By Geoff Zahn
Former Head Baseball Coach University of Michigan and 12 Year Major League Veteran Pitcher
It’s that time of year again where you gather with your team of old and new faces and begin to set your goals and team priorities.  I believe your first few days with your team go a long way in deciding how your team looks at not only their upcoming year but their whole purpose of being part of your program.  It is the same whether you have won the year before or have been a losing program for awhile.
After being the pitching coach at Regional finalist Pepperdine University, I’ll always remember my first meeting with the University of Michigan baseball team when I took over as head coach in 1995.    At that first team meeting, I stood in front of a chalk board in Schembechler Hall and asked the team what they thought their goals should be.  Where did they want to end up?  No one wanted to raise their hand but finally one of the players volunteered, “Beat Michigan State”.  Another then said, “Beat Ohio State”.  Another spoke up, “Win Michigan”. I asked what that meant and he said,  “Have a winning record against all the teams we play in Michigan.”  It took me a full ten minutes of input and questions before the word, Omaha, dared come out of their mouths.
I immediately realized that this group was basing their goals, short range, on where they finished in the Big Ten the year before.  They had finished last.  I was thinking big picture and long range goals of not only where I wanted the program to go but where the past record of the eighties told me the program was capable of going.
That first meeting proved to me that there was a lot of work to be done to get everyone believing in themselves and thinking and heading in the right direction.  Our goal for the team was simple; to do something every day to get better as an individual and as a team.  We emphasized the effort needed to improve the team and the program, and that everyone had a part in bringing the program toward the ultimate goal of winning the College World Series.
Were we going to win the CWS that next year?  Everyone knew that was probably not going to happen, but the important thing was improving as a team and individually so that everyone had a part in moving the program in that direction.  No coach can really know how good their team can be until you play the games.
One year the AD over baseball asked me to write down my prediction for my record for the season.  I wrote back and asked him which games he wanted me to lose.  It was  ridiculous to me to try to predict my record before the season started.  One can always speculate on what can happen if everything goes according to plan, but when does that happen?  As a coach, you go into every game seeing the possibilities of winning.
It was the same when I pitched in the big leagues.  I knew what kind of pitcher I was and what my record was.  I was a good second, third, or fourth starter with a 500 record.  What was I to think when I was facing Ron Guidry or Nolan Ryan?  I knew that, with total effort and concentration on execution, I had a chance to win.
We started that next season going 1-13 heading into our first conference weekend against Purdue.   We had lost series to Houston, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma, but to my assistant coaches’ credit, we continually emphasized getting better and persevering for the long haul.  We, as a staff, emphasized that the conference schedule was like starting all over with a clean slate.
I felt that we matched up pretty well with Purdue. Out of the blue in our pre game meeting, I blurted out that you couldn’t win all four games of the weekend unless you won the first one.  That 1996 team won all four games of that series and swept Michigan State in their last four games to make the Big Ten Tournament.  That was a nice turnaround for a team that finished last the year before.  The next year we won the Big Ten, and every player felt a sense of accomplishment that they were helping get the program headed in a positive direction.
Last year at the beginning of the basketball season, then Michigan coach, Tommy Amaker  came out in the preseason  and declared “It’s no secret that the next step for us is making the NCAA Tournament”.  He then went on to say the usual, “The main thing is for us to do things on a daily basis to get better to improve”.   Michigan hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998, and there was an air of urgency and frustration that put pressure on both Coach Amaker and the team to get there.  Down the stretch when there was still a slim hope that they could make it, I noted the players were trying to calculate what games they had to win to make the NCAA’s.  The team didn’t make it, and a good head coach was replaced.
It was apparent to me that during the season, perhaps even in one of the first meetings, the PERCEPTION of the players, as to their ultimate goal, went from their effort to get better and improve execution to the goal of  just making the NCAA Tournament.  Doing just enough to reach an absolute goal over which you may not have control almost never works.
I used to make everyone run two miles under 14 minutes before they could start fall ball.  Just watching the players run told me a lot about their self motivation to excel or just get by.  I purposely would not shout out their time as they ran.  I would only tell them when the 14 minutes was up.  One year I had about three players in a group that had their own watch and were trying to finish in 13.59.  Of course they fell behind, couldn’t catch up, and spent the next week running in dawn patrol.  Over time they realized I was looking for effort to excel, not just making them run.
I have always appreciated Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr and the way, year in and year out, he handles his teams.  Every player knows the outside expectation of the program and yet, overriding that, every player  knows that Coach Carr’s goals for each team focus on effort and execution.  He passionately never waivers from that emphasis and his teams rarely waiver from understanding that this is what it takes to have a successful season.  This year’s team talked a lot about what they termed “unfinished business”.  That was to beat Ohio State and to win their bowl game. They allowed their proper daily focus to be dimmed, and they lost their first two games. They have had to regroup back to their daily effort and execution to play up to their capabilities.
Somewhere along the road of life, I was taught that you never want to have any regrets.  I have always told all my players that the worst possible thing that could happen would be to be watching a baseball game when you are finished with your baseball career and have to say, “If I only would have…”  That ‘would have’ could be; applied myself more; taken better care of myself; practiced harder; or whatever applies to them individually.  It doesn’t matter if you are done playing after one year of college or have a long professional career.  You want to be able to say when you are done that you passionately gave all you had and you were able to accomplish whatever it ends up being whether it is getting cut after a year or five MLB All Star games in a row.  If you have a team of players applying themselves daily to effort and execution for the team, you have a group that has a good chance to reach their potential.
In the end, winning is a daily chore centered around effort and concentration on execution. Your passion for that must turn into your team’s passion.  It is often a fine line to keep the team and all individuals focused on the daily job to get better.  As a coach, you must always have your antenna up to read when a team may be getting sidetracked for any reason and make sure you and your staff never waiver from letting your team know what they need to keep doing to perform at their highest level.  It’s not always about the final record as much as it is about what you have achieved as a team to move toward improvement and maintaining long range goals.
Geoff Zahn was a Major League pitcher for 12 years, winning more than 100 games while pitching for the Dodgers, Cubs, Twins, and Angels. He served as the head baseball coach at the University of Michigan for six years. Geoff has been a clinician and speaker for more than 25 years and currently teaches and consults with pitchers from youth leagues to the big leagues through his Master Pitching Institute and the Michigan Sports Academy. You can reach Geoff at [email protected]