Michael Lewis on Coaching – Against the Rules podcast

Best-selling author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, among several others) is dedicating the second season of his podcast, which takes “a searing look at what’s happened to fairness” and who is trying to level the playing field, to coaching. Episode 4 is called “Don’t Be Good – Be Great” and is about his high school baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald.

Lewis talks about the impact Coach Fitz had on him through two specific stories of his interactions with the coach.

The first story was as a sophomore baseball player. “As fate would have it”, Lewis gets put in a game against the only other team in the league that could compete with his. He is inserted to pitch in the last inning with one out and them up 2-1 and the other team with runners on first and third. Lewis recalls that the other team was “laughing and dancing with glee” as he walked to the mound. Lewis isn’t scared he recalls, because he has Fitz on his side – and there’s no one more scary in New Orleans than him. Fitz tells Lewis, “There is no one I’d rather have in this situation”. Lewis admits this is crazy talk, but says, “Such is the force of the man; that I believe him”. Lewis recalls he didn’t have the words for how he felt then, but he does now. “I’m about to show the world and myself what I can do”. He says, “The strength of this coach was inside me, like a superpower”. Lewis got the next two outs and the team won.

Can you imagine how it would feel to be described this way by a player you coached? With respect to motivation, can it get any better than to have the strength of a believer in you…strength like a superpower.

The other story revolves around the consequences of Lewis missing a practice as a senior during the Spring Break where he goes skiing with his family. Lewis struggles – he can’t find the strike zone. Fitz embarrasses him by asking loud enough for everyone to hear, “WHERE WAS MICHAEL LEWIS DURING MARDI GRAS?”, and other questions of the like. Fitz isn’t doing this to embarrass Lewis, though. It is intended as a teaching lesson. The lesson is that privilege corrupts. It’s like he’s telling Lewis 0 very publicly, YOU’RE ALWAYS SKIING. It teaches Lewis that, contrary to how he has felt thus far growing up, he does have something to suffer for: baseball. Lewis has internalized this lesson throughout his life.

Lewis says that, if he had never met Coach Fitz, he would never have become a writer. He would have felt it was too risky. The podcast characterizes why and how Coach Fitz was so good at motivating his players to be all that they could be.

  • Fitz’s intensity was a motivator for many of his players. “We can do better than this”. That’s how one of Fitz’s players reacted to Fitz destroying a second place trophy after a basketball tournament championship game. This reminds me of something two-time Super Bowl champion coach Tom Coughlin says in his book, Earn the Right to Win:

“You can do better than that, spoken by someone you respect, is about as good a motivational tool as has ever been discovered”.

  • Later, when there is a movement to have Fitz removed, Lewis describes his crime as being that “he held kids accountable” by suspending them for when they violated training rules, among other things. One of his former baseball players recounted how the players were required to sign training rules that said they wouldn’t drink alcohol. I appreciated the player’s reaction at how asinine it was for kids who were not legally allowed to drink anyway to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t drink. The player said Fitz held the players accountable for rules broken – which apparently didn’t sit well with some of the other players’ parents.
  • One of his former players says the message was always consistent – “Don’t be good, be great”.
  • In an interview with Coach Fitz, he tells Lewis that he believes that, in addition to teaching the players the game, he felt his responsibility was to teach them that they are going to fail in life and they have to learn to deal with failure and use it to become better and be eventually successful.
  • At his retirement, Coach Fitz tells the audience

“I happen to believe coaching is teaching in its most perfect and rewarding form”.

There are some aspects of Coach Fitz’s style that I don’t believe translate to youth recreational sports. The episode recounts times the coach threw a trophy against the wall and broke it and that his intense pushing of the players often included some vulgarity. I’ve written about my thoughts on this type of coaching before. Generally speaking, I don’t see a place for this type of coaching at any level of youth sports, but then again, I’ve been called soft (stay tuned for an upcoming post on that subject). However, there is a distinction between coaching high school athletes and youth recreational athletes and, in Coach Fitz’s case, the good certainly outweighs the bad as portrayed in the podcast.

Finally, I think Lewis makes a profound statement describing coaching as being like a rubber suit:

“It takes on the shape of whoever’s in it. It hides nothing. It expands and contracts wtih the character of the person who wears it”.

Why You Should Set Goals for Each Game

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Before each game, usually while I am making the line-up, I come up with goals for that game. You might wonder, “Goals…the goal is obvious – win the game”. If you believe that, you need to stop reading this and go back to reading about my youth recreational sports philosophy. Back? Good, that means you agree that winning games is not the most important thing in youth sports. It’s not just me, though…many youth sports advocates also believe this way (see Dr. Jennifer Etnier, Jerry Lynch, Mike Matheny, among others). Besides, after a game, you don’t need to go over whether you won or lost the game with the team. In just about every case, the players know who scored the most – and in many cases, there’s a scoreboard that shows the result. What I like to do is highlight how we did against our own goals for the game. In this way, we compare the team to ourselves and have something to say (often positive) regardless of the opponent and the win/loss outcome.

Lately, I have been coaching my niece’s 11-and-under baseball team. Record-wise, the team wasn’t winning many games. However, I was able to note improvement as we started setting goals for each game. As the team achieved progressively more difficult goals, they realized they were getting better – a great confidence boost given all the losing that had been occurring. Interestingly, when the team did win their first game, they didn’t achieve any of the goals we had set for the game. This highlights how sports work, though, right? You can have a great game, improving on your previous performances, achieve all the goals for the game…and lose. Or, you could have a poor game, not achieve any of the pregame goals, and still win the game.

The key, for me, is to continue to set goals prior to each game in order to focus the athletes on the outcomes I am most interested in seeing the players achieve. The best practice with the goals is to tie them to executing the fundamentals of the game. For instance, in youth baseball, I often have a goal pertaining to the number of strikeouts looking. In youth baseball, we want the players to swing the bat…especially if there are two strikes and the ball is close. I tell the players to never put it in the hands of the umpire to call them out. If it’s close, SWING. If we go down swinging, that’s fine; but don’t strike out looking. I will have established this mindset and expectation during practice. In fact, we might have a drill during batting practice where we start the count at 0 and 2. If the players don’t swing at the next pitch (so long as it wasn’t clearly a ball), I correct the behavior and remind them of my expectation.

Goals sheet from baseball game this season (7/22/2020). No more that 2 strikeouts looking, put at least 8 balls in play, and give up no 5-run innings on defense.

I let the players grow into the goals. So, perhaps for the first game of the season, we will set the goal for the game at ‘No more than two strikeouts looking’. When this gets too easy, say after a game or two when this goal is met; we modify the goal to one or zero strikeouts looking. In this manner, by the end of the season we are able to compare what our goals are for the last game to what they were at the beginning and, hopefully (it has been the case in every season I’ve coached), show how the players have improved throughout the season. Sometimes, as with the strikeouts looking goal, we might not even have that as a goal at the end of the season because we will have gotten so good at not looking at third strikes that we have moved onto other goals.

What might goals look like in other sports?

  • Flag Football: at least one three-and-out series on defense; at least three first downs on offense; no beat deeps (meaning our safeties don’t let a receiver catch a pass behind them)
  • Volleyball: at least three plays where we execute bump-set-spike; no more than three serves into the net; zero balls that fall in between players
  • Basketball: every player takes at least one shot (in some leagues this is a rule – one I like, by the way); at least five rebounds; only one traveling violation

Three is not necessarily a magic number for goals, but I do typically have three goals per game. You can see that executing these goals would contribute to winning, whether the team actually wins or not. I encourage all youth recreational sports coaches to set goals prior to each game.

The Time I Got Ejected

Text from a friend highlighting the irony of a guy who offers coaching clinics getting thrown out of a game.

No, seriously. The guy who writes about youth sports coaching and holds coaching clinics; the guy who espouses to advise coaches and league directors on the best practices to interact with parents, officials, and the children to have successful seasons…got thrown out of an 11-and-under youth baseball game. I am most assuredly not proud of this or my behavior that led to it. The circumstances of my ejection and the rationalization in my mind as to whether it was justified, are not the point. The bottom line is…


Again, I regret that it happened and have been doing a good deal of soul-searching as to what it means to the players I coached and my role as a trainer of coaches. Here’s why being ejected is unacceptable and I am sorry for the bad example I set for the kids I coached.

  • Was it fun to see their coach told to leave the field?
  • What did they learn? What did my actions teach them?
  • Will the players want to play again next season?

Recall, I define a successful youth recreational sports season as one where the athletes have fun and learn to play the game. The ultimate measure of success, to me, is whether the child wants to play again the next season. I can’t imagine it was fun for the players to see me yell at the opposing coach. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for them to see the umpire tell me I was ejected. In fact, it was probably unsettling. I hope my actions do teach the children a lesson, though. I hope they learn that losing control of one’s emotions can have consequences. Finally, only time will tell whether or not the players decide to play baseball again next season. I hope they do.

This incident has me thinking about the recommendations I make to coaches in my writing and clinics. Often, academics and teachers can get removed from the material they teach – leaning on their experience that can be less relevant as time passes. Coaching my niece’s team not only reignited my desire to write about youth sports coaching but also highlighted how much I enjoy coaching. It has also been a good experience to coach this past season as it afforded me the opportunity to get back in the game. Easy for me to say in a clinic that coaches should respect the officials and other adults and should not argue or yell. As is typical, real-life is more nuanced than what is taught in a class.

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