredibly tough to be ready for something that doesn’t have a date or time.

Right, wrong, or indifferent, no two opportunities are the same. Some may find their names penciled in the lineup everyday regardless how they perform, while others may only enter the game as a backup. What is constant between the many vastly different opportunities that exist are the players equality to take advantage of them.

For role players who rarely see game action, the opportunity to take advantage of is batting practice. THAT’S your game for that day; your opportunity to get better. That’s how you ready yourself for your chance when the lights go on. For the backup who only gets in when the game is out of hand, your lone at bat when your team is down by seven is your opportunity to take advantage of. It may seem like a meaningless AB to everyone else, but to you, it carries meaning. When you take advantage of one opportunity, others generally follow.

During this unprecedented time in our history, in a way, Coronavirus has turned us all into Joe Waleck. Like him, none of us know for sure when our number will be called again. But just like he came off the bench in a key point in the game, it’s up to us to be ready for when that moment comes.

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.