Prompt: Now that you’re a coach, what do you know now that you wish you would’ve known as a player?
I didn’t experience baseball in its truest and most enjoyable form until my senior year at Taylor University. The pre-season experts predicted we’d have an average and overall mediocre year—finishing fourth in our conference, the Crossroads League. The 2016 season yielded different results than expected. We finished as regular season conference champions, clinched a regional spot in the NAIA National Tournament, and set the program single season wins record with 40 victories. Since graduating and saying goodbye to my college career, I’ve transitioned into coaching. As a coach, I approach this new side of the game with the 2016 season still fresh in my mind. My playing days at Taylor taught me what it takes to win championships and how to best approach the game. I believe my playing career would’ve been better off if I’d been taught at nine years old what I learned at 22. If I could travel back in time and talk to the younger version of me, this is what I would share…
1. Baseball is not who you are, it’s just what you do.
At too early an age, my entire identity became engulfed in baseball. It’s all I thought, dreamed, and cared about. I joined a travel, AAU team at the age of nine and continued until I reached college. I scheduled my entire life around AAU baseball and hinged my self esteem on my performance. Playing well meant happiness. Anything less meant sadness. This mindset hindered my development. Baseball is a great sport. It should be loved and taken seriously, but to a point. I didn’t fully enjoy baseball until I realized my self worth and identity aren’t rooted in my individual performance.
2. Trust the process.
Growing up, I became too caught up in my individual stats and whether or not my 11u team would win the local league title. At the time, this was my world. Winning tournaments and trophies trumped everything else. I believe I would’ve developed into a better player if I’d had a big picture perspective. Winning tournaments when you’re nine years old is great, but it’s not everything. When you’re getting recruited by college and pro scouts, they don’t care whether or not you won the local tournament or batted .575 when you’re nine. They look for skills and intangibles. Stats matter when you’re trying to get recruited for college. Before then, it doesn’t matter.
The process of becoming a good baseball player demands thousands of hours practicing and learning the game. I practiced a lot growing up, but not always with the big picture in mind. Little details grow into big results—whether good or bad. The majority of players don’t wake up when they’re 20 and start hitting 400 ft. homeruns. This skill starts when they’re much younger, practicing good hitting form and learning how to approach an at-bat. Throwing ninety miles per hour isn’t something the majority of pitchers can do naturally. However, anything is possible after many years of arm care, proper conditioning, and perfect form. Trusting the process and paying close attention to details when you are young yields the success you desire at the college and pro levels.
3. Be a great teammate.
I loved playing baseball the most when I cared more about the team than myself. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a great teammate until my senior year at Taylor. Being a great teammate means bringing a selfless approach to the game. What can I do to help the team? What is my role, and how I can I best do it? Anyone can be a great teammate when they hit a homerun or have a good outing on the mound. What defines a great teammate is how you respond when the game humbles you. Do you cheer on the guy who is playing ahead of you at your position? When you strike out, are you back in the dugout cheering on the next guy? The 2016 Taylor Trojans had a lot of great teammates. I remember mound visits when a pitcher leaving the game handed the ball to the next guy with the words, “Let’s go, you’ve got this.” I remember our senior outfielder leaving a game with a hamstring injury and cheering on his sophomore replacement. I’m a firm believer that baseball is best enjoyed when players care more about the success of the team than their own personal stats and playing time.
4. Always compete. Never give up.
I discovered I had the most fun playing baseball when I cleared my head and competed to the best of my ability. Being a competitor isn’t just a mindset, it’s a lifestyle. From the moment they step off the bus, championship level teams have one thing on their mind: do whatever it takes to win. Winning demands competing at your highest level every pitch, out, and inning of a game. Baseball is a slow game. The best players learn how to harness their energy and focus for the entirety of a game.
The 2016 Taylor Trojans were a team committed to competing every day. We often found ourselves behind on the scoreboard as the last innings approached. What I loved about that team was their fighting spirit. We never gave up. No matter the score or the situation, we stayed composed and focused on our game plan. We had faith our teammates would come through for us and we’d win in the end. More often than not, we got big hits, strikeouts, and double plays to turn the momentum in crucial games. While our opponents panicked, we committed to our plan of competing every pitch, out, and inning of the game. At every level of the game, great teams and players are the most competitive on the field.
5. Keep a proper perspective.
I love baseball’s ability to teach life lessons. My junior year at Taylor, I had the privilege of playing with Josh DeGraaf. Besides being a great person and teammate, Josh dominated on the pitching mound. He delivered consistent strikes with a 90+ fastball and had solid off speed in his arsenal. I’ll never forget Josh’s perspective about the game. “You can’t get too high or too low in baseball,” he said.
Josh is currently finding a lot of success as a pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in Josh’s words. Too often I see players hang their heads after a bad at-bat or teams with bad body language after a rough inning. To be a great baseball player, the success and failure of the game shouldn’t deter you from your goal of winning. The best in baseball know both success and failure are temporary. What separates players is how they respond to failure and how they handle success.
Having a good perspective makes this possible. Great players know one at-bat or inning pitched doesn’t necessarily define their careers. Players are defined by how they approach the game everyday. Great players build off their successes and learn from their failures. No failure or success defines their life, because they know tomorrow holds another game and new challenges.
I wish I could go back in time and share these stories and insights with my younger self. I believe my career would’ve been different and perhaps better had I known what I know now. I hope this post offers helpful encouragement and insights for your baseball journey.