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A Learning Culture

While everyone wants to have a winning season, it’s important to remember that learning is the number one objective when it comes to high school sports. Bob Karn, Head Baseball Coach at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn., is a master at creating a culture where both things consistently happen. 

Karn finished his 46th season last spring and has compiled more than 750 wins, in addition to claiming nine state championships and making 19 state tournament appearances. But his focus in less on outcomes and much more on creating a culture where players learn life lessons and enjoy their experience. Here are his thoughts on how he accomplishes his goals:

What do you feel is your role as a coach?

We make sure our players remember that baseball is fun—that’s our job. The word “work” should not enter into it at all. If they’re having enough fun, they’re willing to listen and play hard for us.

We also emphasize that there is some small way each player can get a little bit better every day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be working on a skill. It could be as simple as finding a way to hustle a bit more or smile more often. Their other responsibility is to find a way each day to help one of their teammates. Again, that can be a very small thing. Sometimes it’s simply making the day better for that person by encouraging him or helping him out.

How do you establish and maintain the culture of your program?

At practice, I make a daily statement to the team, and I have a player do the same. It’s supposed to be something that’s meaningful to them and reflects their values or those of the team. If you repeat your values often enough, it helps instill them.

I also have all my players read a specific book every season. Usually I try to find one that tells the story of people who have accomplished great things or have overcome challenges. We’ve read Seabiscuit and Unbroken, to name a few.

Along the same lines, I ask them to research three players who played their position: a Negro league player, a player who competed before 1960, and one from after 1960. Studying these guys gives them a perspective on the history of the game and allows them to see it through the eyes of others. It’s a combination of respecting the game and understanding that there’s a long history of what they’re doing.

How much do you let your players make their own decisions during games?

We give them a lot of freedom to make their own choices. That’s how they learn. A couple of years ago, we were down by four runs in the sixth inning of the state championship game. There were two outs, and one of our best players was on second base. No coach on earth would ever have a player steal third in that situation. It’s so obvious that it never even entered my mind to give a “don’t steal” signal.

Well, he stole third base. The next batter hit a ground ball, which the defense fumbled, and our player scored. So instead of being down four runs, we were down three.

I think a lot of coaching is giving your players the freedom to discover how they can play the game. As many people as you have on your team, that’s how many different ways there are of looking at the same situation.

They know that they’re decision makers--they’re playing the game. Sometimes it’s a disaster. But more often, over a long period of time, it works well. Now I tell my players that they have a green light. They can steal whenever they want without a signal.

How does the above translate to winning?

Winning is not the goal. Playing well is the goal. We always go back to our values—if every day we can get a little bit better as individuals and help somebody else on the team do the same, the game will take care of itself.

We’ll send ALL OF YOUR COACHES a weekly email newsletter containing instruction, advice and valuable information on:
  • PROPER COMMUNICATION: With your athletes, parents, administrators and the coaches
  • SUCCESSFUL OPERATIONS: Pre-Season, In-Season, Off-Season
  • LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUES: Creating the proper environment for teaching athletes life skills
  • RISK MANAGEMENT: Keeping your athletes safe at practices, during games, off-eason training, etc.
  • ATHLETE PERFORMANCE: Tips in areas of Conditioning, Nutrition, Mental Training, etc., that help your athletes perform at their best and improve their overall wellness
  • PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Ways to help your coaches be the best they can be