My Coaching Family Tree, Written By Matt Lisle
As another great year of presenters came and went at the NFCA Convention in December, I was inspired to reflect on my own coaching career. I've always known that my philosophy of coaching, drills, and strategies, were merely a melting pot of the ideas of my mentors. And of course, the ideas of my mentors were borrowed from their mentors, and so on, and so on. However, I've never given much thought as to where each philosophy had originated. Obviously I wasn't the source, but like most great coaches I know that I have borrowed most of my ideas from other great coaching minds.
Looking back 13 years ago as a young high school head coach to now, I realized how little I knew about the game when I first started coaching. My knowledge and experiences of the game was passed on by only a few coaches mostly that of my own father. Don’t get me wrong, dad was a great coach and manager of players but as a young player I remember recanting my performances on the ride home from games more so than asking for coaching advice.”
As my first coaching season came to a close at the wise old age of 23, I had the realization that I better stop faking it (as a coach) by merely repeating the clichés I’d heard as a player, and actually begin developing my own coaching philosophy, so I could do a better job of developing the players and teams I worked with. It was then that I began my own journey to learn as much as I could about coaching and teaching. I begin to read every book and watch every DVD I could get my hands on. And as the digital age has developed, YouTube had become an even bigger resource! Each year I would continue to add to my own knowledge base, expanding my abilities to become my own person, and not just merely a clone of previous mentors.
As I began taking personal ownership, I have come to develop a personal coaching philosophy on everything from hitting, to the best way to wear a glove. But even with all the technology and information that was available to me over the years, my greatest philosophical implementations were always the result of personal encounters. Such encounters were made at conventions and clinics, like the NFCA, and even more so with coaches that I had the good fortune to work with.
Throughout my reflection of the last 13 seasons, I decided that I wanted to write down the names of each person that has shaped me as a coach and hopefully pass these names onto other coaches, so that they could have some resources on their journey as well.
I’ve spent the majority of my research and learning time on hitting. I love offense and creating havoc for the defense. Along the road I was fortunate to meet a man named Craig Wallenbrock. Craig is a relatively unknown name to the public because he doesn’t mass produce DVD’s or spend time arguing mechanics on message boards. Craig currently works with over a dozen major league teams as a hitting consultant and has worked with many of the big name players in professional baseball. I was incredibly blessed to be able to spend some time with him and have many hours of video footage of himself and many other of his major league hitting coach colleagues breaking down the mechanics, timing and approach of the swing. Don Slaught is another great hitting mind who has influenced the philosophy on hitting mechanics. His software Right View Pro and the accompanying videos does a great job of breaking down and teaching the swing of elite hitters, both softball and baseball. Slaught and Wallenbrock are good friends and agree (for the most part) on the mechanics of the swing, so it was great to have another resource at my fingers with Right View Pro. I highly recommend if your budget allows.
Along the way I learned an incredible amount about the best way to train softball and baseball players and I have abandoned “old school” things like static stretching, and long distance running and replaced them with dynamic stretching and focusing on explosive movements. I’ve learned to train our players like sprinters and not marathon runners. Marcus Elliott from P3 Performance in Santa Barbara and Eric Cressey on the East Coast are the two best in the business, in my experience, and I would highly recommend each coach to seek out everything they’ve talked about regarding our game. Google is a great place to start.
Arm care is another important aspect to our program and it should be to all programs. I became friends withAlan Jaeger of Jaeger Sports at the baseball convention a few years back. His J-Bands and arm throwing routine is one of the most important things I think a team can do. I’ve seen numerous players have incredible gains in velocity, distance and healthy arms since starting to use his bands and routine over the last few years. His new DVD Thrive on Throwing 2 has a 16 minute section just on softball long toss for pitchers starring Monica Abbott. I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.
Making the switch to softball from baseball after 10 years made me a newbie again desperately seeking out information on how to teach and manage pitchers. I hit the lottery when my first softball coaching job was as an assistant at the University of Oregon under the tutelage of head coach Mike White. Mike is considered by many of my colleagues, and around the world, as not only one of the best pitchers to ever play this game but one of the best teachers of pitching as well. In our practices, on and off the field, I tried to absorb as much as possible from Mike about pitching as he would allow (I tend to ask a lot of questions) and am eternally grateful to have done so. Amanda Scarborough is another coach and former pitcher that I have learned a great deal from regarding mechanics and training pitchers. She has videos online that are definitely worth watching and sharing with your players. At this year’s convention, University of Washington pitching coach Lance Glasoe has began to reshape the way that I’m going to manage my pitchers with his presentation. Having a detailed and organized plan like he has given me feels like a secret weapon that everyone should have.
When it comes to defense, I think I’ve taken a little bit from over 20 different coaches across baseball and softball. Most recently I’ve adopted University of Virginia head coach Blake Millers’ double play turning philosophy as well as his rundown philosophy (he presented at the 2012 NFCA and was also an assistant with me at Oregon). In regards to fundamentals of infield play, I met Ed Servais (Head Baseball Coach, Creighton) at a clinic once. Ed’s teams are known as one of the best defensively in the country every season. Outfield play is another area that I’ve just taken little pieces from many different coaches whether in person, at clinics or via video. There are so many great drills online as soon as you hit “search”.
When I’m working with camps or giving clinics across the country, I speak mostly on hitting but I get to teach and work with catchers a lot as well. Catching at the high school and college level is neglected so much more than anything else as many teams’ catchers are used strictly as a Fungo Assistant and bullpen. I believe that you can make the biggest improvement to your teams’ defense by spending 2-3 hours a week with your catchers developing them. If you’re looking for somewhere to start gaining knowledge, the best on this planet at least, is the New England Catching Camp. Their almost three hour DVD on catching is a must have for your collection and I have watched it over 20 times and have had several of my players watch it. Another great resource for catching is Xan Barksdale (Asst. Baseball Coach, East Tenn State) he has a book on catching that is one of the best I’ve found and shares a lot of information and drills online at his website and on YouTube.
I have spent a lot of time developing my own style of offense strategy. My teams are always known as teams that cause havoc on the defense. We have wristbands that display over 20 offensive plays from “Fake Squeeze and Steal” to something we call “Cardinal Fake Bunt” (something they teach in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system). I have come across many coaches who think that it’s too complicated of a system for players to learn and say things like “I would rather simplify it”. Although I agree with trying to simplify things for players to understand, I also believe that players don’t need the game “dumbed down” for them and will rise to the expectation given if it’s taught well. A few seasons ago, we won over 10 games by 1 run. This wasn’t because of great pitching (although it wasn’t too shabby). It was because we found ways to create runs when needed.
TEAM BUILDING & CULTURE
When it comes to team building and culture (which I think is the most important of all the coaching topics) my greatest influencer is Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching. The Captains & Coaches Workshop DVD was a game changer for me as a coach and can’t recommend it enough. His team works with many of the top teams in the country in all sports and you can get access to all of his books and DVD’s online. Yvette Healy (Head Coach, U of Wisconsin) did a great job at this year’s convention, speaking on culture and books to read as a coach and with your players. There are so many books out there on culture and team building. Try to read as many as you can and find the things that fit you and your program the best.
Besides hitting and catching the most common topic that I speak at clinics about is program building & practice planning. I’ve taken from so many good coaches on this area but I’ll name just a few that have stood out. John Cohen (Head Baseball Coach, Mississippi State) is one of the best I’ve come across and you can get his all-access DVD online. Another one would be a convention presenter from this year in Joe Evans (Texas A&M). I always stress to coaches to make a Master Plan with everything that you need to cover over the course of a season from 1st/3rd’s, bunt defenses, rundowns and more. Coach Evans spoke directly on that and shared her master plan checklist with everyone. I highly recommend having yours on hand for practice planning for the week. I know that Coach Evans plan will be a great addition to mine.
MY ADVICE TO YOU
The best advice that I can give coaches is to always be learning, growing, and changing. The worst thing that you can do as a coach is to develop a philosophy on something whether it be hitting, pitching or even bunt defense, and spend your entire career trying to defend it. Be open and willing that what you have been teaching may not be the best way and that you can always learn a better way from someone else. I see former players of mine from ten years ago and cringe when I think of the way that I taught them hitting, etc. This is why I love going to conventions, clinics and spending time with other coaches. If I can sit through a 45-minute clinic on a topic and can find just one small nugget to pull from it to add to my repertoire then that time was well spent. Sometimes you find more than a nugget and feel like you want to throw out your entire philosophy on something. Don’t completely abandon your philosophy and grab someone else’s until you’ve implemented it in small doses. (Or at least wait until the off-season)
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Whether you are a first year coach or a thirty-year veteran, I encourage you to write down your Coaching Family Tree, if not for yourself for your coaches that you may have an influence on and continue to add to it all the time. The biggest thing I took from this year’s convention wasn’t about hitting, pitching, practice planning or recruiting. The most important thing I took away was during Alyson Habetz's (Alabama Softball) introduction of Patrick Murphy (Head Coach, Alabama) at the Hall-Of-Fame banquet. She gave countless accounts of Coach Murphy’s “attitude of gratitude” when it came to everyone he came into contact with. That’s how I want to be described as someday. I am eternally grateful to every member of my Coaching Family Tree and the influence they’ve had on me over the years and will continue to have.