Darren Fenster Resources

 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.


 Helping Your Team Beyond the Box Score
(6/14/2019)
 
   

Helping Your Team Beyond the Box Score


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Baltimore, Maryland.

Red Sox. Orioles.

These two American League East foes found themselves in a tie ballgame when Trey Mancini stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom 11th, ready to send the Camden Yards faithful home happy. With one swing, it appeared as if he had done just that, driving a Ryan Brasier fastball deep to center. The crack of the bat was that sound hitters love to hear. On the mound, Boston’s pitcher’s head immediately went down when he heard it. And Xander Bogaerts barely moved at shortstop when he saw it.  Both thought the game was over. 
 
And it would have been, had it not been for Jackie Bradley, Jr. 

On that crack of the bat that deflated Brasier and paralyzed Bogaerts, Bradley turned, put his head down, and started running back into deep centerfield. Lining the ball up almost perfectly in stride and scaling the wall as if it was a part of the outfield grass, the Red Sox Gold Glove winning centerfielder reached with his glove from his perch atop the wall into the Orioles bullpen and caught the ball, robbing what would have been a walk-off home run for Mancini.

The play went down in the scorecard as a simple F8.  It was played on highlight shows for the days that followed but has since been largely forgotten. What should never be forgotten, however, are the many ways a player can help his team win that aren’t seen in the numbers. 

At the time of his game-saving catch, Bradley was hitting .142 for the season and, for the game, hitless in three at bats, including two strikeouts. Last October, he was a vital cog in the Red Sox World Series title run and was named ALCS Most Valuable Player along the way. While his offensive production hasn’t yet gotten back to his Fall Classic form this season, Jackie Bradley, Jr. reminded us with his glove that the game is not only about what you do with the bat and exemplifies that player who is contributing to his team’s success without necessarily producing runs. His ability to continue being an elite defender despite his offensive struggles also highlights the importance of being able to separate the game, mentally.

That combination is what championship players are made of.

No sport is more discouraging than baseball, where, as we’ve all heard ad nauseum, failing seven out of ten times makes you the best of the best. That frequency of failure is extremely challenging to deal with and often results in hitter’s bringing at bats out into the field- which sets them up for defensive miscues- or pitchers still worrying about a previous inning or hitter instead of focusing on the next inning or better. But when coaches consistently make their players aware of the many facets of the game that in the end play into a win or a loss, they will far more likely be able to move on from a bad AB, a bad inning, or a bad play. 

We all know how much players live and die by the numbers on the back of their baseball card. But championship teams win championships in large part for what their players do in the parts of the game that are NOT seen on the back of that card. Sometimes, a productive out can be more valuable than a base hit. Sometimes, something as simple as throwing the ball to the correct base may be the one play that puts a team in a position to win a game. And sometimes, something like a pitcher minimizing damage in the 2nd inning may be the reason why a team is still within striking distance in the 9th. 

While a player’s stat line may not look pretty, that doesn’t mean that player can’t actually have the type of game that helps his team win. The best players in our game are the ones who can take their game far beyond the box score. 


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 Value Of Versatility
(5/17/2019)
 
   

The Value of Versatility


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Not so long ago, when a player was described as a utility man, it was a fancy way to call a backup on the bench, and not exactly a term of endearment by any means.  But thanks to Big Leaguers like Ben Zobrist, Marwin Gonzalez, Brock Holt, and even pitchers like Andrew Miller or Nate Eovaldi, the players who can play all over the diamond or handle various roles on the mound have quickly become some of the most valuable guys on their team’s roster.

Think back to the World Series last October, and it’s clear to see how valuable Red Sox starters Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, and Game Three super-human Eovaldi were coming out of the bullpen en route to winning that title over the Dodgers.  The Royals and Cubs both won rings in large part because of Zobrist’s ability to be penciled in anywhere with grass or dirt under his feet, so much so that he was named MVP of the 2016 Fall Classic. This past off-season, Gonzalez signed a 21 million-dollar contract with the Twins, and Holt was an American League All-Star in 2015.

Follow any Major League team in this day and age, and you’ll quickly see how many lineups are determined by matchups against the opposing club’s starting pitcher.  And watch any Big League game, and you’ll quickly see how many late game pinch-hit/pinch-run and defensive decisions are made to put a team in the best position to win. Utility players have quickly become some of the most important pieces of a team.

The game has adapted to appreciate players who can play all over the diamond, and you should, too.  When someone can play multiple positions, they are giving their manager multiple options of how to use them.  It’s never too early for players to prepare themselves for that day when a coach asks them to move to a spot outside of their normal comfort zone.

Here are just a few ways they can bridge that gap and shorten the learning curve:

Catchers can take fungos anywhere on the infield to become comfortable fielding ground balls. That practice will actually help them become more athletic behind the plate specifically on tag plays at home.  Infielders should move to the outfield during batting practice and simply work live off the bat to get a feel for reading and tracking fly balls.  Doing so will improve their ability to handle pop-ups when they move back on to the infield dirt.  Outfielders should always bounce around to all three spots to become interchangeable in centerfield or at one of the corners.  And lastly, all players can always throw on some gear and catch pitchers’ bullpens.  Every team needs an emergency catcher if in the event the two guys on the roster go down in one game, and anyone who can reliably catch in a game quickly becomes one of the most valuable on the entire roster because the position is the most challenging on the field.
 
Learning how to play a secondary position doesn’t mean you have to become a gold glover at a spot you have very little experience.  Rather all you need to be is reliable.  Reliable and trusting enough to make the routine play, to throw the ball to the correct base, and to be in the right spot on the field when you are supposed to be there.  Knowing all of the responsibilities of multiple positions will turn you into a smarter player in the grand scheme of the game.

So, the next time a coach asks you to play somewhere outside of your primary position, thank him; he is creating some versatility for you that will turn into value when you learn how to play just about anywhere, any day.



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.


 Coach To Win Life, Not Games
(4/19/2019)
 
   

Coach To Win Life, Not Games


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Last month, a legend was laid to rest.  

A legend whose impact goes far beyond words; a legend who, through countless others, has impacted people he never even had a chance to meet. 

A couple years ago, a friend of mine had a pretty profound thought about what life was all about. He said, “we spend our entire lives selling tickets to our funeral.” Let that sink in for a second. For as somber as death can be, a funeral shows the lasting impact of how someone lived, through those to attend the services to pay their respects to the family.

Well, last month, Fred Hill sold out his funeral. 

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In September of 1996, I set foot on the Rutgers campus as an immature freshman baseball player who thought he had the game of baseball and the game of life both figured out. And then I started being around Fred Hill just about every day for the next four years who made sure, many days louder than others, that I got to know how much I truly didn't know.

When I had originally committed to go to Rutgers and to play for Coach Hill, I did so without really having any idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that I was going to embark on a life-shaping journey with a man who, aside from my parents, would have the greatest influence on my life. He was a second father to me.

Over the past month since his passing, my mind has been flooded with the memories of the twenty-plus years that I was blessed to have this man in my life. Some have me laughing out loud just as easily as others bring tears to my eyes, knowing how much of his life he invested, in mine. What all of these memories had in common was how he was teaching us life through the game. He was ALWAYS teaching us life. And we didn’t even know it. 

When he was always on our case about this or that, he was teaching us the importance of always doing things the right way.  Every time it was above 32 degrees and he had us playing an intersquad game in the University’s basketball arena parking lot, he was teaching us to take advantage of what we had, rather than complaining about what we didn’t.  When he kicked someone out of practice for showing up on time, he was teaching us accountability… and to always be early! When he benched someone for not hustling, he was teaching us that we owed it to ourselves and our team to give our best effort, all the time, in everything we do. 

When he would be the last one to leave the field because he was picking up garbage in the dugout he was actually teaching us how to be humble without ever feeling like we were too good to do something. And every time this ridiculously successful guy who won championships, coached All-Americans, and developed Major Leaguers asked US questions about the game and how HE could get better, he taught us how we should always be learning, no matter how much we knew. 

He is THE reason why I am a coach today. Coach Hill saw something in me before I was even ready to see it in myself upon the sudden end to my playing career. He gave me a second life in baseball, but more importantly, he gave me purpose to my life beyond baseball. If I can have just a tiny fraction of the impact on others that Fred Hill has had on me, my life will be a resounding success.

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Fred Hill turned me into a decent baseball player. And Fred Hill mentored me to become a pretty good baseball coach. But above all else, Fred Hill took me in as an immature 17 year-old kid, and over the course of the next 23 years right up until his passing, helped shape me into the man I am today.

Coach Hill may no longer be with us physically, but he will forever live inside of me, and countless other former players, coaches, friends, colleagues, and most importantly, family members whose lives he profoundly impacted, just by being Moose. While his coaching tree is impressive, it pales in comparison to the size of his life tree which has roots that go deep into the center of the earth and branches that can be seen for miles.

Over the course of his Hall of Fame coaching career, Fred Hill picked up over 1,000 victories on the diamond.  Without question, he taught us how to win games.  But for as successful he was as a coach; his true measure can be found in how well he taught us how to win life.


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.