Teaching IS Coaching: Bringing the Classroom to the Baseball Field

I got “the call” this season. As any baseball fan knows, “the call” is a call from a Major League team to a minor league player. Okay, it’s not quite that glamorous. With some shifting sands on the team, and some experience coaching at the high school level, I offered to join the coaching staff.

It’s not exactly the pros, but it’s still reasonably serious, especially if you’re not involved in kids’ sports. My son plays about 80–100 games a year and he loves the sport — the mental aspects of baseball as much as playing the game itself, if not more. His mind is given to the intricacies and strategic nuances of baseball, and he’s been playing fairly seriously (to him, anyway) since he was four and played an invisible game (no bats, no balls, just running) with a friend at recess for weeks at a time. From the harbinger of rebirth that is spring training to the “October Classic,” he’d quit his day job as a seventh grader and dedicate 16 hours a day to baseball if it were an option. Once again, the parents have it all wrong.

As for me, I signed on because I thought I could bring a new and complementary approach to kids’ development, one based on more than two decades of school experience. As I wrote to the other coaches:

“It's not enough for an adult to show kids how to make a good pickup of a ground ball and expect that they will learn to do so without repeated practice of their own. Similarly, it's not enough for adults simply to tell kids how they can think and behave in order to improve — it's too easy for adults to get preachy and just talk at the kids about what's important to us. Experience and actual research demonstrate clearly that the kids will improve faster and more systematically if they practice specific strategies designed to help them think about various aspects of the game (or anything) more effectively.”

Though we’ve been practicing indoors since January, we finally got outside last week, and I introduced my approach to the players. Largely based on ideas from Carol Dweck’s seminal Mindset, we discussed what our team did well at our first scrimmage and what still needs to improve. We did this even though we won that first scrimmage handily.

We discussed seeking and embracing criticism as a tool to improve, and to identify specific areas that need practice. (Example: One can act on “keeping my head in” during a swing, rather than acting on “hitting” — specific, actionable skills are always most valuable in criticism.) We discussed process over outcome, noting that even Steph Curry can’t control what happens once the ball leaves his hands. He can only develop the process that leads to that moment —the timing, his posture, the position of his hands, the arc of the ball, and so forth. He can’t actually do anything once he lets go of the ball.

We developed plans individually for the week — a few players need to improve the accuracy of their arms; a couple need to stop double-clutching after picking up a ground ball; one needs more balanced head movement on his swing; a few could use some more strength conditioning. (Your correspondent, by the way, needs all of that, but he has aged out of 14U.) And every one of the players has room to improve his approach to the mental game — how he behaves after walking two in a row, after striking out, after a poor call on the bases, after a teammate’s sloppy error, and even after things go right, like a bases-clearing double. (There are lots of kids who have the physical ability to play baseball. The ones who manage their mental and emotional approaches effectively will have a better chance.)

There have already been many highlights, but two stand out for me. First, after an initial team discussion of about ten minutes, the individual work took about five minutes per player. Each player talked about what had gone well for him this season, what specific skills he’s working on, how he’s going about practicing those skills at home, what parts of our coaching are working for him, what the coaches could do more, and what he’d like to see us do less. (No promises — it’s a team sport, after all, not an individual sport — but we’ll consider earnestly what each player has to say.) Sure, that took an hour of my time, but it took each player out of practice for almost no time at all.

I cribbed from my friend and unintentional mentor Abigail Wiebenson her great 1-to-10 evaluation tool. Example: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate today’s practice overall? And after hearing a rating of, say “7,” the reply is: What would it take to make it an 8? Incremental improvement — this is brilliant because it can be applied to nearly any situation in which one seeks to improve, it’s nearly immediate, and it’s portable: With practice and repetition, any player can ask himself this question any time. One goal is get an answer that can help us improve. Another goal is to train players to do this to the point where they won’t need us any more.

The second highlight, if it can be called that, is the reminder of how unusual this is. Several players and parents noted that on previous teams they had never been asked how they viewed the process of improvement. They saw their input as valuable, but it had never been solicited. One parent said that her son had never had this happen on a team, but it was clear that it seldom, if ever, happens in school either. It reinforces the subtle idea that school is something we do to students, not something they participate in fully or often even willingly. If they get no say in school, why do we think they’ll show up eager to learn?

We can agree that a main goal of teaching is to transfer responsibility for specific tasks and overall success from adults to children. We can also agree that people improve at tasks when they practice those tasks. If those statements are true, it follows then that if we want children to build their own mechanisms for improvement over their lifetimes, we must gather their feedback and act on it, and we must allow them to practice improving. How come we do so little of that in our schools and on our teams?

Better coaches (teachers) respond to individual players’ needs, partly by involving players (students) in discussions of what those needs are in the first place, seeking criticism from them to help us improve our connections, and thinking seriously about what they tell us. It takes time to develop that kind of culture on a sports team, maybe even more than it does in a classroom; my experience is that many coaches are so sure their way is right and so unwilling to seek criticism for fear that it betrays weakness. Of course, the exact opposite is true.

Education and coaching are manifestly the same thing. Done as a one-way exercise, it is ineffective and even demeaning. But mostly it’s just ineffective —people improve more and faster when they play roles in the process. If it works in the classroom, it’ll work on the ball field.

They’re just different arenas for the business, and joys, of learning.

Peter BravermanComment