Team Management and Culture Resources

 Coach’s Mental Health: How to Set Healthy Boundaries as a Coach

Coach’s Mental Health: How to Set Healthy Boundaries as a Coach

Helping coaches understand how to set—and stick to—boundaries with athletes, parents, administrators, and even with themselves.

Creating strong boundaries is an important and often overlooked piece of the coaching dynamic. A lack of boundaries can not only impact a team’s success, but also lead a coach to experience burnout and negative mental health effects. Here, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, is helping coaches understand how to set—and stick to—boundaries with athletes, parents, administrators, and even with themselves.

Why does a coach need to think about their boundaries?
As a coach, a lot is expected of you. But of course, you aren’t only a likely have many other responsibilities in your life. “Ultimately, coaches have lives, they have families, they have spouses, they have their own spiritual lives, and they often even have other full-time jobs outside of the sport,” says Chapman. “Like athletes need to be able to leave a bad practice or game on the field and move on, coaches need to be able to step away from the team as well. When coaches don't set healthy boundaries, that can create emotional dysregulation as well as strife within the team. And in many ways, it can create a negative relationship that affects performance.”

How to set boundaries with your team
A healthy coach-athlete relationship is one that is well-defined and has specific boundaries. Many student athletes unfortunately put their coaches in an almost parent-like role in their lives, but that can be problematic for many reasons. “Oftentimes, we have unrealistic expectations for coaches, because in many ways, people expect coaches to parent their kids. But coaches aren't responsible for that. Coaches are responsible for enhancing the development of the student athlete by teaching them discipline, camaraderie, teamwork, and communication, which are those skills that they won't learn necessarily in other settings. And that's why being an athlete is so incredibly rewarding: If you have the right coaches, you learn those things.”

However, that doesn’t mean responding to emails from athletes at 3 a.m. or talking to teachers about getting athletes extensions on papers they haven’t done. Make sure athletes know what they can expect from you, and keep those expectations the same for the entire team. No one athlete should get special treatment or extra allowances from you.

How to set boundaries with parents
This can be really hard to navigate, Chapman admits. Some parents want to be involved with a team for good reasons and with the best intentions, but it’s better to set a blanket boundary for parents rather than allowing some to participate and not others. “Draw a line in the sand about the boundaries that you will maintain throughout the season with parents as it relates to interacting with you as the coach on an individual level, as well as their interactions with players, parents, and officials,” says Chapman. Start each season by informing parents of your boundaries for them: Can they be at practice? What do you expect them to do on competition days? Should they email you about their athlete?

How to set boundaries with administration
“Coaches have a really delicate interplay with school administration, since the administration is responsible for their livelihood, but the coach might also be the mediator between the administration and a student, or administration and a parent,” says Chapman. To create boundaries and consistency, consider having all the coaches at your school or within your club get together to create a set of ideal boundaries between yourselves and the administration and present them as a united front.

For school coaches, this could include establishing your ability to bench or suspend any athlete for misconduct. This might help if, for example, you have to bench your star player for skipping too many practices, but he gets reinstated by the school administrator who wants the team to win the statewide championship. “Things like that undermine a coach’s authority and can lead to burnout or worse,” says Chapman.

How to set boundaries with your own goals
It might sound strange to set boundaries around yourself, but when it comes to goal-setting, you do need to set some healthy expectations around performance and outcomes. If you don’t create a boundary between how the team performs and your personal goals for coaching, you’ll often end up frustrated and/or putting too much pressure on yourself or the team.

“As a coach, your goals shouldn’t be focused on the team’s outcomes in competition,” Chapman says. “Instead, coaches need to set goals that show that their coaching is working and improving. This might include practical process goals like boosting percentages of shots made in a game, but it can also include things like communicating your emotions effectively as a coach and helping your players do the same. A process goal for that could be deciding that at least once in every single team meeting, you ask athletes, ‘What is an emotion you experienced today at practice? How did you respond?’” Make sure that your goals enhance team culture and help your athletes develop as both athletes and humans. It’s also beneficial to communicate these goals to others, especially administration, to ensure that your values are aligned.

Owning your mistakes

As a coach, ensuring that your athletes don’t view you as an infallible, always-perfect person is important for both their wellbeing and your own. It’s tempting to set up a boundary that blocks athletes from seeing any part of you that’s imperfect, but that kind of boundary isn’t healthy for anyone. “Know when you need to show your athletes that you’ve messed up, since that lets them see it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s important to own those mistakes,” Chapman says. “It’s also important to know when to apologize, and when to let athletes know you’re struggling.”

Of course, this is context dependent: You likely don’t need to apologize to your kindergarten soccer team for a call you made that caused them to lose the game. But you could explain a mistake you made in designing a play to your high school football team.

The importance of sticking to your boundaries
Boundaries only work when they’re clearly defined and respected—most importantly, when they’re respected by you. It’s tempting to allow for exceptions, such as a late night call with your star athlete who’s going through a tough time, but that doesn’t do you or your team any favors in the long run.

As a coach, it may feel like you struggle to find the right boundaries, and to maintain them. But by setting clear boundaries and expectations early, you’re not only helping yourself and your mental health, you’re helping your team members, parents, and school administration.

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.

 The Play Before the Play

The Play Before the Play

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

“Little roller up along first… behind the bag… IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER! HERE COMES KNIGHT AND THE METS WIN IT!”

It’s one of the most iconic plays in World Series history. Vin Scully’s call of that final play of Game Six is one of baseball’s timeless soundbites. But without what happened just three pitches prior, the 1986 Fall Classic may have ended with a different winner and all that we remember today with such reverence just might have never been.

With the count 3-2 against Mookie Wilson and the Red Sox just one strike away from their first championship since 1918, Boston’s Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score from third. Because of the way that the game ended, etching itself in baseball lure forever, very few remember the wild pitch that not only tied the game, but as things would turn out, as important, allowed Ray Knight- the eventual winning run- to advance to second.

That wild pitch is the ultimate example of the play before the play; something that happens within a game that, without it, the big play might not even have a chance to take place.

As a Minor League manager across three levels for six years, one of my responsibilities was to simply teach the game to our younger players coming up through the system. While the bulk of their development was found in physical work on the field, it was important to make sure they understood where their physical talents fit within the flow of the game and how their ability to play the game and do the little things directly affected the end result.

Just about every day prior to team stretch, we would gather as a group a review the previous night’s game. Rather than lecturing the club about what I saw myself, it was important to get the players to see those things for themselves, so I would often open things up with the simple question, “alright guys… what do we got from yesterday? What was the most important play of the game?”

In the beginning, the players who spoke up would recognize the big, obvious plays that everyone at the ballpark would notice; the plays that were the next day’s headline like a walk-off homerun or a key strikeout to escape the bases loaded jam in the 9th. With a little guided line of questioning, like “what happened right before that home run,” or “why did the bases stay loaded just prior to the strikeout,” they began to understand what I was getting at. Hitters could see how that two-out, twelve-pitch walk extended the inning to allow the next hitter to even have the opportunity to step up to the plate and send everyone home. Pitchers could grasp how the pitch up and in that went for ball two set up that huge strike three low and away.

Every single pitch and every single play in a game is its own experience. But the amazing thing about each one of those plays and pitches is how they can play a significant role in what happens next. Something as simple as an outfielder throwing to the correct base on a hit can be the reason a key double play is even possible against the very next batter. A great baserunning play to advance to third with less than two outs puts a team in a better position to score what may just be the game-winning run. A pitcher who backs up an errant throw and prevents a run from scoring in what ends as a one run victory. The many little plays that don’t show up in the box score but factored into the end score were the ones that our players needed to become aware of, in order for them to execute them better.

As they slowly caught on, they started to recognize those types of plays before the plays more and more. And the more they were recognized in those pre-game meetings, the more they were celebrated in the game when they happened, even if the ‘big’ play didn’t follow. The more they learned the game through that lens, the better they played it… and that’s what player development is all about.

Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.

 Less is More: The Feedback Guidance Hypothesis

Less is More: The Feedback Guidance Hypothesis

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Scenario: A coach is in the cage with a player and throwing them batting practice from behind an L screen.

Swing 1: Coach- “Your hands were too low at launch position.”
Swing 2: Coach- “Ok better, but you didn’t stay on your backside long enough.”
Swing 3: Coach- “Make sure you keep your head steady as long as possible.”
Swing 4: Coach- “Try and keep both hands on the bat when you follow through.”
Swing 5: Coach- “Choke up just a bit more.”
Swing 6: Coach- “Narrow your stance to straighten up.”

The intention of this coach, like nearly all coaches, is to help the player. While this example may be somewhat extreme—we have all experienced something akin to this situation either as a player or as a coach… over coaching and using verbal instructions too often. And while we can certainly see how, on the surface, this form of coaching can be unattractive to athletes (the athlete wants time to figure it out on their own, the various forms of verbal feedback are taking their focus too many directions, and rarely do athletes want to be lectured at/spoken too constantly throughout practice). However, the more pressing concern is that when we provide too much feedback, we can hinder learning and performance.

The problem with providing too much feedback is because the athlete is not tasked with ‘solving’ the issue on their own. Feedback has ‘guiding’ properties. This makes sense—we provide feedback because we want to guide athletes toward a movement solution. However, in motor learning there is a concept that builds off the guiding properties of feedback that is, appropriately, called "The Guidance Hypothesis."

The Guidance Hypothesis suggests that, because feedback from a coach serves to direct athletes to a solution, athletes can become dependent on the feedback to make corrections on their own (Winstein & Lewthwaite, 1994).  For example, if a player is constantly corrected by a coach in practice, and not allowed to struggle and work to find the solution on their own, they will become dependent of the feedback to make corrections. And while the athlete is practicing, this is not a problem—the coach is there to jump in and help. But… the coach is not in the batter’s box in the game. The coach is not on the mound. The coach is not in the infield or outfield. And now the athlete does not possess the skill to be able to adjust in the moment, make decisions—and their performance can greatly suffer because of it.

One way to think of how an abundance of feedback can be detrimental to the athlete in game is to liken it to the ‘bumper lanes’ we used when we were younger and learning to bowl. When the bumper lanes are up, it is impossible to throw a gutter ball. Verbal feedback from a coach can be like those bumper lanes. Constant correction and information from a coach acts like a crutch for the athlete as they never are forced to fail/explore movement on their own. Now what would happen if the bumper lanes were suddenly taken away? How well would that bowler do if they had always practiced with the lanes up? Constant feedback from a coach in practice is like having the bumper lanes up. And in the game the bumper lanes are taken away because the coach cannot instruct in the moment—and the athlete will suffer because of that.

What can we do about this? For one… the first step to solving any problem is knowing that there is one. We can bring a clicker to the field or facility with us, and every time we provide feedback (e.g. good job, stay back, keep it up, get lower, etc.) we can click it. And then at the end of the day we should notice how often we are interjecting ourselves, and the next day work to limit how much we speak. There are also methods of providing feedback we can work to help in mitigating how often we speak:

1) Summary feedback- Only provide feedback after the drill is over, and provide a general form of feedback rather than specific to each rep… a summary

2) Bandwidth feedback- Only provide feedback if the athlete falls out of a certain bandwidth. If we are turning double plays we only provide feedback if the infielders turn the double play slower than five seconds. If we are working with a pitcher only providing feedback if their velocity dips below a certain speed.

3) Self-controlled feedback- Only provide feedback when the athlete requests it. Allow them to self-control when they want instruction from us as the coach.

It is not wrong to provide feedback. Coaches have knowledge to impart to athletes, and there are certainly times and places where verbal feedback is necessary. However, we should work to limit how much we are talking during practice. We should strive for the drill itself to provide the information to the athlete… and not necessarily our words. One hypothetical to ask ourselves as we are designing practice should be “How could I teach this skill if the player and I did not speak the same language?”

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.

 Baseball: A Game of Decisions

Baseball: A Game of Decisions

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast hosted by Luke Gromer, a youth basketball coach from Arkansas. In it, he was discussing how he teaches his team of 11-year-olds the importance of taking good shots in the game. Using a scale of three (for a poor shot that was well-defended or out of range) to nine (wide open or high-percentage shot), players scored points based on the quality of shot, regardless of whether it went into the basket. Coach Gromer was coaching his players about making the right decisions, rather than focusing on getting the best results.

This approach really resonated with me, because when it comes to coaching baserunning specifically, coaches are often blinded by a runner being out or safe instead of determining whether the decision to go for the extra base was a good one. If a guy was safe, it was a good decision; out, then it’s a bad one. That is most definitely not always the case.

For instance, if it takes a perfect throw from the outfielder to get our runner out, that result will generally be on our side because throwing with that kind of arm strength and accuracy isn’t a common skill. It’d be a good decision to go. If we are down by four in the 9th inning when a runner tries to steal second and the throw beats him by a mile but is high or off-line, even though he got the stolen base, that’s not a good decision within the situation of the game and will likely come back to bite us if it happens again.

As our organization’s Minor League Baserunning Coordinator, I often found myself talking to our coaches about coaching the baserunning decision and not the umpire’s call. In a results-oriented game, that’s a really hard thing to do… especially when an out on the bases is a costly one that ends a rally or gives the opponent momentum. As coaches, our emotion regularly kicks in whenever that happens. I know it did for me. But that’s when we must take a step back and look at the play beyond just the outcome.

We often hear baseball as being a game of failure, but when you look under the hood, you can see it is a game of decisions. Every single part of the game has some element of choice. Every pitch. Every play. Decision after decision after decision.

Think about hitting. Are our hitters swinging at the right pitches? Their swing decisions- not just ball or strike, but hot or cold spots within the zone- will directly correlate with their ability to hit the ball hard. A rocket lineout is a good swing decision even when the result wasn’t there. When it comes to pitching, every single pitch is a decision between the pitcher and catcher (and at many amateur levels, the coach, too) as to what pitch to throw the hitter. A bloop single on a bad swing against a perfectly executed pitch does not make it a bad decision to throw that pitch because bad swings on good pitches usually lean heavily in favor of the pitcher.

On defense, infielders must make decisions about how to get a ball and create an easy hop. Outfielders must decide what base to throw the ball to either throw a runner out or keep the double play in order. Those types of decisions are everywhere, all game long.

When our players consistently make good decisions, the positive outcomes we all want tend to follow, so let’s learn how to coach decisions, not results.

Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Infield Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In addition to being the Third Base Coach for the 2020 US Olympic Team, Fenster was previously Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.

 The Importance of Using Data and Technology in the Player Development Process

The Importance of Using Data and Technology in the Player Development Process

By Jim Koerner

Data and technology are revolutionizing how competitive sports are being played. Teams and organizations are receiving and inputting data at lightning speed. In baseball, we’ve seen major advancements from how we evaluate and develop players to actual in-game decision making. In what, for decades, used to be a mostly subjective, feeling-involved occupation, baseball now applies real time data to all facets of the game. Let’s look at why data and technology are important, and how they can be added to your daily player development process.

10 benefits to Using Data and Technology in Your Player Development Plans:

1. Identifies Areas of Improvement:
All players have inefficiencies and areas that need improvement. Player development can be more efficient when these areas are identified through objective measures. What does good horizontal movement on a slider look like? Do the fastball and change-up have enough separation? Does the barrel spend enough time in the zone? The development process is only as good as the evaluation process. Technology helps ensure the efficiency and accuracy of these processes.

2. Reinforces Areas of Strength:
Not all player development lives in the world of what’s wrong. Reinforcing positive movement patterns is a strong developmental technique. The appropriate technology and data collection can assist in keeping players doing the right thing more often.

3. Strengthens Arguments for Change and Improves Communication:
Visual reinforcement is a powerful tool when communicating about adjustment with players. With the increased access to information across multiple media platforms, players can now be more informed than ever before. Factual data and visual recordings make the buy-in process more influential.

4. Allows For Real Time Feedback and Adjustments:
The ability to capitalize on teachable moments is priceless in the player development world. Having insistent feedback and replay on a singular pitch or swing can allow a player to make immediate adjustments. This is a place where the “real” vs. “feel” worlds can assimilate.

5. Ensures Accuracy:
There is nothing worse than being wrong when it comes to player development. To suggest a change and then spend countless hours working towards it, only to see minimal or zero return can be debilitating. Sensors, apps, ball tracking devises, and video review keep us going in the right direction.

6. Tracks Progress:
Simply put, there is no better way to track progress than through data collection. Data eliminates any subjective assessment of improvement, which is especially important if the actual need for improvement doesn’t exist.

7. Separates Style from Technique:
There are a lot of instructors/coaches that make changes with their players because of the way something looks. As long as style isn’t affecting technique, these adjustments aren’t necessary. Technology can help prevent coaches from making unnecessary changes.

8. Holds Players Accountable:
There are numerous ways accountability can play a role. A simple tool, such as a pocket radar, can immensely enhance the productivity of your batting practice. Having players take rounds that are within +/- 3 of their maximum is a great way to ensure proper intent with each swing.

9. Saves Time:
Beginning with the player evaluation, and continuing through the execution of the plan, all areas in baseball technology and data collection are quantified. If progress continues, the process continues, if progress stops, we adjust.

10. Enhances Overall Goal Setting Process:
Goal setting is crucial to producing results. A player or coach can’t manage what they can’t measure, and you can’t expect improvement is you can’t manage. The popular goal setting acronym S.M.A.R.T stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive. To execute this process without data and some type of corresponding technology to collect it, is difficult.

How to implement Data and Technology Through Goal Setting (S.M.A.R.T+)

*SMART+ is my way of adding an application method to the goal-setting process.

Let’s look at a fairly simple example. You have a player that’s new to your program. After a couple weeks of practice, you believe that your player sits on his back leg while hitting and produces a lot of unproductive fly balls. Since you’ve been using a bat sensor during your batting practice sessions, you now have two weeks' worth of data at your disposal. After reviewing the data, you conclude that the swing metrics match your observations. This player averages 15-18 degrees on his attack angle. Based on your players physical profile, you both agree its best if he could work in the 8-12 degree range. While you’re going to continue to monitor each swing on a daily basis (for coachable moments), after three weeks, it’s your belief he should be averaging at least in the upper ranges of the agreed upon range.

SMART+ Test:
(S)pecific- Yes, you and the player are focused on adjusting the attack angle of the swing to a range more suitable for his body type.
(M)easureable- Yes, you are using a bat sensor that provides quantitative data.
(A)ttainable- Yes, while his swing has some upward lift, he is not far from swinging in an ideal range for his body type.
(R)ealistic- Yes, your player is a good athlete that has shown an aptitude for adjustment.
(T)ime Sensitive- Yes, in three weeks you want to see this player consistently in the desired range.

Types of Technology and Data Collection

There is potential for data and technology collection within many types of programs. While it would be great if everyone could have Edgertronic Cameras, Rapsodo, or Trackman, budgetary concerns play a role.

Here are a few low budget options that would work for various programs:

- Stopwatch (the best piece of low-priced technology every coach should use)
- Radar Gun
- Pocket Radar
- Diamond Kinetic Pitch Tracker
- Bat sensors
- Hudl Technique app (one example of a cost-effective app you can get on your device)
- Smart Phone (video, camera, apps)
- Manual charts (if you can chart it, I recommend doing so)
- Player journals (goal tracking, weight gain/loss, nutrition habits, general well-being)

By applying the appropriate data and technology to our player development models, we can streamline the efficiency at which we work. As coaches, we owe it to our players to provide the best possible solutions to their developmental needs.

Jim Koerner is currently the Director of Player Development at USA Baseball. Koerner has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 18 years at the D1 level. He spent 13 years as a college head coach, with ten as an NCAA D1 head coach. Koerner has coached over 30 MLB draft or professional Free Agent Signees, 11 All-Americans, 4 Conference Players of the Year, 4 Conference Rookies of the Year, 2 Conference Pitchers of the Year, and over 60 All-Conference selections. Additionally, Koerner is a 2x Conference Coach of the Year and 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division Champion..