Luis is a 21 year old catcher from Venezuela with a limited grasp of the English language, let alone familiarity with American slang and culture. Sam is a 19 year old shortstop from the Bronx, NY. He grew up in a tough neighborhood, helped his mother raise two younger brothers, and has all the tools to be successful at the Major League level. Justin is a 22 year old pitcher from Los Angeles with phenomenal stuff who last year led his team to victory in the NCAA College World Series. Justin really enjoyed college. He had lots of friends, notoriety, attention, a great social life, and plenty of off the field distractions. All three ballplayers were high draft picks and moved through your minor league system very quickly. Now they are playing for you. The question arises, what is the best way to get a group of players with diverse personalities and cultural backgrounds to work together cohesively for a common goal? Similarly, what is the best strategy to motivate today’s ballplayer to give his best effort, focus, and performance on a consistent basis? To me, it’s fairly simple, develop a shared vision and unity of purpose, build meaningful relationships with your athletes and staff, communicate in an open and honest manner, hold athletes accountable to high standards of excellence, and empower them to take responsibility for their own actions.
In terms of talent, skills, abilities, and work ethic, athletes today are really no different than they were 30 years ago. What has changed is a worldwide influx of international players effecting the socio-cultural context from which coaches and players must interact, adapt, and adjust (e.g., language barriers, cultural norms, interpersonal team dynamics, etc.), the proliferation of 24-7 television coverage and the advent of social media creating a platform for critiquing every player, play, and game. The good; instant access and exposure to great plays and triumphant outcomes; the bad ; an image making machine and showcase for “Egofest” perpetuated with young athletes trying to emulate players who have the most “swag” or wear their uniform in a “trendy” popular manner. In this day and age, this speaks more to an individual’s identity and sense of expression as opposed to not too long ago, an egocentric perception by management and stereotypic labeling of selfishness, entitlement, and disrespect for authority. Things have changed over the years in terms of prevalent coaching styles. The old school mentality was more of a top-down authoritative approach “Do as I say, comply and obey”. Today the trend is more toward a collaborative reciprocal relationship between coach and athlete where ongoing communication about performance and constructive feedback is the norm, and athletes feel empowered, invested, and involved in the process.
Yes ballplayers today are under incredible amounts of social scrutiny and get paid extraordinary amounts of money to play a game they should intrinsically love. And yes they have their own unique idiosyncrasies, personality quirks and forms of expression that make them who they are, but that doesn’t mean they are not committed or possess the internal drive and determination to be successful at the Major League level. The key is communication, getting to know each player as unique goal driven individuals, teaching skills and imparting knowledge that will help them be successful at the next level, inspiring each athlete to get the most out of their talent and reach for their best every at bat, every inning, every game.
So much of what goes on in athletics revolves around communication. In essence, effective communication involves mutual sharing which leads to mutual understanding. Only by expressing oneself can the other person hear what they are thinking and feeling and be in a better position to fully understand. The foundation for effective communication skills is based on credibility, trust, and mutual respect. Credibility is reflected in the athlete’s trustworthiness of what you say and do. Reliability, consistency, sincerity, and genuineness are a must. Today’s athlete wants to be listened to and heard. Thus, ask good questions and be an effective listener. Share your vision of what is expected and take the time to get to know something special about each of your athletes in and out of baseball. What are they passionate about? When they are playing with confidence, what does that look like, feel like? Have them describe 2-3 things about their community back home, things that are unique and special to them as people, or experiences that have had a significant impact on their lives. Likewise, challenge each player to set goals and work hard every day to improve and get better.
In terms of communication and feedback, communicate in a manner that is consistent with your own personality and coaching philosophy. Be honest, direct, sincere, fair, and supportive. Make pride in performance an important thing. Promote a positive team culture and a cohesive group atmosphere conducive to team success Ask questions, review performance goals, and get feedback about how things are going; what’s working, what’s not, what do we need more of, and less of in order to accomplish our goals. Seek creative methods to reward athletes and strive to catch them doing things right. For instance, having a great at bat and showing mental discipline at the plate, outstanding individual and collective effort, supportive team behaviors, and resiliency under pressure. Help them stay connected to the things that they can control and what it takes to excel at this level. Let them know verbally and nonverbally that you believe in their potential and that you genuinely care about their development and overall sense of well-being as a player and as a person.
Dave Yukelson is the Director of Sport Psychology Services, Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes at The Pennsylvania State University. To read more work from Dave, go to: http://www.gopsusports.com/genrel/yukelson_david00.html or