Chicago Cubs

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.

The Relentless Execution of Fundamentals

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The basics. An often talked about but an undertrained foundation for almost anything we choose to do in life. It's easy to just say people were born with talent. Maybe some were fortunate enough to hit the genetic lottery which allowed them to attain specific attributes. But to say individuals were born with the talent to compete in their given sport or discipline is naive. It's nothing new to read about or hear athletes talk about the hours they put in to master their game.

Friedrich Nietzsche once stated, 

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”. 

It's a profound proclamation and really makes you think. But what stands out within this is a statement to me more than anything is this quote, 

they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole

To me, this should be in every locker room of every team, in every sport. Think about it, ‘the seriousness of the efficient workman'. ‘Construct the parts properly first'. It really resonated with me. It's a simple reminder that in order to become "complete" we must first make sure each part of our foundation is set and that we do so with the attitude of a skilled worker.

Nietzsche also essentially eludes to the fact that mastery is not reached by people born masters but rather those who put in the time to create a base and build upon it as they go through their career. There are many articles, interviews, and books I've read where a common thread is this idea of approaching work like a craftsman in order to gain mastery at a given task. I believe this applies to both coaching and playing sports and really must begin with mastering the fundamentals.

Joe Maddon, manager of the Chicago Cubs, tells a story of having lunch with an Arizona Cardinals assistant coach named Tom Moore, in which the following anecdote was told to him. 

Moore told Maddon something at their lunch that stuck with him: “In football, you break the other team’s will through the relentless execution of fundamentals.” Said Maddon, “I love that. I friggin’ love that. ‘The relentless execution of fundamentals.’ 

It's hard to find a better way to describe the value of the fundamentals. They are at the core of everything we do as either a coach on the sidelines or a player on the field. It's also hard to argue that this isn't true for not only sport but most things in our lives. So often players of the current youth generation possess unlimited access to seeing the top-level of their given sport being played, that they miss understanding the work that laid the foundation to allow those players to perform that way. It's such an easy talking point and hard to believe in many respects, but It's almost as though they believe these athletes were born with this ability. What may look automatic for some elite athletes is really nothing more than their mastering of the fundamentals over a long period of time.

Take for example the Basketball Hall of Fame member Bill Bradley. Bradley grew up in the small town on the Mississippi River where he became a highly touted recruit who received interest from upwards of seventy schools. His ability was special and many say it is underrated in the history of basketball. Nonetheless, much of Bradley's game was centered around methodically repeating the basics of the game. He is quoted in John McPhee's book A Sense of Where You Are, describing his ability to easily score from his hook shot in the paint,

When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.

I would say that developing a “sense of where you are” on the basketball court, soccer field, or wherever, is the end product of repeating a basic movement over and over again. To reiterate how much work Bradley put into these fundamentals, McPhee describes his routine while a student-athlete at Princeton,

When Bradley, working out alone, practices his set shots, hook shots, and jump shots, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location.

 

Unfortunately, I think it's become a rare feat to see young athletes working so hard to perfect specific movements for their sport. Let alone not permitting themselves to move on to the next movement until the current one is completed a prescribed number of times.

In my estimation the message is simple. In order to be truly great one must first build a foundation of what many would call rudimentary skills. They must also be able to perform these skills without really thinking about them. But it should be made mention that this learning process is not only the responsibility of the players alone but that of the coach as well. Pep Guardiola explains this well in Pep Guardiola: The Evolution when discussing player development,

It’s important to point out that this is an ongoing process whose ultimate objective is the pupil developing complete mastery of the concepts, much like a master craftsman who prepares his student to carry his teachings on independently after a long apprenticeship. In football terms, the aim is for the team to be able to ‘think’ for itself, without relying on instructions from the coach and the learning process therefore has to be long and exhaustive. The end result should be that every player is able to perform at his full potential without having to think about each movement or decision because they become automatic.

Thinking of the coach-player relationship as a craftsman to apprentice is a nice way of reiterating the fact that we as coaches are responsible for passing concepts and knowledge on to our athletes. But it is also a reminder that the process is long and tough but one that we should enjoy. If we reverse engineer what the goal of coaching is at its core, Pep puts it nicely "every player is able to perform at his full potential without having to think about each movement or decision because they become automatic."

I don't write about this to seem as though I have come upon an unknown theory. No this is not new but for some reason, it's still undervalued in the current climate of young athletes. Ultimately what these cases support is the fact that if kids (or anyone) want to be great and get on the path to mastery they MUST master the fundamentals. If they don't take the initiative themselves to become fluent in the basics of the game, as coaches it then becomes our responsibility to reinforce them over time. It shouldn't be something looked down upon either. We should relish the chance to help build the foundation for athletes who could one day become truly special.