April 28, 2011

Brown’s Drabinski Taking Different Path on the Diamond

by Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — His moment of coaching epiphany happened eight years ago.

Until then, Brown baseball coach Marek Drabinski had always coached as if he had come right out of central casting, the gym teacher who was always terrorizing the kids.

He yelled and he screamed, and he was tough and demanding, a drill instructor in a baseball uniform. And why not? Wasn't that the way he had come of age? Wasn't that what coaches had once done to him? Wasn't that the traditional image of the old coach — a clipboard, a whistle, and a voice that could cut through glass?

Isn't that the image we have of coaches of legend, all those my-way-or-the-highway types, the kind of coaches America has loved?

This was the coaching culture that once had shaped him, and he was going to replicate it because he really knew no other way. He had grown up big and tough in a tough blue-collar town where he had once been the Western Massachusetts high school basketball player of the year. He had gone to be a catcher at UConn, then played two years of minor-league baseball. Then when the dream died, he began coaching as an assistant at UConn, and right from the beginning, he was old school. Play the game the right way, or suffer the consequences.

This is what he knew.

This is what he passed down.

This is how he coached.

"I tried to motivate through yelling," he says. "I thought if you screamed at a kid, he eventually would respond."

Like the time after a tough loss, he sat his team down, and just when they thought he was going to blast them, he said, "It's not your fault."

He saw them start to relax, and he talked in a low, soothing voice, about how it was not their fault.

"It's my fault," he said quietly and as he saw them look at him with questioning faces. "It's my fault because I recruited all you sorry…" his voice rising now, and he was off and running, the Drabinski of legend.

But in 2002, he lost a championship when Harvard scored two runs in the bottom of the last inning to beat Brown, 2-1. It was one of those crushing defeats, one of the losses that always stays in the pit of your stomach, but it was later, in his postseason meetings with the players, that his view of coaching began to change.

"There were two seniors, whom I both respected a great deal, and they both said how much they enjoyed playing at Brown," he says, "but they wished I had coached without yelling. That made me think about it. And the more I thought about it, the more it hit me.

"And I was starting to see that kids were changing. They weren't as tough as they once had been. Some could deal with the yelling, but some kids would shell up like turtles if you yelled at them. Some kids were done emotionally if you yelled at them. More and more I began to realize that yelling didn't change the results. It just wasn't worth it."

This also came at a time when he had watched a Red Sox-Yankees game, watching it with a jeweler's eye, seeing all the routine plays that were messed up, a litany of miscues and mental errors. And these were the best of the best. So why was he apoplectic when his players made mistakes?

He also began to realize that in no other arena of life do people routinely yell at one another. Maybe it was this simple: do it in a workplace, and you're in human resources; do it in a marriage, and you're in divorce court; do it in the street, and you're in a fight. They don't even yell and scream in the military anymore, not the way they once did, anyway.

In a sense, sports are the last frontier, the last place where yelling and screaming at people is not only accepted, but it's all but part of the culture.

And even that is changing.

Few professional coaches yell and scream at players. The old coach of legend is all but a dinosaur, a remnant of another time.

And since that moment of his coaching epiphany back there in 2003, Drabinski has changed. More one-on-one dealings with his players. Trying to end conversations with players with something positive. Trying each year to be calmer, more relaxed — qualities he says have made him a better husband and father, as well as a better coach.

For he always was intense as a coach, nervous, all but wearing the pressure on his face. And losses would haunt him, to the point that each season came to be a little personal torture chamber, his emotions roiling around inside him, until they all exploded in verbal barrages, coaching from all those late-night movies from some different time.

"I just couldn't do it anymore," says Marek Drabinski. "Yelling and screaming doesn't help kids. It doesn't make us better as a team. Kids have changed, and the times have changed, and I had to change with them. And you know what? I'm a better coach now."

Central casting be damned.

READ THE FULL STORY ON PROJO.COM HERE