Sunday, November 12, 2006

Four Coaching Lessons from John Sain: Via Jeff Merron & 108 Magazine  

Johnny Sain, solid but unspectacular pitcher and revolutionary pitching coach, died this month. He was such a brilliant pitching coach and noble person that he's left a whole corps of people, from Jim Bouton to Leo Mazzone who consider Sain their prime mentor. They have been so appreciative of his human and teaching skills that many spin his two great seasons and two very fine ones into memories of a great pitching career. But there's little doubt that he was the most influential pitching coach since World War II, and perhaps in the history of the game.

Jeff Merron, contributing editor and senior website editor for 108 Magazine, posted earlier this week a fantastic collection of interviews about Sain (not with him). Like the magazine for which he writes, it's entertaining brain candy, and they are well worth reading in their entirety.

Most importantly, there are some great lessons from Sain in Merron's piece, lessons in teaching that you can use in your own, non-baseball setting. Here are four.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #1 - NEVER WASTE DOWNTIME; USE IT FOR REFINING SKILLS Denny McLain relates how after a long time trying to learn Sain's slider technique, he mastered it during a workout on a day his start was rained out.

I can't tell you how predominant it is beyond baseball that interruptions or failures that leave you work hours free (you go for a sales call and the prospect decided not to show; the servers are all down again; the key person you need for a meeting is late, et.al.) don't get applied well. People view those hours as gifts to be played with, where in reality, they offer opportunities to learn/teach. Tracking I've done in big organizations indicate there's a mean average of a little over two hours out of a 47 hour week that get lost this way when they could be turned into torque.

This tool is easy to apply. Just make a habit of having a Plan B for events, a pile, ordered by importance, of work skills to master or practice, people to instruct or from whom to learn. Reclaiming just half of that would provide an extra 50 hours per year of training, a larger investment than most big organizations make in training the talent -- and at no extra cost.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #2 - TO DELIVER THE BEST RESULTS, ALIGN W/YOUR TRAINEES Sain was a successful pitching coach who got fired a boatload of times. That as the by-product of his insistence on aligning himself with his staffers, not management. Obviously, one needs a balance. As I describe in the book, if in cases where management's and your talent's interests don't align well, you are too loyal to management, your roster knows it and won't give you the extra effort that can make the difference between adequcy and excellence. On the other hand, siding against management all the time is a CLM (Career-Limiting Move), which Sain undoubtedly realized after his 2nd or perhaps 1st firing

Sain could have had an easier coaching career if he had been more management's guy, but he wouldn't have been one of the great coaches of all time with dozens of advocates who argue he should be in the Hall of Fame. In choosing between impact and comfort, he chose impact.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #3 - PRACTICE KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT... MAKE SURE YOU'RE LEARNING WHILE YOU'RE TEACHING Sain always made himself open to learning while teaching...adding new methods and insights even as he was passing wisdom on to his charges. As fellow coach Hal Naragon said to Merron:

There's other ways to do it besides John Sain's way. But his way has been very, very successful. John was always willing to learn. Once he told me, "I learn as much from my pitchers as they learn from me.” If he found a pitcher maybe making a movement with his arm to make the ball sink a little better, well John wanted to know about it right away.

And all the current major league pitching coaches do it this way. Among the best, Rick Peterson and Leo Mazzone come right out and say they do it.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #4 - TEACHING IS MORE THAN DRILLING; IT'S ABOUT THE TRAINEE EMBRACING As Jim Bouton says in the Merron interview, "He wouldn’t tell you what to do. His genius was that he would make you think." This is a lesson I know and still struggle with. When you just know something and you're trying to teach it to someone who doesn't, the temptation is to drill, push enforce. And if the recipient isn't getting it, the fallback is what I call Nixon Bombing Haiphong (when your approach fails, just turn up the intensity). Sain understood and got monster results from two generations of pitchers in leading to the conclusion, not imposing.

Rick Peterson and Don Cooper both do this; their norm is to let the pitcher come to them for help, not reach out. Peterson was able to remake Tom Glavine late in the 2005 season, as he told me and was documented by Murray Chass by hanging back and not approaching until he was competely sure that Glavine, having been hammered into a Fullujah-pile by the lowly Seattle Mariners' lineup, was ready to embrace change.

Beyond baseball, we don't always have time to leave this slack, waiting for the talent to learn what they need to know to help us ramp up performance, but it almost always works better when we can.

John Sain is one of the seminal figures of modern baseball. There are few finer rôles to play than being the person who remade a profession and is recognized for it. Like all of us, Sain's body was mortal, but unlike most of us, his consciousness is replicated across an entire line of work.

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