On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.
The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read the other sections:
Joe and Ricky, my two left-handed pitchers, were slouched in the dugout chatting during the middle innings of a blowout. Our team was on defense, so the dugout was vacant. I sat at the end of the dugout closest home plate watching our catcher, Larry, frame pitches. If there was one skill set I could coach, it was the catcher position. We were in our second weekend of games, and I had yet to give Larry a single note.
After the lefties tired themselves of guessing what pitch our pitcher would throw next, Joe offered up this nugget of perspective to Ricky.
“Remember when we, like, used to care about every play?”
I turned my entire body sideways to observe the oblivious lefties.
Ricky acquiesced with a nod, but he cared. Joe cared when he pitched, sometimes. But to Ricky, competition was instinctual. On the mound, he would self-diagnose and tweak his delivery. In right field he would remind the first baseman that he could be throwing to first on a sharp single to right. Still, it was easier for Ricky to agree with Joe than admit he cared, which makes sense when you remember these dudes were fifteen.
“I care about every play,” I interjected. “And – not for nothing – this is the dumbest conversation I’ve ever heard in a dugout. Your coach is ten feet from you!”
They chuckled and gave spare tire apologies that were just enough to carry them out of the current predicament.
I laughed a little, too. I wasn’t a robot coaching the team, and this wasn’t military training. If nothing else, it was a genuine moment in a lopsided game. Every exchange a coach has with players can’t be aggressive, binary, win-or-you’re-a-loser coachspeak. For one, that’s b.s., and kids have precise bullshit detectors. Also, a coach can’t demand more from a team without genuinely knowing and caring about the individuals. Kids will tune out a coach that speaks at them, and they will hesitate to give more to a coach who doesn’t know them.
That is all true, but there was another truth jammed between Joe’s words: there is nothing more damaging to a young baseball team than a blowout win. Nothing.
Do you know what happens when you’re leading a game by 10+ runs? Players stop competing. Hitters don’t sprint to first on a dropped third strike. Pitchers have to be told to step off the rubber because they forget to pitch from the stretch with runners on base. Outfielders miss their cutoff man. Players stop competing, and lazy-ass baseball ensues. Lazy baseball is so much more contagious than competitive baseball. Lazy baseball is boring to play, unbearable to watch, and infuriating to coach.
It should come as no surprise that we lost our next game*.
Players learn nothing from winning big. In the vast majority of youth games, a blowout only reinforces what everyone at the game knew before the first pitch: one team has more ability and skill than the other team. A blowout fools kids, sometimes coaches as well, into believing their skill is more important to their success than their approach, which is an idiotic interpretation of success in youth sports.
The correlation between skill and success is crap for everyone, in all facets of life, save maybe a hundred true geniuses throughout history. Hell, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is essentially a book about minimizing this 1:1 correlation. The other side effect of skill-first thinking is that it tamps down any possibility for a team to realize its full potential.
Coaching skills isn’t hard. To be able to get players to consistently execute baseball fundamentals is a prerequisite for any coach (I would hope). There are hundreds of drills cleverly designed to correct technique and improve a skill. If a hitter opens up the front shoulder on every pitch, then try reverse soft toss. If a catcher’s throw down to second misses wide, then draw a line in the dirt from the back corner of home plate to between the catcher’s feet and tell him to make sure his lead foot lands on the line when he makes the throw.
Technique doesn’t even have to be explained; if the results change a player’s outcome for the better then he will commit to it immediately.
To coach approach, however, is to change the way a group of players thinks about the game. Results are rarely immediate when coaching approach, and it’s harder to correlate a shift in thinking with a positive change in the individual baseball stats, e.g. batting average, fielding percentage, earned run average**. We’re talking about establishing a team culture here, about maximizing potential, which is how I define success. It’s a much higher degree of difficulty, and a hell of a lot more fulfilling for all involved.
My approach is to “win the inning”. This is not an original concept – the late University of Texas coach Augie Garrido has an entire documentary about it (any baseball nut will love this). Jay, my youth coach, was a big “win the inning” believer, as was Coach Holm in college.
Quite simply, to win the inning asks players to think of the game as one inning – one turn at the plate, and one turn in the field. The seven-inning or nine-inning game the rest of the folks are counting as a game doesn’t matter if your team can focus the inning at hand.
Win the inning is about making a habit out of competing moment to moment. It requires every player on the team to seek out what he can control and contribute in the moment immediately before him. For younger players (under about ten), win the inning is a fun way to get keep the game fresh, but this is a philosophy at its core.
Making a spectacular catch in the outfield. Hustling to backup the player trying to make that spectacular catch in the event he misses it. Hitting a two-out homerun. Beating out a grounder for a hit, which brings the homerun hitter to the plate. All of these are winning plays. While only two of them require talent, a coach has to get players to believe that the hustle plays are valued as much as the spectacular plays. They all more clearly contribute to winning an inning, but the essential, unspectacular plays get forgotten when a team reflects on seven or nine innings as a single entity.
After an inning is over, everyone resets. Start over and forget what just happened, good or bad. By minimizing the scope, you maximize the importance of the details. In those details you will find a team’s potential realized. In those details is where build a culture.
Getting kids to buy into this approach is hard, because – newsflash – we do keep score in seven and nine inning increments, folks keep statistics, and long-term improvement is hard to demonstrate in a short season. Players know when they’re kicking a team’s ass and when they’re getting their ass kicked. It’s right there on the scoreboard. Again, you’re asking them to redefine success, while knowing everyone else in their life – parents, future coaches, baseballreference.com – measures success by how many hits they had or how many innings of shutout ball they pitched.
There’s no guarantee you’ll get a team to buy-in on, but it’s worth trying. Why? Because “win the inning” is the more fun version of baseball. Teams that learn how to compete inning-by inning win against teams that have more skill. Stealing a win feels the best. Teams that expect and value everyone’s contribution create a more inclusive environment. I don’t know about you, but work is more fun when everyone is pumped to be there.
No one wants to play the game where everyone stands around watching the one stud throwing a shutout and driving in a couple runs. That shit is boring for everyone besides the aforementioned stud who will likely flame out before he can legally buy a tin of tobacco.
Also, the games of our youth we remember are not the blowouts, and we don’t remember our batting average (god, I really hope none of you remember your youth stats); The games we remember are the games we stole.
By the second week of the season I was able to get an initial feel for all of the players on the team. These idiots were loveable. I loved how Hank never stopped talking to the pitcher and infielders between every pitch. I loved how the twins Chris and Tyler would track down a sure double in the same way and make it look so casual. I loved how Bill fumed when he missed an opportunity to drive a couple runs in with two outs. These were good kids with a little bullshit to them. Just the way it ought to be.
Watching a game from inside the backstop and interacting with young players was like being home. I belong on a baseball field more so than any place else.
Jeff Holm, Coach, didn’t recruit me to play ball at Augustana (2018 National Champs). I was on the North Shore of Oahu when the coach that had recruited me called and told me he was taking a job at Kansas. My sister and brother-in-law were house-sitting for this big-time lawyer, and I remember looking out at the Pacific Ocean between Pipeline and Sunset Beach from the kitchen of this quintessential beach house and wondering what the hell this meant for me. Then I remembered I was in Hawaii for the summer learning how to surf the small summer waves and resolved to worry about the whole baseball thing when I returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Back row, L-R: Al Shaffer Kevin Wiessner, Sam Everson, Ben Iverson, Troy Wunderlich, and recent Augie Sports Hall of Fame inductee Owen Hoegh. Front row, L-R: Ryan Nett, Phil Lang, Aaron Barber, Coach Jeff Holm, Travis Pugliese.
Knowing what I know now, the idea that Coach was the random guy brought in to replace the guy who actually recruited me is hard to chalk up to simply good fortune.
Coach quickly became a mentor. First and foremost, he would like you to know that, despite being a squat fella with a penchant for DMD (Diet Mountain Dew to the uninitiated), he was a killer in the racquetball court and not a bad basketball player.
In all seriousness, he showed me the character and selflessness enthusiasm requires. Being jaded is so easy, so cliché. Coaching at the college level is flatout different from high school. Obviously the skill level is higher, but more importantly a college coach is leading a team of players who know the game, and many of them have an idea of what their approach to the game is. College players are eager to get better, but set in their ways. They won’t buy into a culture blindly.
Some initially mistook Coach’s enthusiasm for one-dimensional cheerleading, but he understood both the game and the importance of building a relationship with his players. Even by 2002, the Bobby Knight days of drill sergeant coaches was on the outs, and Coach understood that.
Teammate, roommate, left-handed pitcher and now coach Ryan “Gramps” Nett put it this way:
Coaching myself, I think he was ahead of the curve on quite a few things in terms of new school ideas. (1) Relationship building with players was really important to him, understanding each player and letting us know he genuinely cared. (2) Showing players teammates worth. I think of the guys he could have cut and didn’t because he wanted everyone to understand providing opportunities is important. Whether they play or not, they’re still worthy of being part of the team. (3) I think now in the age of “win at all cost” he was ahead of wanting us to compete and not worry about wins and losses. That the little things in the game will carry us through a successful year but also hopefully a successful life…Always brought his boys around, enjoying a good laugh during the game, asking about girlfriends, family, classes. Kids now feel a lot of pressure, and with him it was only the pressure I put on myself and that says a lot because he was relying on 18-22 year-olds to be successful for his livelihood. I think it’s pretty special to show that trust in kids.
I spent two summers in Sioux Falls. Coach and I would workout and go for runs in the morning (I miss that summer college schedule!). We talked about baseball exactly never on those runs. He cared about me as a person, and that made me compete even harder for him as a player.
Augustana University had less than 2,000 students at the time I was enrolled, and we competed in the now defunct North Central Conference with big state schools that have since gone D-I like North Dakota State, University of Nebraska, Omaha, Minnesota State, and South Dakota State. In his second year at the helm, Coach led us to Augustana’s first men’s team conference championship in school history.
Anyone that played for Coach knows that he has a terrible habit of yelling out really lame phrases after the opponent did something good. The best/worst example of this was when an opposing team would hit a home run.
As the hitter was still rounding the bases, Coach would shout, “Just lets us score more!” The mere memory makes me shutter. It was such a Little League coach thing to say.
I hate to admit it, because – again, so lame – but the sentiment was right. Coach was shoving us into competing in the next moment, even while the last moment had yet to finish. He was friendly, but he didn’t care about being your friend, or being cool; he cared about you. He was a dork, but he’d kick your ass when it came to competing. He was always pushing you to the next moment, and we competed to win the next inning, never doubting he had our best interests in mind.
I think about how Coach would have handled that blowout when Ricky and Joe pondered the importance of every play, and I think about what Garrido tells his players after a loss – “This isn’t about some goddamn game. This is about our lives. Don’t you get it?”
I agree with Garrido. It is about our lives. Joe and Ricky are talking about a game, but long after the games are over, will they compete at work, will they make the hustle plays in their relationships? I wonder if they would’ve heard Garrido’s wisdom if he was screaming it at them, but I know they’d hear it coming from Coach. – PAL
*For a breakdown of how we lost, check out Part I of the series.
**a positive change will happen to individual stats, but it might take more time and opportunities than a youth season presents
Catchup on the series here: