As I reflect back on the past 31 years of my career, I had a desire to pen this article to stress just how fortunate you are to be in a position to be called "Coach." There are few things more special than knowing that your words and actions will have a significant impact on a young person’s life. Many of the best coaches have a bigger impact on their players than their own parents do. This responsibility is one that needs to be respected and nurtured throughout your career.
Despite changes in society and the climate of amateur baseball, the core purpose of our profession has not changed: provide an environment that demands accountability, promotes development, and adheres to the highest level of integrity on & off the field.
Most impactful coaches are great leaders who challenge you to think and be bold. They assist you in creating a vision and support you in your journey. Being a great leader involves creating a clear strategic plan with a mission statement, having short & long term objectives and action steps that are needed to progress the plan.
Coach-Strategic planning is your road map to success. Make it clear, make it bold and talk about it every day. Every ounce of your energy should be devoted to that plan, to getting a little better each day. It takes a lot of effort, work, commitment and cooperation from your players, your assistants, your support staff and anyone else that makes decisions that will affect your program. The easy phase is assembling the plan. The tough part is trusting the plan without being discouraged by setbacks along the way. The adage "one step at a time" applies here!
In this day and age of entitlement, all of our jobs are challenging. There are internal and external factors that must be dealt with on a daily basis. Every coach I talk to wants more of everything- facility improvements, better travel accommodations, more equipment, larger staffs, budget increases and other needs are dependent on decision-makers who may not share your beliefs. If you coach, you have experienced these challenges, but the bottom line is that it is your primary responsibility is to control the things that you can control – embrace what you have, not what you don’t have. Believe in your players and lead them to success. Empower your coaches to speak freely and to challenge the status quo. It is a healthy formula that will lead to success.
The next step is defining success. The late Zig Ziglar was one of the most respected modern day experts on success, motivation, and leading a balanced life. In his book Born to Win! he contends that success is comprised of many things and cannot be defined in one sentence.
Is a small computer software company that has great, smart engineers and hard-working, dedicated employees expected to be in direct competition with Microsoft? Does it mean that the smaller company that produces a great product and turns a solid profit is not as successful as Microsoft because the bottom line does not reflect it? I think not.
“Success” is a relative term. If your program has excellent facilities, great support, a tremendous financial commitment, a large population of athletes and a school “hard-wired” to win a championship, then winning championships is likely considered successful. If you’re at a school with less of everything across the board, a .500 record may be considered successful.
That certainly does NOT concede anything and it should not lower your expectations, but again, success is relative and certainly subjective. In sports, some fans will criticize the most successful programs, while the optimistic fan will hang on to a thread of success to feel good about his loyalty. It's all in how you perceive it. If you don’t believe it, your team certainly will not. It is the goal for all teams to “dog pile” at the end of the year, but only one team at each level can do it on the last day of the season. Are all of the other teams considered “not successful”? Again, I ask you: what defines success for you and your program?
I believe firmly in communication. It is important for your players to have a clear understanding of what is expected every day and know when they get to the field, it’s time to work. As a coach, it is your responsibility to make it happen. Whether you delegate that responsibility or do it yourself – make it happen. You should establish the core principles of your “on-field” program: make a simple, clear plan that is practiced and communicated every day to maximize the potential of your team. Identify the types of players that you have and coach accordingly. This challenge is especially true at the high school level, where you can't necessarily "recruit" your players. One year you may have a couple of stud arms and a great defense, so playing for a run maybe be your strategy. Another year, it’s possible you have to go toe-to-toe and slug it out. Whatever it is, identify your team's personality and put your players in the best possible position for success. Be clear about your plan. Be clear with your principles. Practice and preach those beliefs every day. You and your staff must speak with one voice. Be straightforward in everything you do.
Let's take a look at some of those things. How about the appearance of you, your staff and your team? At Pitt, when we travel by air, we all wear suit and tie and are well-groomed and no earrings. This year is the first that I have allowed facial hair, but it needs to be neat. If this "luxury" is compromised, we will immediately go back to our clean-shaven policy. I am not personally opposed to facial hair or earrings, but I believe that a tiny bit of personal sacrifice to be a part of something bigger than the individual goes a long way in our process. On the road, when we eat in a restaurant, we are not permitted to wear hats, and upon leaving the establishment, our space will be cleaner after we leave, than it was before we got there. At our hotel, we expect our kids to be groomed and in proper “Pitt” clothing when in public, at study hours or coming to any meal or team function. The bus is always clean. The dugouts are cleaned after a game. Shirts tucked in, hats on straight, spikes clean as we depart the bus and make our way to the field. Will it help winning? Not necessarily, but it does teach the Pitt Way and I believe the Pitt Way transcends baseball and its important part of this process.
Here's an example of how these types of things have an impact on those around you. We were on a Southwest flight this past year heading for a weekend trip to Florida. This is an email from a passenger on the flight with us. This proves how the "little things” make a difference:
“We were on our way to Disney while you were on your way to a weekend of baseball in Florida. I wanted to compliment the Pittsburgh Panther Baseball team on their behavior and interaction during the flight. My husband and I each sat in the middle seat with our daughters sitting by the window and on both segments of the flight, we had Pitt baseball players/coaches sitting next to us.
While their suits led to a professional appearance, they were also just as professional in their behavior and decorum. Believe me, the other college baseball team that was on the flight were dressed in t-shirts and more boisterous in conversation. The Pitt baseball team engaged in conversation with my husband and I and other nearby passengers. They were friendly to our girls and even asked them questions about our trip to Disney.
At the baggage claim areas, I saw many players helping other passengers retrieve their luggage from the belt, helping to lift heavy luggage for them. With so much negativity in the press regarding athletes and their behavior, I thought you would appreciate hearing positive comments. I know the professionalism exhibited by the baseball team made an impression on me."
As it turned out, the e-mail was from a Medical Doctor who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Quite frankly, we did nothing special. We did “what we do." Establish a code of conduct, implement it and stick to it. It will teach your players a level of accountability, off the field, that will translate when their playing days are over. By doing these little things, your program will elevate itself to another level.
It takes zero skill to control and maximize your effort, enthusiasm, and energy every day. No one can tell me that the kid on the field that is having a blast playing the game with big energy isn’t fun to watch and doesn’t have a positive impact on his teammates. How about a full team of guys like that? It’s contagious. Respect the game. Respect the opponent. Respect the umpires but go out there and be BIG in everything you do.
If you were fortunate to attend the ABCA Convention this past January in Indianapolis, you were a part of something incredible. You walked among the legends of the game, the shepherds of the game, and most importantly, ALL of us who love the game. As you prepare for next season, reflect on your past, contemplate the present and peek into your future. Ask yourself a few straightforward questions. What impression will I leave upon those I meet today? When they walk away, how will I be perceived? Are you a coach that other coaches want to talk to about baseball or coaching? Do you give the aura of being a leader? Will your team follow? Will your staff or colleagues follow? Not that chasing self-affirmation is essential – it is not the least bit – but did you have an impact?
I read a quote a few months ago that resonated with me. It merely said, "If people MUST follow, you are a manager (not in the baseball vernacular). If people are INSPIRED to follow, you are a leader. Inspire your people today and every day.”
I concede that today is a much different environment than it was when I began. What you put into your personal development as a coach will pay dividends. There is nothing that replaces work ethic.
Never take for granted the privilege of being called "Coach." It is something special and we again, are fortunate to be a part of this fraternity.
Most of the things that I wrote about in this article have nothing to do with baseball specific drill work, recruiting, player talent or baseball-related teaching. It is merely a message that hopefully triggers some thought and reflection on the great responsibility we have as coaches and will challenge us to critically analyze what we do to have a positive impact on those we lead and what we may need to adjust to improve on our weaknesses and solidify our strengths.
All of us can control the things we manage and can build and lead programs that have a clear strategic plan with achievable goals; a program that reflects positively on you and the organization you represent; a program that demands integrity while prioritizing accountability and responsibility. And lastly, a program that creates an environment the emphasizes a passion & respect of our great game while developing a new generation of coaches that share the passion of being the best we can be, making the right choices and treating all others equally and with respect.
“I do not fear an army of lions led by a sheep. I do fear an army of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great
Thank you, Coach. Be a leader. Be a Lion and best of luck this season!