Iron Sharpens Iron...Especially in the Winter

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

The baseball off-season is always a time of year that comes with some concern for us coaches. Yes, we love the down time which allows us to recharge our batteries to once again be energized come spring. Yes, players need time away from the game so that they, too, can get both a physical and mental break that will allow their bodies and minds to make a strong return to the diamond. 

But there is an aspect of our absence off the field that brings us anxiety. It doesn’t come from the time off; it comes from the unknown. 

When professional players disperse every September for all corners of the world, they do so with clear expectations of what they are to work on. As college programs wind their semesters down, the student-athletes that make up their rosters will all go their separate ways for the holidays with an understanding of where they should be athletically when they come back. For an extended period of time of weeks and months, these players will be on their own, relatively removed from the coaches who have invested countless hours into their individual development.  

Come the start of the 2020 baseball season, all coaches will generally have two simple expectations for their players: 1) report to spring training or pre-season practice in good physical shape, and 2) return a better player than when they left. Both of these reasonable asks require players to do a lot on their own.  For many, we know that won’t be an issue at all.  For others, we have absolutely no idea what we’ll be getting upon reuniting as a group. 

The players we don’t have to worry about are the ones who understand and master the power of self. They know that the best type of discipline is self-discipline; they do what they are supposed to do and don’t do what they’re not. They realize the best type of coaching is self-coaching; they don’t need to be under constant watch by someone else to get better. They recognize the best type of motivation is self-motivation; they don’t need a tweet or a video or a quote to push themselves. Additionally, they carry two very distinct character traits on top of their natural athletic ability: 1) they take initiative and don’t have to always be told what to do, and 2) they go above and beyond the status quo and do more than what’s expected of them. In all these ways, they are just different from the rest.

It’s those exact type of players who we don’t worry about who we want to surround those we do. With the extreme limitations that high schools and colleges put on their coaches when it comes to actively coaching their players, members of the team would often organize captain’s practices, where everyone would get their work in without any supervision or direction from the staff. 

But it’s more than just gathering a group together to play catch and take some swings.

When those players who we don’t have to worry about are intentional about the time spent with the ones that concern us, a slow transformation takes place. Little by little, all of that good stuff that we want in all of our players- the initiative, the work ethic, the self-awareness, the discipline- starts to seep into the players we question. And before we know it, our players return to campus and report to spring training not just as better players, but also as better people. Because of the positive influence of a teammate.

Every summer, Peyton Manning would fly his receivers in from wherever they spent their off-seasons not just to run routes and get a feel for how the soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback threw the football, but as much to build a relationship that would be the backbone of a big part of their team’s success. Recently retired infielder Troy Tulowitzki would bring a number of Colorado’s prospects in to live with him at his house during the winter in Arizona not just to workout together but to be an example for what would be the future of the Rockies franchise. 

When your best players are investing in the rest of your players, a positive culture is being built at the core. Every coach has their game plan for a success season before Opening Day, but when you nail culture before strategy, your strategy has that much more of a chance to stick. 

Many view the off-season as a time of year when focus goes entirely to individual development. But it’s as much a team period as any other time of when teammates can push one another beyond their own limits, and truly show one another what means to be a part of a team. While a club’s stars will come out in the spring, its leaders are undoubtedly born in the winter.

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.