Team Management and Culture Resources

 Sometimes Actively Coaching Looks Like Not Coaching At All
(11/19/2020)
 
 
   

Sometimes Actively Coaching Looks Like Not Coaching At All


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Thanks in part to the Minor League season being cancelled this past year, my spring and summer were without baseball for the first time since I was probably four or five years old. Living in central New Jersey where Coronavirus initially hit hard and forced a state-wide lockdown, kids all across the Garden State were without baseball much of the spring and summer as well. But as things started to open back up once we got into summer, knowing that I had a lot of free time on my hands, one of my best friends asked if I wanted to help out coaching his son’s team. Without much going on and while dearly missing baseball, I jumped at the opportunity.

If there were rankings for 10-and-under for fall baseball, which embarrassingly enough there probably are, you won’t find our Jersey Shore-based Tribe Red 10u club anywhere on any list of the top teams in the age group. This group was about to embark on their first experience playing on that intermediate, 50’ mound/70’ base field, with rules now allowing for leading and stealing. With that in mind, our practices focused on having fun while teaching players basic fundamentals as well as new aspects of the game, including taking a lead or pitching from the stretch.

In late September, after a solid month of practicing twice a week, we entered our first tournament, a one-day, two-game deal that gave our team some real competition. This was also my first real exposure to this level of amateur baseball. Walking around the complex with other games going on, the scene shocked me. Seemingly every single pitch, coaches from just about teams were shouting direction from the dugout. It was suffocating coaching.

To pitchers: “Push off the mound. Get your arm up. Get the ball down. Go from the stretch. Pick off. THROW STRIKES!”

To hitters: “Step to the pitcher. Keep your front side closed. Open up a little bit. Line drive swing. Barrel up. Head down. SWING AT STRIKES!”

To the defense: “THREE! THREE! THREE! FOUR! FOUR! FOUR!”

In the rare instance when there was no directive coming from a coach, the game screeched to a sudden halt, with players habitually looking into the dugout, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. These coaches- all well-intended, I’m sure- were creating robots on the diamond, paralyzing them from being able to just go out and play. This experience made me realize one of the most important aspects of coaching that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: active coaching requires us to NOT always actively coach.

The ability to figure things out, I believe, is an innate human trait. Think about it in this light: a child doesn’t learn how to walk by attending an “Elite Walking Camp” at 12-months old. They learn by falling, getting up, and then trying again. Maybe a parent will help the child stand for balance, but eventually will let go as their kid takes his or her first steps. Eventually, the child figures it out with minimal guidance.

Kids who are just learning the game are going to make mistakes all the time. For some perspective, even Major Leaguers make mistakes quite often. Just like a parent when their child is learning how to walk, as a coach, you have to learn how to let go so your players can learn how to play the game. And they will learn, by metaphorically falling down on the field. We have to let them play, let them fail, and let them figure it out.

At its core, coach’s job is to help players, so the urge to instruct whenever we see a window to do so is understandable. The perception of a coach not doing anything when everyone in the ballpark sees a mistake is one of a coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or worse, doesn’t care to help. To the trained eye, however, in many cases the reality is that not only does this coach know exactly what he’s doing, he cares SO much that he is consciously deciding to bite his tongue.

It is easy to be told what to do, and then go out and do it… or at least try. But in order to be able to do things on their own, players need to learn how to think for themselves. Constant direction removes that necessary layer of player development, and for teams trying to win, you may be sacrificing an out or a run in the process that affects the final outcome of the game. But without question, this short-term loss will produce a lot more wins, long-term.

Even though it may not look like coaching to everyone in the stands, some of your greatest impact on your players may come from those moments when you choose not to do anything at all. Stepping back, and letting players do what they think is right will open up the window afterward to teach them exactly what is right. The next time it happens, they will be ready do it right on their own, because you helped guide them to the path that is the way.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Don’t Amplify The Problem
(10/15/2020)
 
   

Don’t Amplify The Problem Without Trying To Be A Part Of The Solution


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


A couple years ago, I moved into a new development five minutes from where I grew up along the Jersey Shore. Living in this community comes with some great amenities including a clubhouse, pool, and gym, while also enjoying a maintenance-free lifestyle when it comes to things like landscaping and snow removal. Living here also comes with monthly Homeowner Association dues and an agreement to abide by the HOA regulations that make it all go. The perks and the guidelines are not mutually independent of one another and are necessary to work together in order to help the community operate smoothly.

We have a webpage that is a pathway for communication from management to announce certain community events or changes to some of the rules that the builder initially put in place. Additionally, the page acts as a forum for residents like myself to make others aware of various ongoings in the development that may include specific questions about our homes, organizing group outings for the kids who live here, or voicing concern about the way things may be going. Over the past few months, there has been a ton of “concerned voices” to the point where the page has become an incredibly toxic outlet for a very small number of homeowners to loudly complain about anything and everything under the sun.

“The grass is being cut too short.” “The grass is being cut too long.” (Yes, seriously). “Why hasn’t the road been paved yet?” “It just started snowing, so where are the plows that we are paying for?” “My ceiling has a crack in it.” “The landscaping company sucks.” “The builder sucks.” “The snow removable company sucks.” “The garbage truck made a mess.” “These people should be fired.” “My toilet keeps getting dirty.” (Yes, also a real complaint). Some of the issues are serious and absolutely warrant attention. But many, like those mentioned above, are not and highlight a far bigger issue: frequent complaints that don’t ever come with a single idea of solution.

For coaches, this type of behavior probably sounds pretty familiar. Have you ever had a player who was not happy about his role and spent more energy complaining about it than he did work to get better? How about a parent who wanted a meeting because you were screwing their kid out of an opportunity? Or maybe even an assistant who didn’t like the way you were running things as the head coach? Sadly, in our society, these instances are all commonplace in the landscape of sports today.

The dynamics of groups, whether they be communities, businesses, or teams, requires people to work together in order to have any chance of being successful. Our community has an elected board to make important decisions for our development and its homeowners. Businesses have their executives who are charged to do the same to benefit employees, stockholders, and customers. And in the athletic world, we have coaching staffs in place who are responsible for pushing our individual players and collective teams forward, together. Years ago, a wise man once told me that you cannot be all things to all people. One of the greatest challenges of leadership is making tough decisions that some people will not be happy about, and then, continuing to represent those dissenting voices as their leader.

Cheryl Reeve, a four-time WNBA Champion head coach for the Minnesota Lynx, has a practice of involving her players with every significant decision that comes up over the course of a season. Their voice comes with a caveat: because they are involved in making the decision, they release the right to complain about it after it has been made. While they may not agree with it, they had a seat at the table, and understand that in the end, it is a team decision, and as a part of the team, they will support that decision.

Those who are not actively behind the scenes have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. Simple solutions are not always as simple as they may seem from the outside. Until they become coaches themselves, players will never fully understand the challenges that go into playing time and team roles. There are often instances of players who think they are being unfairly treated by a certain coach, when the reality is that coach- as evident in those private meetings- is that player’s biggest sponsor. Until an assistant coach has to sync up three or four different groups of a team, they won’t fully appreciate how hard a daily schedule can be. Maybe there isn’t a better way to organize things because of all the pieces that go into the day.

When problems arise, and they will, challenge yourself to be more than just that person who criticizes everything that you’re not happy with. Come with potential solutions. Are you a player wanting to have a greater role? Then have a conversation with your coach about what exactly you need to do earn more at bats or innings on the mound. Are you an assistant coach unhappy about the way practice is being run? Offer a different option for the head coach to take a look at. Are you the leader of the team in charge of making final decisions? Create an environment that welcomes outside voices, where team members can be heard. If that becomes an accepted norm, while they may not like your final decision, they are more likely to respect it, and continue to be a supportive part of the team.

Very few things in this world run smoothly without issue. Team harmony in sport is no different. But when all people do is only complain about things, they are only amplifying the issue and throwing fuel on to the fire. We all have a choice. We can make problems worse if that’s all we ever talk about, or we can bring potential solutions to the table, and work together to fix it.


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.


 Players Aren't the Only Ones Who Need to be Who They Are
(9/17/2020)
 
   

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
(9/16/2020)
 
   

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
(9/9/2020)
 
   

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.

Takeaway

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.