The Rays had the talent to be aggressive and succeed. Yet, they needed to be smarter about how they employed that talent. Base running is an often overlooked, and consequentially misunderstood, skill. Speed is only part of the equation. A player deciding to try for an extra base must be aware of where fielders are, how quickly those fielders get to the ball, how strong that fielder’s arm is, and understand the circumstances of the game. The decision to try for an extra base must be made in an instant and requires full commitment from the runner as often the difference between a runner being safe and being tagged out is less than a second.
So before the 2009 season, Maddon brought out a drill few players had seen before. Morgan Ensberg, a veteran of eight MLB seasons with four teams, describes the philosophy behind the drill: “It wasn’t much about how you round[ed] the bag as much as where the ball was in the outfield and where the fielder was. They put three coaches out in center field and dropped balls in front of them, one runner at a time. If the coach got the ball quickly, you shut it down. If he hadn’t gotten to the ball, go to third. The emphasis and explanation was very clear and very good, and these were easy lessons to learn and use later. Most drills are stupid. It’s so rare to have a good drill in professional sports, since people don’t know how to teach the game.”
The improvement from these drills was neither immediate nor dramatic, at least at first. In 2009, the Rays made 10 fewer outs on the bases, but they were also worse than the average team at taking an extra base. However, in 2010, “the Rays took 196 more bases than the average team, the best result by any club in the nine years the stat has been tracked.”
These drills do a great job of simulating the type of thinking a player will go through in the midst of a game action. If we’re to take Ensberg’s comments at face value, this is a way of teaching that he’d not experienced. Although Keri doesn’t elaborate on it, I’m assuming that Ensberg’s opening comment that the drill was not about “how you round[ed] the bag” reveals the typical type of teaching that happens in baseball. Players are taught how to physically do something. They aren’t taught the mental processes that go into making a decision. Since those types of decisions are so crucial to success or failure, it’s surprising that more teams don’t take this approach to player development.
Maddon trusts his players’ natural abilities. But he needs them to trust it as well. To that extent, I think there’s also a lot to be said for the simplicity of the drill. Putting coaches in the field instead of the team’s actual center fielder won’t simulate the exact game action, but that’s not a bad thing. Eliminating some of aspects of the play slows down the thought processes of the players and lets them practice that without the distraction of live play. When players reach second base and make a read, they’ll only have to think about where coach is. That will help build the kind of confidence and total commitment that will give them a better chance of success in the real game.
I love the fact that this drill works at letting players know when it’s okay to take risks. Maddon wants his players to be aggressive. He knows that’s going to help his team if it’s done smartly. But he also knows how fragile baseball player egos can be. Pressure on players to succeed is high. Many players never reach their potential because they can’t handle the pressure. They have all the talent in the world, but the fear of failure holds them back. They don’t take risks at appropriate times, and the team’s performance suffers.
Teachers also need to help students learn how to access their natural ability. Too often, when things get harder, students will ask you to articulate exactly what you want and how you want it. Students might think you’re being difficult if you don’t answer these questions. These kind of students need to be taught how many of those questions they can figure out on their own if they use their natural resources. That’s why when someone comes to me with a question about a citation question, I don’t give them an answer. I try to have a conversation about where they’d find the answer. I sit them down with a style guide and make sure they know how to use it to find what they’re looking for. In that conversation, I usually talk up the student’s agency in the situation. I see that as a key step, especially when the student has only a partially completed draft. Often students let those kinds of minor questions interrupt their critical thinking and writing processes. When that happens, the anxiety they feel makes it more likely they’ll procrastinate and less likely that they’re natural talents will show through.
To that same end, teachers, especially those at critical transitional junctures of education like the first-year of college, need to encourage students to take risks and press themselves to try harder things. As such, teachers need to let students know that failure is part of the process and that mistakes are excusable if they always take the opportunity to properly learn from their mistakes. Many students also need to learn that properly learning from mistakes does not mean vowing to never make it again either because that’s an unrealistic ideal. When students see the value of taking risks and trusting the process, they can make the most of their natural abilities.
Finally, teachers have to demand and reward effort, because if you reward students for what they can control they’ll feel more empowered to do all the rest of the things we ask of them. We see so many B.J. Upton’s come into our classes and our offices who are really bright but who don’t seem to try. Some of these students have received praise all their life for their natural talent, and they’re terrified that they’ll be detected as frauds if they fail, so they procrastinate or put in half effort, knowing that if they fail, it was not because they weren’t smart enough but because they started too late.
Teachers can also learn from Maddon that designer eyeglasses can make you look smart. But wearing them with a baseball uniform is not a great idea.