If you have been following my blogs, you know I have been keeping up with the MLB Playoffs. Since I live near Chicago, it has been Cubs crazy up here as the drought is finally over. Though I am sad about the end of what was a fantastic baseball season and playoffs, there have been so many takeaways from watching that my brain has been on overdrive about what to write about next. Every time I think about what this MLB season has brought, including the ending, I can't help but think about how the players so willfully accepted their roles and adopted a team-first mentality. As I watch and listen to my young students speak about their teams, I realize that not everyone accepts a team-first mentality. This goes beyond the players, to the coaches and parents as well. Here are some ways to know your role as an athlete, how coaches can keep a team-first mentality, and how they can work together to get the best out of our athletes, coaches, and teams.
PARENTS AND PLAYERS: KNOW YOUR ROLE
One of the biggest complaints I hear when students come to my cage is about playing time. Sometimes players cannot understand just why they aren't batting higher in the lineup, playing their secondary position more, or why they were benched in the championship game. Usually my response sounds like this "don't get mad, just get better." Are players sometimes treated unfairly? Absolutely. However, in my experience, most players and their parents have an inflated view of their abilities. I get it. When you spend money on lessons, equipment, travel ball fees, travel expenses, etc. your levels of expectations go up. After all, if you pay all this money, you want to reap a reward for it, right? And as a player, if you spend hours driving to and from practice, condition until you puke, and sacrifice other social opportunities, you think you deserve some playing time for that, right?
Well, the answer is: not exactly. Unfortunately, in softball and in life, hard work doesn't always guarantee results. It sure helps, don't get me wrong, but sometimes you have to actually produce to earn or keep a spot in the lineup. Whenever my athletes talk about playing time, I always ask them how much they are working on their game outside of lessons and team practices. The answer is usually not very much. When the games matter (bracket play, qualifiers, etc.) coaches are going to play the girls that they think give them the best chance to win the game. Sometimes, roles get increased (we move up in the lineup, pitch a complete game instead of splitting with someone, or move from DH to short stop). Sometimes, roles get reduced (go from starter to reliever, move down in the lineup, become a pinch runner for the pitchers and catchers). It is our job as an athlete to know what our role is, and how to best help the team from within the framework of our role.
I will never forget in college, my coach had an open tryout and we ended up taking a player as a walk-on, which we did most years. Coach told her that she didn't need her to do anything other than be the fastest player in Conference USA, because all she would be was a pinch runner. The player nodded her head and accepted her spot on the team, and never complained about her playing time. She spent all of her free time working on her running game. She ended up stealing a ton of bases and scoring a ton of runs. This is an example of someone who knew their role and did what they could to help the team. More recently in the World Series, I look at players like Michael Martinez of the Cleveland Indians, who got a total of 3 at-bats, and was put in Game 7 of the World Series in the 9th inning just in case someone hit it to right field, only because he had an incredible arm. Or Jason Hammel, a reliable pitcher for the Cubs who was left off the World Series roster completely because he didn't pitch well earlier in the playoffs. I bet both of those players were hurt by their limited roles, but they put their egos aside to help their teams however they could.
On the flip side, I look at players like Kyle Schwarber, who had a knee injury and hadn't played since April, who came back and hit in the middle of the Cubs lineup in the WORLD SERIES! He was ready and knew he could help the team, and he rose to the occasion. Talk about an inflated role! I don't know many players that could have handled that pressure, and at 23 years old, but he did a wonderful job and completely changed the series. Or Corey Kluber, the Indians starter, accustomed to having 5 days rest in between days he pitched. He was asked to start 3 games in 9 days during the World Series. As players, we can learn a lot from these examples and how to handle our increased or decreased roles.
COACHES: HOW TO GET PLAYERS TO ACCEPT THEIR ROLES
Two words: COMMUNICATION and PRACTICE. As an old boss of mine used to tell me, communication solves everything. All too often, players are too surprised by their roles that they never get a chance to embrace them. Before the World Series began, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon pulled aside Jason Heyward, his starting right fielder, and explained to him that he was going to start someone else in the most important games of the season. What a blow to his ego that must have been, but Heyward was a professional. He accepted his role, and ended up playing his way back into the lineup for the final 4 games. In fact, he even spoke to the Cubs during the rain delay in Game 7 and preached a team-first approach to winning that game. Had that conversation not taken place ahead of time, it may not have went so well. Coaches, learn from what Joe Maddon did, and communicate with your players BEFORE their role changes. I would even take it one step further and talk to the parents as well, so that no one is surprised by the move. If you plan to cut a pitcher and someone's innings are about to increase, communicate that with everyone who it will directly involve. This helps avoid team chemistry issues, as well as unhappy players and parents.
You can teach players to accept their roles by incorporating them in practice. If you have an intersquad scrimmage, for example, you can have designated pinch runners, players who play only defense, and players who only hit, if that is the role that will be expected from them later. You can give more reps on game days to the girls in the starting lineup than the girls who will have reduced roles. You can have pitchers pitch on back to back days if you want them to handle pitching in a tournament. If you plan on changing a position of one of your players, don't wait until the game to throw them over there. If we expect our players to buy into the team-first mentality, we have to communicate with them and practice that way.
As I have touched on in a few of my previous blog posts, as coaches we cannot expect our players to do anything if we haven't covered it in practice. Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seahawks, has "Competition Wednesdays" where he turns everything into a competition to help his players have a winning mindset. After all, competition is a skill that must be practiced if we expect it out of our players when the games count. As a member of the Chicago Bandits, we had an entire day of live bunting practice, because we needed to bunt to win. The game is not the time to teach, the game is for playing. We must teach these skills in practice first.
A team-first mentality needs 3 things to work. 1. Communication. 2. Incorporating our roles at practice. And 3. Parents and players putting the ego aside. If we have these three things, teams will flourish. After all, the final two teams playing in the World Series were the best TEAMS in baseball. They accepted their roles, both big and small, to help their respective teams win.