Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2020

Coaches' Corner: Tom O'Connell

Coaching Prep for over Half a Century

Tom O'Connell and Team • First high school coach to serve as president of the ABCA
• ISG Baseball President
• First high school coach to receive the ABCA/Wilson Lefty Gomez Award
• Led the High School Division of the ABCA from 1984-1996
• Inducted into five different Halls of Fame, including the ABCA (2007)

Inside Pitch: Describe your coaching journey.

Tom O’Connell: This is my 51st year as a high school coach, and I’ve never really thought about doing anything else. I coached for 31 years at a public high school in Milwaukee, a small Catholic school in Burlington, and an inner ring suburban public school just south of Milwaukee, three very different places.

The 1973 ABCA Convention changed my coaching life. It was held during a blizzard in Chicago. It took us almost four hours to make what was normally an hour-and-a-half trip. It was sparsely attended, butI got to meet some of the movers and shakers in the organization including Les Miller, then the second in charge, and Ron Klein, who immediately got me involved in the high school division. Through the ABCA, my sphere of networking grew each year and I have met some tremendous people.

IP: Who were your mentors?

TO: One who comes to mind is Jerry Kindall, who I met working a camp in River Falls, Wisconsin. Talk about a man of character! Wow. With others, Coach Kindall and I drafted the ABCA’s Code of Ethics and developed the ABCA Ethics in Coaching Award, now called the Dave Keilitz Award. Dave is another dear friend and person who has impacted my life immeasurably.

Bill Arce, whose legacy I try to live up to every day, also took me under his wing. His leadership became a model for me to follow. In 1993, he asked me if I'd like to go to Europe as part of what was then called the MLB Envoy Program. Little did I know then that by saying "yes" the course of my coaching philosophy and world view would change irreversibly. I became the first high school coach to take part in this fledgling program and spent nine weeks in Germany that summer, living in the homes of baseball families there, coaching coaches and players, and forever altering and changing my outlook on baseball, culture and life.

Later on, Bill asked me to join the Board of Directors on a group he founded in 1985 called International Sports Group. Bill, who passed in 2016, was a veteran, a D-Day survivor at that, with quite an interesting story. When the war was over, he was working in the P.O.W. camps and got reprimanded for talking, teaching, coaching baseball with “the enemy.” He said he just wanted to teach baseball.

Bill was a pioneer in spreading the game in Europe and around the globe. I have tried to live up to that mission as well. Through the coaching education clinics that ISG conducts, coaches have gained skills which have helped them make the game better in their home countries. I have seen vast improvement in the coaching level of the young men and women who come to our clinics year after year. Last year we conducted 15 clinics: New Zealand, Europe, Africa and in North and South America. We are even the first American group to be allowed to work with Cuban coaches!

IP: How does that experience overseas compare to your success as a high school coach in the states?

TO: The overseas experience is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my baseball life, if you can believe it, even more rewarding than winning five Wisconsin State Championships. I’ve been back to Germany 20 times, each time gaining more insight into how best to teach the game. I’ve made so many great friends in the process. 

IP: Were you apprehensive at all about going overseas to coach baseball in a culture where the sport was largely ignored?

TO: I didn't know what it was going to be like. I didn't know that so many Germans spoke English, which was a relief! Most of the people who play baseball over there speak English, actually. They were incredibly hungry to learn, which was the biggest difference you notice as a coach. I'd been coaching in the states for 20 years, and we get jaded – we expect a certain level of things from equipment, coaching, playing fields. And the fields we played on in Germany were horrible! But those kids were locked in and excited to be there.

My first day there I got dropped off at a host family’s house, and when I got picked up later that afternoon there were like 30 kids out there, on their bikes, who were there to help take me over to the field. They just wanted to meet the American coach. We lose perspective that baseball is an American game, but even just being an American coach over there, it was amazing how much we were revered.

It changed me as a coach. It really made me much more patient, and much more accepting. I’ve become a better teacher of the game. Now most high school coaches are teachers of a subject in school but they are baseball coaches, right? This experience really tied those two concepts together – teaching and coaching.

IP: What are some drills that are staples of your program?

TO: I believe that everything that's done in practice should be game-like. If you can't do something in practice that's not like the game, you really shouldn't do it. Take hitting off a tee. When our kids hit off a tee, we hit maybe five, six swings and then move to another station and do something different.

Another thing I’ve always believed in is bunting. We always practiced bunting and we do all the drills, with the four bunt stations that go around the bases, we bunted into garbage cans indoors, and when I gave the bunt sign during the game, we still
wouldn't execute it!

So we made it more game-like. Divide the team up, set up the infield, pitcher, catcher on defense, and everyone gets a turn on offense. The first guy has to bunt for a hit. If he gets on, the next guys have to sacrifice him to third, and then you squeeze. Of course you can mix in drag/push, slash, fake bunt steal, all of that. For every base earned, the offense gets a point, for every out recorded the defense gets a point. Coincidence or not, the couple years after we put that in, we won state championships. On squeeze bunts!

IP: So you've obviously dealt with many different demographics in terms of your players and their parents. What's your approach when it when it comes to dealing with parents?

TO: I really believe in communication with them. We have the parent chain, the e-mails, the group chat. I do the parent meeting, sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. But during that meeting we’ll talk about the expectations of the kids, the coaches, the parents.

IP: What are some other ways that you inject culture into your program?

TO: I really like the New Zealand All Blacks rugby culture, just like every other coach in the world, I’m sure. The whole ‘sweep the sheds,’thing has really taken off. Our seniors do all the cleanup after practice and games. And it’s amazing how it changes the way everyone approaches cleanup and field maintenance and general. Bruce Brown has a great publication about leadership, I give it to our players, we break it up into different parts and cover one part a month.

I don't believe in the after-game chalk talk. Players hate that. We’ll start the next practice off with a meeting, and I’ll ask our players "what do we need to work on today?" Of course I will be suggesting some things. But I give them the chance to say their piece. After practice, we’ll wrap up with game review. How did we do? Did we meet our goals for practice that day? What did we do wrong last night?

Another thing I picked up from Mike Dee, who coaches at UIC. I've known him for years. I keep a little three-by-five card in my back pocket at practice every day. It has every kid’s name going down the first column, with each day of the week along the top row. My goal is to make sure that by the end of the week I've talked to every one of my players about non-baseball stuff: their girlfriends, job, parents, classes, stuff like that. Kids are fragile and if you don't talk to them and a week goes by, what's he thinking?

IP: What is the legacy in baseball that you would eventually like to leave behind?

What I want these coaches to be able to do is train these kids to be better people. Coaches change lives. That’s at the beginning and the end of all my slide presentations. There’s one of those silly motivational posters out there, but it’s exactly right: every person has a little sign hanging around their neck saying, 'make me feel important today'. That's true. Keith Madison sent me a message a while back asking, “how do you know if a person needs encouragement? It's if he is breathing!” So that's what we do. Our passion is educating coaches so we can all get better. IP

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