Knowing What You Don’t Know

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Every coach has a story – a story detailing the how’s, when’s, and why’s we got into the profession of developing better players, and more importantly, better people. While many seem to take on a similar path, no two coaching journeys are the same.

My personal story began when another ended.

On March 23, 2005, I was playing third base for the Kansas City Royals in a Major League Spring Training game against the Seattle Mariners in Peoria, Arizona. In the ninth inning of a one-run game with the tying run on third, we were playing the infield in to cut the runner down at home. The batter hit a high chopper in my direction as I left the ground, leaping in an effort to make a highlight reel play at the plate. When I returned back to the ground a split second later, my career was over.

My right leg went one way and my knee, the other. It felt like someone had taken a shotgun to the back of my knee and immediately I knew it was bad. My hope was that it was just a sprain that would knock me out a few weeks, months at the most. When the doctor came in to deliver the news that I had torn my ACL, fractured my tibial plateau, and suffered significant cartilage damage, I knew my season was over before it even began.

Some ten months after surgery, I reported back to Arizona for Spring Training, ready to resume my career that had what I viewed as just a little bump in the road. While medically cleared, I returned to the field a few steps slower and struggled to regain the form that put me on the cusp of the Big Leagues. Having been with the Major League club just a year prior, I had assumed the Royals would keep me in extended Spring Training to get my strength and speed back to the levels they were previous to getting hurt. Well, on the second to last day of camp in 2006, I was given my release.

Becoming a Major League Baseball player had been my singular focus for as long as I could remember, and just like that, the dream was over. On that day I got hurt, not for a second did I think that I would never play again. But here I was, 27 years old, unemployed, with absolutely no plan B for life.

Once I was back home in New Jersey with no clue what I was going to do with the rest of my life, Fred Hill, then the head coach at Rutgers University, who had grown into a second father of sorts during my four years playing for him, asked me a simple question: “Do you have any interest in coaching?”. I didn’t have any interest in anything. Life planning clearly was not my strong suit at 27. Coach Hill saw something in me that I didn’t know existed at the time and was confident that I could make a good coach if I put my mind and heart into the game in the same way I did as a player. Since I had nothing else going on, I figured I would try it out, and in the spring of 2006, I joined the staff at Rutgers as Director of Baseball Operations, a position created specifically for me. Talk about catching a break…

Having spent my off-seasons working out at RU, I had known many of the players that I was now coaching, and it was that collective group of Scarlet Knights who enabled me to take to the profession far quicker than I could have ever imagined. That group of 30-some players, and obviously Coach Hill as well, gave me a second life in the game, a purpose and direction to a life that abruptly had none. And in my mind, having just gotten out of a level of the game where all of our players aspired to reach, I was going to teach them everything I knew now that I wish I knew back then.

I had ALL the answers…or so I thought.

Pretty quickly, I became that which today, I despise. I was the one-way, know-it-all coach. Outspoken at times, disrespectful at others, I entered the coaching profession with an attitude that I was smarter than a future American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall-of-Famer; more knowledgeable than the other guys on our staff who had forgotten more about the game than I had ever known; better than people who were DIRECTLY responsible for so much of my success as a player.

Luckily, I was working for a guy in Coach Hill who sincerely cared about my personal growth and continued to expose me to things that would make me realize that I didn’t, in fact, know it all. At a time when I felt like I had all the answers, attending my first ABCA convention in 2007 opened my eyes in a way they had never seen before. Hearing so many speakers detail every part of the game in ways that were so foreign to me made me realize that there were, in fact, other ways than mine to be successful. Additionally, being afforded a couple of coaching opportunities in different collegiate summer leagues got me out of my normal comfort zone at Rutgers, and enabled me to be around other coaches who had other beliefs in the game.

The more I became exposed to different parts of the game from different people in the game, the more I began to know how much I didn’t know. And it was THOSE experiences, not my “expertise” as a player, that would allow me to build the foundation for the growth mindset that I current carry with three simple words:

I. Don’t. Know.

They are three incredibly simple words for all coaches and players to embrace, but three very simple words that countless coaches and players are afraid to say. Learning and development begin when we are open to learn and develop; and when we can truly know what we don’t, then we have taken the first step to getting better. Saying “I don’t know” doesn’t make anyone less of a coach or less of a player. Rather, it opens us up to a conversation that might just make one another a little bit better…which is EXACTLY what we as coaches are supposed to be doing.

Darren Fenster 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.