Team Management and Culture Resources

 Celebrating the People Who “Don’t Matter”

Celebrating the People Who “Don’t Matter”

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

On the final day of Major League Baseball's regular season, the Red Sox clinched a playoff spot with a thrilling come from behind win over the Nationals. It was the cap of an unexpectedly successful season for Boston, one where few- if any- baseball experts thought this club had any chance of playing in October. The 2021 campaign was supposed to be a transition for the Sox as the franchise moved closer to long-term, sustained competitiveness. Just by playing meaningful games late in September, the club had exceeded early expectations. To clinch one of the two American League Wild Card spots? That was the icing on the cake.

When addressing the team before the club's well-deserved champaign celebration in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, Alex Cora went around the room and recognized as many people as he could in the total team effort to reach the postseason. He thanked coaches and support staff as a group. He similarly thanked his players and pointed out a few front office personnel. Then he said this: "Taylor and Kuch… thank you. You guys have done an amazing job to help get us here."

It happened quickly. And if you didn't work for the Red Sox or even know the backstory of their journey into the postseason, which included a month-long Covid outbreak late in the summer, you wouldn't have even noticed, nor given a second thought to that specific thank you. Taylor is Taylor Boucher. And Kuch, is Nick Kuchwara. In the Red Sox Media Guide, both are listed as Minor League Athletic Trainers. But thanks to a worldwide pandemic, their roles changed for the 2021 season, as both were added to the Major League traveling party in charge of Covid protocol compliance for the club.

Taylor and Kuch were the guys who organized the frequent testing throughout the season, both at home and on the road. They were the guys who constantly reminded everyone to wear masks in the clubhouse and on the plane. These two were the guys who, before every away trip, sent out recommendations and risk factors for each particular city. This was not the job either signed up for. But it was the job both willingly did. And without their diligence to do the job they were tasked with, the Red Sox may not have been celebrating that Sunday afternoon in Washington.

Taylor Boucher and Nick Kuchwara didn't pitch a single inning nor step to the plate for a single at-bat this past season. On the surface, one would think they would have nothing to do with the club's success. But when Alex Cora singled them out after punching their playoff ticket, it was clear that two guys who seemingly didn't matter mattered that much more.

As the saying goes, it takes a village. In baseball, a team's success goes far beyond just the players on the field and the coaches in the dugout. Often, someone is so far removed from the action that they don't truly feel like a part of an organization's success. Sometimes, because they are so far removed, those people may struggle to find true meaning in what they do. A scout in the Dominican. An entry-level analyst. A manager in A-ball. The reality is that organizations work as a whole. And while the spotlight is on the team's results, those wins came thanks to a player that scout signed, an advance report that the analyst worked on, or a pitcher who came up through the system.

As a leader, it's easy to point out the people who everyone sees every day. But when you recognize and celebrate those people who "don't matter," you give them purpose. You make them feel valued. You make their days matter. You make them feel like a part of the team, which they most assuredly are. And when they know- because you are celebrating them- that they are, in fact, an important part of the team, you will have inspired them to go out and continue to do their jobs, even better. Just as Taylor and Kuch did, all spring and summer long in Boston.

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.

 Are We Coaching the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?

Are We Coaching the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?

By Jim Koerner

Throughout our country, baseball practice is taking place nearly every day. You can go to almost any area and find a field where players are being run through a series of defensive and pitching drills, base running, and batting practice. Well-intentioned coaches from the little league level on up are instructing our young players on the proper ways to play the game. These coaches from various backgrounds are applying methods mostly learned from either playing, watching, or reading about baseball. These methods are inducing a positive or negative response in each athlete, directly affecting the confidence level at which these athletes perform. How can we ensure that we are building these young athletes into instinctively driven, confident players that can maximize their athleticism? The answer is easy, but the implementation will be challenging.

Coaches will need to rewire some of their own belief systems, temper some of their own importance in the game's outcome, or even how the game is played. They will have to suppress their own impulse to over coach and direct every movement as well as how they potentially react to the result of a certain plays. In some cases we may even have to redefine why we are coaching. Is it for personal gain, where we are looking to pad our winning percentage, or is it truly for the betterment of the athlete? Movement restrictive drill sequencing, restrictive verbal cueing, reactionary coaching habits, and the inability to simply let players fail all lead to robotic, tentative and scared athletes.

Imagine a scene where all the neighborhood kids get together to play baseball. They improvise for bases, bats, and balls. They separate teams on their own, and most importantly, there are no adults to interfere. If done consistently, besides the occasional argument, what do you think would happen over time? It is my belief that the kids would begin to make intuitive and instinctual based adjustments on their own. Players would figure out such things as how big a lead they can take, how and when to go first to third on a single, when and when not to take an extra-base, how to position against certain hitters, and what pitches to call, among numerous other advantages. Personal limits would be pushed without fear of repercussion from a pre-programmed coach.

Now, if we can incorporate this type of mindset into a structured practice routine, a lot can be accomplished that will positively affect the overall development of our players.

Let's examine what a movement restrictive drill looks like. In its simplest form it's any drill that puts a limitation on a player's ability to move a body part. For example, let's look at all the hitting, throwing, and fielding drills we've seen over the years that have our athletes move in compartmentalized progressive steps.

Each step cuts the kinetic chain and forces the body to restart while losing feel, athleticism, and adjustability.

The result in a lot of situations is a stiff and robotic athlete. Drills that promote adjustability and free flowing energy transfer are more likely to allow your athlete to gain the "feel" that they are looking for and the ability to organize their body for the desired result. Other examples of movement restrictive drills that are less obvious happen during base running every day.

From a very young age, kids are taught that the third base coach directs all the traffic on the bases. Kids are more worried about "picking up" their coach than watching the ball and reacting to what they see. In most cases, if a coach has to direct a player to advance a base or go first to third on a single, the delay in reaction will cause the runner to be out. Instead of forcing these players to pick up the coach, why don't we teach them to read a defense by judging the depth of the outfield and their positioning? Let's teach how the speed of the batted ball will affect how far the runner can advance and define how the different angles an outfielder can take to a ball will determine whether or not advancement is possible. By doing so, we are allowing our athletes to trust what they see, rely on their own instincts, and play the game at a faster level.

Our cueing as coaches also has the potential to be a detriment to how a player performs. It's imperative that our players fully understand what we as coaches are trying to convey when using certain terms. Among others, phrases like "stay back" or "get on top" can cause a great deal of mechanical failure when misinterpreted. We also need to understand that these cues can be interpreted completely differently from one player to another. That is why it is important to have an individualized understanding of each player's needs. What works for one may not work for another. Consistency in how we communicate these terms and in what context can also help establish an understanding of the feel we are trying to create. Wrongly interpreted cueing can make the most athletic player look lost. Coaches must also avoid using the words always and never. I can still hear coaches telling me to always use two hands in the outfield or never swing at a 3-0 pitch. Over the years, I've found that the best outfielders I've coached primarily caught the ball with one hand. Why?

Because it is a less restrictive movement, and ultimately more athletic than when reaching with two hands, again allowing athletes to be athletes. As we've seen over the last several Major League Baseball seasons, depending on the situation, the 3-0 pitch might be the best pitch of the at-bat. Instead of coaching our hitters to always take that pitch, let's coach them to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, so they're prepared to hit every pitch.

Another step towards building a confident and successful athlete is for the coach to avoid putting their players in a box. My interpretation of a box is when a coach has a preconceived view of what something should like and then works towards that desired result. Not all boxes are bad, but every coach must understand the difference between style and technique. Style has no bearing on performance, while the technique can and will affect the outcome. How a player stands in the batter's box, how a pitcher goes through the windup or how an infielder throws may all look a little different and shouldn't necessarily be coached. If we're spending time on coaching someone's style we again could be hindering the player's ability to configure his body into an athletic movement. There is an old adage that says don't fix what's not broken. To be fair, I will say that there are some circumstances where someone's style may affect their technique. In these cases, adjustments do need to be made.

We hear coaches at all levels frequently talk about being process-driven. We need to hold true to that philosophy. Let's briefly analyze a scenario when a coach exhibits two different reactions on two similar plays. In the top of the third inning, with a 2-0 lead, the runner at first base does a great job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. The throw by the catcher is high, and the runner is able to slide under the tag. The player is praised appropriately by the coach. In the very next inning, with his team still leading 2-0, a different player also does a nice job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. Only this time the catcher does a great job recovering and makes a perfect throw to the bag. The runner is out. The coach immediately drops his head and as the player jogs back to the dugout, you hear the coach say "you need to be smarter than that." This scenario consistently plays out throughout amateur baseball. It is this type of mixed messaging that can cause a player or team to lose aggressiveness or confidence in what they are doing. We as coaches need to understand that if it is a part of our system and we are allowing players to react to what they see, then there are going to be times when things don't work. We need to avoid responding to outcomes but be more in tune with processes.

If the player hesitated and was thrown out in the above situation, you can communicate where the process broke down. If the process is flawless, encourage your player to stay aggressive and keep trusting what he sees. The bigger issue may come from the coach not having a system at all. A coach that has strong situational and philosophical beliefs allows one to communicate expectations in a clear and concise way.

A strong belief system that is communicated properly doesn't just help your players with their performance, it also helps the coach with the consistency of their response.

Mistakes happen all over the field. Coaches need to be aware of their body language and how they respond to these mistakes. Negative reactions or the need to overcorrect can hinder the athlete's ability to perform at a high level. Ask yourself these questions. Does a player's failure on the field elicit a response in us that threatens our own coaching ability? Are we worried about what others will think? If you answer yes, you're letting your ego drive your reactions. It's not about us, it's about the reason for the player responding the way he did. I find it important to ask the player why. Instead of immediately telling a player what they should have done, or reprimanding him for the mistake, take a moment to ask "what did you see," or "why did you make that decision." If the player has sound reasoning for the decision, you might be more likely to move on. If the player's thought process wasn't correct, now you can coach them in a much more productive manner.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that baseball is a difficult game to play and becomes much more difficult if our players lack the confidence and freedom they need to be successful. Coaches, understand your role in the development process and how your words, actions, and beliefs play a role in how your players develop and perform.

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..


 The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes

The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

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

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

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

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

“Get ‘em next time.”

“There’s always tomorrow.”

“We still have three at-bats to go.”

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

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

 Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Player: “Coach I’m really nervous to pitch in this game.”
Coach: “Don’t be nervous… just have fun!

Player: “Coach I feel so sad cause I let the team down.”
Coach: “You shouldn’t feel sad. We won the game anyway!”

Player: “Coach it frustrates me that I’m striking out a lot recently.”
Coach: “Why? Just work harder in practice.”

Although these conversations may be the extreme side of player/coach interaction, we have more than likely experienced a similar back and forth at some point in our careers as player or coach. What is the problem with these types of interactions though? We want our players to have fun. We want them to be happy that we won the game. We want them to work harder in practice. What is missing is the coach, first and foremost, validating the emotional state of the player—that is the problem. Consider these different responses:

“Sounds like this game really means something to you, and is making you nervous.”
“I understand you feel down about how you played, and you may feel you let the team down.”
“It is frustrating to strike out, and that’s a hard part of the game.”

What is so important about this process? (For more in-depth study, see Validating Emotions). For one—we should not disagree with an emotion that a person is feeling. If a person says they are “feeling embarrassed,” they feel embarrassed. We may disagree with the action they took to become embarrassed, or perhaps the way that they dealt with the embarrassment, but if they feel embarrassed, they are embarrassed. Second, when we validate a person’s emotional state, several physiological things happen. The validation itself has the effect of slowing down the heart rate, dilating veins, and calming down the amygdala (the fight or flight portion of our brain). All these physical responses are beneficial to performance and working through the emotion.

Validating the emotions of our players does NOT mean they cannot also be disciplined, focused, and fiery competitors. Moreover, although we should not challenge the emotions that players are feeling, we can confront the actions/behaviors they take to deal with that emotion. If players slam their bats after a strikeout, or throw their gloves in disgust after giving up a homerun, we can discipline them for the way they dealt with the emotion. But we can also help them work through that emotion by acknowledging that we understand what they are experiencing (e.g. anger, frustration, sadness). Remember too that is often easier for players to deny the emotion, to put their heads down and pretend to “move past it.” It is actually more difficult to recognize the emotional space we are in, or to help someone recognize it. Do we want our athletes to take the easier route (deny what they feel and ignore it) or to take the more difficult route (engage with the emotion and work through it)?

The author would like to thank Jake Mencacci, Assistant- Coaching & Player Development, from the Pittsburgh Pirates for his input and edits to this article.

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.

 Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season

Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

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

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

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

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

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

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