What's Coach Doing?

Austria national baseball team coaches Copyright: EBSM

Today we’re looking at the folks whose job it is to coach your hometown team to success and how they do it.

‘How many coaches does one team need exactly?!’

If you’re a new parent or fan of the games, you’re likely trying to figure out who all the grown people are walking around in uniform but not actually doing anything on the field… at least not as far as you can see.

Our best guess is you’re looking at the coaching staff. The people behind the players, making their on-field performances the best each athlete has to offer.

Every team has their own coaching staff configuration but, generally speaking, a professional bench will have a few standard positions in common. Today we’re taking you through their names, and duties, to give you a better understanding of how the games are run.

A coach is there to direct the team in united goals including successful practices, improved mental and physical fitness and, naturally, winning games. To achieve these goals a good coach will begin with team communication, both on and off the field.

Their purpose is to motivate the athletes to perform at their best over the course of their career, keeping the goals of their individual success, and team success in alignment.

Some of the ways coaches help ensure these successes are through skill assessments, encouragement and game instruction. Their instructions might include strategy, physical skillsets and mental preparation.

A good coach is always training an athlete to peak performance through demonstration, advisement, support and planning. Most important to obtaining that peak performance is motivation. Without the ability to motivate people toward change, a coach lacks opportunity to make a successful impact.

Now let’s look at a few of the positions and how they differ from one another.

Netherlands Softball Photo Provided by Judith van Den Berg

Manager/Head Coach

Read, Head Cheese, and you’ve pretty much covered it. This is the person the remaining coaches work with to determine the team goals, as well as the individual goals of each athlete. The head coach is then tasked with rolling all these goals into a plan for success.

The key skillsets of a head coach include: planning, organization, strategy, motivation and communication. Some of the daily tasks they complete include planning workout regimens for the athletes, organizing the team practices and preparing a game plan for each opposing team they are likely to face.

On game day the duties of a head coach include batting line up, strategy for base running and defense, as well as challenging any plays with the umpiring staff.

They are also looking for signs of injury, fatigue or other weaknesses that could affect their team's best chances at success. Most importantly, they look for communication concerns. If there are players on the outs with one another, they need to know how to bring that situation to a quick resolution. Every family has their disagreements. It is the coach's job to get them back to rights.

Often times the coach will enlist the help of their two best on-field coaches, the shortstop and the catcher. Both these positions play pinnacle roles in keeping the team working together. That means the three - catcher, shortstop and coach - will often work together to handle strategy and leadership, especially where player moral is concerned.

Off the field the head coach is going to be talking with the front offices and boards to determine future directions of the team. In many cases, they will have to argue for, or against, players coming and going from the team. When changes are necessary, it is the head coach’s duty to call a player into their offices for a discussion. When those changes do happen, it is often the coach that must answer to the media concerning those decisions.

Netherlands and Italian national team softball coaches Photo Provided Courtesy of ESF PC: Grega Valancic

Pitching Coach

As you might suspect, the pitching coach works with the pitching staff. More to the point, they work with the starters. They are the coach that is going to visit the mound during the game.

Their job is to ensure pitchers don't overthrow, throwing too hard during the game. Nerves can get the best of everyone and, when they get to a pitcher it can result in early fatigue, loss of control or, worst of all, injury.

The plan for a pitching coach during practices is to work on improving the mechanics of a pitcher. When this happens, velocity naturally follows. Mental stability through failure is a key training goal. After all, it is the pitcher’s job to consistently throw the ball into a spot where the batter is most likely to make contact. When done correctly, a pitcher can set up the hits to land in their defensive backup’s hands on a fairly regular basis. When you’re a fresh-faced pitcher, the task can seem daunting. The more the opposition gets a piece of one of your pitches, the less successful it can feel. It’s a pitching coach’s job to show their staff how to use that mental frustration to their advantage – to filter the negative into a positive outcome.

Part of that is training for memory loss. It is incredibly important for pitchers to leave every pitch in the past. If the previous play is running through their head as they release the next pitch, chances are it will have an affect on the throw – whether that prior toss resulted in a positive or negative outcome for their team. Staying in-the-moment is the key to long-term survival when the ball is in your hand and it is the pitching coach’s duty to help their staff learn how to make that happen.

Another aspect of the pitching coach's role is teaching control and good body mechanics. Pitching is a repetitive motion job. Just like factory workers have to look out for tendenitis, coaches have to observe pitchers carefully. The smallest shift in delivery, over time, can cause irreputable damage to a throwing arm. The key to throwing right is using the full body to move the ball forward. It is the job of the pitching coach to protect the arm by showing each player how to use their body correctly through their own individualized throwing motion.

Aside from body mechanics and consistent control, pitching coaches also have to prepare their pitchers to become great defenders. As soon as the ball is released, a pitcher has to be ready for the ball to come back their way. Most often it bypasses them initially but no play on the ballfield ends until the ball is back in the pitcher’s hand. That means they are involved in every single play. Preparing them for the hundreds of plays, and their thousands of potential combinations, is the other half of coaching a pitcher.

Bullpen Coach

Similar to a pitching coach, the bullpen coach works primarily with relief pitchers. During the games they generally stay in the bullpen, communicating with the pitching coach by phone in the dugout. Usually a former pitcher or catcher, their job is to prepare pitchers for shorter outings, generally under higher pressure.

Their main objective is likely to include building a good rapport between the pitchers and all available catchers. Most starting pitchers have a preferred catcher they work with so your reliever needs to be able to have an open line of communication with whomever is sitting in the crouch.

This is critical to the team's success. You don't want to switch out your catcher with every pitcher. Your catcher is your on-the-field leader who has spent the prior 6,7 or 8 innings watching the opposition up close. They are going to know who is capable of pulling the ball and who is good for whiffing anything fast and dirty over the plate. The knowledge they have in their head is too valuable to switch out for pitcher preference. Considering most relievers and closers were, at one time, starters, it is an important transition to coach a player through.

Bonn Capitals Head Coach BJ Roper-Hubbert & Pitcher Maurice Wilhelm Photo Provided Courtesy of the Bonn Capitals

Hitting/batting Coach

It's about more than teaching a player to make consistent contact with the ball. A hitting coach instructs players on how to use their swing to help the team. There is a great deal of strategy involved with batting that includes knowing the strengths of your own swing as well as the speed of the players already on the bags ahead of you.

One way coaches might teach a batter to help is by showing them how to lay down a bunt more effectively. Another might be showing them the right locations to aim a sacrifice fly, to allow the optimum time for runners to score. Most often, it has to do with showing batters how to aim their own swing to hit balls where the defense isn’t.

There are gaps across the field of play and, until a catcher/coach on the opposing side learns where you like to hit, there is a window of opportunity to place the ball out of the path of their general defensive setup. A team generally plays their defense in a specific formation until they learn how a particular hitter is likely to have their hits land. As a result, batting coaches might train players to go with their natural swing the first few at-bats. After that, as the situation warrants, they can begin placing balls in other parts of the field – once the defense has adjusted their set-up to match the batter’s natural hitting path.

It is also important for hitting coaches to teach everyone in the lineup the strengths and weaknesses of one another’s swing. By knowing who is at the plate, a runner can determine their own best strategy for things like attempting to steal bases and when to go on contact.

They should also teach one another about each other’s strengths and weaknesses as runners. If the steal is on and your batter knows the runner has a hard time sliding, they can try to aim the ball to drop between the in and out fields to ensure too much time on the throw to warrant sliding.

A hitting coach also learns to monitor moods as well as performance. When a slump is on the horizon, one option is to ask the player to move in the order, so they can continue to contribute to the team.

For example, let’s say your #2 batter has gone 0-10 in their last few games but they are excellent at laying down the bunt. Moving them down the lineup a few slots, over to the #4 slot let say, while moving up the #3 and #4 batters, might work well. Your #4 slot is usually fairly speedy on the bags. By playing with the lineup, you mess with the expectations of the general offensive setup for the opposition. Doing that creates opportunities for additional scoring for your team while keeping your player motivated.

A sacrifice bunt or fly ball doesn’t count against their average so putting them in a position to contribute on offense will give them their confidence back at the plate and, sooner than later, you’ll be free to give them the swing-away sign once more. Before they know it, they’ll be right back where they belonged, in at #2, without having suffered a huge drop in their season average. That’s a coaching move any player with long-term goals in the game can come to appreciate.

That's it, the short list of likely coaches you'll see on any game-day bench. As for base coaches, we covered those duties in our Offensive Player Positions piece. Generally speaking, a player, as easily as a coach, could be covering these tasks. These are more game-day duties that the head coach will assign than they are actual coaching duties that a single person fulfills on a regular basis unless you are at the top level of professional ball in the world. Most likely, it is going to be a hitting coach or another secondary coaching staff task during game day.

Hopefully this helps you start to understand the roles of the folks on the field as they guide your favorite team toward their season, and professional career, goals.