Friday, November 21, 2008

Why Sean Gallagher is Both
the Opposite of Rick Peterson and Identical to Him  

It's a standard of good coaching in and Beyond Baseball that to be a good teacher, you have to be equally open to being a student to your students. Angus' Twelfth Law: "Everyone knows some things you don't. Inevitably, a few of those things will be both worth knowing and applicable later". If you apply that in your management practice, you use almost every coaching/training/mentoring act to try to pick up actionable tools from your student/protege/team member.

I've written about that a bunch in the past, most pointedly back in July of 2005 when I first spoke with Rick Peterson and he shared how he used his early opportunities as the New York Mets' pitching coach to work with Pedro Martínez. Essentially: To be a successful teacher, you have to be an attentive student.

But the Oakland Athletics' young starter Sean Gallagher (not this one; this one) has turned Peterson's process on it's head. To be a successful student, it helps to be an attentive teacher.

According to Susan Slusser's story for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sean Gallagher isn't just one of the A's best and quickest learners. He's also a pretty good teacher himself.

The rookie right-hander, who has applied what he's recently been taught to excellent effect his past two starts, spends much of the winter coaching kids in South Florida, and he loves it.

"Everything I've ever heard my coaches say, all the little things, I find myself doing and saying those things," Gallagher said with a laugh.

He'll have more tips to pass along this offseason, because Gallagher, the main piece in the Rich Harden deal with the Cubs in July, has been a real focus for pitching coach Curt Young and bullpen coach Ron Romanick the past month.

Gallagher didn't always do this. His coaching was triggered by a specific request.

That endeavor started out of the blue. Gallagher was working out at a fitness center where former big-leaguer Bruce Aven was giving hitting lessons, and according to Gallagher, "One day, Bruce looked at me and said, 'I wish I knew something about pitching, but I don't know the little things. What do you think about pitching lessons?'

"I said, 'Why not?' And it just blew up. I was booked from 2-9 pm, all ages from 10 to 20 year-olds, and a range of talent. It's crazy, there's a 12-year-kid who throws as hard as some of us. This sport, I love it so much, and if anything were to happen to my career, I'd love to stay in the game as a coach."

That's going to keep Gallagher fresh. The analysis he'll require to break down the pieces and re-assemble them, the need to communicate with different people differently, will both serve him well in learning from others, being more sensitive to the nuances of the communication he requires for both kinds of relationships.

Beyond Baseball, I've found the Gallagher practice very useful and sometimes downright powerful.

A client I worked with last year has a manager who is pretty saturated, in the sense that while he doesn't resist learning, he's had to learn so many new things over the last couple of years, he's pretty exhausted, more ready to apply recently-gained knowledge than to buckle down and learn more. At the same time, though, he takes his responsibilities to train his staff very seriously.

Technically, the last couple of systems and practices we needed him to learn were things only he needed to know. But while he was trying to learn them, he couldn't get enough steam to keep them internalized. He just kept forgetting the details of what he was trying to learn..

So even though it wasn't essential for his staff to master those things, it was marginally useful (redundant abilities) and it gave him a reason to learn. I can relate to this personally. As an example, I can produce useful code about as fast as I can type in five programming languages or scripting schemes. So when a customer wants help from me in another language in which I'm not currently adept, I quietly roll my eyes. If I have to learn from textbooks or on-line training, I usually suffer mightily -- I'm not primarily a coder anymore, and frankly, I'm very pragmatic about what I learn -- if it's not something I can apply, or just downright fascinating (and Yet Another Coding Language doesn't qualify) my energy is lower. Give me an actual problem that needs solving, I can do it pretty easily, though. So I ask for a real life application for some code on which to learn.

The next best approach for me is to take responsibility for training people in what I need to learn. The act gives me plenty of additional incentive to learn, and the act of training brings to the surface additional questions and others' insights that usually accelerate my own learning.

As it turns out, Sean Gallagher is one of those Lifelong Learners.

Former Cubs teammate Scott Eyre, now with the Phillies, is so close to Gallagher that they jokingly call each other "dad" and "son," and they took an RV trip from Florida to Arizona for spring training this year. So Eyre can testify to how interested Gallagher is in everything around him.

"I know Sean likes teaching - that's the kind of guy he is, because he likes to learn, too," Eyre said. "I remember him going up to Mariano Rivera and saying, 'How do you throw that cutter like that?' That's a rarity. He has a very high drive and he learned a lot from the rest of the rotation, like Ted Lilly. He retains information really well and he asks questions."

Out of sheer curiosity, Gallagher went to a massage therapy seminar one offseason, and, he said, "I learned a lot about muscle actions, injuries. I like to pick people's brains." {SNIP}

"Coming up, he was so energetic, he kind of rubbed some guys the wrong way," Eyre said. "He's so happy-go-lucky it was like, 'Why isn't this guy more nervous?' "

What it boils down to is that Gallagher is overjoyed to be in the big leagues. It's all he's ever wanted to do, and he didn't think he had a shot until his talent began to emerge his junior year at St. Thomas Aquinas. There's a reason he's constantly grinning, and it's something he always shares with the kids he coaches.

The human energy that we exchange when we're actively teaching or learning is something that the environment can amplify or enervate.

If you have someone on staff who needs to learn something but isn't having a lot of success, they may succeed if, like my client's manager, they can apply the target knowledge as teachings for others.

And, if like Sean Gallagher, they are already having success, it might just amplify that success.

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