How many of you know who this guy is?
So, admittedly, I’m not a huge Major League Baseball guy, although as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I'm pretty much a lifelong Yankees fan, so it might surprise you to hear that up till a couple of years ago I had no idea that this was Alex Cora - manager of the Boston Red Sox (the world’s most hated team if you’re a Yankees fans!).
The truth is, though, that before October of 2017 very few non-baseball people knew who Alex Cora was.
So, to fill you in:
Alex Cora played in the majors for 13 years and for six different teams before retiring in 2011. He was a middle infielder and had a decent, but certainly not Hall of Fame, career.
After his retirement, he did some broadcasting for ESPN and ESPN Deportes and was the GM of the Puerto Rican national team for a few season.
He found his way into coaching in MLB for just one season in 2017 as a bench coach for the Houston Astros before landing the manager job with the Boston Red Sox after that season ended.
Pretty high profile position for a coach with such limited experience coaching at this level.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though:
In his first season with Boston in 2018, Cora took a pretty good team and turned them into an amazing team.
They finished the regular season with a rare 108 wins and went on to win the World Series - almost unheard of for a first-year manager, certainly one of his limited MLB coaching experience.
As a coach who’s always looking to get better at what I do - I know you can relate! - I love studying other coaches who, to the outside observer, have unexpected success.
The thing about “unexpected success,” in my experience, is it’s almost never unexpected to those who were a part of it.
When you're a part of something special and you “see how the sausage is made” is always much less surprising.
So… a guy like Alex Cora was pretty intriguing. And not nearly as well-documented as, say, the John Woodens or Bill Belichicks of the world.
So I dug in, I scoured the internet and read everything out there about Alex Cora. I watched every interview and I poured through every resource I could find.
I learned some pretty cool stuff…
So let’s cut to the chase: I figured I’d share it with you today...
Let’s jump right in with a deep dive into Alex Cora’s coaching philosophy and the culture he’s created, why this stuff works, and how you can use it in your program today.
The big takeaways:
Alex Cora focuses really intentionally on relationships, communication and on the environment he’s build for his team. Here's how he does it:
Alex Cora focuses on relationships.
I’m not sure how else to say this, so I’m just gonna say it: Alex Cora cares about his players. Not just as players, but as people. He cares about what’s going on in their lives and cares about them beyond the sport.
I don’t know what to tell you if you’re going to ask me, “But, Pete, how can I care about my athletes?”
The fact is for any coach to get the most out of their team, they need to care about their athletes as whole people. A little empathy can go a long way. The quote that always comes back to me is “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Investing vs. spending
There’s a difference between spending time to build relationships and investing time in relationships, and the main difference is your attitude.
If you look at building relationships as spending time, you’re mainly thinking about the cost… you know… “spending.” Investments, though, have a return (hopefully!) - there’s value that comes back to you. And that’s a much more accurate way to think about building relationships as a coach.
Investing the time to really get to know your people, in and out of your sport, will come back to you ten-fold. Alex Cora definitely takes this to heart and, for him, it’s all about conversations… lots of conversations. In the clubhouse, on the bus, before or after a game.
He likes to think of himself as a “man of the people,” rather than the “man in the high tower.”
Conventional wisdom in MLB holds that managers should be a bit removed from their players.
Cora throws that right out the door and goes out of his way to not spend much time in his office, but, rather, circulating through the clubhouse, the weight room, the batting cage and the field seeking out his players so he can be approachable - not at all aloof - and keep his finger on the pulse of his team.
The big payoff in this investment is trust. The stronger the relationship the stronger the trust, and the stronger the trust, the easier it is to coach your athletes and get the most out of them.
Alex Cora’s focus on relationships doesn’t end with his relationships with his players, though. He goes out of his way to create an environment that supports and fosters strong relationships developing between his players.
He’s rearranged furniture in their clubhouse to remove “barriers” between different areas of the locker room. He’s created an area that is literally designed to encourage interaction. He’s even moved players' lockers to create more intermingling between his pitching staff and position players.
He’s constantly working to create a culture that’s inclusive and welcoming allows new players to become part of the team as quickly as possible.
He’ll have rookies stand up and tell jokes or even give slide shows to the team about their college or minor league experiences. He’ll set up meals with small groups of players who might not normally interact with each other. He’s always looking to be a connector.
He’s also evolved this approach to take into account the world of today, where many players have their own hitting coaches or personal trainers who aren’t even part of the Red Sox organization.
Alex will go out of his way to even build relationships with these outside professionals to let them know that they’re all on the same page, and, at the end of the day, all on the same team. It even further strengthens his relationships with his players for them to see him reaching out to their coaches this way.
For better or worse, outside coaches are a part of sports at just about every level these days so taking advantage, embracing it and creating strong relationships is a great way to leverage it to help your team and your athletes reach their highest potential.
Alex Cora focuses on communication.
Communication is a skill set that all of us can always improve upon. Alex Cora takes this to heart and it all starts with his authenticity and sincerity. He learned early on in his coaching that he needs to be who he is and not try to be someone else.
He doesn’t see himself as authoritarian and he’s not a yeller so when he talks to his players, he’s just himself. The Alex Cora his players get is the same version the press sees, his family sees and his friends see.
He lets his personality shine through in his communication and doesn’t present the same “buttoned-up” persona that you see from a lot of coaches.
Ask for input
No one knows it all and Alex Cora is humble enough to realize that. He recognizes his players can have some great insights that can always help the team, so not only does he listen to what they have to say, but he actively solicits their feedback.
Whether it’s how to align defensively against a certain batter or how to play a bunt in a first and third situation, great ideas can come from anywhere in your organization if you’re just willing to listen.
Asking for input off the field can be just as important. Any choices you can give to your athletes - about travel, about training schedules, about anything, really! - gives them an increased sense of autonomy.
And, as many of you know, autonomy is one of the ABCD’s of intrinsic motivation. Something all coaches, at every level, would always love to see more of in their athletes.
Millennials and the generation that’s followed can sometimes get a bad rap from coaches. Some of that’s because what was considered “effective coaching” twenty years ago, isn’t so much now.
A great example of what worked well “then” but not as well “now” is the authoritarian coaching style - the “because I said so” style.
A lot of coaches came up as athletes under this style of coaching, so it only makes sense that’s how they’d coach themselves - that’s what they know. A big difference now though is this generation of athletes was raised to be inquisitive.
They want to know “why”. And there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, Alex Cora uses this as a powerful weapon to build much deeper buy-in from his players (and increase their understanding of the game in the process!).
Alex is quick to explain his reasoning behind decisions to his players and let them know what he’s thinking. When they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it connects to the larger goals of the team, there’s much greater buy-in, and, yes, even coaches at the professional level always appreciate more buy-in from their athletes.
It’s not just about explaining why, though. It’s also about setting really clear expectations for everyone on the team. When everyone’s on the same page, people tend to live up to the standards set of them and there are far fewer misunderstandings - a win for everyone.
It CAN be your fault
None of us are perfect, but often as coaches it can be hard to admit that to our players. Alex is quick to let his players know when’s he’s made a mistake or made the wrong decision.
As coaches, always striving to earn respect and build credibility with our athletes, this can sometimes be tough.
Here’s the thing though: as a coach, your ability to admit when you’re wrong (and even - gasp! - apologize, if necessary), actually builds more respect and credibility with our athletes.
It makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it: our athletes aren’t stupid! They can see, often just as easily as we can, when we mess up.
By owning it, we almost always earn a lot more respect than we lose. Even more importantly, it goes a long way towards building a culture of ownership and accountability in our programs - something I’m sure we’d all like to see.
If the coach is holding himself accountable for his actions, no one else has any excuse not to! The example is set from the top, down.
Even at the highest levels of sport, praise goes a long way. Alex Cora goes out of his way to make sure he’s not just offering criticism and corrections, but is quick with praise and genuine compliments when they’re earned.
He’s also not afraid to frequently tell his players and his team how proud he is of the effort they put in - something you don’t see a lot at this level, but something we could all probably benefit from a bit more of. Just because it’s expected, doesn’t mean your athletes don’t want to hear it.
Alex Cora focuses on the environment he builds for his team.
Eyes on the prize
The baseball season is long - six months 162 games long. Even longer if you make the post-season. It’s hard (read: impossible) to keep a team focused that whole time.
To help with that, Alex Cora is very clear with every conversation he has about why they’re there: to win a World Series.
While you can’t (and probably shouldn’t!) be trying to win the championship with every swing of the bat in batting practice or every ground ball you field, it’s important when things get tough or when your team loses its focus to be able to point to something to bring you back to where you need to be.
A big, clear, aspirational goal is almost like a team’s North Star. When things start to go sideways it becomes much easier to course-correct if you, as the coach, can point to something and say: “Remember guys, this is why we’re all here. This is why we work so hard. Now let’s get back to it!”
Keep it fun
Like I just said, the MLB season is a long one. Knowing how to keep it light and fun for your team, while still keeping them focused is an important skill for any coach to master.
Alex Cora has been known to keep it fun and help his team enjoy everyday and also keep them playing at a high level. From a season-long team ping pong tournament to dance parties in the clubhouse - complete with a fog machine! - after each win at home, he finds ways to keep it fun and also stoke their competitive fires.
It’s easier for players to perform at the highest level when they’re able to keep things in perspective.
Despite the demands of professional athletics, Alex Cora goes out of his way to create a family atmosphere on the Red Sox, and it extends beyond just the family they’ve created in the clubhouse to the players’ actual families as well.
Alex will occasionally open up team meals for players to invite their whole families.
He also keeps things in perspective. It's fair to expect a certain amount of sacrifice from professional athletes, but Alex also helps them keep their priorities in order, occasionally insisting that a player miss a day to be at an important family event.
This is just another example of Alex walking the walk when it comes to showing his players he cares about them beyond just the game.
And the more you can demonstrate that level of care, the stronger the relationships get, the deeper the trust builds and, ultimately, the greater buy-in and commitment you get from your athletes.
Change with the game
I've definitely heard someone say, "When you stop learning and growing, it's time to get out of coaching." (Can't for the life of me remember where I first heard that one... Anyone??)
Anyway, Alex Cora clearly takes that to heart. Of course, he takes advantage of advanced statistics to help his players improve and make better coaching decisions (after Moneyball, who doesn't do that in MLB!), but he also takes things a step further with the Red Sox.
He doesn’t just adapt to new technology, he continually evolves his coaching style to better serve today's players.
It's no secret our collective attention spans are growing shorter and shorter with things like high speed internet, on-demand entertainment and social media apps burning a hole in our pockets.
Rather than try to fight that battle, Alex has adapted. He now opts for shorter workouts and practices for his players keeping the intensity high.
He feels like his players can get more work in, in a shorter amount of time and get off the field to recover. And he doesn’t have to worry about attention wandering.
Quality over quantity is his mantra.
The workouts might be shorter, but Alex demands excellence. They might be fielding grounders for just ten minutes, but if they don’t do it perfectly time is added on…for everyone. That adds a little bit of a pressure element, which helps come closer to mimicking game conditions as well.
The other benefit is it helps keep athletes fresh over a long season and probably helps them avoid burnout and injury as well.
So that's it!
I definitely got some great insights from diving into Alex Cora's philosophy and culture to help my team and hopefully you did too.
So this is the first coaching "case study" I've ever done... let me ask you: Did you like it? Do you want more of these?