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Coaching / Development, Performance | Sep 3, 2019
Pittsburgh Pirate Michael A Chernow explores the sports, influence of data, the athletes themselves, as well as performance environments and leadership traits in the search for answers.

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In the latest in his ongoing series for the Leaders Performance Institute, Michael A. Chernow, Pittsburgh Pirate Fellow of Minor League Operations, shines a light on elite performance across elite sport. His first and previous feature can be found here.

What does elite performance development look like in an athletic context? Opinions may differ on best practices for how athletes are developed.


By Michael A. Chernow

However, it is a belief of mine there are actually more similarities in the way elite coaches develop talent across different sports than not.

Elite leaders in performance development learn from their counterparts in different sports, and seek out opportunities to observe training methods and practices to understand how to get the max out of elite athletes.

This educational crossover allows for learning of different practices and techniques used, with aspirations of identifying the best applications they believe will enhance the program and improve the development of their own athletes. Leaders constantly search for differences in teaching athlete development as methods for growth.

What about the similarities?

I found myself uniquely positioned to research this topic, as I have worked in both the NBA and MLB, with the two teams I have been associated most recently being the Philadelphia 76ers and Pittsburgh Pirates. My experiences have allowed me to see firsthand how much work goes into the development of athletes, and most importantly given me exposure to many talented individuals.

The two men I spoke with for this piece were John Townsend and Bobby Scales. To give you an idea of how these men got to their current points in their careers, I have provided some background on their history.

The areas of focus for this piece are: the game, information and data, the player, performance, and leadership.

Background

My first discussion was with John Townsend, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers.

John has seventeen years of professional basketball coaching experience. He spent the first five years of his coaching career in the NBA’s developmental league, and the last twelve seasons on an NBA bench in which he has taken part in over 1,000 games, including 63 in the NBA playoffs.

Throughout John’s journey in the NBA, he has worked for the Portland Trailblazers, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies and the Philadelphia 76ers. He has held titles that have included Shooting Coach, Assistant Director of Player Development and Director of Player Development.

During those 17 years, 25 of the players he worked with in the NBA’s D-League (now G-League) have gone on to play in the NBA. He has worked with over 150 NBA players, 14 of which have been All Stars, five have been number one overall picks, two have won Rookie of the Year awards, and one has won the NBA’s 3-Point challenge.

John also coaches internationally. He conducts a camp in the Canary Islands in Spain with former NBA player Sergio Rodríguez that has upwards of 200 registrants, each of whom receives individual one-on-one coaching. He also puts on a coaches’ clinic in Istanbul, Turkey, and Valencia, Spain.

The second discussion was with Bobby Scales, the Minor League Field Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bobby has been involved in professional baseball since he was drafted in the 14th round of the 1999 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres out of the University of Michigan. As a freshman, Bobby walked on to the University of Michigan’s baseball team, and at that time, playing professional baseball was not even a consideration. After two Big 10 championships, making an All-Big 10 team, and batting .350 as a Junior and .370 as a Senior, it became a reality.

Bobby overcame significant adversity during his professional career, and it was not until he was with his fourth organization where he realized his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. All told, Bobby played 1,536 games professionally; his journey had plenty of stops along the way. In addition to playing in the minor leagues before reaching the MLB, and spent two seasons in Japan, as well as playing in Mexico.

At the conclusion of his playing career, his desire to remain in the game of baseball was robust, and he ended up interviewing for, and earning the title of Director of Player Development for the Los Angeles Angels. Bobby spent three years with Los Angeles where he was in charge of leading a development group tasked with the mission to grow the players in their minor league system into players ready to answer the call at the major league level. Towards the end of his tenure, he spent time as a Special Assistant to the General Manager, a role where he did a lot of scouting work. At the conclusion of his time with the Angels, and after a period in the financial planning and insurance industry, Bobby joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he now holds the title of Minor League Field Coordinator.

The Game

Common belief is that as years pass by, ‘the game’ changes and in some instances, it does change. However, even when the leagues adjust their rules, the competition aspect will remain mostly similar.

What changes is the way we comprehend what we are observing. An example would be the emphasis organizations are placing on understanding the elite athlete’s body. The ability to recognize the ways in which the athlete’s body is operating and to establish customized development plans for each individual athlete has permitted the proverbial “bar” to heighten in the competitive space.

For example, when John and I were discussing the state of ‘The Game’, he referenced the time he spent with a biomechanist at the University of Pennsylvania. The subject of their meetings was to go over the way the body functions in relation to shooting the basketball. They spoke about the amount of small bones in your hand, wrist, forearm areas and the different devices available to understand all of the moving parts that are involved with shooting a basketball. John was immediately able to transfer this knowledge about how that part of the body worked and put it to practical use within his coaching.

In baseball, Bobby referenced the tremendous growth in the staffing of the people whose focus is on the body. The reason is that, throughout sports we know more about the body than ever before and there is an emphasis on how we train the body and methods of recovery.

“In 1999 when I first became a professional, it was a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach in the big leagues and one Minor League S&C coordinator that roved the system. Now, every Minor League affiliate has their own.” Bobby said. “What used to be a ‘fight for legitimacy in the industry’ … certainly is not a fight anymore. We have to develop methods to train better and train smarter.”

Within the lines, there are changes to the strategy of the game that have changed some of the shot locations within basketball, and ideas on where you want to hit the ball in baseball.

“The idea of … bigger, faster, stronger … always remains the same in the game of basketball. There is always that outlier player who can get away without being able to shoot. However, one of the main changes now is that everyone needs to be able to shoot,” John tells us.

Everyone needs to be able to shoot in the current NBA game, because there has been an explosion of information and data that indicates that shooting from distance yields the most value.

What about in baseball?

“Besides the understanding of the body, the biggest change from when I started in 1999 to now? Analytics.”

Information and Data

“It is weird, baseball has changed, and it hasn’t changed. I remember as a player, the first thing we would do when we would walk into a clubhouse is find and look at the stat-pack. Even in the 1940s, Branch Rickey used statistics. By its nature, baseball has always been a tabular game, and there have always been things we could put a number to. Because of the volume of games, you receive a large enough sample size that each of these statistics add up and matter,” Bobby explained, adding, “what has changed, however, is intelligent people are continuing to peel back the layers; we have information that is more accurate. While we have always looked at numbers, we now have better measures to look at numbers.”

Industry-wide, we generate performance markers and evaluate based on these statistics. One of the biggest areas where we can learn more about the athlete through the collection of numbers is with the increasing usage of technology in athlete development. However, while the ease in which obtaining data and video may have grown, as John explains, the premise is not necessarily new.

“When I first began as a shooting coach in 2003, I invested in software program called Dartfish. This came with a camera I would set up on a tripod, and then I would make sure it connected to my laptop through a fire wire that recorded everything live and allowed me to film players during their practices and show it to them in person. At the time, that made me different and set me apart from the other coaches.” John continued, “Now, you can do this from your phone, text it back and forth with voice and drawings in the matter of minutes. Before it was an elaborate process, it’s simplified now.”

Baseball is no different; we are currently experiencing a ‘gold rush’ in the industry of new technological progress, and teams able to identify and implement the systems best suited to provide competitive advantages will continue to be the teams that yield recompense for their efforts.

The procurement of information and data is significant, but without the ability to teach off it, you simply possess a lot of information that is not doing anyone any good. In today’s industry, you absolutely need an understanding of the data you are working with. Equally important is having the ability to build trust within the instructor/athlete relationship, and then coach off applicable data.

The Player

More so than any prior generation, the modern athlete has grown up in an advanced technological society.

“This is such a technologically advanced age group.” From an on-court coaching perspective, this has allowed John to grow in his profession by implementing video and other data driven tools to supplement what he is seeing with his eyes. He mentions how: “social media is important to them, where as it isn’t important to me.” In order to better connect and build the required relationships, this group has forced him to adjust, and continue focus on growing his own development in order to develop the athlete.

Bobby is strong in his belief that the player has not changed. Rather, the exposure to what the athlete grows up in is changing. “Society has changed. What is going on in our society has changed and I believe that we are all subject to what is going on in our society. Experiences, upbringing, what you have grown up in. It all feeds into what is going on within the player. “

Both men put a premium emphasis on connecting with the athlete on a personal level. As Bobby puts it, you have to earn the players’ trust through the connection you build with them.

“If you want to help the player get better, you have to connect with the person. The player is a piece of them. The player resides within the man. If you want to access the player, the man will give you access to them. You have to connect with that person. Understand the person, who they are.”

John echoed this sentiment: “Specifically as a development coach, it’s all about relationships. How can you relate with the person you are working with? The dynamic is different when you are talking about working one on one with a player versus working with group. In a group setting, you might not be able to single out a person the same way you can in a more intimate, one on one setting. Knowing how to speak with them is huge to know the differences between one another.”

A major factor in creating this relationship, from Bobby’s perspective?

“Be authentic. If you are fake, the players recognize that in a heartbeat. You always need to be evolving, always changing. Have to be authentic and who you are. If you fail to do this – nobody is going to buy in and nobody is going to trust you.”

Performance

There are significant differences in the performance space between basketball and baseball. Basketball is a team-centric game with immense focus on learning how to operate on the floor as a cohesive unit. Baseball, as Bobby describes, is a game of: “Individual battles that occur within a team construct – and winning your individual battle is key in the situation of the game to overall team success.”

However, there was a major similarity that stood out when discussing how prepare the athlete to perform at their highest level.

“When you are dealing with elite performers, nobody wants to lose,” Bobby says. “You have to learn to deal with it. Competitive juices will bring out spirit in a group that nothing else simulates.”

John mentioned how when he is coaching a player, his focus is on the player’s performance cues that the two of them have developed over the period of time they have worked together. In a group setting, however, it becomes a competition.

Competition is a critical ingredient for elite athlete development. Regardless of the sport, it is imperative to foster a training environment that stimulates competitive situations where athletes have an avenue to channel the heights of elite performance in non-game situations.

Leadership

A relatable definition of leadership is … the act of motivating a group of people to come together and work towards achieving a common goal.

A main principle of sport in a team context is … a group of people who come together and work towards achieving a common goal.

Identifying leaders within a locker room or clubhouse, simply by definition is crucial to the objective that a team has. When discussing elite performers, how can we identify and grow leadership in that environment?

“When I was a teacher, it was recognizable that you learn better from your peers,” believes John. “You have to use other players to develop leadership. Sometimes you have to go to the player and get them to lead. You put it on a teammate that you know the player is close with.”

From a player’s perspective, some are natural born leaders who will lead themselves and their teammates from day one. However, for the others, leadership is constructed based on the permission that the organizational culture provides.

“Establishing a culture of feedback within the player group is huge,” Bobby says before pointing to an example from his playing days. “When I spent those years with the Cubs, I remember at the end of year one, I asked my veteran teammates who have been through the battle ‘What do you have on me?’”

Establishing a culture of feedback connects what both John and Bobby have experienced. This is where elite performance coaches excel. In order to develop the athlete from a physical perspective, they require the trained eyes of a coach offering instruction and feedback on their performance. When leadership is apparent in a locker room amongst their peers, it allows the players to be secure enough with their teammates, to continue the conversations, to continue the development, the growth, when the instructors or coaches are not present.

Conclusion

Observing the ways athletic performance development materializes across multiple sport platforms creates an opportunity to identify the differences between your discipline and that of another. It also provides a great way of organically stimulating conversations that will ultimately lead to a better knowledge and understanding of the modern day athlete.

Commonly overlooked, however, is while we are looking to categorize differences in the methods teams are developing the elite athlete, the similarities in which growth occurs are often present and should be identifiable as well.

In many instances, elite performance development transcends the individuality of a sport. While human nature may direct your focus to what is different, it is the similarities may ultimately lead us to achieving our organizational objectives.

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