Tag Archives: baseball

Seeking the Coaching Sweet Spot

2016-06-27 19.27.32

There’s a funny aspect of coaching where you need to strike a balance between your involvement and your objectivity.  I think the best coaches are driven by a passion to make those they have the privilege of working with better, but they then need to take the proper steps back not to let their own desires become the focus.  That’s a little bit of the secret sauce of it all, really.  You are trusted with being the steward of your trainee’s talent and desires.  To use a legal concept (because why the hell not), you are like the executor and manager of a trust – you have a good faith obligation to what has been entrusted to you.

And trust is such a perfect word and concept because it hits the dual-meaning of duty and also that you are entrusted with the faith your trainee placed in you.

This takes on a new level if the trainee/athlete/student is personally very close to you. The thing that drives you as a coach adds in a new, very strong variable of that relationship… which can be good and bad.  Good in that you are even more committed than usual to a great end result, but bad if… again… the objectivity is lost or the desired end state of your trainee gets steamrolled.

I just started working with my oldest nephew just over 2 weeks ago to really get him weight training for the first time.  He did a little bit in fits and starts with the high school baseball team this past year, but this is his first foray into a structured and very consistent program.  I had my own coach work this up for him as I guide him through it.

Each session we’ve had is a learning experience for both of us.  For him, he is seeing what a well-thought out program of strength, power, mobility, movement prep and conditioning looks like.  For me, I’m seeing what it means to consistently coach someone else on all aspects of strength & conditioning and figuring out how to do this for what he wants… not what Uncle Kevin wants.

It’s essentially a twist on the baseball coaching I’ve done with my 2 oldest nephews for the last 8 or 9 years.  The difference here is in baseball, it’s balanced by the need to focus on all the players.  In this case?  It’s one-on-one.  It would be easy to get all out of sorts and take every bit of how each session goes overly personally.

So what to do?  How to find the magic point in all of this between passion and objectivity?  I think for the near future (and maybe longer), it’s going to be fairly simple: focus on getting my nephew to enjoy the whole process.  That’s honestly it – if I make that my success criteria, the rest of the details will take care of themselves.  Progress will be made and progress, my friends, is the great hook of hooks.

Sometimes your best course of action as a coach is to get out of your own way, stop spending so much time overthinking every nuance with your trainee and just let their enjoyment be the guide.  And maybe you’ll have a little fun more coaching fun in the process too.

The Art of the Extra Minute

If there’s something I’ve learned in my time working in Corporate America or in coaching wild little weasels in youth baseball, it’s that the people in charge can often lose sight of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their leadership or guidance.  It’s really not all that surprising because most people don’t spend oodles of time in their days considering how others perceive them.  This is partly because… well… who the hell would spend that much time obsessed on such a point?  In addition, no one should be so purely “other-focused” that they never account for their own personal tastes, talents and desires.

That being said, there is a tremendous amount of value to be gained for anyone who is a manager, leader or coach to consider how their leadership is delivered and received.

A leader may have a weekly staff meeting with her team where she feels completely at ease, free to have an open discussion.  However, does the team feel the same way?  Maybe, maybe not.  One leader’s place of restful sanctuary is another team member’s “More face time with the boss where I have to play the part…”

image

As a baseball coach, I try to think about things from the kid’s perspective as best I can… and Lord knows I probably fail at this much more often than I succeed, but I think the effort is the big part.

It’s the art of taking the extra minute.  That extra minute to think about your methods in relation to your players is hugely helpful.

For me it’s been about thinking about myself as a Little Leaguer.  I was seldom a confident player back in those days – far more concerned with messing up than playing well.  Hell, I can remember playing a game as it was getting dark, rain was coming down and I was hoping the pitcher, TJ, would strike me out.  True story.

Hence, my extra minute is to remember that there are a lot of kids who aren’t naturally gifted athletes and for whom standing all by themselves at the plate with everyone watching them at a baseball game is a daunting experience.  Kids for whom their coach looking them in the eye and saying, “Hey, you just go up there and go for it. All I care is about you trying hard – that’s it.” might be the difference between them enjoying the game and not.  Or the coach letting them know that making an error or messing up or doing something “wrong” because they tried too hard is totally OK.  Sure, you try to have them learn from that moment, but you can’t just light them up or else they’ll shut down for good.

And even if you don’t coach youth baseball, these same lessons apply at work, in your church, with your charitable group, etc.  Your presence and position will affect those around you in ways you likely don’t notice or think to consider.

And all you need to do is develop the art of taking that extra minute.  It won’t fix everything, but the self-awareness it brings is certainly the most important first step of them all.

My Philosophy: A Post 25 Years in the Making

I remember telling my parents in the Spring of 1987, my freshman year of high school, that I was going out for the baseball team.  Now, they never said anything specific to me about it or made any attempts to dissuade me from trying, but I always had the feeling they were a bit uneasy about it.

Why?

My older brother was always an excellent athlete… but me?  Not quite so much.  I had a generally unremarkable Little League career, didn’t play baseball on the middle school team and there really wasn’t anything to suggest my trying out for the high school team would end in anything but my being cut and coming home devastated.

Somehow, some way… I made the JV team.  We didn’t have a freshman team back then like many high schools do these days.

Fast forward ahead to this photo in the Spring of 1990, my senior year at Avon High School and the varsity baseball photo:

Avon High School - Varsity Baseball 1990

There I kneel in all my handsome best and pretty proud to play for a team that would end up ranked #2 in the state.  We lost our first game, won 18 in a row and lost our last game in the state tournament to a team we should have annihilated.

This photo explains a lot about my personal philosophy on coaching and actually explains a hell of a lot about me generally.

I played on the Varsity team my junior and senior years of high school with my prime motivator being really damn simple: Don’t. F**king. Screw. Up.

Inspirational right? Almost akin to a battle cry on a bloodstained field of battle from days of yore.  But in reality?  It was the truth.  I was far more concerned about the wrath of my coach if I screwed up than the potential amazing outcomes that would come from playing loose and free.  Now, what kind of fun could THAT possibly be?

It came to a head during the final game of my senior year as we lost in the state tournament (as a #2 seed, mind you) to a team we outclassed in seemingly every way possible.  I had probably 3 errors in the field that day and my baseball playing career ended with my coach pulling me out of the game and saying to me as I was directed to the bench “My God, Kuz… everything is an adventure with you out there today.”  My athletic pinnacle it was not.

That moment has always stuck with me, even now 25 years later and completely affects how I approach every kid I get the privilege of coaching.  My philosophy is simple: kids who are relaxed have more fun and play way better than the kid who sees his first at-bat of the season as a life-or-death struggle.  As ridiculously simple as that sounds, the trick is being mindful on this point and consistent with every kid you coach.  I acutely felt that awkward and self-directed pressure, so for me, it’s really easy to stay on task.

And in fact, I think this is something I seek to do all the time anyway now.  When people feel comfortable, they’re just in such a better place as a friend, work colleague, family member or even just a stranger you bump into in line at Starbucks to get a coffee with a complicated name. (Caveat: I love me some Sbux and will fight you to the death if you try and swipe my gold card)

My advice?  Find a person who looks out of sorts and see what you can do about it.  It’s actually ridiculously easy because all you need to consider is the fact that YOU have been there too.  Why not fix it for someone else?

Rhyme, Reason and The Things That Drive Us

 Little Slice of Heaven

I’m likely going to be taking a bit of a baseball and coaching theme with my posts in the near future. This stems from both the fact that Little League coaching begins soon (I find out my team on Saturday) and that it’s a rich source of inspiration for posts. Kids have an uncanny ability to teach adults a lot if those adults are paying attention.

It reminds me of a conversation a year or so ago while helping out with All-Stars practice one day and one of the players, Shamus, strolled on up to me as I watched a drill. He stood next to me for a few moments, watching the same drill and the following conversation ensued:

Shamus: Hey coach… are you married?

Me: No, Shamus, I’m not.

*brief pause*

Shamus: Got a girlfriend?

Me: No, Shamus, I don’t right now.

*longer, more thoughtful pause*

Shamus: Gettin’ kind of late…

You can’t make this stuff up. Hence, the wisdom of the youngins.

What I’m thinking most about with the season so close to starting is what drives me as a coach. The biggest piece is the fact I coach my nephews and have been doing so for 7 or 8 years, ever since my older brother was volunteered by his lovely bride and… well… he wasn’t going to do it solo. Suddenly, Assistant Coach Kevin was born!

But what about beyond that? What am I trying to accomplish? What’s my goal? My mission? My philosophy? Gosh darn it, don’t I have a vision statement with a 5 year plan developed by Wharton-educated consultants?!?!?  *ahem*  Wow… that got scary for a second.  Thankfully, I’m back and I can answer these questions fairly simply:

I coach with my Little League self in mind as much as I possibly can with the dual purpose of helping my players get better and (more importantly), enjoy the hell out of playing baseball.

THAT right there is my mission statement.

I think of my Little League self because I was never the most confident of baseball players, although I had some ability that could have become something nice if got out of my own way. Instead, I probably spent a lot of time thinking I would never be like my older brother who was fantastic at baseball, would end up being All-State in high school and playing in college.  I can actually remember a time when I was in 4th or 5th grade where I was at bat, it was raining and T.J. Church was pitching to me… and all I kept saying to myself was “Please just strike me out.” Yup… that truly happened and I can almost feel that pit in my stomach just thinking of that moment where I wanted to be anywhere but at the plate trying to hit. Not a great moment, but one indelibly burned in my memory.

I never, EVER want a kid that plays for me to feel that way, not even for a moment. I can’t even totally say why I was feeling that way – my parents were always really supportive. I just felt miserable out there and wasn’t having fun, at least not on that day. I would do better when I got to high school and played baseball all 4 years… but I often suffered from the greatest shortcoming any young athlete can have:

I was far more worried about messing up than the upside of laying it out there, possibly achieving something magical or great and feeling the joy of doing well. That’s a missed opportunity and I don’t want it repeated under my watch if I can help it.

So that drives me and it’s really why this entire coaching experience means so much to me. I think a lot about how that felt for me as a kid and, oddly enough, the kids I will be coaching this year will be in exactly that same age range as me during that day in the rain.

No matter how I need to scramble out of work early for a game or changing up my weekend schedule because of games… it just doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Hey, don’t misunderstand me – I am not some noble saint for taking this position. I do all of this because it’s just so much damn fun – I get at least as much out of it as the kids do. It’s not really work. It’s not a grind. It’s just… well… fun.

Here’s to the start of the upcoming season with a watchful eye towards the why of coaching… maybe the most important aspect of all.

Trust Not The Eyes, For They May Not See.

Simple beauty

This is a pretty special time of year for me. Part of it has to do with the vigorous shaking off of the chill of Winter and opening my arms wide to pull Spring into my sweet, loving embrace. Come to me baby… come to me. That’s only part of my fond feelings for this mid-March period. The bigger piece is that Little League baseball coaching is again on the horizon and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The process kicks off the same each season: a bunch of well-meaning coaches spend the better part of a weekend in a middle school gym rating 8-12 year olds on their ability to field, throw, pitch and hit. It’s a bit of a circus every time, but I think that’s half the fun of it. Just kind of reveling in the mayhem of it all and catching up with the other coaches I haven’t seen in a while.

But my favorite part of the entire evaluation process isn’t just hanging out and joking around with the kids as they come through my station (which was hitting this year). Actually, my favorite part is when I find out I’m completely, utterly and totally wrong. No, really.

As each kid walks up to your station, there are only so many I actually know from years past. Because of this, I tend not to know anything about the baseball abilities of most players until they begin their drills with me. And you know what happens as they walk up? There is that flickering moment in the mind where every coach tries to guess how this kid will be. It’s something we do in all aspects of life, right? Heck, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about these kinds of snap judgments in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Nothing unusual in this and really nothing controversial because no one with any sense in their noggin would make a determination just based on a first impression of a kid walking into the gym. That would just be flat out stupid.

But some kids roll in with a lot of confidence and swagger. They have a snazzy and expensive bat, snappy batting gloves and are sporting an all-star shirt from the previous year. Some kids come in a bit tentative and nervous – these are the kids I try to put at ease as quickly as possible because… well…. I was that kid at that age when it came to baseball and sports. I bloomed late athletically.

Then some kids don’t fit the part of a baseball player at all. They aren’t wearing anything you would see a kid put on to play any sport, go to gym class and so on. Heck, they may be wearing an outfit that looks like something they would wear to the mall or the movies. They walk into the station, look through the bucket of bats available for anyone who didn’t bring one and then step up to the tee to take a few swings.

And that’s when some real magic happens and I am reminded again to never, ever, EVER assume anything on a kid before seeing him do his or her thing. I absolutely love it when the kids who “don’t fit” whatever preconceived notion there may be for a youth baseball player come in and smash the bejeezus out of every ball they see. It puts the biggest smile on my face and I revel in the fact that, if I had any guess to the contrary, I have just been shown to be 100% wrong.

It’s so great to see the kids who defy conventions of any kind… who don’t fit the idea of how they are “supposed” to be, whether in baseball or school or any other activity. The kids who just love something and it shows. Heck, my favorite players to coach aren’t necessarily the superstars with the amazing physical gifts. I have such a great time working with kids who just love to be on baseball field and playing a game. That’s all it takes to win me over.

So trust not the eyes, for they may not see… at least not at first. Break those biases down. Strip them from your thoughts when they rear up. And if you have any moments where you catch your assumptions being shown to be misguided? Cherish them. Because that’s where the real fun starts.

The Plank in My Eye

I think I’m like many people who can be a total ace at passing out advice that I then do a less-than-ideal job of following for myself.  I don’t think there is anything remarkable about that in myself or in others – it’s just far easier to cast the penetrating light of truth upon a situation removed from myself than it is to see that same case in me.

2011 05 01 09 57 26 946

Case in point.  This past season of coaching baseball, one of the things we implored of our kids was to be aggressive and not fear the consequences that would follow.  If they were going all out and made a mistake in the process, ehh… that’s fine.  More often than not, their aggressive on the baseball diamond would be rewarded with something good than a mistake.  Plus, we kept reminding them… this is baseball.  A game.  Something to have fun with and not something with the future of mankind perilously hanging in the balance.  I think we made a bit of progress on this with a lot of the boys and I hope it sticks with them.  If there is one HUGE thing I’ve noticed in youth sports, it’s that the kids who are either the most aggressive or the least concerned about making mistakes are the ones who do best (and also seem to have the most fun).

And God forbid it all be it about fun.  I know… that’s a pretty nutty thing to say about youth sports.  We’re supposed to be prepping every little Johnny and Jane to be Olympic-calibre athletes from the time they are 6 right? (I will now seek to turn down my sarcasm a shade).

Getting back to the notion of seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while missing the plank in your own.  Yeah… that’s right… I just went Biblical.

A few weeks back I was playing a game in my basketball league and I was absolutely awful.  I mean… just… wow… I was really bad.  My time on the court seemed to serve little purpose outside spelling a teammate who needed to rest for a bit.  I was tentative and second-guessing and awkward.  It was probably one of the worst basketball experiences I’ve had in my life, outside of some bad Nerf hoop experiences when super young.  You know those where you are just starting to learn to play, but have an older brother who just swats away every shot you put up with that puffy orange ball?  So yeah, besides that, my worst outing ever.

Then it hit me loud and clear and with no small amount of force: I was exactly like one of the 10 to 12 year olds I had just finished coaching who didn’t seem to get out of his shell and just be aggressive.  Boom – head shot.  I sat there as a coach and felt I was so wise with all my perspective on the value of being aggressive and how you not only play better, but have more fun… and yet I never saw it in myself.

I played again last night, freshly self-chastised for coaching one way and playing another, and guess what?  I played much better, was much more aggressive, had a blast and smiled throughout a lot of the game (even at some of the awful calls made by our fine officials).  Heck, we won too.

The lesson in all of this for me is simple and direct: If I have an insight for someone else… whether while coaching or with someone coming to me for advice… I need to immediately take an opportunity to then look at myself in that same vein because chances are, I will need it as well to some extent or another.  I hope to make this a habit and given the fact that my very job involves me giving guidance to people on a daily basis, I think I can get some mojo going on this point.

It’s time to get that plank out of my own eye and see things a little bit more clearly… at least when looking at myself.

The Zen of Baseball

-1078677918

Growing up, I was all about baseball. It was truly one of my favorite things, from watching games on TV, going to Fenway Park with my family, collecting stacks and stacks of baseball cards or playing one of a thousand forms of the game. They were all good and I didn’t want to go without.As I grew old, all of this faded a bit. It was a slow drift over time, like a fallen leaf on a lake that starts near the shore, but gradually glides further away with each passing moment.

Ahh, but then baseball decided to strike and the bitterness that left in my mouth would last… for years. The game lost something for me at that point. Maybe I still held a nostalgic and naive fondness in my heart that was stung by the labor issues. I’ll likely never know for sure, but I did know that baseball could suck it for all I cared.

Then came 2004 when I became caught up in the improbable Red Sox run to make the greatest comeback in sports history against the Yankees and then finally break The Curse after 86 years. From that moment on, the game began its slow and subtle build back into my heart.

Now in 2011, the game has returned fully to my heart as if it had never really left from those days of my childhood where I wore a plastic Oakland A’s batting helmet and imagined I was Ricky Henderson stealing base after base. Hell, I even ponied up the money to buy the MLB.TV subscription so I can watch all kinds of baseball on my laptop, Roku player and on that powerful sweet iPad 2 I totally plan on scoring.

I think there is a part of me that truly understands why in the world this has all returned to me with a seemingly effortless grace… it’s because I miss the measured complexity, nuance and pace of baseball. It really has hit me of late that what I once thought of as slow and boring in my bulletproof, I-know-everything days of my 20’s is really almost like perfect Zen meditation when watched properly. It becomes a matter of unplugging yourself from the scattered modern lifestyle of uber-connectedness, must check my Facebook every 7.5 minutes and must keep my nose buried in my iPhone to never miss a text. I know I’ve been pulled into all of that and typically left feeling even LESS connected than ever.

Don’t you see it all the time? The classic example is a group of friends, out together, but almost everyone in their own little world checking on what everyone else NOT present is up to… while the moment to connect deeply with those 2 feet away slips by. And without a doubt, I’ve done this too.

It’s to these moments that baseball feels like a perfect antidote… to sit down and just watch a game… not while tweeting or checking out movie trailers on YouTube… but doing nothing but watching a game unfold in its own time.

So here’s to hoping for a learning to appreciate a little more richness through the lessons that the master known as baseball can provide. Time to unplug and play ball.