A few years ago, I vividly remember attending a coaches’ clinic and listening intently to a speaker named Butch Hughes. At the time, Hughes was a pitching coach with the Colorado Rockies after stints at several other college and professional organizations. Hughes was able to engage the room with his intensity about coaching, and I was captivated by his presentation.
Hughes was in his late 60s, but he conveyed words that I never thought I’d hear from a veteran coach with more than 40 years of experience. They were words I carry with me still and will carry as long as I coach – “You can never stop learning as a coach. Every situation is a teachable moment.”
I attended that clinic fresh off my first season as the head high school coach at Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, California. Sage Hill is an affluent private school on the Newport Coast, with extremely high academic standards, that produces students who are often accepted into the nation’s top colleges, including Ivy League schools.
I was given the task of taking over the baseball program that had just endured its third straight losing season and missed the playoffs again with a 9-12 overall record.
The players were definitely elite in the classroom and able to handle rigorous coursework. Would they be willing to carry that learning curve to the baseball diamond and learn how to hit the curves they encountered there?
As a first-year head coach, one of the principal pillars I needed to establish was communication. As I’ve grown as a coach, I’ve realized how invaluable communication is on the field and off the field to build a successful program.
My coaching staff and I organized a players’ meeting with questionnaires for the student-athletes that asked detailed questions of them, including their individual and team goals, what went well and what did not go well in past seasons, how to motivate them as a player and what they were willing to do to go the extra mile for us as a team, this season, to be successful.
Next, we organized a parents’ meeting with the same motivation, gathering information from the parents, including the goals for their sons and their expectations of us as coaches and role models.
From those meetings, some parents took leadership roles in organizing handbooks for the parents and players with contact information and directions to all the away games. We also talked of team-building events we could organize, including team barbeques and social gatherings.
At all meetings, open discussion was encouraged, so we could communicate actively on the program. I wanted to build trust from the players, parents and the administration from the get-go. I understood that you cannot please everybody, but everybody was always given a voice at our meetings.The result was many different, but thought-provoking answers. This was extremely important to me to understand the culture that had been created before and the culture we wanted to set for the future.
Surrounding the Student-Athletes with Role Models
Each season I was allowed to hire assistant coaches who really meshed well with the kids in each of their own ways. Being a newcomer to the school, I sought out capable assistants with local ties who all turned out to be great young role models and had passion for the game and passion for teaching kids. All were given active roles, and it was very beneficial that all could fill in on the field as players during scrimmages and each one could throw batting practice to give the players different looks before game days.
Establising a Successful Culture
Before our first practice began, each player received a player packet with our team goals (which included a league championship, playoff berth and total wins goal), our core principles on the baseball field, our signs and an agreement form that I had our players sign and hand in.
The agreement was filled with motivational wording and the overall culture we wanted to create. The opening of the agreement read: I will, to the best of my ability, represent Sage Hill Baseball to the utmost fullest on and off the baseball field. On practice days and game days, I will come prepared, work as hard as I can, listen to instruction, ask questions to improve myself and challenge myself daily to reach my highest potential.
Our three platforms that we wanted to reinforce every day to our players were:
Baseball is a beautiful game, but as many know, it’s most often a game of failure. Even the best hitters in Major League Baseball only get a hit about 30% of the time. I believe that players really do have to fail in the sport first before they taste real success. I had noticed in my days as a player and as a young coach that the players who handled that failure were just plain tougher mentally and had that extra edge. They worked harder in practice on their weaknesses. They didn’t make excuses. They were hungry to learn and outwork the others. They were leaders and good teammates. They were calm during the big moments because of their preparation. And when they failed, yes, it bothered them, but their overwhelming will pushed them to greater things down the road. This was the team culture I wanted.
Challenging the Mindset at Practice
Now the real challenge would begin in upholding this culture and going after our team goals.To do this, every practice was a grind. We focused on being sharp, crisp, fresh and detailed. We worked on the fundamentals daily. We scouted the other teams and prepared the players for the details of the opponents they would be facing, believing in the mantra that if you “Fail to Prepare, then Prepare to Fail.”
We challenged the players to have a goal to improve some aspect of their physical and mental baseball skills at every practice. The players managed all of this while maintaining intense academic schedules at Sage Hill, which to me, was one of most admirable qualities I’ve seen.All the while we kept it fun, with contests and challenges like they had when they were kids. We played music during practice and gave rewards for top performers and hardest workers.
One of our other key pillars of success was:
Poise or panic. Breathe, slow your heart rate and relax. This is a game of relaxed concentration. If you lose that relaxed focus, it will put unnecessary pressure on your shoulders. Think back to why you first began playing baseball. It’s a kid’s game. Have fun. You will play better.
I knew that if our team was in a relaxed mood, myself as coach included, our confidence would be high and we would be successful that day on the field. To build that game confidence, we had regular live scrimmages and situations and put kids in live game situations constantly. We believed, as most coaches do, a championship is built on pitching and defense. So, we would have “perfect pre-games” at practice, asking the kids to do a perfect infield/outfield session in less than 10 minutes, with only two baseballs. We would run a great high-paced infield session called the 2-2-1 drill, where balls were hit all over the infield and the team had to turn two double plays and then make a play to first in succession. If it wasn’t executed cleanly, there would be small consequences (sit ups or sprints after practice). The goal was to feel a little anxiety during the practices and breathe through the moment, so they were prepared for game days.
For pitchers, we charted their bullpens and showed how at the beginning of the season they may only have hit half their spots versus later in the season when they were hitting almost all their spots.
As a result, our teams pitched well and played great defense by the end of the season and by playoff time. One of the things I was always most proud of as a coach was looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a “0” in the “error” column, especially in the playoffs.
We also charted their hitting during batting practice and during the games. For an extended batting practice, which included live base running, the players may have 40 pitches that they must do something productively with such as, bunts, hit and runs, moving and scoring the runner, hitting off-speed and hitting opposite field, hitting with two strikes and game-winning line drives. The players loved to push themselves to get as close to 40 as possible and that built confidence in their abilities while doing it.
Motivating Daily During the Season
During the season, we emphasized quality at-bats and kept a running log of who our top quality at-bat leaders were, along with our quality-innings-pitched leaders (including first pitch strikes and ground balls) and our hustle play leaders. At the mid-point and at the end of the season, the leaders received awards for being at the top, so there was constant motivation to play the game the right way.
At the same time, we charted our own mental mistakes and negative quality at-bats, walks and errors so we had something to go back and look at, learn from and emphasize at the next practice. We worked on building that team culture every day at practice. And steadily, the results came.
That first season, after starting slow, we rallied off 11 straight wins, including two wins over the perennial league champion and another come-from-behind Academy league win, when we were down four runs in the last inning. Those wins proved significant, because we could use the comeback win as motivation in future games when we were down in. The team needs to feel like “We’ve been here before; we can do this again.” After the season, we motivated the players to push themselves even further in the weight room and with a fall schedule to get more games. More success followed each season and a culture was created.
Once that culture has been created, you can begin looking for ways to keep improving on the details of your goals, practices, game-days and messages you want to convey to your student-athletes. Coaching is a constant learning process, as Hughes said, and I will always go back to that. As a young coach, one of the personal goals I had years ago, and one I share with other coaches is: “To be the best coach your player will ever have.”
I believe if coaches have that underlying motivation, they’ll constantly be challenging what they think they know about their sport to get the best out of their student-athletes. I believe that will, in turn, create a positive atmosphere and a winning culture, where players try to outwork their opponents. And ultimately, if the players can see their coach’s dedication and passion, they will be united in common goals for success.
After coaching at Sage Hill High School, Andy Berglund served as head coach of Eagles Praha of the Czech Republic Professional League. He currently serves as a Major League Baseball European Academies Consultant (for Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, France and Austria) and facilitates youth clinics in Europe and Africa. Prior to his MLB role, Berglund served two years as the head coach of the Czech Republic Senior and Junior National programs in 2011 and 2012 leading them to their highest finishes in their country’s history. He has spent the past 12 years highly involved in the development of baseball in Europe.