Ideas and inspiration at the 2018 BSUK Coach Summit

Tue 30 Jan 2018

BaseballSoftballUK’s third annual Coach Summit, held on Saturday 27 January at the Kents Hill Park Training and Conference Centre in Milton Keynes, was by general agreement the best one yet, with inspiring speakers and sessions and an attendance of over 80 people. 

In addition to the 10 different sessions that made up the programme for the Summit, a busy weekend also included a conference of University Baseball and Softball Officers, a session for Little League administrators, presentation of the annual BaseballSoftballUK Coach and Volunteer Awards on Saturday evening, and then hands-on gym and classrooms sessions on Sunday, where the main speakers from the Summit engaged with young athletes from the Baseball and Softball High Performance Academies.

The Summit was organised and delivered by BaseballSoftballUK staff, with Development Manager Leah Holmes as the main coordinator, and drew a host of positive comments about the programme, speakers and the event.

A report on the Coach and Volunteer Award winners can be found here


Keynote speakers

This year, the Coach Summit concentrated on baseball and fastpitch softball, and the keynote speakers were coaches at the top of their profession: long-time University of San Francisco Baseball Head Coach Nino Giarratano and Mark Smith, High Performance Director and Women's National Team Head Coach for Softball Canada, currently ranked #3 in the world.

Nino Giarrantano was supported by veteran MLB Envoy Coach and former college baseball coach Pat Doyle.

Although the Summit covered a wide range of topics and approaches to coaching and programme-building, the underlying theme was to challenge assumptions and to make people think about what they are coaching and why. 

Perhaps the best summation of this was a slide put up by Mark Smith at a session he delivered on hitting: “A comfort zone is a beautiful place -- but nothing ever grows there.”

GB Baseball Head Coach Liam Carroll said: “The knowledge, authenticity and communication skills of both our keynote speakers was very impressive and resonated with coaches and players alike.  There was a tremendous balance of reinforcing concepts already delivered within the High Performance Academy, presenting the same concepts in different ways, and presenting brand new concepts which resonated with the athletes.  Our HPA staff is excited to get back to work, putting into practice some of the lessons learned and tools added.

“One of our speakers noted at some point during the weekend that their aim was for coaches and players to leave having picked up just one thing,” Liam added.  “But we all left Milton Keynes having picked up so much more!”


Keynote sessions

The Summit consisted of two keynote sessions, with all delegates present, and two sessions where baseball and softball delegates met separately, plus some breakout sessions after the keynote speeches where follow-up questions could be asked.

The day began with a keynote address by Mark Smith on “Pursuing Personal Excellence”, and he began with a quote from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Never mistake activity for achievement”.

For Wooden, coaching was not just about results but about touching lives, influencing and motivating young people to be excited about learning.  For Mark Smith, a coach has to be the best they can be for their athletes every time they’re with them – but the pursuit of excellence can mean different things in different situations.

Personal excellence for a club or community coach is about developing players and giving them a great experience, with everyone having a fair chance to play.  At any elite level, results may be more important, but coaching still has to be based on core values that are shared with players and delivered with clarity of purpose.

Coaches need to set goals that are measureable, attainable and based on their core philosophy, and the path to these goals needs to be supported by self-reflection.  Coaches need to address areas where they need to be better through continuous learning and by seeking mentors to support gap areas – which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

“Whether you’re a volunteer coach or a paid professional,” Mark said, “you have taken on the responsibility for your players, so do it right.”


After short breakout sessions, the second keynote speech, on “Driving the C.A.R. (Confidence, Aggressiveness, Relaxation)” was delivered by Nino Giarratano.

The talk was built around connecting mind and body and using strategies to develop:

  • Relaxation.
  • The ability to handle stress.
  • Imagery.
  • Self-esteem.
  • Concentration.
  • A positive attitude.
  • Rhythm.
  • The ability to deal with failure.
  • Persistence.
  • Anticipation.

“As coaches,” Nino said, “we have the mind piece and understand it better than we think, but we spend the majority of our time focusing on the physical piece.”  Coaches need to understand the mental blocks that can prevent players maximising their ability and help them with strategies to overcome these obstacles.

A thread that runs throughout Nino’s approach to the mental game of baseball, and to living his life as a whole, is how to deal with the 11 seconds between pitches, using breathing techniques to help get back into the zone.

During the breakout session that followed, Nino and Pat Doyle covered a range of topics:

  • Are you filling or draining the emotional tanks of your players?
  • Providing players with life skills to help them beyond their careers as student-athletes.
  • Dealing with players who resist coaching.
  • Adapting the “11 second” approach for players who exhibit extremes of Confidence/Aggressiveness/Relaxation.
     

Baseball sessions

After lunch, baseball and softball divided into separate sessions.

For the baseball coaches and players at the Summit, Nino Giarrantano and Pat Doyle presented a session on “Why Do I Coach and How Do I Coach?”, followed by a session on hitting.  This was an adapted version of a presentation Nino had made at this year’s American Baseball Coaches Association convention, and included concepts from his keynote speech.

At the University of San Francisco, Nino has his players work at four stations during their batting practice sessions, focusing on:

  • Contact Point: observing the hitter’s contact point from the side to evaluate and learn successful points of contact for pitches in all locations.
     
  • Plate Awareness: observing from behind home plate to evaluate the flight and movement of the pitch.
     
  • Timing: just as a good hitter does when on deck in a game, working on rhythm and timing.
     
  • Flow: putting everything together with live swings.

This approach maximises each player’s time at practice, creating learning opportunities in various areas and providing far more reps than normally occur during practice sessions.

The stations provide insights into the absolutes taught to hitters at USF:

  • Rhythm
  • Timing
  • Vision

Nino Giarratano did a great job of explaining and demonstrating his systems and beliefs during the session, incorporating video from USF and Major League hitters in practice and competition settings.
 

Softball sessions

The first of two sessions that Mark Smith delivered to softball coaches and players after lunch was on “Developing a High Performance Environment”.

The keys to this, for Mark, are:

  • Ensure you have competent staff.
  • Be athlete-centred.
  • Welcome difficult conversations – but ensure you can back up your views with evidence.
  • Commit to continuous improvement.
  • Focus on initiative-taking and problem-solving.

High-level teams need to develop an identity and be clear about what kind of team they are and how they can achieve their goals.  Players need to fully commit to fitness, learning and training.  Practice environments need to be effective, and coaches shouldn’t be afraid to bring in outside experts to challenge their athletes.  And all this need to be supported by continuous self-reflection.

“In the end,” Mark said, “your players will play the way that you coach.”

The second softball session focused on hitting, and Mark suggested that self-belief is a key element for success.  “You need to bat with a swagger,” he told his audience.  “You need to believe that you can get the job done, then make whatever adjustments are necessary.”

For Mark, the basic mechanics of hitting need to be kept simple, so that hitters have a smooth and repeatable swing, stay inside-out to every pitch and cover the entire strike zone.  To achieve this, hands need to be held at eye height, stance should be balanced with weight 60 per cent on the back foot, both eyes need to be focused on the release point at the pitcher’s hip and there should be no unnecessary movement before the swing.

Hitters need to know their strengths and weaknesses and know how pitchers are trying to get them out.

“Think before you step in the box,” Mark said, “then relax and read the pitch.”

Players need to take something positive away from every at-bat, Mark concluded, by asking questions such as:

  • Did I take the count deep?
  • Did I hit my pitch, the one I can handle?
  • Did I foul off borderline pitches?
  • Did I hit the pitch back where it was thrown?
  • Did I pick up the rotation on the ball?

“Making the adjustments necessary to do these things,” Mark said, “is a key part of becoming a world-class hitter.”


University Baseball and Softball Conference

Newly-installed as part of the Coach Summit, BaseballSoftballUK’s annual University Baseball and Softball conference also took place on Saturday 27 January.

After attending a complementary coach education CPD course, 18 representatives from universities up and down the UK, including Wales and Scotland, made their way to a conference room to discuss the state of the sport.

Over the past 10 years, under the direction of BaseballSoftballUK, university baseball and softball has grown from as few as 80 participants to over 1100 players, with their own competition structure and support network.  That growth would not have been achievable without dozens of committed and talented student organisers working alongside BaseballSoftballUK staff, and Head of Development Chris Rawlings paid tribute to the efforts of those involved.

Among topics discussed were the findings of the recent University Baseball and Softball Survey, the direction BaseballSoftballUK will now take based on the survey results, and two case studies involving intra-university competition and interaction with club baseball and softball.

The session also provided an opportunity for representatives to pick the brains of those from the opposite sport as they worked together to develop new solutions to problems they face day-to-day.  BaseballSoftballUK staff with first-hand experience of being in charge of a university club were also on hand to provide their perspective during an engaging and productive afternoon.
 

Sunday​

On Sunday, the show moved to the John Radcliffe School in Wolverton, on the northwest side of Milton Keynes, where Mark Smith, Nino Giarrantano and Pat Doyle, along with a number of HPA and GB coaches, spent the day in gym and classroom sessions with baseball and softball athletes from the High Performance Academy.

For the first couple of hours, Mark Smith and 12 softball players used the school sports hall for a session on hitting while Nino, Pat and the baseball athletes held a classroom session.  Then the two groups swapped over and the baseball coaches, along with around 20 athletes, took over the gym.

Softball​

During the softball session in the sports hall, Mark Smith presented the HPA athletes, who ranged from GB Women to Under-16 players, with basic principles for hitting: where to stand relative to the plate and where the hands and feet should start – principles that he feels makes hitting as simple as possible and gives young hitters the best chance to succeed. 

Mark told the group that the most effective swing, particularly against pitchers with good speed, was always “inside out to the ball”, with the aim being to hit the ball to the opposite field, an approach that provides the best possible plate coverage.

These starting points can of course be modified once players have reached a higher level and want to make changes that might play to their strengths as a hitter, but as a way of setting out and explaining first principles for hitting, it made a lot of sense.

The players worked their way through four batting stations while Mark offered advice and corrections, then the session finished with Mark throwing two rounds of live hitting.

Since Mark Smith was once regarded as the best men’s fastpitch pitcher in the world, there was a certain amount of trepidation -- but instead of throwing particularly hard, Mark threw to spots and challenged the players to adjust to what he was trying to do to them.  It was an excellent session, and the players clearly enjoyed it.

After lunch, during the classroom session, Mark went through the presentation on hitting that he had delivered to coaches at the Summit on Saturday.  But he also talked about the physical and mental dedication required to become an elite softball player, and challenged the group to become more confident and assertive in trying to reach their goals.

Delivering five sessions over two days shortly after getting off a plane from Canada was no mean feat, but Mark Smith gave full value for money in every session.  He was clear, insightful, and entertaining, bringing lessons from his years of experience as a player and coach at the highest level to his audience.

Baseball​

Sunday began for the HPA baseball players with a classroom session led by Nino Giarratano, who went through the Mental Performance presentation he had made to coaches on Saturday, then talked about American college recruiting philosophy, which was useful and educational for those HPA athletes with the desire to play collegiate baseball.

Nino then focused on rhythm and timing as a hitter, which would become a primary focus during the sports hall session.

Pat Doyle talked about a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset” and the effects this can have on a player’s development, and presented strategies players can use to practice productively when away from HPA and club practices.

During the baseball sports hall session, players rotated around several stations to practice the drills and concepts that Nino Giarratano employs at the University of San Francisco, with a big focus on rhythm and timing.

These included a video station demonstrating examples of good and bad technique, plus a tee station, front toss station and a live station.

The work at each station was designed to emphasise the process presented to coaches on Saturday, especially contact point, plate awareness, timing and flow.

Throughout the session, Nino Giarratano and Pat Doyle provided individual and group feedback, and the players clearly came away feeling that the day had been of value.

Looking ahead

BaseballSoftballUK’s 2018 Coach Summit was supported in part by the British Baseball and Softball Federations and the European Softball Federation, and was the product of months of planning and preparation by BaseballSoftballUK staff.

The event is clearly growing in stature, both in the UK and Europe, and it won’t be long before initial planning begins for the 2019 event, which will bring more world class coaches to the UK to help drive our programmes forward.

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