Help Your Players Find Their Voice
By Darren Fenster
Baseball is very much a game of routine ; those routines, an integral part of a player’s individual development as well as a team’s culture and environment. Hitters get in the cage every day to get their swings right. Pitchers work in the bullpen every day to perfect their delivery. Teams take batting practice, get defensive work in, and run the bases. Every. Single. Day.
Those routines become a habitual part of the professional player’s day .
Over the course of my six years managing at various levels of our minor league system, beginning in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2013, followed by four years in A-Ball, and finishing in AA last year before transitioning to my new role as our outfield and baserunning coordinator, I saw the value of using the previous day’s game as a teacher for our players to learn from. When reviewing the games in my own mind, I knew what I saw, and the countless coaching points that could be taken from each contest. But after discussing those points, almost like a teacher lecturing a class, I became curious to see what THEY actually saw. So I changed my approach a few years ago.
Prior to giving any of my own thoughts, I’d survey the group, “Alright guys… whatdya got from last night?”
The first few times I did this, as I looked across the fifteen or so position players gathered in the group, I was surrounded by blank stares. Heads down. Crickets. No one saying a word. No one wanting to be called on.
Our team environment , at that time, was not one that encouraged input from players. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that these players- who we had good relationships with mind you- were apprehensive to speak in front of the group. Some were timid to open up for fear of saying something wrong, while others wouldn’t open their mouths perhaps they were too cool to do so.
Slowly but surely, as we changed the approach, we were able to create an environment where giving our players a voice became the norm, and they became more comfortable in talking the game, and using one another as an additional way to get better. Even in A-ball with those inexperienced kids who truly didn’t know the game.
In 2018, I managed the Portland Sea Dogs, our Double-A, Eastern League affiliate. Coming on the heels of my previous experience largely with inexperienced players, last year represented my first opportunity to work with guys who had a career under their belt and knew what it meant to be a professional. We had a good sense of what made them tick individually, and they had a pretty good feel for the game at that point. Additionally, the majority of them had played for me at some point and time previously, and were familiar with my style of engagement. That combination, while being at a point in the careers where they were comfortable in their own skin and their understanding of our organizational standards embraced this style of coaching as a conversation.
Part of managing at the Double-A level last year included spending a week with our Major League team in September as a means to get a feel for how our staff and players were doing things in Boston, and figuring out what exactly we can mirror in the Minor Leagues to best prepare our guys for when their time comes. What blew me away far more than anything else was the interaction between players and the manner by which there was non-stop communication about the game. Coaches would start our advance meetings, and then the players would essentially take over. Then later, in the cage, around the dugout, or out in the bullpen, there were constant conversations that were completely player driven, a clear part of the culture that helped us win the World Series in October. Some of our most inquisitive players, not coincidentally, were also some of our biggest stars.
For players, it’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to give feedback. It’s OK to talk the game. It’s all in reality, a necessary part of development. We need to embrace the input from our players to know what they actually know, which in turn will help us learn what they don’t. By encouraging questions, feedback, and game-talk, we can make coaching a conversation, not a lecture. For coaches, it’s up to us to help our players find their own voice so they can develop in their own game.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and currently serves as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In 2012 he launched Coaching Your Kids LLC, an organization dedicated to assisting coaches, parents and leagues in developing young players and improving their experience within the game. Previously, Fenster served as the Manager for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Fenster is a two-time All-America from Rutgers University where he established school records in hits, doubles and at-bats. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals and played in the minor leagues for seven years.