Saturday, August 05, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part Three:
Coaching Insights From Don Cooper  

In two previous entries, I excerpted my interview with one of the more extraordinary coaching talents in the major leagues, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and started explaining how you can apply his coaching wisdom in your own In this section, we spoke about his own mentors, and how he collected tools and techniques along the way.

Cooper was a very good pitcher, good enough to make it to the majors, but had little success and no signficant career there.

Believe it or not, I think this combo "good enough to make it to the Majors" and at the same time "little success there" is a magnificent foundation for being a successful coach. It requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness and a determination to succeed, too, but this experience means the coach can empathize with both what it's like to be there, how important it is to stick, and how to face the inevitable rough days. Cooper seems to have all this in spades. He's intensely competitive, he's got a natural, not-poseur, swagger about his ability and craft, and it's not a zero-sum Jim Fregosi kind of swagger related to establishing dominance, but more like "I'm great at what I do, and you will be, too" mutual uplift swagger.

People who are really great at something tend to tap into themselves for most of their coaching insights. Those who had to work harder to achieve the same results are usually more focused on collecting isnights from others, what I call mentors. I asked Cooper about his mentors. When he answered, he rattled off a bunch of names very quickly (he talks quickly in general, but he didn't have to reach. I strongly suspect from the way he said it (sorta invisible within a transcript like this) he had been very deliberate about learning from as many people as he could, and the names that came up were just the most significant, not the full list.

JA (me): I want to talk about who your mentors were. You’ve been a mentor to a lot of players. In the last few years you’ve had great success with pitchers like Freddy (Garcia) or (Jose) Contreras or (Esteban) Loaiza who everybody recognized were good…

DC (Don Cooper): or lucky.

JA: Okay, well or really lucky. But who’ve been kind of given up on and then had their best season with you. You’ve been a part of the difference…

DC: I’m a part of it.

JA: You’ve got to be. And there are some other pitching coaches that have this reputation, Dave Duncan had it for a long time…

DC: I’m flattered that you think I have that reputation. Flattered. I’m confident that I’m as good as anybody and better than most, I’d say. Because I’m anal about this…I’ll go to the grave with a passion for what we’re talking about. I don’t think it’s cocky but I’m confident because I’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, and I don’t care who you are, if you do something for 20 or 25 years, even the dumbest guy is going to get better at it. But it’s simple stuff. It’s basic. I didn’t invent this.

My mentors are Sammy Ellis, Pat Dobson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Johnny Podres, Stan Williams. These are a lot of different kinds of coaches, and each has his strong suits in what they taught and how they taught it. Stan Williams was a lower body guy, Sammy Ellis was a whole body guy but leaning more towards upper body mechanics.

JA: Is it additive? When you go to your management tool kit, do you have some Ellis in there, some Podres in there…

DC: Absolutely. I think if you’re smart, you take everything with you from the time you’re growing up in the neighborhood. In New York…you had to size people up pretty quickly. You had to know, “is this guy going to try to come and get me? Is this guy going to try to kick my ass? Does he have a knife? Does he have a gun? You had to know how to size things up and you had to know how to deal with people. In some ways you had to be able to talk good.

Growing up gave me lessons. And certainly I was a sponge with all my coaches. I respected the hell out of them, I listened as best I could and tried to learn as much as I could. I think I did learn a lot.

As I said before, if you work at something long enough, you’re going to pick up certain things you believe in and you’ll take to your grave. And then what you add after that is you bring your personality to it.

I’m a positive guy; I’m not negative, I don’t have time for negative, and who wants to be around negative stuff anyway? We can see the reality of what’s happening. We see the shortcomings. Okay, but we isolate them and work on them and try to turn those maybe-negatives into more of a positive, and try to create that positive work environment.

And people enjoy working like that. This is a give and take. I don’t cram this up anybody. We simply talk and verbally challenge them to meet certain goals. And the prerequisite of being here in the Major Leagues is to throw strikes. And if you want to be successful, you gotta throw 1st pitch strikes. You gotta get ahead. {snip}

JA: Let’s go back to your own mentors again. There are little pieces, little how-tos you inherited from those guys…

DC: Absolutely.

Sammy Ellis taught me the pitching delivery. He’s as good as I’ve been around. Certainly the best in the business at being able to look at a guy quickly and judge what he’s doing right and where the work has to be done and why. Mechanics. I can remember a conversation with him one time when I first come into coaching where I said, “Sammy, Sammy, slow down. You’re rattlin’ this off and I don’t see it that quickly”. And he said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve been working it and talking about it a long time, and you’re going to get it”. And then he mentioned Moe Drabowsky, who’s been a different type of mentor to me for a long time…(Ellis) said to me, “Don’t feel bad…Moe’s been doing this for 30 years and he doesn’t see it.”

JA: How was Drabowsky your mentor?

DC: Moe was more the psychology and the sequencing of pitches. And more teaching the individual pitches rather than the delivery, the way Sammy was.

Hoyt Wilhelm was more they psychology of pitching and hitters. He’d tell you to (imitating light Southern drawl) “Knock that one down his throat. You get that hitter 0 and 2 and it’s like he’s laying down in the desert, it’s time to kick sand in his face…kill him." It was older school, which is really really good but you can’t ever shut your eyes open, you need to keep your ear to the ground for some new things.

I always listen to what everybody says because maybe I’ll steal that and put it in our repertoire. I don’t think anybody invents this %*!@, but I do put a lot of time and effort into this.

And it is a lot about effort. As Cooper says, if you spend years working on it (to which I add, if you pay attention a nd work to make yourself better by learning from others and your experiences along the way), you're going to get better at it. That's true of most everything, but especially coaching.

I'll give you more Cooper and his insights in a future entry.

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