Coach like you’re speaking a different language
Each of the past two offseasons, I had the pleasure of traveling to the other side of the world to run a week-long camp for 40 of Taiwan’s best high school baseball players, as identified by the Chinese Taipei Baseball Federation. This is basically Taiwan’s equivalent of the USA Baseball National Team trials here in the states, with a bit more emphasis on instruction than competition.
The original opportunity came in the fall of 2013 when one of our international scouts reached out to see if I would be interested in organizing and executing a camp that enables a different culture of baseball see and experience the way we do things professionally here in the States.While the chance to go to a different country to teach the game I absolutely love sounded great. There was just one small problem: I don’t speak a lick of Taiwanese. And the kids participating in the camp didn’t speak English.
Right off the bat, the essential key to being an effective coach — the ability to communicate — was a hurdle that made the challenges of putting together a great camp much more difficult. Luckily, I was soon assured that myself and the other American coaches joining the staff would each have our own translator. Crisis averted.
In most foreign countries you will experience communication barriers from the moment you land. Every language is different, and sometimes the specific way to say something in one language cannot be interpreted in another, either because the words or phrases don’t exist or are understood in a completely different context.
When we relate that fact to teaching a sport, we risk the distinct possibility of having things lost in translation. That was apparent the first day of our trip to Taiwan, and we knew right away that we had to change our approach if we wanted to make an impact.
Regardless of country, the game of baseball is the same. Teams get three outs per inning. Pitchers pitch. Hitters hit. So the things we teach here that give players the best opportunity to be successful are the same things that can be taught wherever the game is played, but the key is to find a way for those who don’t speak our language to understand those concepts.
This is often forgotten in coaching. We may have all of the information that could maximize the potential of every single player, but if we cannot present that information in a manner that’s useful to athletes, then it’s worthless.
As coaches, we are blessed with not only vast knowledge of our sport but a passion to share that knowledge with the next generation of athletes. The more passion we have to help our players improve, the more we want to teach.
That blessing can sometimes become a curse when we try to ingrain everything we know in our athletes. While we have good intentions, our effectiveness can easily go by the wayside if we try to do too much, too soon. The end result when we don’t consciously work in baby steps may very well be confusion instead of comprehension.
Trying teaching 10 things at once, and we are lucky if our players retain one. But give them just one or two things to focus on at a time, and we provide them a greater chance to absorb everything we’ve said. Imagine an entire season of coaching with this approach. This is what’s commonly known as the compound effect, where huge rewards are gained from a bunch of small, intelligent choices.
While it’s tough to see the day-to-day improvements, the total accumulation of all those small things will be undeniable weeks and months down the road. By the end of season, you will discover a completely different team than you did when you started in the spring.
As we began to set an agenda on the field, we made a conscious effort to not only do the same things we did back home but also present those things as simple as possible in hopes that nothing would be lost in translation.
We decided that the best way to give these kids a taste of Major League Baseball would be to mimic what we do in spring training. For professional clubs in Florida and Arizona, each day is spent reintroducing the game to those who had just spent an extended period of time away from it. We literally approach the best players in the game as if they have never played it before. The idea is to make sure the collective group of players is on the same page, capable of moving forward together.
In Taiwan, our mornings were spent with a concentration on individual development, while the afternoons focused on team fundamentals. So how were able to break down the vast complexities of our sport into something that Taiwanese kids could understand and benefit from? We simply picked the key basics of each skill and ran with them.
Sometimes we broke down a drill into step. For instance, when turning a double play from the shortstop, we had the player start with his right foot on the base and step his left foot to the ball on the feed. Literally, one step — we progressed from there.
Other times we asked them to do one thing, without mention of technique or mechanics, like trying to hit the ball to the middle of the field, which reinforces solid technique and mechanics despite not saying a word about them. Similarly, we took the vital elements of each team fundamental and taught them with the same approach: one part at a time.
With cutoffs and relays we stressed the importance of playing catch and taking care of the baseball, and with bunt defenses we focused on just getting the one out that the other team is giving to us.
The game can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. But when we make the decision to put our players in the best position to be successful with drills and fundamentals that they can actually understand, a funny thing happens. They can’t help but develop individually, and teams can’t help but improve collectively.
There are many different ways we can explain identical concepts, and the best coaches understand the kind of learners they have on their teams so they can cater to each player. One of the biggest fallacies in our profession is that it’s a player’s responsibility to adjust to the coach. The real truth is the other way around.
Each year, my fellow coaches and I left Taiwan with an amazing sense of accomplishment because of the achievements of reaching a foreign culture through our passion. By the end of the camp, we can honestly say that each of the 40 players attending made significant improvements to their own individual abilities. While they all had a solid fundamental base of skills, athletic ability and work ethic, there is no doubt in my mind that the simplicity by which we went about our days helped facilitate their vast gains.
We all teach players who speak our language. But sometimes, if we are not careful, our words sound foreign to our players even though they understand the language. Find a way to reach each athlete individually, and you’ll find your way to reach countless individuals.
Darren Fenster is manager of the Greenville Drive (South Carolina), a Class A affiliate 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, where he was a two-time All-American shortstop. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.