Coaching & Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Mar 10, 2020
Michael A Chernow speaks to Héctor Morales, the club’s Cultural Readiness lead, to discuss their pioneering work in helping overseas talents reach their full potential in MLB.

Professional sports organizations will search all corners of the globe in the effort to unearth the next generation of athletic talent.

By Michael A Chernow

Major League Baseball is no different. A 2018 National Foundation for American Policy analysis of data released by MLB revealed that 27% of the league’s players were foreign-born. 

These players, like their American peers, will have been recruited into an academy and then an athlete development program where a club has more time to create and monitor the on-field goals and benchmarks that have been created to stimulate a player’s performance growth.  

At my team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, we seek to prepare international recruits to transition into a competitive team-centric environment, as opposed to tryout-centric environment. There is also the question of working with these youngsters as they adapt to a culture and lifestyle to which they are not accustomed. 

While looking at the price tag of some of these players, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that high value international signees are 16 years old and may have a limited educational background. In any event, it is the responsibility of the organization to prepare these players to ultimately make an impact, in some cases, seven or eight years down the road. 

Here at the Pirates, the responsibility for delivering this duty of care is Dr Héctor Morales, our Director, Cultural Readiness and Peak Performance Coach. 

I sat down with Dr Morales to talk through his work helping the Pirates’ overseas talents to fulfill their potential. 

Getting your mental tools in check 

As a native of Manati, a small town in baseball-mad Puerto Rico, Morales understands the journey and the challenges faced by the island’s players who venture to the US mainland in full hope of establishing Major League careers. 

“You don’t know when you’re going to hit your first confidence choke point,” he explains of recruits from overseas. “Everything is going swimmingly, you think it’s perfect, you are developing your skill, and then you show up to a particular location and realize that you’re not as good as you thought you were.” Morales has seen such scenarios play out time and again during his six years with the Pirates. 

As the son of Manati’s Sporting Director, Morales interacted with local athletes across a range of sports from an early age. 

Though, as he freely admits, he was not the best athlete while growing up, as a student at the University of Puerto Rico [UPR] he won both individual and team championships in Judo before graduating with a degree in kinesiology and exercise science. 

The confidence choke points are exacerbated if your mental tools are not in check. You will regress in your competitiveness, you will regress in your ability to battle, and it’s going to take a little bit of time to come back

Héctor Morales

Morales credits his UPR sensei, Hiromi Tomita, with instilling in him the importance of the mind in establishing athlete resilience, toughness, perseverance, not quitting, staying true and competing. 

His schooling informs his views on the significance of those aforementioned choke points. “The downfalls are exacerbated if your mental tools are not in check,” he explains. “You will regress in your competitiveness, you will regress in your ability to battle, and it’s going to take a little bit of time to come back.” 

While at school, he also spent two years in the University of Puerto Rico’s Reserve Army Officers’ Training Corps, which eventually led to a commission as an Air Defense Artillery Second Lieutenant in the US Army.  

“When I was at Fort Polk [a US Army installation in Louisiana], I was still being sponsored by the army to compete in Judo,” he continues, jokingly adding that, “my friends would give me a hard time about my involvement here, and even made a fake award for me, it was ‘The Award for Diverting Necessary Army Funds into Judo Causes.’” He would eventually reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 

After serving with distinction for 26 years, in 2004 Morales became the first Hispanic officer selected as an Academy Professor of Physical Education at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He concurrently studied and earned a PhD in sport and exercise psychology from Florida State University. 

He was heavily involved in sports development at West Point and, when the Academy looked to appoint a Head Coach for its judo team, he stepped into the role and led the program to its first National Championship in 2008. West Point Judo also won 14 national collegiate judo titles across all four divisions – men’s and women’s advanced, and men’s and women’s novice – between 2009 and 2014. These efforts would later stand him in good stead for his work with the Pirates. 

Brief encounter 

Morales had long indulged his passion for baseball before joining the Pirates. At various times, he coached his son’s team, provided pro bono work with baseball facilities, and even instructed classes on the mental side of baseball.  

Then, in 2011, a group from the Pirates, led by Director of Mental Conditioning Bernie Holliday, came to visit West Point [Holliday had worked there between 2003 and 2009] to teach a group how they were working with the mental side of performance at that time.  

Morales decided to attend and, as he tells me, he posed a question: “’Well, what about the international players? How are the international players adjusting to this program?’” He would ultimately answer those questions for himself. 

Today, reflecting on the Pirates’ Cultural Readiness program, he adds: “The biggest challenge I saw for the first transition when the players first came to the US, the players were in the back of the lines, standing in the background, they were just trying to follow the crowd, and more followers with fear, which I can relate to, because it is exactly what I did when I first came to the US as a non-English speaking private.” 

Within three years of that West Point encounter, Morales had joined the Pirates as Mental Conditioning Coordinator as the organization sought to bring more intentional focus to the developing of their international program. 

“It was great for me because it allowed me to understand what the system was all about,” he reflects. “A couple years down the road, we started realizing the challenges international players had, that were similar to the challenges my judo athletes had in terms of understanding what they’re getting themselves into.” 

It’s not that we’re going to give them the solutions – the ‘keys to the kingdom’ – we are making them aware of the speedbumps they are going to find that will significantly harm their career if they are not prepared for them

Héctor Morales

In 2017 he was promoted to Director of Cultural Initiatives and Peak Performance Coach before rising to his current position in 2018. During this time Morales helped to establish a cognitively diverse group of thinkers in the clubhouse, with experiences ranging from playing to educational backgrounds, that worked together to identify seven confidence choke points for international players. 

Following on from this initiative, the objective of the Cultural Readiness and Peak Performance program is to identify how much can the Pirates equip these players with the tools to solve the problems that are going to come with each one of those confidence choke points. 

“It’s not that we’re going to give them the solutions – the ‘keys to the kingdom’ – we are making them aware of the speedbumps they are going to find that will significantly harm their career if they are not prepared for them,” explains Morales, “if you don’t have a contingency plan, a mental tool to pull out at that moment to reset and get back to where they need to be.”  

The reality is, the athletes are talented enough to compete at higher levels, beyond baseball, when an athlete is signed at an early age, a talent evaluator along the way has deemed their skill to be pro quality.  

“The effort with our program is tied to the player understanding what they are going to be facing along the way, what can we help them with, and what are the things that only the player can solve themselves. At the end of the day, if you don’t want to change it, if you don’t want to fix it, nobody is going to do it for you. All we can do with our program is set the conditions for the athlete to be successful. We set parameters, we hold them accountable, but they are the ones who have to make the decision to follow the path or not.”  

Buying into a bigger cause 

While discussing the guardrails that were set in place for the Cultural Readiness program, Morales shared his experience working through the challenges faced his 2012 class of Judo athletes at West Point when they were selected.  

“My message for them was pretty simple: you will be the first ever, of 50 generations of West Point Judo Athletes, that will be able to call themselves ‘national champions’. I sold it in a way they believed it, and we were able to remind ourselves on a weekly basis. We’re talking about West Point Cadets, the best of every town, of every class – they still needed to be sold on the idea of something bigger than themselves. What we saw was an immediate behavioral change, in acting, walking like champions.”  

There can be quite a difference between collegial West Point cadets and international baseball players, who often lag behind their US peers in terms of their cognitive and physical development, but Morales adopts a similar approach. 

“We can sell the same concept,” he says, with the concept of someone who has seen it repeatedly work across the Pirates academy. As international players arrive in the States, following with fear, trying to skulk into the crowd, and often without a firm grasp of English, Morales introduces a concept to help them ease through that first phase of transition. 

After three years, we begin to see our younger players in the front of the line, telling people where to go, because of the belief they were Pirates already, and there was no reason not to demonstrate the confidence they know they have

Héctor Morales

It is call, as he says, ‘Lead like a Pirate.’ Morales attempts to instill in the players’ minds the notion that they were already Pirates prior to being drafted. His rationale is to empower the international players to believe they can lead someone who doesn’t necessarily know the way the organization operates. 

It has the desired effect. “After three years of selling that mantra, we begin to see our younger players in the front of the line, telling people where to go, because of the belief they were Pirates already, and there was no reason not to demonstrate the confidence they know they have,” says Morales with pride. 

“For every one of our transition levels, there is an accompanying theme just like it. Another example is when the player moves away from a Pirate building for the first time, which we call ‘living outside the Pirates umbrella.’ The player is on their own for the first time, and they are faced with the challenges of connecting with host-families, their role in the community, when to take an Uber, etc. 

“As we think about who we are as human beings, to learn to analyze our own lives, and our own goal-getting experiences. It’s only when we believe something internally is when we begin taking ownership of the decisions and actions that will get us there. You can tell me 100 times, but if I don’t believe it, if I don’t emotionally connect with it, my chances of having behaviors and actions that will lead me to achieving what I want, is very limited.”  

Performance challenges 

“One of the biggest challenges with this program is that we have talented people working in different areas,” reveals Morales. “In order to be able to find the commonalities in the different pieces of international player development and put them together in a cohesive approach, you need to be able to have a group that will put their ego aside. In reality, it takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a lot of love for us to be able to do, while prioritizing what needs to be done because we have a limited amount of time to work with these players, and we’re very cognizant of preventing burn-out at the same time.” 

“Building a cohesive approach, has taken us about two or three years to implement. Our process is different than other clubs. Our process is more comprehensive; I work in conjunction with the International Scouting department to speak with the player and their family prior to them signing to make sure that they understand what is expected of them once they officially become a Pirate.” 

In terms of the players themselves, the biggest challenges they face are associated with their up-bringing.  

“Where are they when it comes to the starting line? The best in the world, regardless of the sport, share a common denominator, and that is the ability to want to get better,” Morales declares. “All of those elite-level competitors, they each know how to lead themselves. Self-leadership is a common quality among that group. It’s already in place, whereas a 16-year-old that we sign who grew up on a farm in the country, the level of self-leadership might not be as high as the next guy.” 

He continues: “Because of the environment, if a player shows talent from an early age, they get put onto a pedestal, and have a group around them who will provide them with the best equipment, in hopes that they can be part of their inner circle when they sign for big money. The player becomes entitled, and this leads to a lower level of self-leadership, because everything is done for them, because the people around the player don’t want to lose the benefits associated with being involved with this player.”  

In previous articles, the customization of player development plans as best practice in regards to maximizing an organization’s chances of unlocking the potential an athlete has covered technical and biomechanics and mental skill acquisition.

“What is it about this particular player? You may be higher on self-leadership, you can do everything correctly, but you wear your emotions on your sleeves, so let’s focus on that aspect of your performance.”

Once an international player demonstrates competency within the foundational level of the Cultural Readiness program, the next step is individualizing their plan to address their needs. It is a gradual process, with people at their lives at the heart of it. 

“I’m in the people business,” says Morales, “and I want to help the individual who is in front of me to be the best that they can be.”

What does the modern coach need to know?

We tackle this question in our latest Performance Special Report. Download Coachmaker: What the Modern Coach Needs to Know, which features sports organizations as diverse as Ulster Rugby, the Geelong Cats, Minnesota Timberwolves and US Special Operations discussing personal development, creating performance environments, recruitment and using data in smarter ways.

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