A Reflection On My Early Coaching Mistakes, And What Athletes Can Do About Coaches Like Young Me

The first team I ever coached was a JV Baseball team in Vermont, I had just finished playing and I thought I was a great hitting mind. In reality, I had literally no idea what I was doing. On my third or 4th day of coaching, I took the best freshman on the team and told him, “You need to get your weight back, and your foot down early. That’s the way that all good hitters hit.” He tries it for 3 swings and hits the ball weakly every time. He steps out of the box for a second, gathers himself, when he swung at the next pitch he was clearly taking the swing he had before he ever met me. He smashes it. I say, “Awesome! That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” I knew with 100% certainty that he didn’t do what I had said and so did he, but I was so invested in pushing my version of reality that I didn’t stop to look around and see what was happening around me. I spent that whole year preaching weight back, foot down early. I messed up a lot of swings that year. I look back now and am embarrassed by that version of myself, but now realize that me making those mistakes was critical to my overall development. Many athletes have coaches like that prior version of me. It sucks that athletes often need to deal with that, but they need to learn how to thrive in even an imperfect environment. 

Coaches are what bring guidance to the game of baseball and softball, they are a very important part of our sport(s). However, it’s important as a player to take a step back and recognize that your swing or throw does not belong to anyone but you. For the serious athlete, your swing and throw is a long term thing, and you can’t change your swing every time your coach has an idea. This is true for your team coach but also your instructor. At Ignite before we decide to make a change we ask the question.  What is the cost of that change? The cost of the change varies for different athletes. 

It’s a balancing act, which is why if possible, we select non-invasive interventions when we can. A non-invasive intervention is one where if you were to use a little photoshop or video editing magic it would look just like you were performing the act of throwing or hitting normally. 

For example, below is a drill that we use a lot we call it step over the ball. It’s one of our least invasive hitting drills and below that is another hitting drill that we use a lot, it’s called slow hip to the wall which is slightly more invasive. 

If we as a staff see a problem we’d like to correct, we first attempt to use a non-invasive corrective before we transition to using a more invasive technique. Why because with an invasive corrective it’s often hard to see how this is like hitting or throwing. Slow hip to the wall for example, it teaches a component of hitting, and when done right it can be very beneficial to the hitter. However when we show the athlete this drill they often look at us funny and they often feel as though we are asking them to make a large scale change in their swing or throw (this same drill works well for throwing as well). In contrast, step over the ball to most people looks and feels a lot like their normal swing, it influences the front side of the hitter to make ideal movements.  

A skilled coach in a team setting asks athletes to make adjustments in a non-invasive way that way the qualities that make the athlete good stay good and the pieces that need work can be worked on without overthinking. 

That said, sometimes coaches make invasive changes because they want to shape an athlete to fit their idea of what’s best without any evidence to show why that thing is best. The prior version of me was a perfect example, I “knew” that if I got my foot down early and kept my weight back I could hit anything. Where what I thought I was doing was different from what I was truly doing. 

Oftentimes coaches (like the 2011 version of me) don’t weigh the cost of the changes they are asking for when compared to the hypothetical benefit that they think the athlete will receive for making that change. The cost of that change depends on how effective that athlete is now. This is something we weigh out all the time.

Here’s an example: In throwing, lead leg block is a widely accepted quality of nearly all people that throw hard. Here’s a video of Jacob DeGrom just to show lead leg block.  

People have written extensively about this all over the internet so I’ll pass on that here, but I’ll explain it in a short/simple way. The lead leg blocking efficiently allows the hand and ball to speed up because it stops the pelvis, and allows the arm to use the potential energy created in the delivery and convert it to kinetic energy like the cracking of a whip. 

If visually an athlete doesn’t look like they are lead leg blocking well but they are throwing very hard for their age. We’re not opposed to working on lead leg block, but we’ll make sure that it truly is a problem before we “correct it.” Sometimes even a front leg that isn’t locking out perfectly can produce a bunch of force. We need to be sure that there truly is a problem before we decide to make a change. 

Not all coaches take the time to evaluate before making a correction. Some, like the prior version of me, are quick to correct and push their worldview. How athletes deal with this is really important because without it becomes hard to maintain a positive working relationship with their team coach. Listening and evaluating information is the key here. Baseball and Softball are a good proxy for life in this way because in life everyone has advice for you, and most of the people that are giving advice aren’t really suited to solicit it. Sometimes a person who you didn’t expect can give you great advice, but other times that is not the case. 

When it comes to your baseball/softball movements you need to listen to all the advice but only apply the advice that makes the most sense to you (and that might change over time). You’re the one playing the sport, and you need to be comfortable in order to perform at your best. So if your movements feel good right now, and you’re getting the results you want, you need to protect what you have. You might be thinking, “so I shouldn’t listen to my coach?” No, I’m saying  you should listen to yourself first before diving headlong into any change. If your inner self  is saying, “I’m killing it, I need to keep rolling.” LISTEN!!! If your inner self is saying, “I’m really struggling, I need to make a change.” LISTEN!!! Then ask, “is this the change that will get me on track?” Even if you are struggling, that doesn’t you should just apply everything to your swing. You still need to be selective about what you apply. 

Let’s say that your inner self says, “I’m killing it, I need to keep rolling.” What’s the best way to communicate with the coach so they feel like you are applying what they said? Well, there’s a few options. Look I don’t want to advocate for not listening to coaches, but I’ll be honest, oftentimes your performance can be optimized by just doing what you already do with a lot of confidence. 

  1. Try it a few times until your coach walks away. This is a good one if the thing that the coach asked you to do is easy for them to spot. 
  2. If the tip that your coach gives you is about the way you use your hands, then you can just tell them you’ll try it, and instead do your normal thing (both in the swing and in the throw, that stuff happens so quickly that it’s really difficult to evaluate). It sometimes is a good idea to tell the coach that you really liked the way their tip felt. People want to feel valued, coaches are no different, so make them feel valued. 
  3. Just tell them that you don’t really think about it and you’re focused on being athletic. This is a good one if your coach doesn’t know you have a hitting/or pitching coach. If they don’t know your other coach it’s often good to keep it that way. It’s an ego thing.

That’s just 3 of the strategies that we’ve used over the years, there are many more. The one thing you can’t do is try and please everyone. You won’t perform well and sadly, the blame for the poor performance will fall on your shoulders. 

Thinking back to how I acted when I coached my first team is embarrassing. That said, it’s a needed reflection, both for me to see where I was, and for others to learn from my mistakes. If you’re a player reading this, hopefully you can take away a few strategies that will help you play your best. If you’re a coach reading this, I hope I didn’t make you too angry. Hopefully you’re looking at your career as a journey, and you’re willing to learn and adapt to the best information. At the end of the day it’s about the athlete, and not us. Or at least it should be.

Thanks For Reading,

Kurt Hewes

Founder and CEO of Ignite Baseball

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