What I Learned from the ABCA 2020

The 2020 ABCA Convention was held in Nashville, TN. Throughout the weekend, thousands of coaches gathered to learn, teach, and share ideas to prepare for the upcoming season. Below are some of my thoughts from the experience, reoccurring themes, ideas that resonated, and tips you can take home to your teams and players.

Themes 

Tech cannot replace the Teacher

The theme of balancing technology and teaching came up more than anything else this year at the ABCA. With the explosion of technology in baseball player development, we are starting to see the benefits of using tech tools – but also some of the pitfalls when it is mismanaged. More organizations today have access to a lot of the same information, but the difference maker is in what is collected, why it’s collected, and how it’s communicated to the athlete. Information is designed to increase your effectiveness as a coach by supplementing what you’re trying to teach. It should not be used to make yourself seem smarter. Application is key – not necessarily collection.

Bobby Tewksbary of Tewksbary Hitting explained how to navigate this problem by starting with what matters. Whether it’s hitting the ball harder, getting on plane earlier, or improving timing, you as a coach need to determine what is going to help that athlete become successful (works the same way with pitching). When you can establish what is important, you can start figuring out how you’re going to measure it. If it’s important, you can’t guess – you need to measure it. The process of collecting this information requires an implementation plan. You need to explain when and how information is going to be collected during training sessions. This involves getting a large enough sample size so you can get a feel for where that athlete is without any bias from small sample sizes. Bo Bichette’s father talked about how he feels kids need 5,000 at bats before they can start to figure out who they are as a hitter. If kids aren’t getting at bats in games, you need to find ways to get them at bats outside of their games.

Lastly, you need to have a plan for when and how you will retest athletes. This shows whether what you’re doing is working or not and ultimately keeps coaches accountable – numbers don’t lie. Some adjustments may be easier or tougher but you can’t determine if an athlete has mastered something if you don’t have the information to support it. Find what matters, learn how to measure it, create a plan for how you’re going to measure it, and retest to see if it’s working.

Building Better People

No matter who was speaking or what level they were representing, one theme seemed to shine through with everyone: Coaches are in the process of building better people. The amount of kids we will work with that will make it professionally is miniscule. Our best bet as a teacher and a mentor is to use baseball as a platform to teach life lessons that will help them beyond their playing days. What we can do for them as players is a bonus.

This begins with your ability to build relationships with your players. We as coaches spend a lot of time talking, teaching, and instructing, but some of the best moments we can spend with our athletes are when we don’t speak a word. In order for our athletes to trust us (we don’t have anything if we don’t have trust), we need to make sure they known their voice is heard. Get to know them outside the baseball field. Know the names of their parents, siblings, and their interests off the field. Know their story, why they play the game, and why they came to your school. This foundation gives us the ability to teach them, hold them accountable, and confront them when they aren’t doing what they said they would do. If you can’t love them on their worst day, you really don’t love them.  

The baseball part is the small picture. Building better men should be your ultimate goal as a coach.

“I wouldn’t change a thing”

Smart people learn from their mistakes, but wise people learn from the mistakes of others. Being 23 years old, one of the questions I asked a lot of coaches was, “If you were to do it all over again, what would you change?” Most, if not all, gave me the same resounding answer: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The experiences we go through as coaches shape who we become. The bad information we used to teach and the athletes we screw up are all a part of the process of becoming a better coach. There is no shame in looking back on what we’ve done before and realizing how differently we would do it today. The information gets better, we learn more from smarter people, and we learn from our experiences with kids. Those that continuously work to hone their craft will figure it out in time. If you aren’t transparent about where you’ve screwed up, you’re not confident in what you do.  

We all want to give athletes our very best. We’ll help many, screw up some, and make plenty of mistakes along the way, but our greatest failure will only be if we fail to evolve. The greatest coaches have the humility to show others how they’ve changed, but they also don’t regret the steps in the journey. Own your story – no one started this thing with all the answers.

Stay Centered

The best coaches are the ones that are able to navigate the emotions from the highs and the lows. They don’t let success get to their head or failure get to their heart. They keep their foot on the gas when things are going good because they know much work is to be done. They don’t demean their teams when they’re down and instead find ways to pick them up. This even keel demeanor is exactly what kids need to handle a sport deeply rooted in responding to adversity. If you can create that consistency at the top, kids will learn how to take it to their game. Anything that drags us away from the present moment is working against our ability to teach, play, or learn. Stay centered, quiet the drama, and don’t let the emotions of this game pull you off track.

Thoughts from Coaches  

Tim Corbin – Vanderbilt University

Every single year, the head coach of the reigning Division I national champions kicks off the event with a speech Friday morning. Tim Corbin’s Commodores captured the national championship last June defeating the Michigan Wolverines for his second championship in five years. Corbin’s work at Vanderbilt is arguably the greatest coaching job in college baseball history. The program he’s built is a large testament to the strong culture he has created – hence, the title of his speech Culture is…

Corbin started his speech describing a story about a young man he wanted to bring to his program early on in his coaching career at Vanderbilt. The young man’s coach actually was not interested in Vanderbilt at all (imagine saying that today in 2020), but the kid was very interested and ended up coming to the school. As a freshman, Corbin said you could tell the kid was uncomfortable early on. He didn’t talk much or engage with his teammates. In the fall of his freshman year, the kid had a really rough outing in a practice intersquad. When Corbin went to console him after practice, he couldn’t find him. The next time he saw him was the next morning in his office – eyes red and swollen from crying.

The young man proceeded to tell Corbin that he was going to quit the team, drop out of school, and start working. Sensing discouragement and fear, Corbin explained how he would be making the biggest mistake of his life and ended up persuading him to stay in school and on the team. That interaction was the last time Corbin has to convince David Price to stay in school. The rest is history.

As a coach, you’re in a position where you have the ability to mentor young kids and guide them through difficult decisions in their life. These conversations don’t usually end in both of you feeling good. They’re going to require you to confront the athlete, empathize with their situation, and give them what they need to hear – not what they want to hear. If you can give the kid consistency when everything else in his life seems inconsistent, you have the chance to get him back on track. Who knows – you might just save a big league career.

Culture has become a buzz word in sports today. When new coaches are hired, everyone talks about changing the culture or creating a better culture. It’s easy to talk about what the great cultures look like (hard work, no nonsense, etc.), but it’s really tough to create a sustainable one that aligns with your values. This isn’t done through reading books – it requires years of skin in the game. Patience from years of hard work helps give you wisdom and wisdom helps you see the simplicity of the game. The best cultures don’t do extraordinary things – they just do the ordinary things better than anyone else. As Corbin says best: “Do simple better.”

Culture is not static – it is dynamic and it’s constantly in motion. The things that you allow, encourage, and tolerate are being communicated through your words and actions every single day. As Corbin says, the best way to build your culture is to model it yourself. After you build it, the greatest compliment you can receive as a coach is when your players take the wheel and start to drive your culture. Your role is to facilitate an environment where you can empower players to make these kinds of decisions. Dictating an environment is a great way to build resentment towards the culture you’re trying to create.

On a final note, Corbin talked about how the journey of what you’re doing is greater than winning baseball games. Winning the final game of your season just isn’t practical. What you do as a coach can’t be just about winning the final game because your season is finite – it has an end. Building life lessons into your kids is infinite – it does not end the day your season ends. As coaches, we’re trying to play for the infinite game – not the finite game. Our kids are going to graduate our coaching at some point. What they take with them is what’s most important.

Be the teacher you would want your son or daughter to have 

Derek Johnson – The Pitcher/Hitter confrontation and Youth Development

Derek Johnson – Reds pitching coach – was masterful at the convention diving into the pitcher/hitter confrontation and youth development. He started off his segment by illuminating the reality of baseball: Every single pitch is a war between the hitter and the pitcher. There is a winner and loser on every pitch – there is no gray area. This battle of skill and will comes down to the game between the ears. It’s the belief that I’m better than you and this is my opportunity to show you. It’s having the courage to strike first knowing the opponent who makes the first move outnumbers their opponent 9-1. It’s the ability to take punches, quickly recover, and counter with punches. Winning this war comes down to Sun Tzu’s main principle from his book The Art of War: Know thyself, know thy enemy.

Developing an approach on the mound or in the box starts with understanding who you are. What are your best pitches/locations for a strike, swing and miss, and ground ball? What pitches and zones do you hit the best? When you can grasp the things that make you successful, it’s then important to turn your attention to the other side of the battle. What are the tendencies of your opponent? Where are they most vulnerable? How have they been attacked before in the past? What have the results been?

The psychology of this battle lies within the count. The count dictates which side has the advantage going into the next pitch. This advantage is highly predictive of who is more likely to win the battle. This advantage is also constantly fluctuating – differences in just one pitch can swing batting averages over .150 points. If you don’t know who you are, who you’re facing, and if you can’t be present pitch to pitch, your odds at coming out on top are slim to none. At the end of the day, deliveries and swings don’t win games – competitors who are ready to shove It up your ass do. Let your approach dictate your mechanics. If you want to play baseball at a high level, get really good at competing pitch to pitch.

At the youth level, Derek talked about his three big rocks when working with pitchers just starting out: Eyes, tempo, and rhythm. Eyes will dictate your direction, rhythm will sync the moving pieces together, and tempo will determine the speed and efficiency of the movement. Having a strong connection to the ground is also another place to start with young athletes. The easiest way to do this is to teach kids how to tie their shoes and how to feel all six cleats in the ground with their back foot. A lot of energy is lost when kids fail to understand how to utilize their hips and trunk throughout the delivery. Attacking this issue starts with creating a stable platform to move from.

When it comes to developing efficient moves, Derek sees a lot of value in getting kids off of the mound and playing positions that require strong throws within time constraints (i.e. shortstop, catcher). Your best arm action is the one that you’ll use when you’re making a play from shortstop. There’s no conscious thought about where my arm, hand, or foot is. All we’re focused on is catching and throwing out the runner. When our instincts and our subconscious take over, we’re given the freedom to develop authentic and efficient movement patterns.

This is something I talked about with Twins infield coach Tucker Frawley. When a lot of kids come to Yale and become pitcher only players after spending years as an infielder, many complain about losing a lot of athleticism pretty quickly. He’s seen several infielders who can hop on the mound and throw the ball pretty hard after years of learning how to sling balls across the diamond. While he’s only seen a small sample size, Frawley sees a lot of value in giving pitchers the freedom to continue to take ground balls and make throws from infield positions. Pitching a 5 ounce baseball 90-100 times a game out of the same delivery doesn’t match the movement variability of a shortstop making several types of plays. You want to give kids the opportunity early on to explore a wider spectrum of movement solutions so you can maximize their window to develop their most optimal movement patterns. You have to learn how to throw before you learn how to pitch.    

Derek finished his presentation on a great thought: “Most people know what to do and how to do it, but very few are willing to do it.” Discipline is the separator. If you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, people will see right through you. Show up, shut your mouth, and do the work. You only have yourself to blame if you don’t.   

Buck Showalter – Perspective from a Life in Baseball

Considering the road that Buck Showalter has taken in baseball, this is one of the presentations I was really looking forward to. He started it off with arguably his best piece of advice from the presentation: “Design practices you would want to be a part of.” He described a situation where he was asked to help out someone he knew at a 15U baseball practice. Instead of setting the field up for a monotonous BP situation where players stand around and lose interest, Buck set up a field by asking kids where they wanted to play. He got a kid in the box, set a 0-2 count, and tried carving up kids with his best stuff. It didn’t even take 15 minutes before the kids were hooting, hollering, and having one of the best times they’ve ever had at practice. In the process, Buck was also able to create a game-like environment that was competitive, engaging, and realistic. After all, over half of our at-bats are going to get to two strikes.

On the scouting side, Buck placed a big emphasis on how kids interacted with their families when gauging if they would be a good fit for his ball club. He wanted to see if they treated their parents and siblings with respect or if they blew them off. He wanted to see if they were alert, present, and if their interactions were genuine. If a player couldn’t pass this test, he wasn’t interested in them.

On the field, Buck loved to watch guys off the ball. If there was a ball laced in the right center gap, he wanted to see if the left fielder was moving to the ball, if the pitcher was backing up third base, or if the first baseman was trailing the runner to second base. This helped give Buck a feel for a player’s alertness and understanding of situations. Not every ball is going to be hit your way in a game, but every single ball in play requires the defense to move as a unit. All nine have a role on every single batted ball. What you do when the ball isn’t hit your way reveals a lot about how you play the game.

On a final note, Buck explained the importance of a true heart. “Know who we want to be, how we want to do it, and stay true to it.”

Randy Sullivan and Eugene Bleeker – The Flaws of Intent Based Training

Randy Sullivan of the Florida Baseball Ranch gave a great presentation on his theory about dead arm. He started by explaining the dynamic systems theory and its importance in your training programs. In its most simplest form, dynamic systems theory states that everything affects everything within a system. Your body is constantly adapting and reorganizing based on the current state of the system and its interactions with the task and environment. Looking at just one or two variables would not account for the multitude of variables that can have an impact on the system. We like to look for cause and effect relationships because they’re easier to explain but our body is not this simple to navigate.

In a baseball context, saying a pitcher got hurt because of “bad mechanics” would be a small part of the equation – even if is true. To properly apply the dynamic systems theory, one would need to look at the pitcher’s injury history, training program, movement constraints, previous training history, his workload, recovery, nutrition, hydration, external factors potentially creating stress (i.e. breaking up with your girlfriend), sleep, mindset, field conditions, weather, warm up, and more. Jumping to one of these variables would be missing the bigger picture and would violate the dynamic systems theory – everything affects everything.

To understand movements as complex as throwing patterns, we need to look at the stable components of the system: Attractors. Attractors are created through the cocontractions of agaonist and antagonist muscles around joints to provide stability and optimize length tension relationships required for removing muscle slack. Removing muscle slack helps the system organize into positions where force can be produced and accepted (you can’t pull a sled with a rope attached until the rope is taught). Movement efficiency is not new – it’s how organisms have learned to adapt and evolve for survival. Our body craves to conserve energy by its biological nature. It’s why some of the best players in this game look effortless when they’re in competition. It’s not that they’re not trying – they’ve just found the easiest ways for them to produce and accept force.

This is something I talked about with Eugene Bleeker of 108 Performance. A lot of Bleeker’s training involves kids learning how to find their most optimal power output using the least amount of effort. Instead of trying to create a lot of tension early on in the sequence, Bleeker wants his athletes to create tension at the right moments in time. You have a small window in baseball to produce and accept force. If you can’t elicit the right amount of tension in these small windows of time, a lot of energy is subsequently lost.

To get a feel for the timing of this, Bleeker likes to cue his hitters to pretend to make contact with a 500 pound ball. This helps athletes create feel for bracing the trunk when energy is being transferred from the lower half through the midsection and eventually to the bat. This stable platform for the transfer of energy helps segments of the chain decelerate quickly and efficiently. Some of the best athletes in the world are able to decelerate (i.e. throwing on the brakes) much quicker than their counterparts. Hitters and pitchers must have a strong and well-timed set of brakes to prevent energy leakage throughout the movement. Inability to slow the movement down will prevent your body from reaching its top speed out of protection.   

Coming back to Sullivan, athletes can start to get themselves out of sequence when misguided intent becomes thrown into the equation. When athletes try to create a lot of effort through intent based training, athletes have the tendency to find energy in the wrong places. High intensity throwing places a larger stress on the system. We know added proper amounts of stress is required to create certain adaptations within a system, but we also know that the body is not interested in conservation of energy within situations where there is a one-off emergency. When the efficiency of a pattern breaks down, tissues start to take on stresses that they are not capable of handling. This causes the body to go into self-preservation mode and save your degrading tissues by placing a governor on your ability to produce power. This is where Randy believes the idea of “dead arm” can come from: Your body is responding to the accumulation of burning too many calories through inefficient movements. Our body will not let us burn calories indefinitely without consequence.

Throwing with higher levels of intent has its place within a training program, but it should not be used to the point where it begins to compromise the efficiency of the system. If it doesn’t look natural, don’t waste your time. Our body craves efficiency – don’t work against it using poorly managed intent training.

David Franco and Alan Jaeger – Mastering the Game Between the Ears

David Franco of the Seattle Mariners performance staff spoke at the youth clinic session about developing a practical plan to help kids learn the mental game. He began by explaining the further away you get from your playing career, the tougher it is to remember how hard this game once was. As a coach, it’s easy to get frustrated when our kids aren’t executing the way we think they should be. However, we’re not too far removed from those games where we smoked three balls right at the center fielder and only had an 0-3 to show for it. Take the scoreboard out of it and get kids to become really good at their process. The younger you can do this, the earlier you can build a robust foundation that will impact their careers as the game becomes much harder.  

This process comes down to developing simple, repeatable routines that help kids manage the 15 seconds between pitches. Every single pitch, kids should be able to learn from the last one, get control of their mind and body, create a specific plan for execution, and 100 percent commit to it. This process is used to help get the athlete external and into a state of mind where they are focused on competing with everything they have to win the next pitch. These routines should combine physical actions (stepping out, taking a breath) with mental cues (see ball/hit ball, next pitch) for ultimate effectiveness. Physical routines are of no use if they do not include mental components.

Routines help keep us grounded in competitive environments by giving us things we can do at any time and in any place. Unfortunately, kids don’t always stick to their routines and they can abandon them when they don’t trust in their training. When the results aren’t always there, most kids hit the panic button and lose sight of the process to achieve those results. Alan Jaeger of Jaeger Sports calls these distractions drama – the fans, scoreboard, weather, opponent, coaches, or anything else that you cannot control which is creating a distraction. Having a purposeful process helps eliminate these distractions and keep you focused on the task at hand. Failing to trust in your training or not having a plan/process is a great way to let these distractions get the best of you.

A really important question to ask your kids is what causes them to give away at-bats/pitches? What gets you out of the moment or keeps you from being the best version of yourself? Franco has had experience with minor league players who claimed they threw away a third of their at-bats because they didn’t trust in their process. A third of your at-bats could dictate the kind of season you and your team has. If you can create some awareness for moments that get you out of the present, you can start to recognize these feelings and eliminate moments where we get off track. Everyone knows what it feels like to lose control in these moments, but few have the ability to recognize what goes wrong, why, and how to get back to the present. Of all the skills you can teach kids, this is arguably the most important.

Alan dove deeper into the subject of the mental game by talking about the benefits of meditation for coaches and players. Alan has consulted with major league clubs, players, and some of the best colleges in the nation about the benefits of daily meditation practice. He firmly believes that players need to be able to control their breath, commit to their process, and block out the drama in competitive environments. Being able to meditate and deliberately slow things down is a great way to help block out the drama and connect with yourself on an intimate level.

As athletes and coaches, we’re constantly fighting to connect with our flow state. The flow state is a condition where humans find a balance between skill difficulty and arousal level. When you enter the flow state, you experience this calming sensation where you’re able to execute with precision in the absence of drama. This is what a lot of athletes describe when they’re in the midst of their best performances. There’s no conscious thought guiding them or any kind of distractions pulling them from the task at hand. It’s just them doing what they know how to do best in a relaxed state of mind.

Alan believes that the ability to connect with a flow state is always inside of us. We don’t just access it at certain moments – we always have the ability to find inner peace when everything around us may seem chaotic. This comes from practicing meditation on a consistent basis.

The one thing that Alan emphasizes a lot is you do not need to be a sports psychologist to teach athletes how to meditate. While it does take some practice, anyone can run their team through a guided meditation practice. See his youtube video for a 15 minute guided meditation practice that you can take home to your team. It’s not about creating the best practice possible – it’s doing it on a consistent basis.

On a final note, David Franco left on the quote: “Do everything on purpose with purpose.” Just showing up to practice does not mean you are going to get better. He proceeded to explain a story where Dee Gordon noticed some minor leaguers that were getting blown up on the slider machine. Instead of avoiding the possibility of looking bad, Dee hopped right in there and took the first slider as it missed towards his back foot. When the coach tried to adjust the machine, Dee wouldn’t let him because he knew that was a pitch he needed to work on laying off. In a round of 12 swings, Dee swung at three pitches and took nine. He walked out of the cage confident that he had successfully attacked a weakness he needed to work on.

When the best players in your organization are doing things like Dee Gordon did, you have a chance to build something pretty special.  

Jeremy Sheetinger – Becoming a Transformational Leader

Jeremy Sheetinger shared a moving story about his journey as a coach and in the ABCA explaining who he used to be as a coach, why he had to change, and how he does things differently now as the head coach of Georgia Gwinnett College. As host of the ABCA Calls from the Clubhouse for the past three years, Sheets had the opportunity to interview and talk to some of the best minds in baseball. Through this process, he began to realize how his coaching used to be transactional. He valued wins more than developing men, his record became part of his identity, and his ego blurred him from seeing the bigger picture as a teacher.

Today, Sheets understands that baseball is just a game – a lesson he got from Augie Garrido, the second-most winningest coach in college baseball history. Instead of coaching for himself, Sheets learned the importance of empowering his kids and giving them the courage to make decisions on their own. You are going to become the person who you’re supposed to become. As a coach and a teacher, you have an opportunity to help kids discover who they truly are. You won’t go far if you don’t know who you are.

When you start to figure out your identity, you need to say it, mean it, and show it. Alan Jaeger talked about the importance of authenticity – being who you are and acting within your values. Kids can see right through you when the talk doesn’t match the walk. If you want to start somewhere as a coach, understand who you are as a teacher, model it on a daily basis, and keep it real with your kids. They’ll learn how to do the same.

The next point Sheets brought up reminds me of a moment from last year’s Super Bowl. When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about what his some of his goals are to finish out his legacy as one of the greatest coaches of all time, he said, “Well, I’d like to have a good practice today.” Everyone wants to be great at the end of the tunnel, but few people realize that you need to be good over a consistent period of time before you achieve greatness. Belichick knew this more than anyone else. Instead of focusing on the end goal, he kept perspective to having a good practice that day. If you can do that day in and day out for a long time, you’ve got a chance to be great. Skipping steps on the ladder won’t get you to the top quicker.  

One of the values that forms the backbone for Sheets’ program is vulnerability. As a coach, Sheets is not afraid for his kids to see him at his worst. He’s transparent about where he’s been and why he thinks the way he does now. He’s able to create this using the exercise hero, hardship, and highlight. Every single member of the team stands front and center and explains someone who’s helped them get to this point, a moment in time they had to overcome, and something they’re proud of. This creates some tough conversations and can bring emotions out of players and coaches, but in the end it makes the group stronger as a whole by creating a mutual understanding. As humans, we’re quick to make judgements about people who we know very little about. Sharing your story helps people understand you on a level where they can respect you and see things from your perspective.

Through his experiences on and off the field, Sheets has come to describe the bond between all coaches using the word fraternity: The state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group. We are all in this thing together and we all add value to each other. For us to continue to push this great game forward, we need to be in a constant state of support. As Tim Corbin said best, “Grow your craft – not your title.” The day you think you have this thing figured out is the day you don’t.

Every time you talk in front of your team you’re selling tickets to your funeral. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the impact. 

Final Thought

Last year was my first experience at the ABCA. It was an incredible thing to be a part of, but it was also overwhelming. There were so many people I had never heard of and there was so much to learn that I did not know. Being alone as a 22 year old kid can be a humbling experience among 6,500 other coaches, but there was one interaction that really made me feel at home.

I was able to introduce myself to Alan Jaeger last year at the tail end of one of the hot stoves Saturday evening. It was a brief introduction and not much was said, but it was the way that Alan introduced himself that really made the difference. His words and his actions were genuine. You could tell he really cared about other people and he had this contagious energy that lifted your mood. When I saw how down to earth Alan was and what he meant to the baseball community, I knew I was in the right place.

As a coach, your words and your actions – big or small – have a profound impact on the people you come into contact with. Don’t ever think you’re too big to introduce yourself to someone that might just be getting started. They probably won’t remember what you say, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.

 

See you all in DC next year.  

 

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