Category: baseball

Do Not Mistake Talking for Communicating

Giving the benefit of the doubt, most coaches can talk about their sport at great length….technique, tactics and war stories. Coaches often talk to each other, and one of the common refrains is some variation of “we talked about…all week, pre-game or at the half”, and stunningly the team or players did something entirely different. At times, the opponent may be so superior that whatever was talked about was literally swept away by a tsunami of talent. At others, talking was mistaken for communication.

I was recently asked if a coach I am familiar with “knows what he’s doing”. The question gave me pause. He is a good man, and knows a significant amount of basketball in terms of plays, defenses and drills, but his body of work in terms of winning percentage, player development and general morale is hard to defend. There is a disconnect between his knowledge of basketball and what he has actually taught the players he is coaching. I have no doubt that he has talked about all the things that a good basketball team should do, but he has not found the means to effectively communicate this information to his team.

Effective coaching is rooted in effective communication. Things will be bad at times and messages lost in translation, but in those moments, and particularly in those moments, the coach must be relentless and creative in communicating with his team. Repeating the same talking points in the same way must be challenged. Can the talking points be delivered in a more effective manner? Video, motivational, demonstrative? There are and can be no boundaries in this regard.

I believe this urgency is placed in better context if you consider that every team has a life cycle that lasts one season, maybe less with injuries or departure by other means, and the coach’s purpose is to configure and motivate that team in a manner that gives them the best chance to compete game in and game out. There is no set script and you cannot coach by numbers because every team is it’s own entity, and every team demands your best.

Florida State, Steve Smith and Derek Jeter

FLORIDA STATE

I took a week off in protest of the Jameis Winston suspension as it was clear my view of events is far afield of what passes for normal these days. With a week’s reflection, here is what I got. Winston is a polarizing figure. Based on his body of work, he is generally immature and naïve off the field, and exceptionally mature on the field. His competency at quarterback seems at odds with his off field persona, and quarterbacks especially those that have been awarded the Heisman Trophy and/or otherwise pass as the Face of the Program/Franchise, carry pseudo-presidential responsibilities in terms personal conduct and comportment that Winston, at this point, seems to consciously disregard. Interviews ranging from clichéd to countrified incoherence, serial episodes of petit theft, inaccuracy with a paintball gun and public directions on the art of intercourse might be dismissed with little to no public outrage if Ray Rice hadn’t dropped his fiancé with the efficiency of a primed Joe Frazier on camera in an elevator, and Winston’s hadn’t become involved in a sexual assault incident. The Rice video ushered in an era of hyper-sensitivity to all matters of violence and sex, and Winston’s sexual assault incident defined him for a vast swath of the holier-than-thou populace, regardless of whether the incident warranted charges let alone a conviction.
To that swath, he did something he shouldn’t have, something that wasn’t right, and nothing he will do now or in the future will ever change that belief while every transgression, no matter how trivial, will incredibly affirm their belief of bad character, while every positive, no matter how magnanimous, will be trivialized.

On the field with Winston back in the fold, Florida State escaped NC State 56-41 in a bizarre game. The Wolfpack, led by Florida-transfer, Jacoby Brissett sprinted to a 24-7 lead behind some great offense and a couple of Seminole turnovers. Florida State showed great resolve in pulling back two scores before the half to trail by only three at 24-21. The teams traded punches in a wild third quarter that saw NC State lead 38-28 before succumbing to a three touchdown onslaught from which they never recovered.

The positives. Winston, despite three turnovers, makes an enormous difference which was evident early on when FSU stayed aggressive and threw for a touchdown on third and 20. Without Winston, that’s a draw or screen pass to salvage three points. The running game showed signs of life producing a 100 yard game for Karlos Williams. The offense was excellent on third down and in the red zone. The defense generated three turnovers and came up big when it needed to.

The negatives. Four turnovers from your two best offensive players. Crappy tackling and blown coverages all over the field for much of the game, and only sporadic control of the line of scrimmage on the defensive end.

The conclusion. Florida State is not playing championship caliber football. They are wildly inconsistent from possession to possession on both sides of the ball and special teams have been solidly unspectacular. The mantra of finding ways to win is a valuable commodity that the Noles are trading heavily on right now, but they must avoid deluding themselves into thinking that is enough. Substantive progress must be made throughout the team for this season to be remembered for anything more than its controversies.

STEVE SMITH

After 13 years of exemplary service, the Carolina Panthers cut him. Smith signed with the Ravens a few days later, and vowed that playing his old team would result in “blood and guts everywhere”. Yesterday, Smith torched the Panthers for two touchdowns and 139 receiving yards.

Steve Smith is undersized and was never a blue chip recruit or a first round draft pick. He has a temper. He has been thrown out of practices, fought teammates in meetings and been suspended. He speaks the truth and can be a pain in the ass. He has no shortage of faults, but he is important because his self belief and competitive hunger never wavered through a 14 year career that should land him in the Hall of Fame.

DEREK JETER

There are events every day that wreak of injustice, cruelty or just plain bullshit, and make us ask “why?” If we endure enough of these events, enough of these days, we get to watch Derek Jeter hit a walk-off single in his final at bat in Yankee Stadium, and while it will never erase injustice, cruelty or bullshit, it makes us smile, laugh spontaneously, maybe even tear up in a dusty living room, and be glad for just a moment that we were alive to see it.

Dan Abrahams Mental Toughness Workshop June 5, 2013 in Orlando

Dan Abrahams is a sports psychologist and author, who will be doing a one day workshop in Orlando June 5, 2013.  Dan works as a consultant with Queens Park Rangers in the EPL, and has among his clients a number of professional football players throughout the UK and Europe.  Last year, he wrote his first book “Soccer Tough” which explained what he does as a sports psychologist and how he uses his knowledge to help athletes and coaches with techniques, or “tekkers” to train the brain to perform optimally.  Dan can also be followed on twitter @danabrahams77, where you can find insightful, practical “tekker” tweets.

I have followed Dan on twitter for a few years now, and through that connection developed a correspondence and relationship that has brought about this workshop.  I have come to believe thoroughly in the work of Dan Abrahams and it’s applicability to all sports, athletes and coaches alike.

As athletes move up the pyramid of competition, the difference in technique and physical talent gets smaller, and mental toughness becomes the margin between making it to the college or professional ranks, and tapping out.  Too often, mental toughness is presumed to be something that athletes are born with, and not something that can be improved upon.  Dan Abrahams gives you an understanding of how your brain works, and practical techniques to influence your brain to productive, positive thinking. 

In my experience, coaches remain largely naive as to training the minds of their athletes.  Coaches become fixated on physical development, technical training and tactics, but coaching at it’s best is about relationships, building trust and believe in those you work with.  Dan Abrahams will give you the knowledge and tools to recognize brain work behind what behaviors your players are displaying to you, and techniques to reach them and bring about substantive improvement.

Opportunity is knocking.  Answer by signing up through this link today.

http://www.danabrahams.com/blog/mental-toughness-workshop-orlando-2013-06.php

 

Thoughts on Lance and Performance Enhancing Drugs

This post has been festering in my head since the fall of 1988 in the aftermath of Ben Johnson being stripped of his Gold Medal and 100 meter World Record.  Johnson was immediately a villian beyond redemption, but the race was electrifying.  I saw it.  It happened and no executive action could take that away. 

I felt the same way following the Congressional hearings on baseball’s steroid era.  I enjoyed Big Mac and Sammy Sosa’s home run race in 1998, the lethal home run hitting Barry Bonds and the extended run of Roger Clemens.  None of these men were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame despite being the dominate players of the era because all three were connected to performance enhancing drugs.

This week Lance Armstrong ended years of speculation and investigation by admitting his use of PED’s.  In each instance the response is the same there is indignation and outrage, sponsors drop the villian, achievements are vacated or stripped and it happens again.

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” – Nascar proverb

The primary complaint against the use of PED’s is cheating, specifically that it creates an unfair competitive advantage.  This is contextual.  Seven of the eight finalists in the 1988 100 meter final tested positive at some point in there career including Carl Lewis during the US trials BEFORE the 1988 games.  To the extent they revealed anything, the Congressional hearings on baseball established that PED usage was rampant throughout the league among hitters and pitchers.  As for Armstrong, over half of the Tour De France top ten finishes during his reign have been tainted by a positive test or admission. 

PED’s are generated by medical science.  The same science that we entrust to cure cancer, heart disease and other ailments.  Periodically advancements are made that increase human performance in sports.  This is not sinister.  It’s progress in the same way that weight training, nutrition and improved surgical practices have contributed to improved athletic performance and longevity. 

PED’s do not directly result in increased athletic performance.   They facilitate with rapid recovery and energy stimulation the training necessary to increase the performance.  In the instance of aging athletes like Clemens and Bonds, PED’s enabled them to train longer amd harder diminishing the effects of age.  In that sense, it represents a higher degree of commitment to performance than many athletes are willing to put forth.  Contrast your sentiments of Clemens and Bonds in that light against your feelings for a talented athlete, who routinely appears unfit or smokes marijuana.

The second biggest argument against PED’s is the long term consequences of their use is unknown.  What is known, however, is that competing at the highest level of sport is not good for anyone’s long term health.  Being an elite athlete already comes with a price sometimes as steep as death or severe mental illness and more commonly accelerated degeneration of the spine and joints.  These are consequences that each athlete accepts as they progress up the pyramid in their field, and frequently the reason many athlete’s don’t reach the highest level.

PED’s are a part of sport and should, if not accepted, be viewed in context rather than the constricting narrative of cheating and villian-making.  To do otherwise is a hypocritical betrayal of who we are and what we truly believe of competition.

The Captain

Since 1996, he has played short stop for the most glorious professional sports team in the United States. He has won World Series titles, dated super models, and played through the steroids era as yet unscathed. He has never been considered the best player in the league at his position, and even his talent as considerable as it is, is not the sort to drop jaws in awe.

It was famously and correctly opined by a scout while he was still in high school that he would be the cornerstone of a World Series Championship team. I suppose even then to the trained eye the signs were there. The poised delivery of himself to the cause of winning on a daily basis. The diversity of talent, and ability to sense and rise to the moment when it appeared.

He is the author of my favorite baseball play ever, the shuffled cut off play against the A’s in a play-off game, and though I haven’t watched a baseball game in several years, I still check the box score to see what he did. I won’t check tomorrow, the day after or for the rest of the play-offs because Derek Jeter, Yankee Captain, fractured his ankle last night making a play in extra innings, and won’t be playing.

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The Distinctive Quality of Genius

“Talent hits the target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer was a nineteenth century German philospher, and his wikipedia page is bereft of any sporting accomplishments, but this quote resonates deeply with what distinguishes transcedent athletic performance.  Over the last several months, I have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers wherein he addresses the 10,000 hour theory as a pre-requisite for obtaining expertise in a given field.  I have read a well reasoned counter piece that notes the study behind the 10,000 hour theory lacked standard deviations, suggesting some innately gifted individuals can develop of level fo expertise in less that 10,000 hours.  Even in the best of circumstances, the development of talent is a process of deep practice over a substantial period of time, and not a divine gift from God. 

This explains the first part of Schopenhauer’s quote. Talent developed over time enables one to compete at a world class level.  The second part of the quote addresses what distinquishes performers at the world class level.  It is the target no one else sees, it is the gift of vision.  This gift can be literal.  Ted Williams, perhaps as he liked to refer to himself “the greatest hitter to ever live”, had 20/15 vision and could reportedly see the laces on a pitched baseball.  It can be in the fluid spatial relationships of soccer, hockey and basketball that explain the sublime passing of Xavi, Gretzky or Bird.

Pete Carril is the yoda of basketball.  Their is a clarity to his vision of the game that reaches life in general.  The first thing he looks for in a player is “can he pass?”  A passer who can see the open man is the same guy who sees where and when to screen, avoid picks, help on defense — in other words, he can see.  Vision, most readily apparent in passing the ball, but transferrable to every other aspect of the game, is what distinquishes players.

The pick and roll is likely the most effective action in basketball.  The basic premise is that the ball handler dribbles at the pick and after initiating contact the picker rolls to the basket.  Hours of clinics have been dedicated to  the various options out of this play and the techniques in defending it.  To watch Steve Nash or Chris Paul run a pick and roll is to behold visionary genius.  They do not simply “run” a pick and roll.  They “see” the pick and roll.  Both are adept at playing with their head up and at a tempo that enables them to identify the defensive technique employed against them, manipulate the pace and angle of the pick and roll to deprive the defense of the initiative, and see the options of the play as they evolve.

Dutchmaster Johan Cruyff, a visionary of the first order as a player and coach, is similar though far more cryptic than Carril in soccer.  He is noted for saying, “if you are running on the field, it is because you were out of position,” and most pertinent to this post, “the first yard is in the mind”.  Several years ago, I was at the Meadowlands to see a professional soccer exhibition.  A mediocre US Men’s National Team mustered a draw against a forgetable opponent.  What I haven’t forgetten was the second game that day featuring Italian club Parma, specifically Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov.  Stoichkov by that time had already starred for Barcelona’s dream team under Dutchmaster Johan Cruyff, and led Bulgaria to a thrilling run in the World Cup of 1994.  Stoichkov put on an incredible display of what Cruyff preached.  On each touch of the ball, it was strikingly obvious that Stoichkov already concieved what he would do, shoot, pass, or dribble before the ball arrived, but not in a rigid, pre-determined manner, but rather in the moment based on all he surveyed.  His play was composed, almost relaxed, but through his vision he dictated the pace of the game. 

Vision is genius even the confluence of man and machine.  I recently wrote about a three lap Moto GP duel between Lorenzo and Rossi, which was decided by Rossi’s vision.  As with most racing circuits, certain areas are particularly suited to passing.  Rossi won the race because he had the vision to see a pass in a segment of the track where passing was unlikely, hell no one had passed there all race.  Similarly, I watched James Stewart at the Daytona Supercross two years ago.  Just after the start-finish line, there was a two-tiered jump.  Throughout the heat races every rider in the field would hit the bottom segment of the jump and then bounce the back tire off the top segment to clear it……until the final lap of his heat race when Stewart accelerated into the lower segment and cleared the entire jump in one leap.  Through the final he remained the only rider to attack the jump that way and gained significant competitive advantage though a spectacular fall on another segment of the track prevented him from winning. 

 

The Yankee Closer

I cannot tell you the last time I watched so much as an inning of a baseball game, regular season, play-offs or World Series. I can tell you that the last time it really mattered to me was in the fall of 2001, after the towers fell as I watched the Yankee dynasty do the same less than two months later in game seven against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

My first professional sporting event (not including motorcycle races) was a Yankee game at the Stadium. Grandpa Robinson took me. The grass was the greenest I had ever seen. We sat in nosebleed seats in the upper deck on the third base side. The Yankees won 8-3 and Lou Pinella had a big day. I have never forgotten the scenes and senses of that day. The walk to the legendary park. The smell of the concession stand. The green grass. The cheer of the crowd. The Yankee players.

In the fall of 1992, I was in Tallahassee when I was rousted out of a half sleep in my apartment by thunderous cheer. The kind reserved in that place and during that time for Seminole football. Franky Cabrera had just sent a hobbling Sid Bream home to send the Braves to the World Series. A psuedo-dynasty was born. The Braves behind the masterful moundwork of Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux were baseball’s glamour team.

In 1996, the Braves took a 2-0 World Series lead to Atlanta. Over the next four games, the Yankee dynasty was born. Long at bats, clutch hitting, selfless professionalism, Mariano Rivera pitching the 8th and John Wetteland pitching the 9th was the formula. The Braves and John Wetteland went quietly into the night.

The rest of the formula remained until game 7 against the Diamondbacks five years later. During that run, the Yankees had something no one else did….Mariano Rivera.

Rivera was the Yankee Closer. Every meaningful game during that five year span, had the same unassailable premise. Be even or up with six or fewer outs to play, watch the outfield fence open as the long, lean and deceptive powerful legs would jog to the mound carrying the stoic face covered by the low slung hat and the magical right arm. It was palpable in both dug-outs, the entire stadium and anywhere the game was broadcast….game over.