In each of the past two off-seasons, I have had the pleasure of traveling to the other side of the world to run a week-long baseball camp for 40 of Taiwan’s best high school players as identified by the Chinese Taipei Baseball Federation. This is basically Taiwan’s equivalent of USA Baseball’s National Team trials here in the states, with a bit more emphasis on instruction than competition.
The original opportunity came in the fall of 2013 when one of our international scouts reached out to see if I would be interested in organizing and executing a camp that will enable a different culture of baseball see and experience the way we do things here in the States professionally. While the chance to go to a different country to teach the game I absolutely love sounded awesome, there was just one small problem:
I don’t speak a lick of Taiwanese… and the kids who would be participating in the camp didn’t speak English.
So right off the bat, the essential key to being an effective coach- the ability to communicate- was a hurdle that would make the challenges of putting together a great camp that much harder. Luckily, I was soon assured that myself and the other American coaches joining on the staff would each have our own translator. Crisis averted!
Go to any foreign speaking country and you’ll quickly experience the communication barriers that exist from the moment you land. Every language is different and sometimes the specific way to say something in one language cannot be interpreted in another, either because the words or phrases simply don’t exist or are understood in a completely different context. So when we relate that fact to teaching a sport, we risk the distinct possibility of having things lost in translation for no other reason than what we want to say cannot be said in the exact way that we want to say it. That was apparent on day one of that first trip to Taiwan in 2013, and we knew right away that we had to change our approach if we wanted to make an impact.
Whether in America, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, or any other country you can think of, the game of baseball is the same. Each team gets three outs each inning. Pitchers pitch, and hitters hit. So the things that we teach here that give players the best opportunity to be successful are the same things that can be taught wherever the game is played, but the key is to find a way for those who don’t speak our language to understand those concepts.
This is an often forgotten key to coaching: we may have all of the information in the world that could maximize the potential of every single player we encounter, but if we cannot present that information in a manner by which those players can actually use it, then our information is worthless.
As coaches, we are blessed with an ever-increasing knowledge of our sport and a passion to share that knowledge with the next generation of athletes. The more passion we have to help our players improve, the more we want to teach. If we aren’t careful, that blessing can become a curse when we try to ingrain everything we know in our players, who we have a genuine interest in helping. While our intentions are good-hearted, our actual effectiveness can easily go by the wayside if we try to do too much, too soon. The end result when we don’t consciously work in baby steps may very well be confusion instead of comprehension. Try to teach ten things at once, and we are lucky if our players retain one. But give them just one or two things to focus on at a time, and we are giving them a great chance to absorb everything we’ve said. Imagine an entire season of coaching with this approach… This is what is commonly known as the compound effect, where huge rewards are gained from a bunch of small, smart choices. While it’s tough to see the day to day improvements, the total accumulation of all of those small things will be undeniable weeks and months down the road. By the end of fall, you will see a completely different team than you did when you started in the spring.
As we began to set an agenda on the field for the week, we made the conscious effort to not only do the same exact things we did back home, but also to present those things as simple as possible, with the hope that nothing would be lost in translation. We determined that the best way to give these kids a taste of Major League Baseball would be to organize our days to mimic what we do in spring training. For professional clubs in Florida and Arizona during the months of February and March, each day is spent basically reintroducing the game to those who had just spent an extended period of time away from it. We literally teach the best players in the game as if they have never played it before, with the idea not that they don’t know it, but rather to make sure the collective group of players is on the same page and able to move forward together.
In Taiwan, our mornings were spent with a concentration on individual development, while the afternoons focused on team fundamentals. So how were able to break down the vast complexities of our sport into something that these Taiwanese kids could both grasp and benefit from? Easy- we picked the key basics of each skill and ran with them. Sometimes we broke a drill down to literally one step. For instance, when turning a double play from shortstop, we had the player start with his right foot on the base and step his left foot to the ball on the feed. Literally, one step. And we progressed from there.
Other times, we asked them to do one thing without mention of technique or mechanics (like trying to hit the ball in the middle of the field), which reinforces solid technique and mechanics despite not saying a word about them. Similarly, we took the vital elements of each team fundamental and taught them with the same approach: one simple part at a time. With cutoffs and relays, we stressed the importance of simply playing catch and taking care of the baseball and with bunt defenses, we focused on just getting the one out that the other team is giving to us.
The game can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. When we make the decision to put our players in the best position to be successful with drills and fundamentals that they could actually understand and put into their own play, a funny thing happens- they can’t help but develop individually, and teams can’t help but improve collectively.
There are so many different ways we can explain the same exact thing, and the best coaches understand the kind of learners each of their players are so we can cater to them. One of the biggest fallacies in our profession is that it’s a player’s responsibility to adjust to the coach. The real truth is the other way around.
Both years, my fellow stateside coaches and I left Taiwan with an amazing sense of accomplishment because of the challenges of reaching a foreign culture through our passion. By the end of the week-long camp, we can honestly say that each of the forty players made significant improvements to their individual abilities. While they all had a pretty solid fundamental base of skills with some athletic ability to go along with an impressive aptitude and work ethic, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the simplicity by which we went about our days helped facilitate their vast gains.
We all teach players who speak our language, but sometimes our words sound foreign. Find a way to reach each individual, individually, and you’ll find your way to reach countless individuals.