Farrell: Chemistry crucial to success

BOSTON -- The clock had yet to strike 7, the morning mist still burning off and the streets around Fenway Park stirring to life with a doubleheader on tap in the afternoon, but John Farrell was already in the house.

As the grounds crew meticulously prepped the field, tending to the pitcher's mound and the dirt of the infield, and stadium workers hosed down seats to give them time to dry before the first game, Farrell stood in a huddle in the posh State Street Pavilion talking quietly.

The Red Sox manager wasn't discussing the day's work against the Tampa Bay Rays, not specifically anyway. The topic of the morning was coaching, and in the pocket with him were Notre Dame football coach (and Everett, Mass., native and Assumption College product) Brian Kelly and Boston College football coach Steve Addazio.

The three men, along with Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan, were the headliners of the second annual Coffee with the Coaches breakfast event to raise money for the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to promote character-building experiences through youth athletics.

Emceed by WEEI hosts Michael Holley and Mike Salk, of the "Salk and Holley" radio program, the event included a live auction, a question-and-answer session with the audience, and a panel discussion that touched on everything from early coaching influences to the effect of social media on athletes today.

"We see high school and youth sports as a development zone," PCA founder and CEO Jim Thompson said in opening remarks. "In a professional sporting event, a bad official's call that goes against your team is a travesty and deserving of rebuke. Inside the development zone … a bad official's call is an opportunity to work on resilience.

"Struggle is a good thing, and learning how to struggle in youth sports is one of the virtues of it."

There was certainly plenty of struggle to deal with for the 2012 Red Sox, who were at exactly .500 (33-33) and in the basement of the AL East (eight games back) at this time last season. Bobby Valentine's team, of course, finished with a 69-93 record, 26 games out of first.

One of the first questions in the panel discussion was about how much time each coach spent on reshaping the culture of his or her organization.

Farrell didn't duck it.

"It began with trying to change the culture that, I think if you paid any attention to the Red Sox last year, might not have been the greatest," Farrell said, drawing laughs from the audience. "And there were a lot of changes that did take place."

Entering play Tuesday, the Red Sox were 42-29 and in first place in the AL East.

While there are many things that go into creating a winning team, Farrell gave Ben Cherington a lot of credit for selecting the right type of player in the offseason.

"Now what we see is a group that is close-knit, it's united," he said. "We were talking about it before the morning began here, how important chemistry is. In different environments, whether it's college or professional, there's different ways you go about [creating] it … But I don't think you can ever underestimate the people inside the players, because you're ultimately betting on people and not just the performer."

Taking over a team that went 2-10 in 2012, Addazio also weighed in on changing the culture of a program.

"The first thing I said to the team was, 'There's a lot of really great players in college football, but there's not a lot of really great teams. And the reason is there's a lot of selfishness. And we need to be a great team,' " Addazio said. "The starting point is squeeze selfishness out. That's our goal right now, to be the best team we can be in college football."

The audience, which included Boston College athletic director Brad Bates and Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker (who sat on the panel last year with Valentine) among many others, was left with this main message: To maximize the success of athletes (of all ages) and teams (at all levels) it's important to treat people fairly and to minimize distractions.

One growing distraction multiple members of the panel pointed to is social media.

"Look, it's not going away," Kelly said. "It's not like it's gonna stop, so [there needs to be] a lot of education. [There's a] need to educate -- and my group is 18- to 21-year-old males, there's a lot of education going on there -- and [to help them with] understanding how to use it properly, because from my end the things that happen in your program you want to stay in your program."

Then there's the double-edged sword of social media removing barriers between athletes and fans (and potential detractors).

"One of the major distractions for young players coming up is the social media standpoint," Farrell said. "So many guys want to be liked by their fans. And all of a sudden, when they start to interact with them directly and when they have a bad game … it's OK when it's a one-way street but when it comes back the other way now all of a sudden you're dealing with a whole other distraction.

"And then when they get into it with some media members in other cities, then it becomes on my desk and we have to have sit-downs -- it can get out of hand."

Donovan said that in all aspects of coaching, communication and consistency are key -- letting players know that the door is always open and that rules apply to everyone the same way regardless of an individual's stature on the team.

The Red Sox manager agreed with that sentiment.

"I think people in general -- one, they want direction, and two, they want to belong to something bigger than themselves," Farrell said. "That's the case here."

"We set up that baseball, in our world, has to be one of the three most important priorities in that individual's life. And if that's the case, if that's truly there, then you're probably going to do what's right with either being a teammate or commit to a routine that prepares them best each and every day."

While the panelists themselves came from the top ranks of the college and professional sports world, they agreed that the priorities should be different for youth sports -- a point Addazio illustrated with a story.

When he was at Syracuse, Addazio said he and a neighbor were chatting one day when the neighbor started bragging about his son.

"He said 'You've gotta see my son, he's just an absolutely phenomenal soccer player,' " Addazio said. "I said, 'Great. How old is he?' He said, 'He's 12.'

"I couldn't help myself, I said, 'Well, where do you go from phenomenal? I mean, you're 12 and you're phenomenal, does that mean you're …?' " he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "I just think with the young kids, you don't have to be phenomenal when you're 12. It's OK to build up a little bit."

"The most important thing is to enjoy the experience and have fun, especially at those young ages. Have fun being part of a team, the social part of that and the development part of it, and don't be worried about being phenomenal. Because [then] if you're not phenomenal when you're 17, I really do wonder what happens to your self-esteem."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.