BY STEVE KRAH
His Wildcats have gone 123-105-1 overall and 62-47 in Crossroads League play during Benjamin’s tenure with a CL tournament title in
2016 and a 2018 CL Regular Season Championship leading to two NAIA Opening Round appearances in 2016 and 2018.
A big part of the culture revolving around the IWU program involves improving communication each year.
Benjamin, who was head coach at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., for eight seasons, winning eight championships before taking over in Marion, addressed communication’s impact on coachability at the American Baseball Coaches Association Barnstormers Clinics stop Sept. 8 at Butler University.
The full presentation can be ordered through the ABCA Barnstormers Clinics Video Library.
“Guys come in on Day 1 and they seem very coachable,” says Benjamin.
Benjamin says coaches may notice some players that are a little standoffish or hard to influence while others are coachable throughout the entire experience.
In many cases, players have a personal instructor, adding more voices to the room.
“You’re trying to navigate all those variables,” says Benjamin. “The vision is the allow the player to play competent-unconscious.”
That vision comes with a set of values.
The first is asking open-ended questions (coach to coach, coach to player, player to coach and player to player) and minimizing statements.
Why is this done?
“I’m trying to develop the awareness and self-awareness of the player by asking him an open-ended question.
“By slowing things down, conversations with players become much more of a dialogue instead of a one-way statement.
“You know a lot more about your players because you’re getting a lot more feedback.”
The player is given a chance to do some self-discovery by answering the open-ended questions.
Benjamin says if a player doesn’t have awareness (knowing what is going on around you) and self-awareness (knowing what you are experiencing), they cannot effectively implement information.
“If anytime they’re stuck they’re looking for a statement, they will have the inability to self-diagnosis pitch-to-pitch during competition.” says Benjamin.
“It’s Strike 1 and they look down to third base and say, ‘Coach, what now?’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to learn how to talk to yourself.
“Most young players talk to themselves in statements instead of open-ended questions. Most statements are negative and not positive and solution-driven.”
Benjamin has found that as players develop they ask themselves open-ended questions, they find a solution the vast majority of the time.
“The coach is there as a sounding board, a facilitator, a counselor, awareness raiser and available when the player gets ‘stuck’ to offer a suggestion,” says Benjamin, who wants his players to own the process.
“If they own it, the ceiling is them. If I own it, their ceiling is me. If their ceiling is me, they’re never going to hit a curveball because I couldn’t do it.”
The relationship becomes a partnership.
“It’s not a threat and it’s not a power struggle,” says Benjamin.
The additional value of communication helping coachability is the coaching staff being aware of the person before the player. Assistant coaches are vital in this area as the front lines of knowing the room.
“There’s death in the family,” says Benjamin. “Girlfriends, adjusting academically, or something going on in the home.
“Nobody on the coaching staff should ever be surprised about what’s going on in a player’s life; it gives you a clearer picture of all the influences in that person’s life when they enter training.”
As a coaching staff, There are typically two individualized meetings a week in which, as a staff, we go down each name on the roster discussing who has what needs that we may be able to meet through various aspects of the program.”
The Indiana Wesleyan staff has players focus on one objective at a time (approach, plan or skill). By showing restraint, they can avoid information overload.
“It is impossible to play unconscious and knowledgeable if we’re carrying all these different things into our performance time,” says Benjamin. “If you’re trying to balance two or three different things, it becomes impossible to execute one.”
At IWU, that one thing for a player might take the entire fall. They focus on the objective, they achieve it and then they move on.
Benjamin desires the coaching staff to over communicate with each other, to be open and always seeking growth.
Benjamin admits that investing in assistants development was not a strength earlier in his coaching career.
Having operated during the first half of his career with just one volunteer assistant, who worked during the day, Benjamin’s ability to understand the value and importance of investing into his assistants was behind. “The last two years, I’ve grown in the ability to delegate, mentor, and invest daily in our assistant coaches.
By doing so, the atmosphere and the productivity is up.”
Benjamin looks to provide a safe atmosphere for his assistants to ask questions.
“That’s how we get better,” says Benjamin. “We talk about players needing to be coached-up, but so do coaches.”
“As a coaching staff, we have blind spots. But if we ask each other open-ended questions, it’s not a threat. It’s an opportunity to grow.”
Benjamin says, “In coaching, time is maybe the most valuable aspect.”
As a coaching staff preparing for this Fall training season, Benjamin and his staff noticed that the areas in which we failed the most in coaching, was coaching a player inside too tight of a time restraint.
Benjamin says a coaching session must provide clarity by the coach and the player, because that often requires time, coaches needed to decide when the best time was to address a coaching opportunity.
Because it negatively impacts trust, the idea is to avoid “Drive-By coaching.”
IWU coaches witnessed this the most in the side cages during Batting Practice rotations.
Rotations may be 8-15 minutes depending on the day.
If four hitters arrive in the side batting cages with limited time, then we found ourselves making a lot of statements since we did not have the time capacity to create the amount of clarity as you would in a different segment of training, early work, or post work.
Now, if we get a coaching opportunity in the cages, we ask ourselves if the player has the foundational awareness and self-awareness to find a solution in the limited amount of time without transferring ownership of the hitter’s development.
If there is not enough time to effectively coach that player in that session, we will act on the coaching opportunity post practice or early work the next day.
“We want to create opportunities for growth so there’s time to land that plane,” says Benjamin.
Practices for the Wildcats are divided into training zones and performance zones.
Training zones entail many reps and a lot of teaching.
“Nothing’s really being measured,” says Benjamin. “It’s a zone where you can make mistakes and experiment.”
Benjamin notes that baseball players in general are training now more than ever.
“Guys are hitting all the time. They’re training all the time,” says Benjamin. “They become really, really good at training.”
That’s where the performance zone comes in, where there is competition with some kind of award or consequence.
“You have to win,” says Benjamin. “We’re transitioning from the training zone where you’re allowed to think, to the performance zone where you shut this thing (points to head) off, get unconscious and just try to win the moment.
“You just try to go beat the other guy.”
This fall, a typical Wildcats practice has three competitions (performance zones) and one learning moment (training zone), in addition, early work is designed as a training zone.
IWU also emphasizes peer-to-peer competere.
“It’s the Latin word for competition and it means to strive together,”
says Benjamin. The personal best comes out by competing with another person.
It does not happen overnight, but it can be healthy for two players to be vying to be the starting shortstop.
It’s often been found that one wins the job and the other ends up starting, too, perhaps at second base or third base.
“Competition is an opportunity and not a threat,” says Benjamin. “We have to have competition. It’s the only way we’ll find out what our personal best is.”
Benjamin invites players to join the IWU program based on three factors — humility, motor and skill.
“They have the confidence to say ‘I’m really good’ and the humility to say ‘I need to get better.’ That’s vital.
“In psychology, they say your self-confidence shows up before your self-awareness does.”
Motor means the ability to work hard with intention each day.
“Skill can always be developed if the first two exist.” says Benjamin.
Rich Benjamin is the head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion. His first season leading the Wildcats was 2016. (Indiana Wesleyan University Photo)