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Mugford says: “We have tried to celebrate our team’s successes while looking at further opportunities to grow, both individually and collectively, through the players and ultimately the results.” To establish those individualised player programmes and achieve collective goals, Mugford and Brewer prioritised two major outcomes, as the latter explains: “The first outcome is performance-driven, which means different things at major league level and development level; the second is player availability, because consistency in selection and an ability to put your best players on the field is going to be aligned with success.”
The pair sat down with the Leaders Performance Institute to discuss their work implementing an integrated approach to high performance at Toronto, where all staff members, from seasoned baseball campaigners to fresh-faced young professionals, now play a role in delivering high performance across the board.
Creating a shared language
The UK-born Mugford, who holds a PhD in sport psychology from the University of Kansas and previously worked as Director at global sports and talent management organisation the IMG Institute, made one of his first acts at Toronto the creation of a ‘High Performance symposium’. As he explains: “It was really an attempt to get to know the people here and find out more about them, their successes and their challenges.”
Typically at this stage of the year the different departments at a baseball club, be it the strength and conditioning team or the coaching staff, work separately. “Trainers often do some kind of modality or intervention training for their group,” he continues. “Strength coaches would likewise do something themselves and we used that opportunity to create a high performance symposium as an opportunity to talk about what we considered to be high performance.
“It was very workshop oriented; people had the chance to talk with staff they hadn’t really spoken to before to share their values and personal motivations. There was a lot of interaction and I think it helped us break down some perceived barriers.”
Brewer attended for four or five days. He says: “We began a process where we tried to get everyone using a shared language. This idea largely comes down to the fact that our athletic trainers knew athletic training; our strength and conditioning coaches knew strength and conditioning; and often what we found was that something was going on in one room and something else was going on in another room that didn’t correlate because there was no communication. It wasn’t collaborative work; it was two departments working on one player.” Mugford even cites a discussion that took place around the difference between ‘high’ volume and ‘heavy’ volume.
Brewer adds: “Our Physiotherapist, Nikki Huffman, a fellow at Duke University, was instrumental in establishing that shared language; she bridged those two worlds, understands the language of both, and is able to be the conduit in the discussions.”
“People had the chance to talk with staff they hadn’t really spoken to before to share their values and personal motivations. There was a lot of interaction and I think it helped us break down some perceived barriers.”
Mugford and Brewer were laying foundations for clear and open communication as the team sought to fill performance gaps. Brewer says: “A lot of our subsequent work is about pulling together decision-making teams and looking at things from all perspectives to solve problems; so we won’t just go into medical-only teams to solve medical problems. A classic example would be an athletic trainer having a discussion with a strength coach about what a player should be doing; it actually led to a large group meeting with all our athletic trainers, our S&C coaches, and some senior baseball coaches, about every player, which was the first time that had actually happened. It was essential to on-board the concept that everybody has a role to play in every discussion, even if they may not be a key decision-maker in that discussion. That symposium sought to dispel the assumption that ‘a side’ has to lose in these discussions rather looking for a solution where both win.”
The first practical implementation came at Spring Training earlier this year. “So we put together a cross assessment for our major league players where the Physiotherapist, the Athletic Trainer, the Coach and myself actually looked at all the inputs into these guys’ training programmes, from hitting, throwing, cardiovascular training, strength training, speed training etc. We brought the coaching staff into that and they agreed to the players’ returns to full training status; we also agreed which games do you want them playing in? What are the key dates for each of the players from there? We then put those programmes together.”
Mugford adds: “Maybe that process happened before but not in one place; so there were separate programmes that would be developed; but the key shift here is that it was a one-pager.”
Developing critical capacity in your staff
For cross-departmental conversations to function effectively, Mugford and Brewer sought to develop the critical thinking capacity of the staff that sat under their high performance umbrella. “Broadly speaking, northern Europeans are a bit more comfortable than North Americans at looking at negatives and things that can be fixed,” says Mugford.
This was not lost on Brewer, who is undertaking his first assignment in North America, having come from working as a human performance specialist in his native UK at the Rugby Football League and the Widnes Vikings rugby league team; with previous roles across other sports. He says: “One of the challenges was getting people to understand that, at every discussion, we want their honest input, even if that’s telling us that we’re wrong.
“We’re conscious of the fact that a lot of these guys have anywhere between ten and 25 years of baseball experience and we need to draw on that; we need to utilise that experience and that expertise to best inform two individuals who have less than a year’s baseball experience behind us.
“By the same token, they’re learning to trust us from a combined 45 years of experience across other sports and an idea that things can be done differently than in the past. It’s about bringing both of those together.”
It is not always easy. “Sometimes the message we send is not the message received,” admits Mugford. “So as best we can we’re always trying to cross reference and give feedback despite our 30-plus staff working in potentially five different cities in three different time zones.”
The conductor and the orchestra
How do the high performance department’s decision-making processes now work in practice at Toronto? “It really does depend on the situation and what’s required,” answers Brewer. “It’s complex and the challenge that we’re trying to look at is where the expertise sits leading into a particular discussion; sometimes we’re the conductor and at other times we’re part of the orchestra. It depends on the context of the problem.”
“We’re conscious of the fact that a lot of these guys have anywhere between 10 and 25 years of baseball experience and we need to draw on that; we need to utilise that experience and that expertise to best inform two individuals who have less than a year’s baseball experience behind us.”
Mugford echoes Brewer’s sentiment about the importance of ensuring all staff have an input: “We look to empower each individual as much as we can and try to make sure that people feel free to express their opinion. We will draw people back to a collaborative and objective standpoint while valuing the subjective pieces of the puzzle as well.”
Brewer cites an example of their new medical process kicking into action when a top-level Toronto prospect tore an anterior cruciate ligament in an on-field collision. “We have a fantastic surgeon; he pulled in a team to review the MRI scans that included our Head Athletic Trainer, our Physiotherapist, our Strength and Conditioning Coach, myself, Angus from the psychology team and in his role as Director; we looked at what decisions needed to be made based on the MRIs. The General Manager was also closely involved in this process.
“There were going to be surgical and non-surgical options; each of those had implications for the subsequent treatment plans, such as the care plan and the progression plan for this player. So we put in place what the pros and cons of each approach were from a rehabilitation perspective, a treatment perspective, a strength and conditioning perspective, which also linked to rehab; from a testing and monitoring perspective; and then his return to play deadlines.
“We had a very comprehensive discussion around that and the implications for each when the player returned to the roster. Now we know the decision-maker around that was going to be the surgeon but everyone had an input and ultimately the decision was made to be a non-surgical one and the same theme was revisited to pull together the rehabilitation plan. By this point the decision-maker has changed in the lead role of that exchange to the Head Athletic Trainer or the Physiotherapist, but everyone retained an input.
“For example, my role was to decide what tests we would put in place that will show he can accept a load at an appropriate stage of rehab; so what was our test and re-test protocol. The physio and strength and conditioning guys looked at how we best develop a marker-based rehab and training progression, and the Psychologist advised how to best keep the athlete motivated and goal-directed moving forward. Then there is the stage where the coaching staff get involved to discuss how we best get this guy transitioned to return to the field of play.
“It’s a progressive sequence of inputs that stay constant; but the leadership, the key roles, and the decision-makers change as we move through them.”
Room for improvement
There have been numerous successes on and off the field but notable to Brewer is the early buy-in of the players and their associates. “If you look at some of the things the players were saying in Spring Training and beyond; we had some of our MVPs saying how they now had people providing answers to their questions; I’m coming in and not sleeping; why is that? We can put together a discussion group and get some experts in with a series of answers that are going to help them.
“We had a player with a foot problem, which we corrected by going back through their agent to correct their shoe manufacturer; we have an observable record of player behavioural change. That’s a really good indicator for us but long-term it’s much more about showing systemic change as opposed to small wins; that’s really going to show that we’ve had an impact.”
There is still some way to go, as he explains: “People might say you’re pushing too hard and people are not ready for the level of accountability that you’re trying to establish. We need to respect that, act on it, and do things in accordance with that because it’s not moving us towards mission critical. Nonetheless, we’re encouraging empowerment, accountability and developing our clarity.”
Asked if he and Brewer are pioneers, Mugford is quick to reference the work of the Seattle Seahawks and the Alabama Crimson Tide football programmes. “They have done a good job not making it about one person,” he answers.
Nevertheless, it is not only on the field of play that the Jays have been making significant gains.