Darren Fenster Resources

 The Best Coaches in the Country
(1/17/2020)
 
 
   

The Best Coaches in the Country


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Soon after the ball drops on Time’s Square and the New Year is rung in, an event for baseball coaches takes place. During first week of every January, the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) holds their national convention where baseball personnel descend upon rotating cities to learn more about the game so they can help make the game we all know and love even better. 

While all under the same one roof, you’ll find coaches from every single level of the game who combine to create a brotherhood of likeminded people who can’t get enough time talking baseball. It is an environment unlike any other that not only creates a feeling of excitement for the upcoming season but also a great sense of appreciation to be a part of such an incredibly special group.

For most in attendance, myself included, the highlight of every ABCA Convention is the clinic speakers. In a massive room seats are perfectly lined up and big screens hang from the ceiling, all eyes lock in on coach after coach who take the main stage to discuss various aspects of the game. From something as specific to how to turn a double play or script the perfect bullpen routine to topics as broad as developing culture within a program or learning how to coach different individual personalities on a team, there is literally something for everyone in attendance. 

The ABCA prides itself by having “some of the best coaches in our game” present to its members. I’ve been fortunate to have been a speaker twice and can honestly say that presenting in this environment to my peers in the game is one of the coolest things I’ve done over the course of my career.

But something dawned on me a few weeks ago as I sat in the crowd taking notes, blown away by this year’s lineup of speakers.  With every introduction for each coach, no matter the role and no matter the level, it seemed like each guy was “one of the best teachers of the game” or “one of the best pitching coaches in the country” or “one of the best experts on hitting.” And in the industry, on the surface, those descriptions were most deservedly stated.  

With all due respect to Vanderbilt’s Head Coach Tim Corbin, who I admire as much as any coach in the game and would have loved to have played for or coached alongside; with all due respect to JT McGuire, a Minor League coach with the Cleveland Indians, who shared more drills in 35 minutes than I ever thought even existed for outfield play; with all due respect to Kerrick Jackson who worked a miracle at Southern University; Buck Showalter who has probably forgotten more about the game than most will ever know; Rick Heller and Matt Hobbs who can use today’s technologies and analytics with hitters and pitchers as well as anybody; and with all due respect to the ABCA who spends months lining up each presenter to make every convention an impactful one; these were NOT the best coaches in our game. 

The best coaches in our game were the ones sitting in the crowd. They, collectively, represent the future of our game far better than any one of us who has the privilege of taking the main stage. Without these grass-roots coaches, there are no college All-Americans or MLB All-Stars.

The majority of the coaches in the audience at every ABCA convention don’t have anywhere close to the same resources of those presenting. They have less man-power on their coaching staffs; a smaller budget for developmental tools; fields that are literally just fields, not facilities. All of those limitations force those coaches to be more creative in order to make their players and teams better.

Most of the coaches sitting in those seats also don’t have nearly the same talent as those speaking on stage. It’s easy to coach when you have great players. It’s easy to coach when you get to pick your own roster. But most don’t have either luxury, let alone both. Their roster is what it is, and they have to figure out how to develop every single player. And year after year, that’s exactly what they do.

Contrary to popular belief, the mark of a successful coach is not found in a won-loss record. In fact, some of the very best coaches may very well be found on some of the worst teams. Years ago, a wise man once told me that the way a coach should be judged has nothing to do with a season’s outcome, but rather everything to do with the players’ excitement to simply come back to play again the following year. Let that sink in.

Today’s player is tomorrow’s coach. As coaches today, we have the incredible opportunity to give our players such an experience on the diamond so rewarding that they not only want to play year after year, but later, make the decision to join us in the coaching ranks to share their knowledge of and passion for the game with the next generation of players, as we did with them. If we do it right, those players that make up our teams will at some point down the road be sitting alongside of us at future ABCA conventions, not realizing that they are sitting amongst the those who are truly the very best coaches in our game.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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.


 Iron Sharpens Iron...Especially in the Winter
(12/20/2019)
 
   

Iron Sharpens Iron...Especially in the Winter


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The baseball off-season is always a time of year that comes with some concern for us coaches. Yes, we love the down time which allows us to recharge our batteries to once again be energized come spring. Yes, players need time away from the game so that they, too, can get both a physical and mental break that will allow their bodies and minds to make a strong return to the diamond. 

But there is an aspect of our absence off the field that brings us anxiety. It doesn’t come from the time off; it comes from the unknown. 

When professional players disperse every September for all corners of the world, they do so with clear expectations of what they are to work on. As college programs wind their semesters down, the student-athletes that make up their rosters will all go their separate ways for the holidays with an understanding of where they should be athletically when they come back. For an extended period of time of weeks and months, these players will be on their own, relatively removed from the coaches who have invested countless hours into their individual development.  

Come the start of the 2020 baseball season, all coaches will generally have two simple expectations for their players: 1) report to spring training or pre-season practice in good physical shape, and 2) return a better player than when they left. Both of these reasonable asks require players to do a lot on their own.  For many, we know that won’t be an issue at all.  For others, we have absolutely no idea what we’ll be getting upon reuniting as a group. 

The players we don’t have to worry about are the ones who understand and master the power of self. They know that the best type of discipline is self-discipline; they do what they are supposed to do and don’t do what they’re not. They realize the best type of coaching is self-coaching; they don’t need to be under constant watch by someone else to get better. They recognize the best type of motivation is self-motivation; they don’t need a tweet or a video or a quote to push themselves. Additionally, they carry two very distinct character traits on top of their natural athletic ability: 1) they take initiative and don’t have to always be told what to do, and 2) they go above and beyond the status quo and do more than what’s expected of them. In all these ways, they are just different from the rest.

It’s those exact type of players who we don’t worry about who we want to surround those we do. With the extreme limitations that high schools and colleges put on their coaches when it comes to actively coaching their players, members of the team would often organize captain’s practices, where everyone would get their work in without any supervision or direction from the staff. 

But it’s more than just gathering a group together to play catch and take some swings.

When those players who we don’t have to worry about are intentional about the time spent with the ones that concern us, a slow transformation takes place. Little by little, all of that good stuff that we want in all of our players- the initiative, the work ethic, the self-awareness, the discipline- starts to seep into the players we question. And before we know it, our players return to campus and report to spring training not just as better players, but also as better people. Because of the positive influence of a teammate.

Every summer, Peyton Manning would fly his receivers in from wherever they spent their off-seasons not just to run routes and get a feel for how the soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback threw the football, but as much to build a relationship that would be the backbone of a big part of their team’s success. Recently retired infielder Troy Tulowitzki would bring a number of Colorado’s prospects in to live with him at his house during the winter in Arizona not just to workout together but to be an example for what would be the future of the Rockies franchise. 

When your best players are investing in the rest of your players, a positive culture is being built at the core. Every coach has their game plan for a success season before Opening Day, but when you nail culture before strategy, your strategy has that much more of a chance to stick. 

Many view the off-season as a time of year when focus goes entirely to individual development. But it’s as much a team period as any other time of when teammates can push one another beyond their own limits, and truly show one another what means to be a part of a team. While a club’s stars will come out in the spring, its leaders are undoubtedly born in the winter.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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.


 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 Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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 Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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 Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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.