Learn by Watching

“You can observe a lot by watching.” – Yogi Berra

I was a career .285 hitter (give or take) going into my senior year at Wake Forest.  Pretty respectable in the ACC, but far from exceptional.  However, my average ballooned to .330 my senior year.  How did this happen?  My belief is that the increase can be attributed to the switch I made from 2nd base to catcher.

The transition from 2nd to catcher meant a few changes for me.  I upped my physical workouts in the weight room to strengthen my legs.  I spent a lot more time in the training room working on my flexibility.  But the biggest change came in my game-day preparation.  Our pitching coach, Bobby Moranda (now Head Coach at Western Carolina), was as well prepared for an opponent as any other coach I have ever known.  It didn’t matter if it was a weekday non-conference game, or a weekend conference series, he had charts, video and scouting reports on our opponent.  We watched the opposing team take batting practice and analyzed pitch charts between innings.  It was a constant analysis that fed into a 9-inning chess match.  And for most of the year, we won many chess matches.

As the year progressed, the constant analysis of opposing hitters began to have a positive effect on my own hitting.  The more I analyzed opposing hitters, the more I began to understand my own weaknesses and flaws.  And the better my hitting became.  So, I do not think it’s a coincidence that my average jumped so considerably the year I switched to catcher.

“Paralysis by Analysis” is an often-said phrase that is commonly used when any athlete is experiencing issues, and trying to resolve them through video analysis.  “Just go out and play your game” is what usually follows.  I do agree that there are times when athletes tend to overthink things; but if you’re struggling, you need to find out why.  And video is the perfect place to start.  And those that do use the “Paralysis by Analysis” saying usually do so because they have no clue as to why the individual may be struggling.  They have no answers.

Analysis should not just be reserved for hitters and pitchers.  Coaches should emphasize the importance of ‘watching’ the game; whether it’s on video, while they are on the bench, or if it’s an MLB game.  Players need to be students of the game.  Players need to take the time to see how others move when balls are hit; how they move between pitches; and how they execute plays when balls are hit to them.  Watch the best baserunners.  How big are their leads?  Are they peeking at the catcher’s signs?  How quick do they break on balls in the dirt?  How efficient are their turns?

Baseball sometimes gets a bad rap for being a boring game.  People equate baseball with there being too much downtime, and players just standing around.  Players that buy into this stigma are missing out on incredible learning opportunities.  Instead of watching the ‘chess match’ that is being played, they get caught up in watching the crowd, or getting caught up in conversation with teammates.

Meanwhile, the best players are watching the game.  They’re taking advantage of the numerous learning opportunities that surround them.  They’re getting better by soaking in what they see, and then they put what they learn into their own game.

Take some time this Spring to watch the game.  Try to see through the normal flow of the game and analyze what’s really happening.  Challenge yourself to see more than what others may see.

Don’t Tell Me How Much Time You Work

“Focus on being productive instead of being busy.” – Timothy Ferriss

A few days back I was in between camps.  The first camp ended at 10:00 (youth camp for kids 6-9), while the second started at 10:30 (Catchers ages 13+).  I always leave a 30 minute gap to address any questions from parents from the first camp; while also giving the same to those early arrivals for the 10:30 session that may have had some lingering questions from the week prior.

Shortly after 10:00, the catchers started rolling in.  I was hoping that all would show early, so we could get started early, and grab some extra time.  Unfortunately, one or two arrived right around 10:30.  And I didn’t want to start early, and punish those that arrived at 10:30.  For those that did arrive early, I instructed them as to where they should line their bags and to get their gear ready for when we start.  I also asked if anyone had any questions on previously taught skills.  No questions.  I then took the extra time to speak with my son and get the cage set up for the drills that I would be doing during the session.

As I proceeded w/setting up for the session, I noticed something…the catchers that did arrive early were just sitting around, doing a lot of nothing.  This REALLY irritated me.

I spent the first 10 minutes of the session talking to the young men about what had just gotten me so aggravated.  “You’ll hear this quite often in your lives”, I started.  “Little Johnny is the first one here and the last one to leave.  Or, in the business world.  Joe is at his desk at 6am, and doesn’t leave until 6pm.  WHO CARES!  Little Johnny or Joe may be at the field or in the office for a long time; but are they being productive?  Is Little Johnny actually working at anything, or just sitting around?  Is Joe actually doing his work; or is he checking his Twitter and Facebook?”

The message I was conveying to the young men was that it’s not about the amount of time you put in; rather, it’s about how productive are you when you are at the field or in the office.

So many kids think that it takes hours upon hours of work to get better.  Guess what…It doesn’t!  Just be productive with the time you do spend working.  Why get somewhere early, just to sit around.  You won’t get extra playing time…you won’t qualify to hit 3rd…you won’t get an award  just for showing up early.  You get those things by being better than the other players.  And you get better by being PRODUCTIVE!

My question each week to these players is always the same: “WHAT did you work on since we last met?”  Not, “HOW MUCH time did you spend working?”  We as coaches really need to emphasize the value of being productive over the amount of time they put into their craft.  If they focus more of being productive…a funny thing will happen…they will get better!

And guess what happens when they get better…they will want to spend more time being productive.


Take Command

We as coaches must make sure we maximize our time during practice.  I recently wrote on the importance of starting your practice on time; but this piece focuses on something of equal importance…taking command of your players.

A practice plan can quickly fall apart if a coach loses control of his/her players.  This is especially true for those that coach youth players; which tend to have a shorter attention span.  All it takes is for one of your players to get distracted, and then it snowballs.  I recently attended my son’s basketball practice and witnessed the following.  One of the players began acting as if he was a lion.  He started chasing other players around the floor.  In a matter of seconds, a portion of the team was engaged in a game of “watch out for the lion.”  By the time the ‘game’ was over, 5 minutes of practice time was wasted.  And for a practice that only lasts 60 minutes, one cannot afford to waste 1 minute, let alone 5.

For coaches to avoid losing control of their team, they need to follow these guidelines:

  1. Set the tone from day 1: On your first practice, coaches need to set the ground-rules.  Lay out what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.  And, make sure your players know what are the consequences for their actions.  And lay out the rules in front of the parents.  Doing this on day 1 helps you avoid the conversations down the road when you do have to discipline players.  If you tell them up front of what you expect, any discipline enforced should not be a surprise to parents or players.
  2. Have a well-organized agenda: NEVER enter a practice without a minute-by-minute agenda.  When you’re not prepared, you tend to have lulls in your practice.  And players (especially young ones) will take advantage of these lulls.
  3. Enforce your rules: Parents are told that if you fail to act on a stated consequence, then you’ll have a hard time enforcing rules later on.  The same can be true for coaches.  Do not waiver on your punishments.  If players are acting up, deliver on your punishments; whether its having them sit down, run laps, or reducing their playing time.  Once players know that you are serious about enforcing the rules; you’ll find they will quickly adapt to your rules.
  4. Be Firm: My father, the greatest coach I’ve ever had, never yelled; but everyone feared him.  He wasn’t interested in having his players like him; rather he was more interested in having his players respect him.  And his players did, and still do, respect him.  And to be honest, they also do love him.  You won’t find his players cursing, or wearing their shirts untucked, or acting out in practice.  Because they quickly learn that he isn’t afraid to “set them straight.”  Again, he doesn’t yell; but he is firm with his voice.  He stares a hole straight through them.  He doesn’t have to say much.  His stare says it all.  From the moment a player meets him, they quickly learn what they can do and what they can’t do.

Of all the guidelines I listed above, #4 is the one I really want to stress.  My father has been coaching for alost 30 years now.  I’ve been able to watch him and study how he takes command of his players.  And the funny thing is…players WANT to play for him.  In reading #4, you may have pictured my father as a “Billy Martin” type of coach, always yelling at his players.  But it’s quite the opposite.  He never yells and rarely has to discipline his players.  They know how to act and they know what he expects.  The end result?  He has a team full of well-disciplined young men.  And the discipline they exhibit during his practices carries over into their social lives, and school, and at home.

It’s ok to be firm with your players.  It’s ok to take disciplinary actions against your players.  They understand.  They know they act out.  They know they are in the wrong.  They know they should be punished.  BUT, get to the point where you don’t have to discipline.  And that can only be achieved on day 1.

Understand the WHY!

If a coach cannot explain why they teach what they are teaching, they should not be teaching it.  Part of getting a player to buy into what you are trying to get them to do is to get them to believe that what you are teaching will get them better.  They need to understand the WHY!  Catchers need to understand why they should block the ball down and not towards home plate.  Infielders need to understand why they should back-hand a ball even though they may be able to get in front of it.

This past weekend, I began my 6-week catching camps.  I love teaching catchers; and for many reasons.  The position demands toughness, both physically and mentally.  The position has a direct impact on every pitch.  And it develops true leaders.  But, one thing that does frustrate me is that these kids that attend the camp have had little to no prior instruction on the position.  Most of them are simply told to get behind the plate, squat down, and catch the ball.  The little instruction they do get is usually a regurgitation of a blurb the coach saw on a YouTube video; or an abstract from an online tutorial.  When I ask them why they do things a certain way, their response is usually “I don’t know.  It’s what I was taught.”

During my short stint as a Collegiate Coach, I was given the opportunity to present at various coaches clinics.  I enjoyed engaging with the coaches and had some great conversations with some really good men.  Unfortunately though, I do not believe that a good number of these coaches leave these clinics with a true understanding of WHY certain techniques should be taught.  And I say this because I came across their players in summer or winter camps; and doing almost the exact opposite of what was covered in the coaches camps.

I’m not saying that it’s my way or the highway.  But, I never teach anything unless I can tell someone WHY they should do it.  I can fully explain to them the benefits, while also explaining the drawbacks of the way they were taught.  And if I don’t see any issue with the way they were taught, then stick with it.  There’s more than one way to do certain things.    I simply want the players to know why they are doing things a certain way.

Players should challenge their coaches.  Speak up if you don’t understand what you’re being taught, or you have doubts that what you’re being taught may not be the best way to do it.  Be polite about it, and you’ll probably want to do it on the side; but a coach should not take it personally if you’re being sincere about learning.

Coaches should explain the WHY to the players; and if possible, close enough to their parents so they can hear (especially to the younger players).  I don’t care if the parent has ever played the game.  If you explain it correctly, they should get it.

My advice this winter is to take the time to get to know the WHY behind the technique you are using.  The more time you spend in understanding the WHY, the quicker you’ll understand whether or not you’re heading in the right direction.