Making It Safe...Even When They Are Out

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

A few years ago, during Spring Training, Brian Butterfield, then a part of our Big League staff with the Red Sox, led a discussion amongst Minor League coaches about the nuances of coaching third, a role he has had at the Major League level for more than 20 years. He detailed everything from how he gave signs to where he positioned himself on the field to what he looked for when deciding whether to send a runner home.

He also discussed the importance of body language.

Using the example of a baserunner who got thrown out by a mile because of a poor decision to go or a missed sign, Butterfield said that he always made it a point to help the player up off the ground and give them an encouraging pat on the butt, regardless of how bad the play. He said plainly that giving that simple pat on the backside might just be the most important thing he does in a game. It tells everybody in the ballpark- including sometimes 50,000 fans booing them off the field- that he had his player’s back, even though they were out. His support for his players essentially made it safe to mess up. That left a lasting impression on me.

Spend enough time coaching in baseball, and you will see some incredible things happen on the field- many that you can’t believe just happened and many that you CAN’T believe just happened. One euphoric, the other, maddening. In those instances that make your blood boil, it is easy to react without thinking. It is easy to give a death stare to someone across the diamond who just missed the hit-and-run sign. It is natural to throw your hands up in the air and yell without even thinking when your defense makes a dumb mistake. It is completely normal to get mad when things don’t go as planned. But when players see those reactions, inherently they can become scared to make a mistake. And when players play scared, the end result is usually not a good one.

While managing in A-ball, the first full season of professional baseball for many on our roster, we had an infielder who had a bad habit of constantly playing back on ground balls. He could get away with it while playing second base, but with the longer throw across the diamond at third, he would routinely play what should have ground ball outs into infield hits. Coming in on the ball was a challenge for him. He was that player who played scared, afraid to make an error by doing something he wasn’t used to doing. We worked on it all the time during his pre-game defensive routine, but the old habits crept back in when the lights came on.

Then, it happened. On a ground ball that he would typically back up on, he finally came in aggressively to field the ball. The ball clanked off of his glove for an error. I have never gotten more excited about an error in my life. When the inning ended, he came back to the dugout dejected after mishandling the play, and I think I gave him a hug, so pumped that he went after it the right way. He looked at me like I had three heads. The end result wasn’t what we wanted, but it was a distinct moment of progress. And from my reaction to his making an error, it was almost as if he had permission to screw up. He wasn’t scared to make a mistake by trying something new. So, he kept trying until he figured it out.

One of the many unique aspects of professional baseball is witnessing each player’s journey as they progress over time. We get them at various points of their development, each guy at their own individual stage. Some may already have polished skills and great habits from day one and simply need to keep doing what they are doing, while others might ooze potential with their raw athletic ability but make a lot of mistakes and need to turn that talent into a useable skill that works on the field. But regardless of where a player may start, we want them all to have the attitude they will never finish, constantly pushing the envelope to get better. More times than not, that improvement comes from failure. So as a coach, when you find ways to encourage and embrace failure, especially in practice, you are breeding the exact kind of growth you want in your team where success will eventually follow. It’s not accepting failure; it’s creating an environment where it is okay to fail; it is making it safe for your players…even when they are out.

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.