Coaching in the Age of Instant Feedback

Brian Friedman

by Brian Friedman, Head Coach, Millennium (NY) High School

Social media, motion analysis, Google, and YouTube are just a few of the technological tools that have changed the game of baseball (and the world, for that matter!) so much in the past ten years. All of these developments offer something to our players that they did not have access to in the past- instant feedback. While it can be a great tool for teaching baseball, instant feedback has another side that can result in problems for players, coaches, and parents- it breeds a lack of patience.

When athletes become accustomed to receiving what they want as soon as they want it, anything that requires a longer commitment before seeing firsthand results can lead to frustration. So how can coaches balance their players’ longing for immediate results with the long-term development they need? Here are a few strategies I have found to be helpful:

  • Accept and understand that this generation of players and students has grown up learning in a different way than in the past.

Classrooms from kindergarten all the way to law school are using iPads, SmartBoards and many other technologies to teach our youth. Textbooks are rarely used and lectures have been replaced with student-centered group work. Kids are trained from a young age to learn from instant feedback. When we see athletes lose focus or interest quickly, it may be because the world they are growing up in is different than in the past. Acknowledging this as a reality can open doors to reaching and motivating our athletes.

John Wooden spoke about the connection between being a teacher and being a coach. Teaching is all about reaching the student in the best way that they can learn. If you have tried and tried to teach someone something the same way over and over again, but they just do not get it, it is you that have failed, not the student. A true teacher will find a way to help the student understand.

  • Use instant feedback and constantly changing stimuli to engage your team.

All of our players are different. If we are going to expect the best out of each of them, we must attempt to bring out the best in each of them. That means that we need to individualize our coaching and our teaching. With the readily available amount of motion analysis and video feedback, each player should be able to work on specific skills that they struggle with. Telling a player that they are not clearing their hips means a lot more to them when you show them on video exactly what they are doing and the way to correct it. When an athlete can see what they are doing frame by frame they can make attempts to improve specific parts of their game. Not every player can swing like Bryce Harper, but at least now they can see what they look like compared to him. Our players all know that if they come up to me and ask if they can use their phone to record themselves or each other, that is allowed and encouraged. It gives them ownership of their swing and provides them with valuable instant feedback.

Changing up the stimuli in practice can look a lot of different ways, and that’s the point. Every week there is a new game or app that every kid is seemingly addicted to. That’s the new age of focus; keep it fresh or they’ll lose interest. At Millennium High School we have a few ways that we mix it up. One way is that our weight room sessions change all the time. When the kids walk in the weight room and see the workout for the day, it gives them something to look forward to and something new to focus on. It helps us keep their bodies guessing as well as their minds.

The offseason can seem long in the northeast and keeping boredom at bay is one of our top priorities. In the interest of keeping it fresh, for the first time this year we introduced something that we call the Red / Black Challenge. Simply named after our team colors, we divided our roster into the Red team and the Black team.  To end every practice we have one of our challenges. Each team sends out their representatives to compete. Some days its a test of strength, some days speed, some defense, some hitting. Our guys come up to us at the beginning of every practice and want to know what the challenge is going to be that day. It provides a fresh, intense and healthy competition to the end of every day. Right before our season starts we’ll tally up the wins and losses and give some sort of reward to the winning team.

  • Challenge your players to adapt, adjust, and figure it out

The downside of this shift in technology is the near elimination of the need to “figure it out.” When someone needs to know something, they just Google it. If they don’t know how to get somewhere, they just turn on their GPS. The skill of managing a tough situation is one that is extremely important in the game of baseball. Not every mound is the same, not every umpire is consistent, and not every game will be played in 75 degree weather. Baseball will put you in situations that cannot be solved by turning on your phone and using an app. Baseball will put you in difficult situations in uncomfortable environments- there’s no app for that!

One way I attempt to train our players in these skills is to put them in worse situations than they need to be in. Even if we have an empty gym and a box of pearls available, I may designate practice to be in the hallway with the oldest beat up baseballs I can find. The instinct from players, particularly younger players that are newer to the program, is that they won’t be able to have as productive of a practice when put in a “worse” situation. We speak to the team about the need to be able to adapt. The practice space and equipment is not what is important, but rather their mindset around it. To be able to shift focus from what you can’t control to what you can control is difficult but incredibly important. Being in a hallway with old baseballs rather than a perfectly manicured field with pearls does not change the fact that they can give full effort, both mentally and physically. We always talk about the fact that two players can do the exact same drill in the exact same place at the exact same time, but the player who is doing the drill with the intent to improve will improve. The player who is doing the drill while focused on their “bad” situation will accomplish nothing outside of complaining.

Adjusting and figuring it out is something that we do in a concentrated way with our pitchers for a small portion of every practice. Every day they throw with each of their grips. They’ll throw their 4-seams, 2-seams, change-ups, and spins. I’m sure a lot of teams do that. Where we do things a little bit differently is that for a small amount of time, usually 2 minutes or 15 throws, our pitchers throw using grips and finger pressure combinations they never have before. It can be different fastball grips, changeup grips, or spin grips. From this drill we have had pitchers develop extra movement and/or control that they might not have developed otherwise. One of the best parts of this drill is the feedback the players give each other. It is another opportunity to adapt, adjust, and figure it out.

Coaching in the age of instant feedback creates opportunities and windows for growth and development that we have never seen before. There are more 100 mile per hour fastballs, more 60 yard dash times under 6.5 and more 500 foot home runs. Baseball and coaching are changing, right along with the rest of the world. Learning how to use these changes to your advantage could be the thing that brings your players and your program to the next level.