Can We Help Players Compete Better?
By Dave Turgeon
One of the hot topics thrown around in coaching and scouting discussions is that competing is a separator tool that determines if a player will play in the major leagues or reach their potential. It then leads to the question: Can a coach help someone get better at competing? There are 2 schools of thought: First, coaches with a growth mindset would say “absolutely I can!” With a little bit of “want to” and a plan, we can grow somebody’s ability to compete in a huge way. The second school of thought, a fixed mindset, is that people are born with the DNA to compete or they aren’t and no amount of coaching will change that. Let’s do a deeper dive into these two very different mindsets.
The Fixed Mindset
The fixed mindset believes that we are born with certain talents or skills (intelligence, athleticism, ability to compete) that cannot be taught. You are simply dealt a hand that you have to play as is. With this mindset comes the art of labeling by coaches and even teachers! I was guilty of this line of thinking and was a product of the system of professional baseball that was very much a “natural selection”, “survival of the fittest” or “cream rises to the top” philosophy. Any of these phrases sound familiar? You also hear coaches say “he was born to play baseball.” As a coach with a fixed mindset you will give the most to those you believe compete. The rest of your players get whatever is left over. Labelling undermines and even destroys our ability to help our players grow. They can sense if you are committed to them or not. This labeling is more common than not, especially when it comes to attaching “he competes” or “he doesn’t compete” to a player. A label sticks with a player and could disqualify them as a prospect without ever giving them the tools to grow.
Joe Martinez is the player that started to rearrange the furniture in my head starting in 2003. After managing in professional baseball for a couple years I jumped over to college ball and my first gig brought me to Boston College and Joe Martinez. Joe possessed all the tools you want in a player and pitcher; athleticism, plus pitches and intelligence. As a bonus he came from a tremendous family that instilled a strong value system. He also put together good work days and displayed a great attitude. What was not to like? In the spring of 2003 the team went south to play some other cold weather teams and the first game was against Holy Cross. Holy Cross is a Division I baseball program but certainly not a powerhouse. My thoughts going into the game were that Joe’s talent level was well above Holy Cross. Well, Murphy’s law took over and Holy Cross was hitting him around pretty hard. I made a couple of mound visits to settle Joe down and as I went out the second time Joe was so nervous he was shaking. We eventually pulled him and put in another pitcher. Instead of recognizing where Joe was in his ability to compete and putting together a plan to help him get better, the easy way out was to say he simply doesn’t compete and that is that. Six years later on Aug 7, 2009, Joe made his Major League debut for the San Francisco Giants. Guess he got better at competing? Not only did he get better at competing but competed in the best league in the world! Tracking Joe after 2003, his growth was so steady and so amazing I was surprised his debut did not come until 2009! Players can get better at competing! We as coaches mislabel kids who do not know they are ready to compete as “soft” when the reality is that competing and maturity are fluid. As young players mature as people emotionally and physically this will usually play out on the field of play in a huge way. It is a culmination of all of the above. The evolution of the physical, emotional and then skill level of a player is very hard to project especially with a fixed mindset when nothing is projectable! Thanks, Joe, for starting my true growth journey.
Growth Mindset and Pete Rose
The growth mindset is that we can improve at anything we do by putting in the effort and learning from our successes and failures. This is my mindset today. This idea that an intangible like competing is a tool and can be grown evolved in me first by having players prove me wrong (Joe Martinez was the first of many) year after year and then by digging in and doing some research. Carol Dweck writes articles online and her book “Mindset” was game-changing for my thought process. The “compete” tool is arguably the greatest tool for allowing players’ abilities to either play up or down. I discussed this with a friend of mine, Mike Lum (member of Big Red Machine, among his many accomplishments) who currently is an Advisor in the Pirates Player Development system. I asked him what player he played with or against or coached had the greatest compete tool? He never hesitated and immediately responded, “Pete Rose because he came to beat you every day and on every play.” If you actually broke down Rose’s physical tools of hit, hit for power, field, run, and throw, you are hard pressed to find any above average outside his plus tool of barreling the baseball for singles. Mike Lum played with the likes of Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez (all in The Baseball Hall of Fame). These guys had some great tools and they competed like mad men but Mike did not hesitate for a moment to throw Rose’s name out there. And by the way, Mike Lum is 70 and operates with a growth mindset!
WHAT DOES “COMPETE” MEAN?
I see it as a person’s ability to take his skill level (wherever that is) and perform to their maximum capability in the heat of competition. It is also the ability to get back up every single time you get knocked down regardless of the outcome. It’s that simple. I love the term Justin Meccage (Pirates AA pitching coach) shared with me once regarding a player who competes when things are going well but then goes away when things go wrong. He referred to him as a “convenient competitor.” I see convenient competitors as simply in the larvae stage of potentially becoming a true “competitor.” We can help them reach that competitor stage with time and preparation (we will get to the how later). Baseball can illustrate these differences in many ways. The most obvious occurs on the mound and in the batter’s box. The pitcher may be moving along easily getting outs and then all of a sudden finds himself in a jam after a couple of hits and a walk. You might see the body language go south, the velocity drop off, the command go away, and the results spiral out of control. He was competing well when the results were good but stopped once the results went bad. Hitters can illustrate this as well. At times when you watch hitters in advantage counts (0-0 ,1-0, 2-0, 2-1) be extremely disciplined and hit well then become unglued as the counts go the other way (0-1, 0-2, 1-2) and lose all ability to swing at or recognize a strike. Now in both cases (the pitcher and the hitter) the players who compete have the ability to get knocked down and get back up and keep coming. The pitcher who competes will continue to fight and when results go bad they have a tendency to be able to minimize the damage of an inning and regain their form. They keep attacking their opponent relentlessly. Hitters who compete have a tendency to fight pitches off when behind in counts many times fouling off tough pitches with two strikes and eventually putting the ball in play. This grit factor has become easy to spot over the years and I believe the “compete” or grit factor is a true separator among players.
Now that we have established that we need to have a growth mindset when teaching and coaching, and what it means to compete, we can finally attack the question: How can we get them better at competing?
There are two parts to this process; the first one is to increase the skill level of each player with purposeful progression (skill building) and purposeful preparation (testing the skills under pressure). The progression form of teaching this game is critical for players in building the wiring or muscle memory of their swings or deliveries in order to go out and have a chance to compete. Think of the practice of a player as crawl, walk, run on a daily basis. Let’s use the progression of skill building for an infielder in our system as one example.
Throwing Program (TP): this is not a get loose drill for the arm as much as it is a slowed down form of learning how to handle the baseball and throw accurately with the proper footwork. This TP is the foundation of the skill building of the day. Poor TP or mechanics will show up in the other parts of his game or even in the game itself. We take our time with this and do not rush it. After focusing on form we then begin to speed things up and give them 30 seconds of speed in catching and throwing the ball. Crawl, walk, run.
Knees wide base is the next phase for our infielders. They start on their knees to emphasize the proper hand/glove presentation to the ball and proper funnel to the chest. Next, the proper separation and grip of the ball. In the next phase they are on their feet and do the same drill with the proper set up. After these progressions we get them to their positions to work on fielding ground balls properly and then throwing accurately to bases. We then progress to hitting them ground balls at game speed to a game clock to develop the internal clock and to add some pressure to the drill. We finally progress to random groundballs with the same clock speeding things up on them. Crawl, walk, run.
These are just two examples of progression, where you slow down teaching in order to build the skill level so that they can now have a chance to compete. We do this in every single aspect of the game: hitting, base running, pitching and defense. Now comes the fun part which is how to grow the COMPETE tool!
The ultimate test of our progression work is to see how it holds up under the stress and pressure of the game. If the first time our player experiences stress or pressure to perform his skill is the game, we may have failed him in helping him compete. Purposeful preparation is doing all of the above work on a daily basis but we now blend in some competitive fun, consequences, stress and pressure to help him get better at the transfer of those skills. The growth mindset coach realizes that in order for the skills to transfer under game pressure we must provide that for them at some point in the prep day.
Consequences: One example of creating competitive consequences can be after the hitters go through their progression, the last round of BP consists of opposite field line drives. If he fails to execute the rep he either loses his round or has to do five pushups. Maybe you can add a layer of every foul ball a player hits he has to go get it on the spot. Maybe you hit with no turtle as well for a different feel. The level of pressure goes up, the level of focus goes up and his swing and skill level are being tested in a little adversity.
Rewards: The same round of BP could be taken and for every executed rep (whatever the objective is in that round) there is a point earned. The player with the most points is awarded a Gatorade or t-shirt after a clear winner is established. The swing is tested under stress or pressure and he is competing to win.
Make the preparation take their skills to the edge of their abilities and a little beyond. If we were to do the same competition as above but had the BP thrower move the L Screen five feet closer it may be the reaction time of 96 miles per hour which may be more than they will see that night. However, players will make adjustments and grow their skill levels in many cases to meet that challenge. We are stretching their skill level and their ability to compete.
The Biosphere 2
How can the Biosphere 2 have anything to with helping kids compete better? Well, our Mental Conditioning Coordinator, Bernie Holiday, told us this story that helped make perfect sense of this compete tool development. The biosphere is an artificial ecological system that is indoors. It was created perfectly in every way. Perfect air, water, dirt and vegetation. A problem kept occurring in that the trees they were growing would all grow to a certain height and then fall over and uproot. Time and time again this occurred until they figured out that the missing ingredient in this perfect environment was the wind. The stress of the wind helped the trees grow deep roots to make them stronger and help support an even bigger tree. As coaches we have the ability to grow the compete tool of players by adding pressure or stress and competitive fun into the environment all the time. We are providing them the wind that will help their games grow strong and with deep roots. The wind that will allow the preparation to transfer into performance at game time.
THE GREATEST GIFT WE CAN GIVE OUR PLAYERS
If we go through a preparation day without adding pressure to it we have not prepared our players for what they are about to face come game time. We are not developing the compete muscle that allows them to maximize their potential. But it is more than this. I believe that building the “grit factor” has much more impact on what they will face in life than even at game time. At your level, how many of the players you coach will ever get to reach their dream of playing in the Major League? How many will stay there after making it? The percentage is extremely small, somewhere between 1% and 3%, or less. This game mirrors real life; it’s hard and competitive. Will the grit factor we help develop help them in their jobs, marriages and whatever else life offers them? Absolutely! They will learn that the “hard” is what makes it satisfying and even fun. Their ability to compete gives them the drive/energy to keep getting back up time and time again after getting knocked down. Where in life do we not need this “compete/grit” factor? The greatest gift we may give our players is the ability to compete.
Turgeon is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is the Coordinator of Instruction for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turgeon played in the New York Yankees farm system from 1987-1990 under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted out of Davidson College. Before playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in 1998 he spent eight years playing abroad. From 2000-2001 Turgeon began coaching in the Cleveland Indians organization before entering the college ranks where he coached with Boston College, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Virginia Tech.