Trust, Evaluations, and Honesty

photo via  NBC Sports

photo via NBC Sports

Spending my life around teams, it's not uncommon to hear players discuss not knowing their standing in a team, or what the coaches really think of them. Whether due to lack of communication or just plain differing viewpoints these can be situations frustrating for all included. In reading about how different coaching staffs and sports organizations operate, I’ve found player evaluation and feedback to be a topic that is constantly discussed and refined in order to make things clearer for the player and the club. Personally being a young coach I find one of the most challenging parts in dealing with players is giving them honest feedback and a clear evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses. It can be an awkward or hard conversation but ultimately I feel as though players really value being told the truth. From my own personal experience as a player, this was never easy for me. Like most people, I could have a biased view of my abilities. In hindsight, I appreciate it more when I was told the truth and when we remove our ego we usually improve and see things for what they really are.

There are many approaches to how coaches deal with giving players feedback. One that really resonated with me was how Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs operate. In truth, Epstein credits Mark Shapiro, the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians as the originator of this process but utilized the system with the Red Sox and now the Cubs. Epstein implemented what they called ‘Individual Player Development Plans’. These are in-depth reports that were shared with each player at his meeting on either an annual basis (for Major League players) or three times a year (for Minor League players). These plans are created by the staff but ultimately discussed and agreed upon with the player himself. Not only did they find this to be the most useful way to share with players what the club viewed as their strengths and weaknesses, it also allowed them to create better personal relationships with players. According to Epstein in the Tom Verducci book, The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse  

The review covers the player’s physical, fundamental, and mental strengths and weaknesses. The information is logged on a review sheet that the player must sign. The player keeps one copy and the team keeps another.

Epstein also notes that he “wanted a culture where players could trust the front office” and he felt that by doing these development reports it gave them “the opportunity to create open and honest personal connections”. 

In addition to providing these plans to their players, the Cubs also have real two-way meetings to discuss where improvements have been made and/or still can be improved upon. Epstein describes how meetings tended to change over time,

‘Here’s what we see. Here’s what you need to work on to become a big leaguer. Here’s a plan to work on it.’ Then a player gets to give their feedback and give their input. They get to argue, ‘No, that’s actually not a weakness. I do that fine. Here are things I want to work on.’ “And you see this transition. Their first year they’re just listening. They sign the page. But by the time they reach Double-A, the guys who are starting to reach their ceilings, they’re starting to take responsibility and accountability for their own development. “The kids who really start to take responsibility start to run the meeting. ‘Okay, here’s what I need to work on. Here’s where I’m at.’ That’s the key to player development—when you stop developing them and they start to develop themselves. They start to trust you that you’re in it for their best interests because you’re being transparent. You’re not hiding the ball. It’s really different from the way it used to be.

My biggest takeaway is that they deem the key to player development being when players start to take responsibility and detail what they need to work on and they start to develop themselves. Coaches tend to talk about how they want players to take responsibility for themselves. Ultimately we must look and see whether or not we are giving them the chances to do so. I think that by implementing plans similar to the Cubs and other MLB organizations we may be able to trend in a direction where players take the initiative.

Coaching in college and at the younger ages primarily, I understand that many kids don’t have the understanding of how to create a plan for their improvement in a specific area yet. However, I would say that we may be surprised that by allowing kids to think more critically about how to do these things we may see even more benefits long-term. It’s always our job to shepherd this in the right direction but giving young athletes more ownership in their development and in doing so it may help them see more improvement over time.