Teacher profile: Joe Maddon

Baseball fans know Joe Maddon as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Non-fans know him as the baseball coach in designer glasses in the Centrum Silver commercials. What most folks don’t know is that Joe Maddon is one of hell of a teacher.
That’s the conclusion I reached after reading Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%, which recounts how management of the Tampa Bay Ray’s turned their team around after a decade of losing. While he is not the main focus of the book, the chapters on Maddon are easily the most intriguing from an educational standpoint. Keri portrays Maddon as an innovative thinker who is constantly looking for ways to get the best results out of his players.For this blog’s purposes, it’s worth mining Maddon’s philosophy for what it says about designing lessons and getting the most out of students.Heading into 2009, the Rays were coming off of one of the most successful years in franchise history thanks in part to the aggressive style Maddon preached to his team. However, in one key area, base running, the team underachieved. Keri notes that “the Rays took an extra base (for example, going from first to third on a single) 40% of the time, tied for 11th in the majors. But, they also made 68 outs on the basepaths, the second-highest total in baseball and a sign they were being far too aggressive.”

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.

The fact that this drill did not provide immediate gains, but the team gradually improved says a lot about the way Maddon and the team see development as a process. It’d be easy to take the less than impressive results in 2009 and then throw away the whole approach. Maddon and the Rays didn’t do that, and eventually they started seeing the rewards of sticking to a philosophy and not sweating mistakes too much.
Maddon’s drill fits with the rest of the Ray’s philosophy towards developing players. Ben Zobrist was “a slap hitter with a good batting eye” who “hit 23 home runs in 1642 minor league at bats.” Zobrist was trying to get to the major leagues, and he thought the best way he could do that would be to make contact with the ball and try to put the ball in play. After having an expert analyze his swing and being told he needed to swing harder, Zobrist did something a lot of baseball players wouldn’t dare. He listened. Despite the fact that swinging harder would make it more likely that he’d swing and miss more often, he swung harder. In the three full seasons following that swing intervention, Zobrist hit 55 home runs in 1240 major league at bats with a limited drop off in his ability to get on base. Zobrist had the talent all along, but he never sounded the depths of that talent because he was too focused on not making mistakes. When he felt comfortable and supported taking risks, that natural talent came out.Keri’s account of Maddon’s most challenging case sheds light on how Maddon instills that comfort in his players. Athletically, B.J. Upton is the kind of player that scouts drool over. However, Upton has occasionally had lapses of effort that infuriated fans and management. In August of 2008, in the midst of the first pennant race in team history, Maddon benched Upton for failing to run out a ground ball. After the game, Maddon told reporters, “When it comes down to individual effort, it takes absolutely zero talent, zero, to try hard and play every day. I’m okay with physical mistakes, with mental mistakes, I’m accepting of all that. The part that I’m not accepting of is the part that you can control.”Fullly understanding the Rays success would take a lot more data. That’s a criticism I have of Keri’s book, which presents results and then reasons for those results that feel as if they’re only the tip of the iceberg. For this, I blame the highly secretive Rays management more than Keri who is insightful and does the best he can with what he has.But even without the full picture, we can see a lot that is worth taking from Maddon’s teaching style.Teachers sometimes need to breakdown the mental processes involved in a task, especially when students first arrive at college since many lack really solid critical thinking skills. In analytical exercises, this might mean you find a piece of data or a fact, you ask for speculation on what it means, and then you ask the class what other information they would need to confirm that speculation and where they’d find it. For example, in a close reading of a novel, someone might speculate that a certain character is the moral conscience of a novel because she speaks up at a moment when a crucial decision is made. You might then ask the class, “How would we know this person is the moral conscience; where else would we want to look? Are there times when we expect the moral conscience to speak and we don’t get it? Why?”

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.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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