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Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2023

@CoachYourKids: A Smile Away from Stardom

By Darren Fenster, Minor League Infield Coordinator, Boston Red Sox & Founder/CEO, Coaching Your Kids, LLC

Boston Red Sox coach talking to an umpireIf you didn’t know anything about me and watched me coach for the first time, you might leave thinking I was an absolute lunatic. There is something about being on a field and around players that completely energizes me. There is also an element of coaching where I am consciously trying to create an environment that balances productive work with loose-natured fun. The combination of those things brings out a lot of, let’s kindly say, “high volume instruction and encouragement from me.”  

Like clockwork, this scenario happens every single year: a player who is in his first Spring Training is nervous as all hell. The tension on his face is easy to see. He notices the guys around him doing a drill better and faster. So, he tries harder and tries faster but fails. The serious look on his face gets even tighter. And then there I am, hollering at him in such an over-the-top manner that sometimes I wonder if he initially second-guesses the decision to sign a professional contract.

We’ll get back to this in a minute…

Back in 2015, I managed the Greenville Drive, the Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox who—that year—was the most talented team in all of Minor League Baseball. That club featured 18 future Major Leaguers including Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Michael Chavis, Mauricio Dubon, and Jalen Beeks among others. As our roster began to take shape during Spring Training that March, I spent a lot of time getting to know our players, while also speaking to staff members who worked those guys in years prior. We had one incredibly talented player who was very quiet and didn’t give much of a response to really anything. He was a tough read. 

Justin Su’a, one of our mental skills coordinators at the time, gave me sound advice on coaching this player, who is still in the Big Leagues today. He told me how sensitive the kid was, and that if I singled him out in front of the group, I would lose him. If I raised my voice, I would lose him. The only way to get through to him would be in calm, one-on-one conversations. That approach was spot-on and not only helped me help the player improve on the field, but also helped me build one of the strongest relationships I ever had with someone on my team.

Tom Kotchman was the manager of our Gulf Coast League club, the team this player was on in 2014. He gave me even better insight and taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned in now almost 20 years of coaching. “That was my smile guy,” Kotchman said of the player. I had no idea what he meant by that. Kotch then explained that he read the same exact things that Justin and I both saw in this player and felt like something as simple as smiling more could actually help this player on the field. Kotchman’s goal every day wasn’t anything baseball; it was to get the player to crack a smile.

On the surface, you might wonder what a smile has to do with anything, let alone baseball. Spend enough time around the game and you’ll feel the innate pressure that comes with playing it. Baseball, as they say, is a game of failure. That failure brings on stress, and it’s pretty hard to do anything with added stresses on top of it. Professionally, becoming a Major Leaguer for many is to give a better life to others. That adds even more stress to what is supposed to be a fun game. That smile in which Kotchman intentionally tried to bring out in this player (and many others) was used to combat the stresses and pressures of the game. He essentially gave his players permission to smile. To laugh. To have fun. And in the process, most importantly, to relax. 

When players play relaxed, a funny thing tends to happen. They play better.

Back to the lunatic coach/writer of this article.

As the misses rack up, so does the volume on my end.

“The Red Sox don’t drop balls. If you want to drop balls, you should have signed with the Yankees.” Spoiler alert: we drop balls all the time. In fact, if we aren’t missing anything, we aren’t being challenged enough.

“Miss one more, and I’ll have you on the next plane home.” Spoiler alert: I have about as much authority to do that as the guy who mows the grass at our complex.
“How many times do I have to tell you how to catch the *bleeping* ball?” Spoiler alert: many times, actually. A staple of our infield development is learning how to catch the ball in as many ways as possible to be able to make as many plays as possible.

Then, like magic, the moment happens. The light goes on in his head that I am totally messing with him and a huge smile breaks through, often accompanied with laughs of everyone around him in the group who have grown to know me and my style well. What I do is very calculated. Just like Tom Kotchman was and just like Justin Su’a was. My complete over-the-top reactions to something that is all too common in baseball are meant to bring out a smile. To bring out a laugh. To bring out the fun in what we are doing.

Think about what your body feels like when you smile. When you laugh. It’s a fun exhale. It’s a tension-reliever. It’s a way to help your players get better. When you find your smile guy and give him what he needs, which in many cases may just be a smile a day, you are breaking down a big wall that often impedes player development.

Stardom may just be a smile away.

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.
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