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Coaching Absolutes: Using Soundtracks to Connect

Dave Turgeon, USA Baseball Sports Development Team and National Team Head Baseball Coach for IMG Academy, shares how using "soundtracks" can help all of us connect with each other better.

Originally published in four parts on USA Baseball’s Coaching Absolutes blog.

A couple of years back, I did a segment with the USA Baseball staff called “Soundtracks.” Before diving into it I would talk about what a soundtrack is. Most of us have heard of them and been impacted by them when watching a movie. Some of us (myself included) have been moved to purchase the soundtrack of a movie. Soundtracks, the music of a movie, evoke and stir emotions and amplify a scene in some way. For example, most of us remember the opening scene from “Jaws” where the young woman goes for a swim and some music begins to play that makes us all feel the impending doom to come. And it did. Another example of a soundtrack that brings about some emotions is from the classic movie called “Rocky.” The scene starts with Rocky doing his road work (running) and ends with him running up the stairs to a song called “Gonna Fly Now.” It absolutely is an inspiring scene that was brought to life from that iconic song.

There are endless examples of how you can later hear that song and it brings you back to that scene and stirs your emotions again. To show how this works, I would take a movie clip and show it to my staff and include the music as it was shown in the theaters. The room would always make comments about the scenes and how it made them feel because they remembered them so well. I would then take the same scene but change the music that was being played. The “Jaws” scene and that dramatic background music was replaced with the song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. It changed things. You just do not feel like a shark attack is coming when that tune is playing. You actually relax and smile. The Rocky scene and its inspiring track was replaced by “The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars. It also changed things. Rocky looked like he wasn’t quite as fast and you definitely were not inspired. Soundtracks play a huge role in evoking emotions and impacting our thoughts.

Just as movies have soundtracks, we also have our own personal soundtrack. When someone walks in a room you can usually feel where they are at by their energy, body language and facial expression. Whether we realize this or not, our soundtrack is playing when we enter a room or walk down the street or engage with others. This is about self-awareness and the impact our soundtracks have on players and our personal lives.

Soundtrack Exercise to Develop Self-Awareness: Coaches Select Songs that Represent Each Staff Member

After rolling through the clips and having the coaches draw the connection to themselves, we would write everyone’s name on a piece of paper and put it in a hat where everyone picked a name to which they were assigned. The assignment was to then write a song or songs that represented that coach’s soundtrack. I did not limit the number of songs because some folks are more complex than others. Obviously, this was fun, and the coaches got into it. Occasionally, there was someone who was surprised by the song or songs picked for them. It generated some real uncomfortable conversations at times, but at the same time very productive one-on-one sidebars where we got feedback on our soundtrack.

After this self-awareness exercise we connected it to our coaching and leading. To be an effective coach, having command of our soundtrack is critical. Further, having command of many songs of your soundtrack will allow you to reach more players. When I say command, I am talking about having your self-awareness get to a point where you can adjust the song and volume of that song in order to connect and reach who is in front of you.

As a coach, there are two huge questions we must continually ask:

  • Which song does the individual need?

  • What song does the collective group need?

Transitioning from song to song and adjusting your volume along the way is what good coaching looks like. It is seamless and constant.

Effective Delivery

Alex Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California Los Angeles, did an interesting study on communication and he broke it down into three areas: body language, tone of voice, and words. His findings were staggering to me. He found the breakdown of our communication as 55 percent body language, 38 percent tone of voice, and 7 percent spoken words. It shows that it is not enough just to have something to say if you do not have the ability to deliver the message in a way to be received. In other words, if we are a coach or teacher and do not have an effective delivery system then we do not have the ability to help our athletes or students. Your soundtrack is big! Mehrabian was keen on the soundtrack! There have been other studies on communication and while the numbers show some disparities, they were all heavy on the body language and tone and light on words.

The soundtrack package of communication of our words, body language and tone leave out one component that is not to be ignored: Timing. Timing is the ingredient that allows us to leverage our delivery system. Timing, some might argue, is everything.

More Watch, More Show and More Do; Great Timing

Mike Lum is a senior advisor with the Pirates and has been in professional baseball as a Major League Player or Coach for some 50 years. He played on the Big Red Machine of the 70’s and once pinch hit for Hank Aaron. He has been a mentor to me for the past 10 years. His specialty is the hitting area and he continues to evolve with the technology and the generation he teaches. His mastery of teaching hitting is two things: first, he has a deep knowledge of hitting and understanding how to teach each player as an individual. Second, he has the deepest soundtrack with the ability to command it. I have watched him teach every level of player, players from different cultures, players who did not speak English, and players of all ages. That is a lot of different soundtracks to master. He has the universal soundtrack. His songs are appealing, and they disarm the players he coaches. He uses very few words but when he does, they are timely and have affect. The business of coaching becomes more watch, more show, more do, and then great timing of words. It becomes more experience and feel when his players are learning. Master coaches have mastered their own soundtrack which allows them to master their craft. He has the most effective packaging system for a teacher I have witnessed in my career. The Master DJ is Mike Lum!

Tone and Body Language Speak Volumes; Talk Less and Show More

The first time I went to the Dominican Republic I realized it was different than anywhere I had coached – starting with culture and language. In addition, the age range in the Dominican Republic is 16 - 17 and the paths of each player that took them to this point were unique in every way. So, I started from the beginning with my “serviceable Spanish” and started getting to know players and watching a lot. I coached very little. The Latin player is always so appreciative to coaches that make the effort to speak their language but also get to know them personally.

How is this different from coaching in the States? It’s not! It’s coaching 101. Get to know your players personally, watch them a lot, and then if they need coaching, they will receive it.

So, what did I learn in this experience? I learned two HUGE lessons. First, your soundtrack is even more important if your language skills are limited. They realize you are trying to help them and care for them even if your Spanish is bad because your tone and body language speak volumes in the absence of words. The volume of your songs is especially big here also because they are so young and inexperienced you could be in danger of losing a player quickly if it is too loud too quickly. When they cannot understand the words always remember they can FEEL you!

The second HUGE takeaway came to me a couple years ago when speaking with the legendary coach, teacher and author, Frans Bosch. He said to me “players’ bodies really have no interest in your words.” I realized I may be a better coach in the Dominican Republic because my words are always distilled down to extreme simplicity and low numbers. I usually quickly transition to show and do, or watch (video) show and do. This is also coaching 101! Talk less and show and do more!

Before I knew anything about the science of skill acquisition I learned about what is needed for some real skill acquisition. Bernie Holiday, the Pirates Director of Mental Conditioning, said to our group a couple of years back another nugget on coaching and the use of words. He said our first language is not English, Spanish or whatever language we speak. Our first language is pictures, and it will always be our first language because we think in images. To Bernie’s point, if I said the word HORSE to you, your thoughts do not think of the word HORSE but an image of a HORSE. In teaching, master your Soundtracks, limit your words, and default to watch, show, and do more often!

Communicate with Energy and Heart

I have had the privilege of working a camp in Taiwan every December for the last four years with friend and also the Boston Red Sox Coordinator of Baserunning and Outfield, Darren Fenster. I knew going over there that this would be a challenge, and it is every year, because of the language and culture differences.

Darren is the Field Coordinator of this camp and asks me to spearhead the pitching for the four days. I find the camp a great challenge for the reasons I mentioned, but I also played in Taiwan professionally for four years so I always find a way with my limited Mandarin and rely more on my understanding of the culture and default to show and do, rinse, repeat every day. Darren, on the other hand, never played in Taiwan, but has impacted and improved a camp four years in a row because he has mastered what soundtrack the Taiwanese staff and players need and at what volume they need it, and when they need it played. With the use of his soundtrack of energy, care level, and heart, it has been so cool to witness his bringing together a group of 40 players and approximately 25 staff together in a four-day period.

The last four years of working in Taiwan with Darren always serve as a reset for me because it forces me to bring back my teaching to where it needs to be in the first place. It is coaching with constraints. Remove the language and we are forced to develop our soundtrack, use few words if any, and create a “show and do” environment which is skill acquisition rich. It makes me understand the question, “Do I want my players to learn words or acquire skills?”

Coach Maturation Means Adjusting Your Soundtrack, Volume and Timing

My personal Soundtrack has evolved and grown over the years. I am also happy to say my volume controls have improved. It will continue to and it has to. Staying connected with players and seeking more self-awareness is a great way of becoming a master coach. I failed to mention my personal soundtrack when I broke into managing / teaching 20 years ago. It contained one song called “Thunderstruck” by AC-DC and it was played at two volumes which were loud and louder! Needless to say, that does not work in coaching or parenting or any relationship we may have.

As technology and its use evolves in the game, remember first that improving our soundtrack must continue or it will not matter what you know if your delivery system is not current. I have mentioned the firing order of coaching in previous blogs and stand firmly by being an excellent relationship builder as critical to the process. So, keep refining and growing your soundtrack and become a master DJ so that anything you know that can help a player will be relevant. Best of luck to you all in your coaching endeavors!


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