The Athletic Journey
I have always been fascinated by the complex relationships between players and coaches. How well a coach can communicate the same ideas to a team full of individuals is one of the great benchmarks of success in our sport, but often the most difficult to achieve. In this article we will look at the many challenges of player development and attempt to answer the question: How do we get the most out of our players?
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As my playing career came to an end, I began the difficult transition into coaching. And right away I noticed a problem. The majority of my players were progressing very rapidly, they were understanding all my lessons and getting better daily. But worryingly, there were a few guys who were not. Slow progression of students happens with all types of teaching, but I still blamed myself for their lack of development. How could it be that some of my players didn’t understand my style of coaching? Over the next few months I really began to pay attention to my own coaching techniques and how they were being received by my players. Through this observation I realized that some of my players, although they were trying, just couldn’t comprehend the mechanics and ideas behind my coaching, although they insisted they understood. As a former player I thought back to the times I was in their shoes, trying to understand a concept that just wouldn’t work for me. All too often I have seen coaches abandon these players and move on, convinced that the player isn’t trying, or doesn’t care. But the mark of a great coach is not how he manages to get the best out of those who understand him, but how he gets the best out of those who don’t. In order for all of my players to benefit from my coaching, I had to find a way to make sure my coaching was engaging all of my players. By taking the individual and analyzing what works best for them, we were able to take the next step as a TEAM. In short, the burden of responsibility is on the coach to be flexible, not the player. Take the time to understand your athletes, their likes and dislikes, motivations and deterrents, and you will find a way to get through to the person that so many have given up on.
Committing to this new style of coaching has paid dividends for me. The players I used to find the most difficult are now the most fun for me to manage, because they force me to be my best. One of my most memorable examples occurred at a private lesson I gave a few months back with a player who was having difficulty understanding the swing mechanics I was teaching him. This was absolutely shocking to me because he was one of the brightest kids I had ever met. Over the course of the next few sessions I began to understand him more as a person, by taking the downtime in lessons to talk about his interests outside of baseball. I soon found out his love for engineering and physics. Having him open up to me like this was the tool I needed to crack the case. Moving forward, I started explaining swing mechanics in more scientific terms. Using phrases like “torque”, and “levers” to connect with what he already knew and loved. Immediately, I saw a change. By incorporating physics into our conversations his desire to understand dramatically improved. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my career, because I could see his excitement and love for the game replace the frustration that we had both been experiencing. Now, obviously not every player will understand the correlation between baseball and physics, but this is a great example of finding ways to actively learn about, and teach, your players. Sometimes all that is needed to understand a concept is a different way of thinking about it.
Listening to your players is vital to the overall success of your squad, but you also need to aggressively promote a culture of curiosity. Getting your team to question your methods and seek the answers are both healthy practices to get into. This is where the active learner ideology comes into play. Active learning is an approach to instruction that involves actively engaging players through discussion of the concepts. Being an active learner is something I wish I would have been more comfortable with when I was a player and also a student in school. It is the teacher’s job to get all they can out of their students, but to an extent, it is also the student’s job to get all they can out of their teachers. Communication from both parties is key, and so as coaches we must foster the right environment. Constantly stopping and asking “does that make sense?”, or “did I explain that well enough?” encourages players to find their voice and to not be embarrassed just because they don’t fully understand a concept that others do. The best coaches I have ever played for always did everything in their power to help their players overcome the self-induced embarrassment caused by asking questions. Your players should never feel ashamed or scared to ask you anything. This philosophy requires a great deal of patience, but I promise you that nurturing the curiosity of your players will dramatically increase their on-field production, and ensure that, developmentally, no one gets left behind.
I have been coaching for 5 years. Through these years I have worked with multiple different coaches and analyzed all of their coaching techniques. Just like the students self-induced embarrassment, coaches can experience the same lack of confidence with concepts they are coaching. And so, my final coaching tip is to be a lifetime learner. In order to be a successful coach the constant absorption of all new techniques and styles is required. This game is forever changing and with the advent and adoption of analytics the so called “old school” coaches are struggling more and more. During our playing days, we all had our own styles, but we listened and learned from the guys around us to improve our craft. The same can be said for coaching. Sticking to outdated methods is handicapping your team’s ability to grow. I am not saying that the new is better than the old, but an understanding of how the game is changing is paramount to getting the most out of your players. Watching and listening to the modern hitters and pitchers will not only give you little tips and tricks, but it will also make you more relatable to your players. I have been in a lot of locker rooms, and the easiest way to lose a team is to refuse to listen to what your players want. Immerse yourself in the game and grow as it grows. And if you disagree with a concept, challenge it from a position of knowledge, not ignorance.
Through our careers as players and as coaches, it is our duty to continue to learn and grow, and Baseball IQ can help with that. Not all information you receive will be beneficial to you, but keeping an open mind to suggestions is how we get better as teachers and students of the game. That being said, I want to conclude this article by sharing my 3 keys to being the best version of yourself every time you take the field:
(1) Listen to everyone, but it is your job to speak up if something doesn’t make sense. Asking questions benefits the entire team.
(2) Just because information has been provided does not mean it is beneficial to your game. What works for some won’t work for all, so keep an open mind but don’t follow blindly.
(3) Always try to understand everything. Even if you don’t agree with a concept, don’t shut it out. Oftentimes, understanding why someone else is doing it may help unlock something you hadn’t been thinking of.