A Coach's Choice: To Critique...Or to Coach

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Growing up down the Jersey Shore and still calling the Garden State home comes with some incredible benefits. Our people are as passionate as they come.  Our nature is no-filter, Instagram worthy. Our Italian delis are to die for; our bagels, unmatched. And don’t even get me started on our pizza. But one of the greatest parts about living in such close proximity to New York City actually has nothing to do with food: our sports talk radio is second to none. 

Whether it be heading into work and listening to Boomer Esiason, sitting in traffic on the way home listening to one of the two Mikes (Francessa or Kay) screaming out of your speakers, or any of the countless on-air personalities in between, it is clear that the Tri-State area is home to more Monday Morning Quarterbacks per capita than anywhere else in the world.  Who knew there were so many out of work NFL offensive coordinators and Major League managers in one region of the country?

But for as entertained as I am when hearing these self-proclaimed experts dissect every move by every coach and every player in every sport, there is a very related element of coaching that takes on a similar sound. 

Our ability to coach begins with our ability to evaluate. But evaluating without coaching is simply critiquing. And we’ve all done it. We are coaches, not critics. 

I watch far more baseball than I’d like to admit… it’s a problem. 

If Spring Training is my personal equivalent to the ball dropping in Times Square, then the MLB Postseason is my Christmas. There is no better baseball than October baseball. For the entire month, I am routinely glued to my couch, watching every game possible with the eyes of both fan and coach. And if the Red Sox happen to be playing, you can add screaming at my television to the norm in the Fenster house. I would be lying if there weren’t times where I’ve said either aloud or to myself, “what the heck is he THINKING?!”

Even with watching as often as I do, I am still amazed how entire seasons and championship runs can be made- or broken- with a single pitch. But by seeing year after year the power of one play , I have learned as a coach that there isn’t anything that should ever be taken for granted on the field and work hard to emphasize the minute, intellectual details of the game as much as I coach the game’s fundamental skills in the players that I work with. Still to this day, the game continues to teach me.

A title may be won in part because an outfielder throws the ball to the correct base to keep a double play in order.  The winning run may score because of the anticipation of a below average runner who goes from first to third.  A rally may be thwarted because of a heady pitch sequence that records a key strikeout. These thinking plays, when done over and over, become winning plays. 

Without question, players who truly know the game and constantly think the game are players who will help win games. But over the past few years I’ve noticed a very disappointing trend: those players are few and far between.  And you know what I did when I first noticed it? I became a critic.

“He doesn’t think.”

“No game sense whatsoever.”

“Reckless player.”

With every one of my comments lacked any actionable solution. For a short time, in addition to those many moments on my couch, I had become that perfect caller for sports radio with all the answers. I had become great at pointing out everything that they DIDN’T do well. That approach to coaching can become toxic really quickly.

Today’s generation is as talented a collective group of baseball players as the sport has ever seen. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Hitters understand their swings more at 18 than I did at 28. Our industry’s focus on training has taken our players’ talent to levels we have never seen before, and they only continue to get better. 

But for as good as they are, they still need us.  They need to be coached, not critiqued.

In these moments when I initially saw the direction the game was going in, I had a choice. I could let the frustration get the best of me and criticize all that these players weren’t doing (like we all have done at some point) or I could do my job, and coach them to help them get better.  

To the hitter who didn’t think in the box, the solution was to teach the value of an approach and how that approach could be developed simply by watching the game from the dugout.  For the outfielder who had no idea where to throw the ball relative to the situation of the game, the solution was to help them understand in simple terms which runner is the most important and why.  And for the baserunner who essentially liked to run until somebody tagged him out, the solution was to show the risk versus reward in decision-making on the bases.

When you focus on the problem, the problem endures.  When you focus on the solution, the problem goes away.

Even for coaches at the highest level of the game, no players are perfect; they all make mistakes.  And for anyone with a competitive bone in their body, those mistakes can often bring upon a physical reaction that angers and irritates us.  Problems don’t go away when we complain about them; they dissipate when we intentionally work to fix them with a solution. We get to choose exactly what course of action to take. Choose to live up to your title. Choose to coach.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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.