Darren Fenster Resources

 A Coach's Choice: To Critique...Or to Coach
(11/15/2019)
 
 
   

A Coach's Choice: To Critique...Or to Coach


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Growing up down the Jersey Shore and still calling the Garden State home comes with some incredible benefits. Our people are as passionate as they come.  Our nature is no-filter, Instagram worthy. Our Italian delis are to die for; our bagels, unmatched. And don’t even get me started on our pizza. But one of the greatest parts about living in such close proximity to New York City actually has nothing to do with food: our sports talk radio is second to none. 

Whether it be heading into work and listening to Boomer Esiason, sitting in traffic on the way home listening to one of the two Mikes (Francessa or Kay) screaming out of your speakers, or any of the countless on-air personalities in between, it is clear that the Tri-State area is home to more Monday Morning Quarterbacks per capita than anywhere else in the world.  Who knew there were so many out of work NFL offensive coordinators and Major League managers in one region of the country?

But for as entertained as I am when hearing these self-proclaimed experts dissect every move by every coach and every player in every sport, there is a very related element of coaching that takes on a similar sound. 

Our ability to coach begins with our ability to evaluate. But evaluating without coaching is simply critiquing. And we’ve all done it. We are coaches, not critics. 

I watch far more baseball than I’d like to admit… it’s a problem. 

If Spring Training is my personal equivalent to the ball dropping in Times Square, then the MLB Postseason is my Christmas. There is no better baseball than October baseball. For the entire month, I am routinely glued to my couch, watching every game possible with the eyes of both fan and coach. And if the Red Sox happen to be playing, you can add screaming at my television to the norm in the Fenster house. I would be lying if there weren’t times where I’ve said either aloud or to myself, “what the heck is he THINKING?!”

Even with watching as often as I do, I am still amazed how entire seasons and championship runs can be made- or broken- with a single pitch. But by seeing year after year the power of one play , I have learned as a coach that there isn’t anything that should ever be taken for granted on the field and work hard to emphasize the minute, intellectual details of the game as much as I coach the game’s fundamental skills in the players that I work with. Still to this day, the game continues to teach me.

A title may be won in part because an outfielder throws the ball to the correct base to keep a double play in order.  The winning run may score because of the anticipation of a below average runner who goes from first to third.  A rally may be thwarted because of a heady pitch sequence that records a key strikeout. These thinking plays, when done over and over, become winning plays. 

Without question, players who truly know the game and constantly think the game are players who will help win games. But over the past few years I’ve noticed a very disappointing trend: those players are few and far between.  And you know what I did when I first noticed it? I became a critic.

“He doesn’t think.”

“No game sense whatsoever.”

“Reckless player.”

With every one of my comments lacked any actionable solution. For a short time, in addition to those many moments on my couch, I had become that perfect caller for sports radio with all the answers. I had become great at pointing out everything that they DIDN’T do well. That approach to coaching can become toxic really quickly.

Today’s generation is as talented a collective group of baseball players as the sport has ever seen. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Hitters understand their swings more at 18 than I did at 28. Our industry’s focus on training has taken our players’ talent to levels we have never seen before, and they only continue to get better. 

But for as good as they are, they still need us.  They need to be coached, not critiqued.

In these moments when I initially saw the direction the game was going in, I had a choice. I could let the frustration get the best of me and criticize all that these players weren’t doing (like we all have done at some point) or I could do my job, and coach them to help them get better.  

To the hitter who didn’t think in the box, the solution was to teach the value of an approach and how that approach could be developed simply by watching the game from the dugout.  For the outfielder who had no idea where to throw the ball relative to the situation of the game, the solution was to help them understand in simple terms which runner is the most important and why.  And for the baserunner who essentially liked to run until somebody tagged him out, the solution was to show the risk versus reward in decision-making on the bases.

When you focus on the problem, the problem endures.  When you focus on the solution, the problem goes away.

Even for coaches at the highest level of the game, no players are perfect; they all make mistakes.  And for anyone with a competitive bone in their body, those mistakes can often bring upon a physical reaction that angers and irritates us.  Problems don’t go away when we complain about them; they dissipate when we intentionally work to fix them with a solution. We get to choose exactly what course of action to take. Choose to live up to your title. Choose to coach.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 The Power of One Play
(10/18/2019)
 
   

The Power of One Play 


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The final score read 16-1.  The Red Sox win over the Yankees put them just one victory away from advancing to the ALCS in last year’s playoffs. Boston collected 18 hits for the game, including four from second baseman Brock Holt, who hit for the first cycle in postseason history.

But it was a single, non-descript, non-scoring play in the top of the 3rd inning that changed the whole complexion of the game, and in turn, the series. As the Sox lead 1-0, left fielder Andrew Benintendi stepped to the plate with Mookie Betts on first base and nobody out when he blooped a single towards the left field line. Such a soft and shallow hit generally wouldn’t allow a runner on first to advance beyond second base.  When he realized Andrew McCutchen was in no position to throw him out, Betts saw a window of opportunity to go from first to third and challenged the Yankees’ left fielder to make a play on him. 

The safe play in this situation- especially with nobody out- would have been for Betts to hold at second, which would have kept Benintendi at first with the meat of the order coming up. But the Red Sox did not get to where there were by playing it safe; they continued playing the same aggressive style of baseball that got them into the postseason in the first place. 

The result: Betts slid safely into third well ahead of the throw, and Benintendi alertly took second base without breaking stride and without being contested when he read the play in front of him. Not only did the aggressive play put two runners in scoring position, it also eliminated a potential double play, and perhaps most importantly, it set the tone for the game that would shellshock the Yankees. 

Both Betts and Benintendi would score in the inning, and while the Yankees minimized the damage and hit in the bottom half only down 3-0, it was a clear swing of momentum that anyone watching the game could feel. The flood gates would open in the 4th when the Red Sox essentially put the game away with a seven-run rally to jump out to a 10-0 lead.  Game.  Set.  Match.  

As we move into the final few weeks of the Major League Baseball season with a World Series crown on the line, just a single play can change everything. That play may happen on the very first pitch of the game, or sometime in the innings that follow with something that may not even appear in the box score, like an outfielder throwing the ball to the right base. Or an infielder making a diving play on a hit to save a run. Or runners taking the extra base. 

When players are made aware of how much momentum can impact our game, along with the types of plays that can create those swings in their favor, all of a sudden they will take the field looking to change their own games with a newfound attention to details to do things right. There is a microscope that comes over the game in October, one where almost every pitch can be dissected ad nauseum.  Perhaps this year’s champion will be able to look back on its run and point to a single play that made that run possible. THAT… is the power of a single play. 


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Disciplining a Player is not Dissing a Player
(9/20/2019)
 
   

Disciplining a Player is not Dissing a Player 


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Players make mistakes. 

They slip-up on the field, and they err off of it as well.  

Players are human, even the ones with super-human talent.  And just like a parent would when their own child screws up, it is a coach’s responsibility to address his players’ mishaps.  Often times, in a practice or game environment, a coach steps in with instruction when the player physically doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do on the field.  It is that type of instance why we became coaches in the first place- to teach the game we all know and love.

In other times, the gaffe has nothing to do with the game. In those moments, our players need our help in a very similar manner they do in order to get better on the diamond. But instead of helping with a skill by teaching, we help by providing discipline and holding them accountable for not doing the things they are supposed to do.

Here in 2019, the concept of discipline is one that comes with controversy. Some believe that punishing a kid for his transgressions potentially limits future opportunities. To me, disciplining those who don’t live up to a team’s standards isn’t hurting their future one bit; it is helping. Discipline is not an old-school versus new-school discussion. It is a straight-forward, right versus wrong TEAM concept.  

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A few weeks ago, a very unique thing happened in a Major League game.

A player was removed from a game for not running a ball out of the box. 

Why this was unique was because you don’t see it often in this day and age of athletics, and rarely do you ever see it at the highest level of sport, with one of its best players.

Ronald Acuna is one of the game’s most exciting players, the second youngest player in Major League Baseball history to be a part of the 30 home run, 30 stolen base club.  In the third inning of a game against the Dodgers, he drove a ball deep to right field, and started his slow, home run trot shortly after contact.  The only problem was that this ball did not go out of the ballpark; it hit the wall just short of the seats with the right fielder playing the carom perfectly, setting up a throw to second base. But there was no play; Acuna had barely reached first.  His manager, Brian Snitker, then reached for reserve outfielder Adam Duvall to go into the game for Acuna.

When asked about his rationale for benching arguably his best player, Snitker spoke matter of factly.  “He didn’t run,” he started. “It’s not going to be acceptable here.  As a teammate, you’re responsible for 24 other guys, and that name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back.  We’re trying to accomplish something special here, and personal things have to be put on the back burner. You can’t let your team down like that.”

With what was likely an unpopular decision to Braves fans everywhere, Snitker gave coaches everywhere a lesson of leadership when players don’t live up to the standard that has helped build a successful culture. In pulling Acuna from that game, he didn’t lose the respect of the other 24 players in that clubhouse; instead, he gained it even more. The Braves as a team will be better for it, and Acuna, as a player, will be better for it as well. 

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Despite the parent you’ll likely anger, or the player you are sure to temporarily upset, there is nothing wrong with disciplining your players when they mess up.  In fact, contrarily, there is something very wrong, when you don’t. Because what you allow, you actually encourage.  A message to one is actually a message to all, good and bad. 

So, tell your players: the next time your coach benches you, he’s not being mean. It also doesn’t mean that he hates you when he pulls you from a game or sits you for the next. When your coach puts you on the bench, he is simply being your coach, holding you accountable for not doing what you are supposed to be doing. 

You may be mad now, but you’ll be better for it, later.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Unifying Leadership
(8/16/2019)
 
   

Unifying Leadership


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In the coming weeks and months, teams for all sports and all seasons will begin to take shape.  Experienced upperclassmen will return to college campuses and high school grounds just as wide-eyed newcomers will have no idea what they are in for.  At some schools, veteran players will “welcome” their younger teammates to the club by having them carry equipment bags, pick up garbage, and fill water jugs, along with other forms of initiation, in the name of tradition and paying dues.

Meanwhile, at hopefully many, many more schools, the old will genuinely welcome the new, in the real meaning of the word. 

Back in May, right in the midst of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Boston Bruins team captain Zdeno Chara was asked about how his team has blended so well. His answer went viral. 

“No matter if someone is 18 or 40, somebody who has 1,000 games or playing their first game, we treat each other with respect and the same way as everybody else in the locker room. I didn’t like the separation inside of the team between younger players and older players, players who have accomplished something, players who are just coming into the league.  I don’t like to use the word rookie. They are our teammates… Once you’re a team, you’re a team, regardless of the age or accomplishments.”

In a sport with arguably more tradition than all others combined, the captain for one of the NHL’s best teams actively chooses to make his teammates feel, well, like a part of the team.

The best teams in sport aren’t always the most talented, but rather the clubs who collectively work together better than the rest as a cohesive unit, with everyone pulling the rope in the same direction.  Of course, success requires talent. But as history has taught us, success goes beyond talent. Much of this true sense of team is built from a culture whose foundation is set by leaders like Chara with the goal to unify. The toxic sense of selfish individuality that permeates through bad teams is developed in a very similar manner of including… by excluding. 

There is a very simple and incredibly impactful way to create a positive environment amongst old and new: sweep the sheds. 

In the book Legacy, author James Kerr gives an inside look at the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team who just happens to be one of the most successful sports teams in the history of sports who, at the time of publishing, held a winning percentage of .770. How this club has been able to enjoy so much sustained success is more impressive than their record itself; they attribute their success as much to their culture as they do their talent. 

Part of that culture includes the mantra of sweeping the sheds, where all members of the All Blacks live the tradition that no individual is bigger than the team or those who came before them when it comes to doing their job, both on and off the field. They take as much pride in keeping their locker room clean (sweeping their shed) as they do competing against opposing world powers in rugby.
No one is too good to do something.  When the biggest star or the most experienced veteran are themselves doing the most remedial tasks, like carrying equipment, like picking up trash, like filling water jugs, the newcomers can’t help but notice and will tend to quickly fall in line themselves, just as the All Blacks have done over time.  They are leading by doing the things that no one wants to do, which, ironically, makes everyone else WANT to do them.  This type of leadership bonds and team and its players far better than any words possibly could.

At one point or another, every single player was a rookie. Every single student-athlete was once a freshman. Every single star was the new guy way back when.  For some, it’s an easy transition. For others, it’s an overwhelming one. They ALL want to be a part of the team, sooner rather than later. That team is a simple, conscious decision; an intentional decision made by its leaders, choosing to create that team by unifying one another; new, old, and everyone in between.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Blending the Old With the New
(7/19/2019)
 
   

Blending the Old With The New


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The baseball industry is in a very interesting place right now. The lens through which players, coaches, and fans now see the game has probably changed more in the last five years than it had in the previous 50. 

In 2015, Major League Baseball integrated Statcast in all 30 if its ballparks, opening up a completely new way to analytically think about the game through this state-of-the art tracking system that collected baseball data was never previously recorded, let alone even thought about. As such, launch angle, exit velocity, and route efficiency were born.  And thanks to a few other devices, spin rate, pitch axis, and attack angle came to life soon thereafter.

These technologies have significantly changed the way many coaches coach, many players train, and in turn, the way many teams play.  Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, where the offensive approach of working counts to get into a team’s bullpen is a thing of the past. Hitters are elevating the ball at a rate that we’ve never seen before, while swinging and missing at a frequency that would drive a little league coach nuts. 

Some argue that Statcast has had a negative impact on the game with a focus on these new metrics rather than the game itself, but that view is short-sighted. For years, coaches have used radar guns and stopwatches as a means to evaluate players. Measurables are not new by any means; there are just far more of them now thanks to the technologies that have developed in recent years.  

Old school coaches often lament at the new technology and those who extensively employ it, sarcastically questioning how players ever managed to get better without every single part of a hitter’s swing or pitcher’s delivery being tracked like it is now. The new school regime of coaches often mock the time-tested coaches and their approach to development by discounting anything that has been done forever, foolishly asserting that the game has passed those others by.

There has never been a bigger disconnect within the game between the old and the new than there is now. But, just like with everything else in life, there needs to be balance.  Discarding something that is productive just because it is “old school” is just as naïve as implementing something new solely because it’s new. Experience can be one of the game’s best teachers. And today’s technologies and analytics can make that experience that much more valuable.

Two years ago at the ABCA National Convention in Dallas, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch took to the stage and told the group of more than 6,000 baseball coaches in attendance, “if you still coach the same way you did five years ago, someone in your league has passed you by.” But that doesn’t mean you throw away everything you knew and everything you did a short time ago. It simply means you grow and continue to learn the game in an effort to get better.  That growth isn’t new school, and it isn’t old school. It’s the best of both schools. 


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.