Growth by Growing Up
A lesson in why all coaches should exercise patience with their young athletes
“He stinks.”“He’s lazy.”
“He doesn’t listen.”
Most coaches, at one point or another, have uttered at least one of the aforementioned phrases when discussing one of their players. I’m guilty of this on numerous occasions. It’s a natural thing for coaches to get frustrated when players don’t progress in the manner we envision. Coaching continually tests our patience, and sometimes that patience runs so thin to the point where we label the players that we are supposed to be developing as “uncoachable.” It’s an easy trap to fall into.
Over the course of the past season, my eyes were opened to something that will help me avoid that trap.
The 2018 minor league campaign represented a new challenge for me, having been promoted to manage the Portland Sea Dogs, Boston’s Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League. While I was excited about the opportunity to move up a couple rungs and coach at what is arguably the most enjoyable level of professional baseball, what I couldn’t wait for was the opportunity to reconnect with the players who I had coached in the years prior in Greenville.
Generally speaking, when spending continuous time at one level, there’s little opportunity to watch a player develop beyond that year spent together. My previous experience of coaching players for more than one season wasn’t necessarily a positive one, as a guy repeating the level usually meant one of two things: They missed time due to injury, or they struggled mightily on the field. So, in essence, 2018 marked my first real opportunity to see with my own two eyes how much progress our players had made since our paths first crossed a couple years back.
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Our opening day roster included 20 players who had previously played for me. One of the really cool things about managing in Greenville was how, in many respects, it marked the beginning of a player’s professional career, where we laid the foundation for what they hoped would be a long life in the game. The minor leagues are not just about present, but also about future; we constantly evaluate our players and project their overall potential down the road to predict what they might become as major league players. Throughout the year, with a bunch of promotions and a handful of demotions, our roster was littered with guys who I knew well, many of whom I viewed as future major leaguers. There also were some players I had once deemed busts.
While many of those who I was high on had continued to develop at a steady pace, it was the guys I had written off who truly opened my eyes. They had grown up right in front of me. The immaturity they displayed on the field as players or off the field as people seemed to disappear, and these boys had become men. The guys who I believed had no shot to even sniff the big leagues had now put themselves in the conversation.
A lesson learned
Having just completed my 13th season as a coach and sixth as a minor league manager, 2018 taught me one of the more valuable lessons any leader could learn. The next time you feel like you’re on the verge of writing off a player, remember this fact: He’s still your player. And you’re still his coach. Progress is progress, even when a player’s development isn’t anywhere near where you want it to be, or in the time frame you think it should be. Our players need us, but what they also need is a little more time and a lot more patience. Their growth as players and people might just depend on them growing up.
Darren Fenster is manager of the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs and former manager of the Greenville Drive (S.C.), both minor league affiliates of the Boston Red Sox. Following a six-year professional playing career with the Kansas City Royals, where he was twice named a minor league All-Star, he spent six years on the baseball staff at Rutgers University. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.