Several summers ago, I was a young Boy Scout. I was probably around 14 years old. Every summer, our troop would go on a week long trip to summer camp. As part of camp, we would sign up to take specific merit badges. Some were required for the rank of Eagle – such as first aid and physical fitness. Others were for fun – canning, shooting, basket weaving (this was harder than you thought).
One of the merit badges I signed up to take that summer was lifesaving. It was an Eagle required merit badge. While there were alternatives to fulfill the requirement, my dad convinced me I was a good enough swimmer to try it out – key word “good enough.” On day one, we warmed up by doing 20 laps in the pool. No – that wasn’t the actual workout. That was the warm up. If I knew what I learned after taking the merit badge, there’s no way in hell I would have done it.
But I did learn a valuable skill I think all coaches should be familiar with.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. We were working on techniques to save a drowning swimmer. For these exercises, we were in the pool. Our task was to swim out to the drowning victim and save him using a couple of different strategies. These strategies are inherently dangerous. There isn’t a more vulnerable position than being in the water and within the vicinity of a drowning swimmer. The human you’re trying to save is not a rational person. They don’t recognize you as another human being. They see you as something they can climb on top of to get their head above water. You might as well be a rock. If you get too close and lose your guard, you’ll become the drowning victim.
On this specific exercise, we were instructed to get into the pool and save the drowning victim using a life preserver. When you toss the life preserver, the key is to toss it just beyond the drowning victim. You don’t want to hit them or toss it too short where they can’t reach. This is a much easier task from land than it is while treading water and trying to communicate to a drowning swimmer.
These exercises were designed to be challenging. One of our instructors was playing drowning victim. Their goal was to try and “drown us” as we attempted to rescue them. Their arms and legs were flailing and slapping the water. If we got too close, they would grab us and try to jump on top of us. As a result, we had to learn how to keep enough distance so they couldn’t drown us – but get close enough where we could toss the life preserver beyond them.
When it was finally my turn, I hopped into the pool and starting swimming towards the victim. I communicated to him I was going to toss a life preserver. I got to a safe enough distance where he couldn’t drown me and I felt comfortable throwing the life preserver. Here’s the problem: I didn’t quite toss it far enough. When I tried kicking it further out, I lost my grip on the rope. It fell too far away from the victim where he could grab it, but too close where I felt my safety would be at risk. Stuck, I had to make a split second decision. I could accept I failed the mission and start over, or I could try something else and see if I could still salvage it.
The decision I made is something I think all coaches need to learn.
In the exercise before, we practiced the same task but without a life preserver. Extending one hand, you were to instruct the drowning victim to grab your hand. You held it close enough where they could see and think they could reach, but just far enough where you could pull back safely and start swimming towards shore. It was a game of cat and mouse. You gave them just enough daylight where they could lunge for safety without actually risking your safety. Offering your hand – instead of a life preserver – is a much risker mission, but it just might save someone’s life if you don’t have anything else to work with. Especially if you just lost your lifesaver.
As I processed the mistake I had made, something in the back of my mind kicked in. While it was only an exercise, it didn’t feel right quitting on the mission and going back to land with a “dead” victim in the water. I decided to come up with a new plan on the fly. Without thinking, I got a little closer and extended my hand. I yelled to the drawing victim, “Take my hand!”
Here’s the thing: No one told me to do this. There was no “back up” plan if you screwed up the exercise. I might have lost my lifesaver, but I did know how to save someone’s life without one. I didn’t panic the mission didn’t go according to plan. I simply pivoted to what I thought could work in that situation. When faced with an unfamiliar problem, I acted on instinct and improvised.
I eventually restarted and did the exercise over, but I’ll never forget the subconscious decision I made that day. In a situation where my fight or flight response was most vulnerable, I kept my head and potentially saved a life through the process. My decision was unplanned and unrehearsed – which is why it was so important. The most important decisions aren’t made when we follow procedure. They’re the ones that take us off script.
Improvisation isn’t the exception. It’s the law – especially for a profession that lives in the gray area.
Coaching and lifesaving might seem abstract on the surface, but they share a common theme: We have to solve a specific problem under considerable constraints. To solve problems under pressure, we must first start with a main objective. In lifesaving, the objective is to save the person’s life. In coaching, the objective is to be a blend of a doctor and lifeguard: Spot the problem, diagnose it, and eradicate it. In both, the objective clarifies our thoughts and actions. What we say or do must influence the overall goal for the activity. If it does not, it is of no use.
Once we have a main objective established, we have to develop a plan of action. The decisions we make are largely influenced by our skills and experiences – which is why building both is critical. In lifesaving, the instructors were tasked to give us a multitude of strategies on how to save a drowning victim. When it comes to life and death, we have to be prepared for a variety of different situations. Sometimes we’ll have a boat. Other times we won’t. Sometimes we’ll have a lifesaver. Other times we won’t. In other words: We need a large toolbox. If we’re only adept at saving someone’s life when we have a flotation device at our disposal, we won’t be able to navigate the chaos of a situation in which we have to save someone without one. Tools aren’t the objective. They’re simply strategies that help us solve the main objective.
Coaching is no different. Players are going to come to us with a variety of different problems. Our eyes and experience will help us put together an accurate diagnosis. Our toolbox will help us find the right solution. The objective – as we’ve established – isn’t to pull out your hammer every time you arrive to the construction site. Sometimes we’ll need a drill. Other times, we’ll need a saw. Many times, we won’t even need to pull out our toolbox at first. If you’re building on a bad blueprint, hardware will only create headaches. The right plan will alleviate more headaches than your toolbox ever will.
Which makes me wonder why we’re so quick to dig into our tool belt…
Day by day, I despise the word “drills” more and more. They are to coaches what medicine is to doctors. I’ve never heard of a doctor that’s an “anti-inflammatory” guy or an “antihistamine” guy. But yet, in baseball, we group coaches based on the tools or drills they use. You’re either a weighted ball guy, long toss guy, or a waterbag guy. Our love for labels makes me realize an unfortunate reality when it comes to coaching: Many of us are playing the wrong game. The goal in lifesaving isn’t to be a “life preserver” guy. It’s to fucking save someone’s life. This is the problem I see with a lot of coaches: Too many of us are trying to become “life preserver” guys instead of “lifesaving” guys. We’re married to tools that have the opportunity to create adaptations – not the actual adaptations themselves.
The more I rethink my theories and ideas, the more strongly I feel about what I am about to say.
Whenever you regress an athlete to a specific drill, you run risk to the problem of transfer. Throwing a baseball is a highly specific skill. You don’t get better at throwing a baseball by shooting a basketball. The only way you can get better at throwing is by throwing. The problem, however, is there are no insignificant variables when it comes to pitching. If you want to solve a problem on the mound, you have to account for everything: The slope, surface, conditions, competition adrenaline, and consequences. Our training shouldn’t be done as a way to create a new game. It needs to replicate the game. Transfer requires specificity, which is why I think there is only one drill that exists the we need to get really good at: Throwing a five ounce baseball off a 10 inch mound and to a target at 60’6” with adrenaline, consequences, and someone in the box that wants to kick your ass. I do not care what your pivot picks, walking windups, or waterbag rotations look like. I just need you to do that one drill really, really well. Coaching begins when you cannot.
Better coaching happens when your drills cannot.
One of the best things I ever learned during my time at 108 Performance was conducting an evaluation. Our evaluations were a two part process. The first part required the gathering of information. I would have a conversation with the athlete and try to figure out what was important to him. I would observe their habits, how they warmed up, and what kind of drills they did before they got on a mound. Once on the mound, I would observe their movements and pitch shapes. I’d pay close attention to their body language and how they made adjustments between pitches. Everything I collected was done within the context of two main buckets: First, I needed to know what problems they were experiencing. Second – and most importantly – I needed to know why they were experiencing these problems.
We didn’t just tell kids what they sucked at when we evaluated them. We wanted them to leave with a smile. Seeing what is off gives you insight into the problem. Knowing why it’s off gives you the opportunity to solve it. If I wanted them to leave with a smile, I had to be able to check the second box. Movement problems are not accidents. They happened for a reason – and my job was to figure out why.
When I was conducting evaluations by myself, I was kind of in a lifesaving situation. I had to figure out fast how to help a kid struggling with a specific problem. To do this, I had to build rapport, establish credibility, observe, collect information, and put together a calculated plan on the fly to attack their issue(s). Over time, I saw of the same issues – so I learned a lot of different ways to solve the same problems. For a lot of kids, simply explaining what they did wrong, showing them the video, and connecting it to ball flight was a huge unlock. For others, a simple drill, feel, or different understanding of how to move did the trick.
Not everything worked for everyone, which was why it was so important to be able to improvise on the fly. If hitting soccer balls or pulling the bat back didn’t get them to stop their hips, I didn’t continue to coach the drill. I simply pivoted to something else. There are millions of drills to get the pelvis to stop. If one of them didn’t work right away, I didn’t continue to coach it up. I just moved on to something else. Some kids only needed one thing. Other kids needed to try out five or six different things until we found something that resonated. At times, it was pretty uncomfortable. The last thing you want to do is roll through seven different drills when you’re trying to establish credibility with a kid during your first interaction together.
What I learned, however, completely changed how I coach athletes on the floor.
When I think about drills, tools, and cues, I come back to an idea from Daniel Khaneman – world renowned researcher on human behavior and co-author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow. In his own words, Khaneman is “passionately dispassionate.” He doesn’t hold on to any of his ideas or theories concretely. He holds them very loosely – for if he comes across something that changes his mind, he is able to change his mind swiftly. I think this is exactly how we should approach coaching. Drills, tools, and cues all have a shelf life. We are inevitably going to run into a situation where something we’ve tried before does not work. It is in these moments where improvisation becomes the separator. Instead of jamming the square peg into the round hole, we’re better off finding a different peg. If you have an open mind and a large toolbox, you’ll be able to find one that works.
Time – as with many things in life – is a paradox. We need more of it for out efforts to compound, but it’s always working against us. The little time we have with our athletes is a premium. Nothing else is more important. As a result, we need to spend it doing things that matter the most. To me, drills are not worth the majority of our time. They’re designed to be regressions from the game, so they will inherently lack specificity. This violates the main principle behind our training: It must be specific for it to transfer. If most of our throwing is done in non-specific environments, we’re going to create non-specific adaptations.
Our body cannot pick and choose what it responds to. If you expose it to something repeatedly over time, it will adapt. If your plan prioritizes exercises over adaptations, it’s not a matter of “if” your plan will fail. It’s a matter of “when.” You cannot violate the law of specificity without consequences.
Now let me explain: I’m not becoming a complete advocate for the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle. I understand where and when drills can be valuable. I simply want us to rethink our allocation of time on the training floor. To me, drills are not the thing we need to get good at. Drills are like training wheels: They help us get going on track, but once we find our balance we need to get rid of them as soon as possible. It’s the only way we’ll be able to leaarn whether our work is transferring. Drills should not be done for the sake of doing drills. To me, they’re a plug and play designed to help you solve a specific problem – until they no longer help you solve that specific problem. When their shelf life runs its course, you need to be able to improvise and move on to something else. If you don’t, you’ll end up wasting valuable time coaching something up that has no guarantee of transfer to the mound. If the drill takes precedence over the delivery, the main objective gets lost in the details. You lose the forest for the trees.
If you’re a coach, I challenge you to avoid this trap. Don’t program drills for the sake of doing drills. Don’t keep doing a drill if the drill isn’t creating the adaptation you desire. Adapt on the fly and improvise. The best way to save time is to make sure you’re not wasting any. Your plan won’t be perfect on day one. It’s going to take trial and error to get it right, but that’s the ultimate job of a coach. Your job is to live not in the black and white, but in the gray area. It’s where things don’t work, personalities don’t blend, and your ideas don’t stick. If you hang to the few tools in your toolbox, you are inevitably going to run into situations where they don’t work. It is in these moments your creativity and adaptability will be tested more than ever.
If you can improvise – just the way I learned at Boy Scout camp – you can and will figure out something else that works. Your “program” will not save you. Your ability to ditch it will.
Improv is not the exception for coaches. It is the rule. Do not break it.