Training and Transfer Part I
By Dave Turgeon
ARE YOU GUARDING A CONCRETE SLAB?
I start this blog with one of my favorite stories “ARE YOU GUARDING A CONCRETE SLAB?” by Sandras Phiri. I was forwarded this in an email and it went like this: There was an army barracks that had 4 on duty soldiers at all time to guard a concrete slab in front of the barracks. The soldiers changed shifts guarding the slabs for many years. Different commanders came and went, and the tradition continued. After many years, a new commander was assigned to the barracks. Amongst the things he did was he asked why things were done the way they were. When he asked why soldiers were guarding the slab, he was told, “We’ve always done it this way. It’s our tradition. Our former commanders instructed us to do that.” The commander was adamant on finding out why.
He went to the archives to look for answers and he came across a document that had the explanation. The document was very old. It had instructions written by one of the retired commanders who had even passed away. The new commander learned that over 80 years ago, the barracks wanted to build a platform where events could be performed. When the concrete slab was laid, wild animals walked over it at night before the slab would dry. The soldiers would fix it the next morning but when evening came the same thing would happen. So, the commander ordered that 4 soldiers should guard the concrete slab for 3 weeks to allow it to dry.
The following week the commander was transferred to another post and a new commander was brought in. The new commander found the routine in place and enforced it and every other commander that came did the same. Eighty years later the barracks continued guarding the concrete slab.
This story was impactful to me because one of the things I do as Coordinator of Instruction is look at what we currently do on the field, why we do it, and how we can improve it. Specifically, I am talking about on-field training. On-field training may be the biggest cement slab in the professional baseball industry that is being guarded. In the process of looking at ways to do truth over tradition, I have dug into the science of motor learning (how we acquire skill) and transfer (our ability to let that skill out in games) in order to help players and coaches. This article will hit some basic fundamentals of coaching while diving into some new concepts, but I promise in the end that you will have some new tools with some simple applications on how to improve how we carry our practice into the games effectively to perform.
LOW HANGING FRUIT
There are many simple methods and concepts that are already out there, and you may already be putting them into use, creating great transfer and learning. A great place to start here is AUTONOMY or more simply OWNERSHIP. This idea is not new, as when I started playing baseball 50 years ago, we simply played baseball and learned as we went along. Our swings and deliveries were our own which were shaped by the training and practices which were our own. We figured out what worked and did not work. The coaching we received back then focused on the game’s strategies, the x’s and o’s, and how to beat the other team. As swing and delivery coaches came onto the scene, the pendulum swung in the other direction of techniques of swings and deliveries. With that swing, the player became dependent on a coach for swing or delivery fixes and in-game management went to the coach as well. Turning the game back over to the player starts with collaboration and asking questions to lead them to the answers, opposed to just giving it to them right away. Question asking may be the most effective weapon of learning and ownership we have. As we include the student in the learning, they begin to own it. Once they own their game, the commitment to learning and improvement cannot be higher. Consider how we treat a car rental as opposed to the car we have saved up for and purchased with our own hard work and savings. You are all in on taking care of that car as you worked hard and sacrificed to have it. Same goes for our players. Once we have taught them how to fish, they are now capable of honing their skills as a fisherman. Essentially you want to coach your way out of a job with true ownership.
RESPECT THE REP
The next piece of low hanging fruit brings to mind a story which leads to more easy ways of creating the transfer. This spring, I was coordinating our Extended Spring Training Program and we had a competition day. Kieran Mattison and I had split up the infielders into 2 groups and would come up with one winner from each group to face off in a final competition to declare a defensive champion of the day. We ended up with our 2 guys going head to head in a great final until we had the winner. It was clear what happened in the end. One of the players took a playoff and it cost him. When Kieran and I talked about it he said simply “He didn’t respect that last rep.” Well put! Great focus and intent of our reps lead to transfer and ultimately performing well. Respect the rep became a rallying cry for the remainder of camp and into the Gulf Coast League season where I managed. This begs the question: Can we make players RESPECT THE REP?
The simplest and most straightforward way of making players RESPECT THE REP is to demand it. My favorite example of this comes from Joey Cora, our big league third base coach who is also in charge of infielders. Before any defensive segment, Joey brings the group together and lets them know of the expectation of the session, what it is going to look like, and demands the focus and intent on every rep. The seriousness with which he approaches the group immediately gets their minds right. The work that follows is always quality. Quality work = deeper learning = transfer.
More low hanging fruit is challenging the player in the work. No challenge = no focus which = no learning or transfer. An example of this could be a hitter being prepared to face a tough pitcher with front flips and traditional 50 mph coach pitch in a cage. The work itself does not require game focus as the challenge is simply not enough to bring that out. For the opposite of this example, I will use my hitting coach Kory DeHaan’s game preparation with our hitters. The hitters see a combination of machine high velocity, out of hand velocity (we set the distance to the thrower’s velocity with our conversion software to make it reaction time of 90+ mph) with a 2-pitch mix using a front mat and back mat for more challenge and adjustments. Obviously, Kory’s game preparation will require a game-like focus to the work as well as some decision making in the process. This has turned swing practice into a true “how to hit” practice. We will talk about how to add more layers to this later. The point here is the drill or work itself can provide that auto focus and intent without a coach having to demand it. The training in this case has created an environment of many reps being respected. Challenging training = Respect the Rep = Transfer!
Adding to our fruit basket here is competition. So many times, us as coaches’ default to “they just don’t compete well, but they practice well.” If the first time your players have to perform their job in a competitive environment is in the game, then our training is not adequate. If the training never elicits emotions from a player, our training is not adequate. Take the last example of challenging batting practice and add in a point system for executed reps and have something simple as a Gatorade for the winner. I might bring out a couple of Gatorades on ice and you would think they are playing for the Stanley Cup. Emotions begin to spark and flare up. Doing your skills in the fire of competition is what we do at game time, so it makes sense to blend in competition in the workday. Consider competing, just another muscle to build and the more they are put into that competitive environment the stronger it gets. All things equal, the ability to compete well is a separator at any level. Most importantly, the competition makes them respect every rep with game like intent and focus, which will always equate to more transfer!
Turgeon is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is the Coordinator of Instruction for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turgeon played in the New York Yankees farm system from 1987-1990 under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted out of Davidson College. Before playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in 1998 he spent eight years playing abroad. From 2000-2001 Turgeon began coaching in the Cleveland Indians organization before entering the college ranks where he coached with Boston College, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Virginia Tech.