Inspiration for coaches at the 2019 Coach Summit

Tue 29 Jan 2019

A busy and inspiring day of keynote speeches, classroom workshops, Q&A sessions and general chat about coaching marked BaseballSoftballUK’s fourth annual Coach Summit, held on Saturday 26 January at the Kents Hill Park Training and Conference Centre in Milton Keynes.

Around 70 people from the British baseball and softball community attended the Summit, and over 50 of them stayed for the annual BSUK Coach Awards ceremony that followed the Summit sessions.

The next day, 27 January, the scene shifted to the Radcliffe School in Wolverton, on the other side of Milton Keynes, where keynote speakers from baseball and fastpitch softball, with support from GB Baseball and Softball coaches, ran sports hall and classroom sessions with athletes from BaseballSoftballUK’s High Performance Academy.

This fourth Coach Summit, with keynote speakers from the United States and Europe who are at the leading edge of the coaching profession, added to an impressive body of knowledge and coaching wisdom that has been built up in the UK through this annual event.

After the day had finished, GB Under-18 Women's Head Coach Robbie Robison said, "A massive thank you and congratulations to BaseballSoftballUK for organising the day and making it successful.  It's great to meet and learn from these high-quality coaches.  Being part of the GB softball programme, this event gives me confidence in knowing that we are teaching and coaching our athletes to the same standards as the guest speakers -- though unfortunately we are unable to spend as much time with our athletes as they do with theirs.  As always, I look forward to the next Summit!"


WELCOME

On Saturday morning, BaseballSoftballUK Head of Development Manager Chris Rawlings welcomed delegates to the Summit.

“People from across the UK coming together in one room to discuss coaching makes this a great day,” Chris said.  “The key is to immerse yourself in the day.  Be present and make the most of it.

“This is a great time to be involved in baseball and softball in the UK,” Chris continued, “with MLB teams coming to London this year and potential Olympic Qualifiers for both of our senior national teams.  This will mean more people wanting to get involved in our sports, so as coaches we need to be ready, because the window of opportunity will be short.

“Innovation happens when discipline and ideas intersect,” Chris added.  “There is a lot of baseball and softball knowledge in the room, so make the most of it.  Ask questions!  Don’t regret afterwards that you failed to do so!”

Jim Jones from the International Sports Group (ISG), which helps to source baseball speakers for the Coach Summit, said: “Ten years ago we helped stage a baseball clinic in this country and six coaches showed up.  Now, I look around the room, and it’s completely different.  And it’s great to see baseball and softball banding together.

“Coaching is a lifetime learning thing,” Jim added, “and what I’ve learned over the past 10 or 15 years has totally changed how I teach baseball – and made me realise that I’ve misled a lot of people over the years!

“If your own resources are limited, reach out and use what you can.  Use the internet (though you need to be careful).  Go to fellow coaches, books, videos, other sports and use resources that have nothing to do with sports at all.  Filter and adapt to come up with what you need.”


KEYNOTE SPEECHES

The 2019 Coach Summit featured three keynote speakers, two from baseball and one from softball, and they all spoke to the full cohort of Summit attendees.


Ed Blankmeyer

The first keynote speech was from Ed Blankmeyer, Head Coach of the baseball team at St John’s University in New York City and about to enter his 24th season there as the most successful coach in the school’s history.

Ed’s theme was Building your Programme and his talk focused on how to grow the game and on key points for coaches.

“You have to have a vision, whoever you’re coaching,” Ed said, “and you have to have a love and passion for the game, which in the end will drive patience and results.  Regardless of the resources you have, or the level you’re coaching at, what is your end game or goal?”

For Ed, the key element in creating a vision is the culture you are trying to develop in your programme.  And culture is based on standards and values.

“Goals will change as your programme grows,” Ed told the assembled coaches, “and not attaining your goals doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.  It’s values and standards that are non-negotiable, and these need to be sold to players, parents, staff and supporters.  Your best bet in the UK is to start with a collective vision.”

Building a programme requires a plan, and the key elements of that plan are to put good people together who share the vision, including strong organisers, teachers and support staff, because it all comes down to people.

“But you also need to talk to your players,” Ed said, “and really listen to them.  You have to get the players to care, and to trust you, and to know that you care about them.  Then they will listen to you.”

Ed Blankmeyer summed up with the following points:

  • Have a structured, disciplined plan
  • Have systems based on routines
  • Work on balancing the two aspects of baseball: art and science
  • Coach to make your players better people.


After each of the first two keynote speeches, attendees separated into baseball and softball groups for short breakout sessions to reflect on the talk they had just heard and to pose questions to their specialist coaches

But there was little time for the breakout session after Ed Blankmeyer’s talk because everyone was soon back in the main hall to listen to the softball keynote speaker, Ali Higgs.


Ali Higgs

Ali Higgs started out playing baseball as a young child and was persuaded to move to softball.  There, she was a catcher and outfielder and was persuaded to become a pitcher.  As a hitter, she saw herself as at best a doubles hitter, but her father (himself a coach) persuaded her she could hit home runs, and she finished second all-time on the home run leader board at Iona College.  After her playing career in college and the National Pro League ended, Ali enrolled for an MBA at Jacksonville University and was persuaded to combine that with an Assistant Coach position.  After five years, when the Head Coach left, Ali was persuaded to take on the Head Coach role (though she gave it up three years later as the admin aspects of the job didn’t suit her and she now runs her own company that does pretty much everything to do with softball).

So Ali’s keynote speech was called A Life Defined by Coaches, and she used her own softball history to talk about the ways in which coaches can positively influence players and in some cases enable them to achieve far more than they thought they could.

What coaches need to do, Ali said, is build confidence and suggest outcomes based on things they might be able to see even if players can’t.  Be honest with your players about where they are: sometimes even an adverse comment, delivered in a relationship of trust, can fuel determination.

Give your players the tools to succeed, Ali said, and then they have to earn their spot.  But help them – be there with your players.  Build them up as people, not just as players – as Ed Blankmeyer had said earlier.

Ali’s experience has taught her that as a coach, especially a Head Coach, you need to surround yourself with “good people who are better than you are”, and make your team or programme a family.  Use your best players as models for others and encourage your players to learn from their peers.  Find your own coaching style and play to your strengths.  It’s good to challenge yourself, but don’t work too much outside your comfort zone.  Do what you’re good at and passionate about.

Ali strongly recommended that UK coaches should look up an 18-minute video by the legendary UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist on “Fear and Failure” and she ended her presentation with two quotes:

“Be the energy you want to attract.”

“Just because you’re in command doesn’t make you a leader.”

Ali Higgs’s keynote speech was followed by another separate breakout session for baseball and softball delegates, and then lunch.  Then it was back to the main hall one last time, for the final keynote session from Bill Holmberg.


Bill Holmberg

A former pitching coach for national team programmes in Chinese Taipei and Italy, head of the Italian Academy for 14 years and now Major League Baseball’s International Pitching Coordinator for Europe and Africa, Bill Holmberg worked as a double act with GB Baseball Under-18 Head Coach Will Lintern to present an excellent technical clinic on MLB’s current throwing programme.

Bill emphasised at the start that the clinic was about throwing, not just pitching, which made it relevant for all baseball and softball disciplines.

But as far as pitching in baseball was concerned, he said, “Results equal velocity and health,” and MLB’s current throwing programme, based on the latest sports science, could help coaches achieve both.

“But,” Bill admitted, “there is so much that we’ve taught over the years that’s wrong!”

The rest of the session broke down throwing motion into constituent parts, with drills to ensure correct technique.  Using this technique, Bill and Will made maybe 100 throws back and forth to each other at the front of the hall, with people and fragile things behind them, and never came close to a wild throw.

“You have to set your body and your arm in a position that can accept the next position,” Bill said.

In teaching pitching or throwing, coaches need to:

  • Identify the fault.
  • Design a drill to correct it.
  • Make sure the player feels the correction.
  • Then let the player figure it out.

“I’m much closer than I used to be to having the answer,” Bill said at the end of the session, “but I’m still learning!”


CLASSROOM WORKSHOPS

After Bill Holmberg’s keynote speech, the rest of the afternoon was given over to two separate baseball and softball classroom workshops, with a coffee break in between, delivered by Jim Jones and Ed Blankmeyer for baseball coaches and Ali Higgs for softball coaches.


Baseball

Jim Jones’s workshop session provided a look at various areas of coaching methodology and learning, including:

  • Mindset
  • The myth of learning styles
  • Spacing
  • Deliberate practice
  • Differential learning
  • Principles of motor learning.

Jim also discussed how coaches can bridge the gap between practice and real learning.  "Many of our past practices were effective in teaching players how to practice baseball," Jim said, "but not how to play baseball."  Players need a growth mindset to achieve real learning, and while they need to be challenged to move out of their comfort zone, the challenge should not be so great as to induce panic, at which point learning is no longer possible.

Ed Blankmeyer’s workshop delved into his baserunning and hitting systems from St John’s University: what they do and how to implement it at practice.

Baserunning covered leads, steal breaks and batted ball responses at all bases.

Hitting covered routines and processes to develop hitters and not just swingers, drills to develop mechanical, visual, timing and approach aspects of hitting, and correctional drills.

The session also included practice planning to align hitting and baserunning systems and took in game day batting practice as well.


Softball

Meanwhile, the first softball workshop delivered by Ali Higgs was called Developing the Elite Outfielder.

The key elements to look for and work on with outfielders, Ali told the group, were arm strength, range, technical skills, consistent communication on the field with other players and aggressiveness.

Since outfielders need to throw strongly and accurately, Ali recommends drills that involve long toss and long throws to build up arm strength, paying particular attention to the mechanics of what is often called the “crow hop” but that she calls the “power step”.  Ali demonstrated drills to work on the power step and taking a drop step back to run through the ball for the subsequent throw.  She also noted that it’s always useful to work on pure running technique to eliminate wasted motion.

Developing range in an outfielder is a matter of getting them to read the ball off the bat, get a good jump at the right angle and use speed under control, and Ali showed or demonstrated drills for all of these aspects.

Technical skills include the ability to catch fly balls – ideally on the glove side for a quick transition -- and to field ground balls on both sides of the body, a skill that outfielders often don’t practice enough.  Ali teaches outfielders to maintain eye contact with the ball at all times (“turn the hips, not the head”), and talked about drills and strategies to ensure that outfielders don’t put up their gloved hand until they’ve reached the ball and are ready to make the catch.

Ali wants her outfielders to make loud and confident calls on the field and keep talking, including pre-pitch reads (“What did this batter do the last time?”), and she described drills for all these elements.  For example, the Triangle Drill involves throwing or hitting fly balls into the “no man’s land” between left field, centre field and shortstop, forcing the players to communicate well so that someone can make the catch.

Aggression in an outfielder has many aspects, including diving, making catches at the fence, taking calculated risks and going all out – but in a smart way.  “I train my players to be super aggressive,” Ali said, “but then I rein them in!”

The second workshop was on Game Changers: Bunting, Slapping and Speed, and Ali admitted that although these are important elements, especially in women’s fastpitch softball, she’s not a huge fan of the short game in her own game management and in many cases prefers to let players hit, reflecting a constant debate within the sport.

Ali’s approach to the short game is based on that of the famous US Olympian and Pro League player Natasha Watley, and it happened that a member of the audience for this workshop was Tara Henry, who played with Natasha at UCLA and for whom the short game was an essential element of her own offensive approach.

Tara was able to demonstrate the techniques and footwork involved in bunting and slapping, and the two coaches discussed a range of drills to develop the necessary skills.

“The best thing about slapping,” Ali said, “is that as a hitter, you have so many more tools at your disposal to put pressure on the defense and create chaos than just hitting away.”

Many coaches try to take right-handed batters with speed and turn them into left-handed slap-hitters, and this has happened recently with players in the GB programme.  “But to make the switch,” Ali said, “you need a player who understands the game, and it can take two years of hard work to make the change successful.  In Europe, players may simply not get enough reps.”


COACH AWARDS

The final event of the day was the BaseballSoftballUK Coach Award presentations.

“Without coaches,” Chris Rawlings told the group as he Introduced the award presentations at the end of the day, “no one plays.  That’s why we have established the Coach Awards, to recognise coaches and what they bring to the community.”

There had been, Chris noted, a large number of nominations for most of the awards.

The winners in each of seven categories received plaques and £25 vouchers from The Baseball Outlet, and you can see who won the six prestigious awards for coaching and one for volunteering in a separate article on the BaseballSoftballUK website.
 

Q & A session

Presentation of the coach awards was preceded by a short panel session where three of the main guest speakers answered questions about their coaching journeys and philosophy.

Here are the questions and some of the answers from the session:


QUESTION 1:  Of all the paths you could have chosen, why coaching?

Ali Higgs:  I didn’t choose coaching; it chose me.  Once I got into it, I loved the kids and it sucked me in.

Ed Blankmeyer:  After my playing career ended, I wanted to stay in the game.  My former college coach offered me a Graduate Assistantship, and I was hooked.  What better way could there be to continue a career in baseball than helping others?

QUESTION 2:  Describe your coaching philosophy.

Jim Jones:  Athletic endeavour and success comes about through character.

Ali Higgs:  Pure transparency – as coaches, we’re respected more for that.  Be yourself and be honest.

Ed Blankmeyer:  I coach my players the way I would want to be coached.


QUESTION 3:  If you were starting your coaching career again, what advice would you give yourself?

Jim Jones:  To shut up!  And surround yourself with good people.

Ali Higgs:  “Shut up” is a great answer!  And I would do more events like this one.  When I was a not-so-confident young coach, events like this Coach Summit would have helped me.

Ed Blankmeyer:  Listen more to the players.  You need to know more about them as people to develop them as players.


QUESTION 4:  Other than results, how do you measure a coach’s impact?

Ed Blankmeyer:  Standards and values separates a good coach from a poor coach.  Beyond results, you need to have an impact on your players’ lives.

Ali Higgs:  Having your kids leave you and experience life and then come back to tell you that you helped them and you had an impact.

Jim Jones:  If it was just about measuring wins and losses, I would be a failure.  But here are two stories.  When I was the Head Coach at Wyoming, a student – not an athlete – later told me I had saved his life by talking about the warning signs of cancer.  In Czechoslovakia (as it was then), I took over teams that had no resources and were used to losing and changed the culture.  Later, players told me I had taught them both about life and about winning.


QUESTION 5:  What’s next in your journey to improve as a coach?

Ali Higgs:  Coming here has opened my eyes to how the sport is around the world and I want to do more of this.

Ed Blankmeyer:  I’m still looking to grow as a coach.  Baseball can become a truly international sport, like soccer, and I’d like to help achieve this.

Jim Jones:  I got my first exposure to international baseball in 1991 and I don’t want it to stop.  I’ll keep going to clinics wherever I can and keep trying to learn.


SUNDAY

On Sunday, HPA Baseball started the day at the Radcliffe School in Wolverton, Milton Keynes, with a sports hall session led by Jim Jones, Ed Blankmeyer and Ed's son Ty Blankmeyer.

Jim Jones introduced various throwing drills largely from the Texas Baseball Ranch, run by renowned pitching coach Ron Wolforth. 

Ed Blankmeyer went through baserunning leads and responses and, with help from GB Baseball coaches, led a hitting session covering four of the drills introduced to coaches on Saturday.

In the classroom, Jim went into more depth about throwing drills and the mechanical areas each one addresses, while Ed outlined infielders’ routines and processes from his programme at St John’s University.

Meanwhile, Ali Higgs spent the day with HPA softballers ranging in age from 13-23 where the focus of the day was on outfield play and the short game, reflecting the softball workshop sessions from Saturday.

The morning was spent in the classroom running through theory, the mental game and new training ideas.  Ali created a good learning atmosphere, and two hours in the classroom flew by with great interaction from athletes and coaches.

During the afternoon session in the sports hall, the players worked their way through a mix of stations while Ali provided encouragement, advice and new challenges.  At the end of the training, each player shared a couple of things they had learned from the day, with answers ranging from grips for bunting to speed advice, new footwork ideas and ideas to help with solo training.

Ali’s friendly, fun but fiercely competitive approach was highly effective with the HPA softball group.  Hannah Pitman, a third year HPA member, GB Slowpitch player and GB Women’s Fastpitch squad trialist, said "Learning from Ali was a really great experience: she has a wealth of knowledge and is so passionate about the game.  She made us think about just how much we can practice despite not having the same facilities as they do elsewhere in the world and to take accountability for that if we want to improve.  She taught us new techniques and gave us some great drills to use.  I am so grateful for this experience and for what I have taken away."

BaseballSoftballUK London Development Manager Liz Knight said: "I’ve know Ali since 2005, and I’m very thankful she volunteered her time to help with the HPA.  Her visit has already made an impact on British baseball and softball and as she mentioned a couple of times, she is keen to come back and get further involved.  She wears her heart on her sleeve and is reckless in the pursuit of her dreams."

All of the baseball and softball athletes enjoyed the day and can take what they learned back to their HPA sessions and their teams.

Photos by Felicity West

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