3:30 am and my alarm is going off after what seemed like five minutes of sleep. It’s travel day in the PCL (Pacific Coast League). Our game last night went extras, which meant not leaving the ballpark until after midnight. Now we have a 6 am flight to catch for our series with another team beginning tonight. Our starting pitcher didn’t make it out of the second inning last night, which meant that our bullpen had to cover seven+ innings, and by the way, one member of our bullpen couldn’t pitch as he was getting called up to the big leagues after the game. As I drag myself out of bed and begin to put on my suit, I’m thinking about how to approach the next couple of days. I very rarely lift guys on travel days, especially on the road; these guys are as sleep deprived as I am, and they had to compete for nine+innings. Our starting pitcher will more than likely want to get something in, so I’ll need to reach out to the other strength and conditioning (S&C) and see about using their weight room. Most of the bullpen has gotten a lift in recently, which is huge, as most will have to be available to go again tonight. One reliever went three+ innings for the second time in the past four days, and after double-checking with our pitching coach and manager, I know he won’t be used for the next couple of games. Perfect time to lift. Traditionally, this player—let’s call him Bob—isn’t too consistent with getting his work in, to say the least. His routine post outings have been a mix of large amounts of alcohol consumption mixed with all-night Netflix binge-watching, both of which aren’t too conducive for training adaptations. He has been in this league for years, and he is always able to perform adequately enough to hang around but never consistently enough to get his shot in the majors. I wonder if he will actually lift this series, as I am driving myself to the ballpark to catch the bus to the airport. It’s about a 35-minute ride to the airport, and it seems to keep getting longer as the season progresses. After getting through security, I find our gate. We have half an hour or so until our plane begins to board. As I begin to drift off, Bob sits down next to me, and after the usual casual conversation, he begins to ask about his training plan for the upcoming series. Not thinking much about it, and with it being this early in the morning, I tell him that I can take him over to the visiting weight room the next day, and I describe what my plan would be for that workout, not fully expecting him to actually complete said plan. The following day comes, and to my surprise, when I get to the ballpark, there Bob is, ready to work. This is Bob’s first lift on the road in almost four seasons…
We have all been there. Either as athletes ourselves or in our coaching professions, that fire inside of us that pushes us to pursue greater things, that feeling of never being satisfied, always wanting more…. For us athletes, this can be as simple as wanting to run faster, jump higher, play harder, achieve that scholarship that everyone said you couldn’t. Sacrificing your entire summer when your friends are partying and having fun, you’re at the field honing your craft to ensure that you give yourself the best possible opportunity to perform and to acquire that scholarship. Maybe your athletic career is finished but you have your sights set on being as strong as possible, so you’re always looking for that edge or that way to put yourself over the top. As coaches, we are always seeking more for our athletes; that unsatisfied feeling we had as athletes now is placed into our desire to help other athletes to achieve greatness. This is why we do what we do. This is why we work the hours, continue to make the sacrifices, all because we CARE more about others than we do about ourselves. What happens, then, if we have a player (and we all have had them) who isn’t as receptive or open to your coaching as others are? Difficult players are a part of the profession, and in some ways, the ability to handle them as coaches separates the average from the successful.
Professional baseball is “unique,” to say the least, for the S&C professional. There are games every day, and they can range in start times from the typical 7:05 pm to 11:00 am, all of which come with their own unique considerations and challenges. You typically get a couple of days off a month, but it’s not uncommon to go 15-20+ days without one. Players can make an absurd amount of money at virtually any age from 18-40, and you have players who are fighting and scrapping to survive financially to have a slim chance at realizing their dreams of playing in the major leagues. Unlike college athletics, where you are dealing with a much more concise age range and amateur athletes, here, you are dealing with a whole host of personalities and maturity levels. You can’t stand in front of a team and demand anything of them; you can write the perfect program on paper, but if you can’t get anyone in that clubhouse to believe in it or YOU, then it is worthless. Players today are less accepting than ever before—and in large part, because the amount of information available to them has increased substantially over the past decade or so. This is why S&C in pro baseball is not, in many instances, about the program; rather, it is about the process of understanding people and then creating trust and ultimately buy-in. I’m going to share with you an example situation that I faced in my career regarding a difficult player and what steps I took to make real impactful changes with this athlete. My hope is that this can help someone out there who is dealing with a similar situation and provide some insight into what challenges baseball S&Cs face in their careers.
This is a typical morning for a professional baseball S&C, particularly one in 3A. If you’re not familiar with the way in which baseball is structured, you have your major league team at the top, with the minor leagues ranging in levels in the following order: 3A, 2A, 1A, rookie, GZL/AZL, and Dominican Academy. Essentially, players are drafted and developed throughout this hierarchical system until some are ultimately developed into major leaguers. Each level presents its own unique experiences, challenges, and considerations for an S&C.
My first experience with Bob was during a winter league that I was working. He was a reliever from our organization whom I hadn’t had the experience of working with, as he had been a level or two above me during the past couple of seasons. During the entirety of the six-week league, I can recall him coming in to work out on only two occasions. Bob had been relatively successful in our minor league system, and I had no report with him at all, so I decided to ask some of the players who knew him a little bit better to gain some insight. To make a long story short, Bob had a number of things going on either currently from a psychological or physical perspective, or from his experiences with other coaches in the past. I decided to look at the big picture with him going forward, knowing that it was likely that I would be working with him the next season. I did not push my agenda or our program onto him and instead took this time to get to know him a bit better via small talk and conversations in the dugouts during games. Although Bob wasn’t coming into the weight room bi-weekly or crushing his conditioning daily, as I look back on the situation, those conversations became equally as valuable, if not more, in my ability to make a meaningful impact later on in his career.
I ended up working with him for the next two seasons. I knew from my time with him in the winter league that it was going to be a slow process, and I was ready. There were some key factors that I learned during my conversations with him initially. Bob was drafted by another organization and followed their S&C program somewhat consistently until he injured his lumbar spine in the weight room one season, which caused him to miss significant time. His experiences with S&Cs since have been mostly negative, with guys trying to force their agendas and the organization’s program onto him. Furthermore, I learned that he had developed anxiety when it came to working out while other players were in the weight room. These were all things that I was able to learn through either conversations with players who knew him best or small talk in the dugout with the player himself.
I wanted to build a relationship with him and to create trust and buy-in with myself as a professional and coach. This was done through consistency in messages to him and the other players on the roster, as well as utilizing patience, as I could not push anything onto him. That would just put me back to square one. My focus was on getting him to believe that the work I was asking him to do was both A) valuable and B) safe. I then decided to bring in our pitching coaches, review video of his delivery from early in his career, and compare it with his current delivery. There were a number of things that stood out: first, his lower-body strength was much greater early in his career; this was evident through his ability to load and drive himself down the mound. You could actually compare in a side-by-side how much farther down the mound he was upon ball release early on in his career. Second, he was able to achieve greater separation in the upper half with ball and glove hands, with significantly more thoracic rotation. Finally, what really stood out is how his current delivery relied so much more on his upper half to generate any kind of force and the subsequent velocity. When we examined his injury history over the past three seasons, they were all upper-half-related occurrences: elbow, shoulder, oblique, and even forearm. As we all know, the body will always adapt to ensure that it can achieve the tasks that are required of it. Over the years, because of his early experiences with S&C, he had lost a significant amount of lower-body strength and his ability to achieve thoracic rotation, and as a result, his delivery became very upper-half dominant.
What this allowed me to do is to sit this player down and show him a side-by-side comparison of his actual on-field performance and relate it directly to S&C. It was clear that his body had developed compensatory movement patterns as a result of his lack of a consistent resistance training routine. This allowed me to get immediate buy-in and commitment, as he understood that to take the next step and give himself a realistic chance to make it to the big leagues, he had to make changes to his lifestyle and approach to his day-to-day work. That entire spring season, he was consistent with his daily work, he was relatively consistent with all S&C-related activities, and he saw increases in throwing velocity. Due to his anxiety issues with training in the weight room at the same time as others, I agreed to let him come in during times when no one would be in the weight room. This is something that he appreciated and respected, and by the end of the season, he was able to overcome his anxiety and began to lift during normal times, when the weight room was more crowded. All of this because I took time to get to know the WHY behind the player and his behavior. Sometimes knowing the why behind your athletes and their behaviors will, in some instances, be far more beneficial than any perfectly laid out training plan is.
Dwayne Peterson has worked in professional baseball for almost seven years now. Six of those years were spent working as a minor league S&C with the Houston Astros, where he worked as an S&C at every level in the minor leagues from short season to AAA—fortunate enough to be a part of the organization during the 2017 World Series Championship Season. Dwayne currently is the AAA S&C for the Kansas City Royals organization. He completed his undergraduate degree in exercise science at Northern Kentucky University and is in the process of obtaining his MBA. Dwayne spends his offseason at home with his wife and three dogs in Erlanger, Kentucky.