A Decade in Review

Updated: Feb 5

I had 9 addresses and 16 roommates. I coached 4 teams, worked in Special Education for 4 years, and held 4 separate jobs at Haverford alone. I owned 3 cars, visited 3 foreign countries, and won 3 conference championships. I worked for 2 MLB teams, officiated 2 weddings, and lost 2 grandparents. I earned 1 Masters Degree and started 1 baseball camp. Each of my parents scared me once by staring down the grim reaper. I fell in love.


It was one hell of a decade. Let's take a look back and see what we can learn.

On New Year's Eve 2009

I was living with my parents, working for my Dad once a week, and trying to figure out my life. I had just gotten back from five months of baseball in Germany and thought it was time to get a 'real job.'

Within a few months I got one - theoretically in finance - but actually in the field of calling up friends of friends and trying to sell them life insurance.


The problem was, I didn’t believe in the product. And without belief in the product I was terrible at the job. I couldn't hold a sales meeting with the intent to actually do business. It felt dishonest. The company had convinced me to take a job I was skeptical about to begin with by convincing me I'd have the opportunity to be Independent, earn a sizable Income, and - most importantly for me - make an Impact.


So I jumped on board, sold on the idea of working my own hours to help people feel confident in the knowledge that their family would be financially secure should tragedy strike.


I quickly realized that I wouldn't feel that impact on a day to day basis. It would likely be years before tragedy struck and a family needed the payout from a policy. And even then, would that make me feel good? Could these families' financial security ever overpower the deep sadness I'd feel upon learning of a death?


The answer was no. This work would never allow me to feel like I was a positive force in the world.


The second problem was baseball. The reason I wanted to make my own schedule was to continue playing and possibly return to coaching. My heart was never in the work. My heart had never left the grand 'ol pastime.


It was on a marketing trip to an independent league baseball game when realized I wasn't long for the finance world. We were struggling to drum up leads, and the pitcher that day was a kid I had grown up playing against. (I had actually beaten him earlier that summer in a men's league game.) So I wandered down and sat behind a scout.


The kid was 84-86 with command of multiple pitches, but watching him pitch that night, all I could think was, "Damn. I could get these guys out."


And whether I could or couldn't, I knew right then that I was done with insurance.


Luckily I got a call from Haverford soon after and started as their pitching coach immediately.


But I'm glad I had this experience. It taught me a few things about myself, the most important of which is that I need to believe in what I'm doing. I need to believe in the organization I work for. I need to believe in what they represent. And I need to believe in what I'm selling.



I inherited a good staff

at Haverford and didn't change much at first. I got to know the guys, made minor tweaks to their training, and watched as they competed their asses off. It was a great group, and I was lucky that they were the ones who introduced me to college coaching.


The first two years were incredible. We went 32-10 in 2011 and won the conference in 2012. But it was the next fall when everything changed.


The freshman who had emerged as the ace of the 2012 staff returned to campus that fall as a different guy. All of a sudden his fastball was up to 92, and the already plus curveball was unhittable.


We talked about his summer training, and I learned that he had done some things that I had been hesitant to implement. Long before they were popular, he and a friend from home had trained using some of the constant drills now ubiquitous within the game.


I had previously tested out some of the different plyo ball drills and found them hard to execute and tough on my arm. The problem I had somehow failed to identify was that at the time of my trials I was just a short period removed from an injury that had caused a serious and horrible re-patterning of my arm action. The overload balls only induced more fear, turning them from a learning tool into an implement of trepidation.


But this pitcher's improvement proved that I needed to do more research. So I did, and over the next seven years we continually implemented more and more initiatives to help pitchers get better.


First, guys were given the option of throwing baseballs within the context of constraint drills. Then we implemented plyos. We added individualized mobility and stability work, allowed some pitchers to earn the right to run and gun, and created a more robust assessment. We started throwing multiple types of bullpens, added command work, changed the type and frequency of running, and learned to blow up balloons.


We began a daily mental warm-up, changed our recovery protocol, and added pitch design. We started monitoring grip strength and shoulder range of motion throughout the season, built a video database for off-season reference, and tried out some journaling. Sometimes we watched lots of video. Sometimes we didn’t.


The point is, a player’s experience opened my eyes to how much we were missing when it came to maximizing our potential, and his success taught me a few important lessons.


I learned that no one coach can learn every drill, every cue, or every way of thinking about pitching. But with enough diverse experiences and over a long enough time scale, an entire staff can certainly learn a lot.


And just because a drill doesn't work for me doesn't mean it can't work for someone else. I continued to personally test everything I would consider programming, but I started to see how things that would never make sense for one pitcher might be exactly what another needs.


From these lessons came the staff value of collaborate with your teammates. With just one pitching coach we didn't have a chance. But with 13 guys all helping each other, progress became the norm.


Still, while working together is certainly great for camaraderie, camaraderie doesn't win baseball games. The best in the world are competitive beasts. But getting too caught up in results can be dangerous. Getting too high from a win or too low from a loss is a recipe for inconsistency. Riding the roller coaster is only good at Disney.


But without competition we're left with what? Why even play if we're not trying to win? How can we be driven to improve, driven to win, and yet remain unfazed by results? This presents a tricky dichotomy.


What we learned is that it’s necessary to re-frame competition. In the heat of the battle, sure, some players need to think 'Me vs. You.' This gets them to the right level of focus, channels their energy, and brings out their best. But others need to stay calm and relaxed. This part of competition is entirely personal.


The component of competition we're focused on is not the part where the pitcher is figuring out which pitch to throw or whether he should pick off. It's the other, more challenging part where a pitcher is competing against his toughest competition, himself.


To become great, a pitcher must learn to tune out external distractions and get down to business. He must realize that bad calls are not unfair. Poor weather is not an obstacle. The other team is not the enemy.


This line of thinking led to our second staff value: compete with yourself. Each rep is an opportunity for improvement and a chance to move closer to one’s potential.


We understand that winning the game is ultimately the goal, but the person we’re in competition with is our self. If a player can compete with himself on every rep of every training session and every game he will remain unbeaten.


Everyone wants to win. Not everyone wants to prepare to win. When we re-frame the opponent as our self, growth is the only path to victory.


My first four years coaching were incredible,

and incredibly busy. I was coaching with one of my closest friends. I was building relationships on and off the field. I was spending lots of time with my best friends making memories I'll always cherish.


I worked in Special Ed, coached the Haverford pitchers, ran baseball lessons at night, went to grad school, and started a baseball camp. I was learning more from experience than from books. I knew less, worked more diversely, spent more time with friends, and slept rarely.


My life from 2010-2014 was very different from my life the rest of the decade, and though I'm glad I am where I am now, those crazy times taught me a lot.


Nothing is more humbling and more perspective shifting than working in Special Ed. If you think you're a good communicator with high levels of patience, I dare you to spend one week in an Autistic Support classroom. Seeing the challenges those wonderful kids and their wonderful families face head on every day made me take stock of just how lucky I was.


While I knew it wasn't my life's calling, those years working in Special Ed taught me to be a more patient person and a better communicator. Those kids taught me to see beauty in the mundane. When we really think about it, isn't a fire truck a miraculous, life saving machine built upon thousands of technologies we couldn't even begin to explain? Why not celebrate every one we see?


Working in Special Ed showed me the power of patience, the necessity of clear communication, and the beauty hidden within the ordinary.


Luckily, I was laid off

from my job in Special Ed after the 2014 school year, making easy the decision to transition full-time into coaching.


For several years, Haverford's Strength and Conditioning Coach Cory Walts had been bugging me to get my CSCS and help him out. I had already been reviewing the pitchers' weight-room programming and was beginning to dip my toes into the depths of a world I had fallen in love with as a teenager.


But I was afraid to take the dive. Getting my CSCS would take time and money, and helping out Cory would be as a volunteer. How would I pay my rent? Where would I get money to eat?


Ultimately I decided I could always figure that out. My Bar Mitzvah in 1997 had been fruitful, and my financial decisions during and after the Great Recession solid, so it's not like I was entirely broke. And I had built up a decent client base of kids who wanted to have weekly baseball training sessions with me, so I knew I'd have at least some income.


Anyway, I did it. I got my CSCS and started up as Cory's Volunteer Assistant Strength Coach. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I immersed myself fully in the world of athletic development, got to coach athletes for hours upon hours per day, and invested much of my time working beside people I greatly admire as coaches and humans.


My growth curve got steep. I learned so damn much those next 5 years. It was as if years 1-4 were just the preamble to years 5-9.


The soft skills of communication, patience, and perseverance that I had learned allowed me to better communicate the new ideas I was taking in.


Every day became an opportunity to try out a new exercise, cue, or drill. I tested them on myself and our athletes. Some became mainstays. Others evaporated so quickly not even I remember them.


I realized only later that this tactic would not have worked had I tried it from day one. The relationships had to come first. Ultimately it doesn't matter how much knowledge lives in my brain. It doesn't matter how clearly I can regurgitate that knowledge. Communication is a dialogue, and teaching only happens when the student learns.


Having a strong relationship with a person makes for smooth lines of communication that lead to increased learning.


I became so immersed in my work

during this time that I lost sight of some other important parts of life. I invested less in my family, my friendships, and my own well-being. In 2014 I spent 70 days with at least one of my closest friends. By 2019 that number had dropped to 21.

I used to get off work on a Saturday, drive hours to see friends, hang out for a day, drive home late Sunday night, and be up and ready to go on Monday morning.


But over time this became harder and harder to do. Not only does this now exhaust me, but in some ways it makes me feel like I've wasted time I could have spent reading, learning, or consolidating my thoughts. I'm not proud of this.


I read somewhere of the value in being able to be comfortable sitting peacefully next to a pile of work. In many ways this is counter intuitive. Don't the best work tirelessly to accomplish everything they set out to achieve? Aren't the most successful people those who work 14 hours a day, go on 24 hour productivity binges, and hardly ever sleep?


In a word, yes.


Many of the greatest artists and scientists in history were simply the most prodigious at producing work. We remember maybe three paintings or two tremendous discoveries, but these people were producing mediocre work at an incredible rate. To produce greatness, you need to produce a lot.


It's good to be a grinder, and it's okay to fail. It's okay to produce average work. The key is to continue to produce. A billion monkeys on a billion typewriters might not be able to write Hamlet, but then again, have you ever heard of Timon of Athens?


So is the lesson 'do more work'?


I'd argue that many successful people achieve success through insane bouts of work, so I do believe in working hard. I believe in moving fast and breaking things. But I also believe that slowly building a strong foundation is imperative for long term success.


Layering short bursts of intense work on top of this wide base can lead to periods of rapid growth.


Most of the time it makes sense to play the long game, choosing the mix of activities that will allow for sustainability over the years. But occasionally, intensity is key, and being able to leverage these periods of rapid growth can act as a step function to the next foundation.


But how do I personally find the right mix of activities? How do I get to a place of sustainability when I feel constantly pulled towards the pile of work?


I've been getting worse and worse at balancing my life and better and better at never turning my mind away from improvement. I find myself at home, supposedly done with work, theoretically investing time in my relationship, my friends, my family, and my sanity, pulled towards an article I saw on Twitter or that Anatomy Trains text sitting there coyly calling my name.


I'm not remotely present. I'm distracted. I'm having trouble sitting (standing) peacefully next to a pile of work, knowing it's time to be present where my feet are.


This is not balance. This is not sustainability.


I've come to the conclusion that balance is being present. It's being fully immersed in work for many hours, but also equally present when it's time to shut down. So that’s what I’m going to work towards.


The previous 2600 words being said, I might be wrong.

It's a damn hard thing to say at first, but over the last decade I've learned a ton about being wrong. I have made so many mistakes, including some I'm sure I don't even know about yet.


I've learned that mistakes are inevitable, and that they're only bad if we don't learn from them. I've learned that decisions should be made as bets on an anticipated future and beliefs should remain malleable to change as more information arrives.


I've learned that humans are tremendous rationalizers and capable of inventing post hoc stories of why we were right or even how we are actually still right in the presence of evidence suggesting we're wrong. We create stories and beliefs that support our past choices and current lives. It's likely that this article is full of these beliefs and biases. This is all probably wrong. I'm just hoping it's less wrong than what I would have written in 2010, and more wrong than whatever I’ll write next decade.

For those of you still with me, thank you.


I learned so much more last decade from the people I met, coached, and coached beside than they learned from me. I have some wonderful memories, but the meaning of those memories comes from the people I love who helped make them.


The number of people I came to love during the past ten years is too high to count. Watching people develop - seeing them grow as baseball players and as humans - has been one of the great privileges of my life. The time spent with friends and family, the cold weather practices, and the quiet moments at home have all been so beautiful.


I am so lucky.

© 2020 by Nat Ballenberg