A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast hosted by Luke Gromer, a youth basketball coach from Arkansas. In this particular episode, he was discussing how he teaches his team of 11-year-olds the importance of taking good shots in the game. Using a scale of three (for a poor shot that was well-defended or out of range) to nine (wide open or high-percentage shot), players scored points based on the quality of shot, regardless of whether or not it actually went into the basket. Coach Gromer was coaching his kids’ decisions, rather than their results.
This approach really resonated with me because when it came to coaching baserunning specifically, coaches are often blinded by a runner being out or safe instead of determining whether or not the decision to go for the extra base was a good one. If a guy was safe, it was a good decision; out, then it’s a bad one. That is most definitely not always the case.
For instance, if it takes a perfect throw from the outfielder to get our runner out, that result will generally be on our side because throwing with that kind of arm strength and accuracy isn’t a common skill. That’s a good decision to go. If we are down by four in the 9th inning when a runner tries to steal second and the throw beats him by a mile but is high or off-line, even though he got the stolen base, that’s not a good decision within the situation of the game and will likely come back to bite us if it happens again.
As our organization’s Minor League Baserunning Coordinator, I often found myself talking to our coaches about coaching the baserunning decision and not the umpire’s call. In a results-oriented game, that’s a really hard thing to do…especially when an out on the bases is a costly one that ends a rally or gives the opponent some momentum. As coaches, our emotion regularly kicks in whenever that happens. I know it did for me. But that’s when we have to take a step back and look at the play beyond just the outcome.
We often hear baseball as being a game of failure. When you really look under the hood, we should see it as a game of decisions. Every single part of the game has some element of a decision to be made. Every pitch. Every play. Decision after decision after decision.
Think about hitting. Are our hitters swinging at the right pitches? Their swing decisions— not just ball or strike, but hot or cold spots within the zone—will directly correlate with their ability to hit the ball hard. A rocket lineout is a really good swing decision even when the result wasn’t there. When it comes to pitching, every single pitch is a decision between the pitcher and catcher (and at many amateur levels, the coach, too) as to what pitch to throw the hitter. A bloop single on a bad swing against a perfectly executed pitch does not make it a bad decision to throw that pitch because bad swings on good pitches usually lean heavily in favor of the pitcher.
On defense, infielders have to make decisions on exactly how to go get a ball to create an easy hop. Outfielders must decide what base to throw the ball to on base hits to either try to throw a runner out or keep the double play in order. Those types of decisions are everywhere, all game long.
When our players’ decisions are consistently good, that positive outcome we all want tends to follow suit and takes care of itself. So let’s learn how to coach decisions, not results.