A pitching problem begins
Sal spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years playing summer league ball and working with a pitching coach. This coach toyed with Sal’s throwing mechanics and encouraged the lefty to make a large number of “minor” changes. To accomplish this he had Sal doing numerous drills on the mound and thinking about exactly what he was doing while he was throwing. For over a month Sal pitched mechanically and inconsistently, trying to think his way through his pitching. He had trouble with his control, started doubting himself and his speed had dropped off significantly. In retrospect Sal felt that what this coach was telling him was wrong. Unfortunately, the damage had already done and the seeds to a nasty slump had been planted.
Both Yogi Berra and Branch Rickey have been quoted as saying “a full mind is an empty bat.” Regardless of who really said this, there is great wisdom in the idea that if you step up to the plate with your mind full of “I gotta getta hit”, “What if I strike out” or “Keep your hands loose, your elbows down, swing smoothly, this doesn’t feel right”, then you will truly come up empty as a hitter. Actually we can say that the same holds true for every part of the game. If you’re thinking about what you’re doing while you’re trying to do it, you’ll do it very badly! You can’t pitch, field, steal second or make a put-out if you’re thinking about what you’re doing. You play your very best when you are on automatic. That is, not thinking and just trusting your instincts and muscles to respond as trained.
Sal returned to school in the Fall for his junior year with his eyes looking down the road to a big payday come June. The plan was to forego his senior year and sign with a Major League team, a lifelong dream come true. His family and friends were excited and everyone talked (a little too much) of Sal being a pro player by the summer. Sometimes this talk annoyed him and he felt weighed down by everyone’s expectations. During the Fall season Sal began to experience occasional control problems. In one game, for example, he came out to close with a two run lead and uncharacteristically walked the first two batters he faced. He then struck out the third batter but hit the next one, loading the bases. When the next hitter singled to tie the game Sal was pulled.
The problem gets worse
After this game, Sal’s confidence was slightly shaken. He’d never had control problems like that before and tried to dismiss that game as a fluke. When a similar thing happened in his next few appearance he began to worry that something really was wrong. As a consequence he started thinking more and more about what he was doing on the mound. He questioned the changes that his summer league coach had made. He began to pressure himself to throw better and to not walk any batters. He worried about his Major League career and what would happen if the pro scouts saw him throwing so poorly. As a consequence of this string of bad outings, the coaches decided to go with different closers in several key games where they might have used him. Sal took this as a vote of “no confidence” which further eroded his already shaky self-confidence.
The next game he got to play, he had a three run lead and 13 scouts in the stands. As he walked out of the bullpen Sal’s mind raced over the possibilities that lay before him. What if he didn’t have his control? What if he started walking people? What would the scouts think? By the time he took the mound he was a bundle of nerves. He clenched the ball so tightly that his knuckles turned white and his hand hurt. He tried to calm himself down but no one was listening inside. When his first ball went into the dirt he groaned to himself, “Oh God, here we go again! It’s starting already” He couldn’t mentally let go of that bad pitch and then he threw another rotten one, “Ball Two!” He quickly glanced into the stands at the scouts and his urgency turned into fear. “I can’t let this guy get on. If he does I’m done!” As his mind raced, his composure disappeared and he threw two more straight balls to walk the batter.
As he got ready to face the next hitter he started to come unglued. He thought about his Major League career going out the window. He berated himself as a “head case.” He knew he had to get this hitter out but instead of just relaxing and trusting himself, going on automatic, he started to bear down. Instead of letting the pitch happen he tried to aim it, to force it to the target. He quickly got behind this batter 2 and 0 and when the guy squared to bunt his next pitch, Sal “just lost it.” He thought about the advancing runner, another game he would lose for the team, how he was going to screw up again and how no Major League team would ever look at him again. His coaches could sense that he was “cooked” and pulled him from the game.
For the rest of the Fall Sal’s problems escalated while his self-confidence was in a free fall. His lack of playing time further contributed to the problem. The games he did get to pitch, Sal put even more pressure on himself to prove that he could do it. This only made things worse. The incredibly frustrating thing, was that when he pitched in the bull pen Sal had everything! He threw with control, speed and all his stuff. It was just on his walk to the mound that he would mysteriously lose it! By the time Sal got to the mound he was tight and scared. One bad pitch would then destroy his composure and snowball, knocking him out of the game both mentally and physically.
Stopping the slide - Understanding that your control is still inside
By the time his coach called me in the Spring it looked like Sal was on his way out of the game. He was a “head case” who could come unglued at the slightest provocation. He no longer seem to have any control and couldn’t possibly withstand the pressures of playing Major League ball. If he didn’t get his act together soon, his lifelong dream was about to pass him by. What was Sal able to do to stop his slide and what can you learn from his experience?
First, pitching (hitting or fielding) problems like this are predictable and more often times than not stem from poor “mental mechanics.” The fact that Sal was able to throw strikes in the bullpen and balls on the mound was actually the good news. It meant that his problem wasn’t that complicated. If he could do it in the bullpen, then he had the ability to do it on the mound. All that was needed was that he learn to apply the same solid mental mechanics that he used in practice to his game situations. In the bullpen Sal threw strikes because he wasn’t thinking. All he was doing was concentrating on his target, the catcher’s mitt and letting the pitch happen by itself. On the way to the mound and once there, Sal was over-thinking. He threw balls because he was concentrating on his thoughts and trying to force the pitch..
Sal needed to first understand that it was mainly because of these faulty “mental mechanics” that he was currently struggling. Furthermore, he needed to see that he still had all the control. Most pitching problems like Sal’s and other slumps in this game are actually self-maintained by the player. Sal was keeping his slump going strong by his focus of concentration and his negative self-talk. Sal was focusing all of his attention on thoughts like, “I gotta get this guy out”, “what if I walk him”, “I can’t let my team down”, and “I can’t throw balls.” It’s these thoughts that tightened him up physically and made it impossible for him to throw to his capability.
To snap this kind of slump the athlete must learn to consciously shift his concentration away from his head and these kinds of thoughts (both before and especially during the performance) to the game and throwing one pitch at a time. For example, for Sal to throw well his entire focus of concentration had to be on his target (the catcher’s mitt) and keeping his arm loose and relaxed.
Re-establishing a championship focus
Keeping your head in the game and away from your thoughts is easier said then done. The athlete must therefore learn how to keep focused on what’s important and block out everything else. This means that the major skill a struggling pitcher or slumping hitter must employ is twofold: First, recognizing when your concentration drifts from what’s important; and Second, quickly and gently bring your focus back to the right thing. Like any skill, this two part skill of concentration can be developed and fine- tuned with practice.
Sal practiced the following simple exercise to begin to restore his concentration abilities on the mound: Take a ball, place it on a table two feet away and pick a specific spot on the ball to focus your attention. Every time that you find your concentration wandering from that spot, mentally catch yourself and quickly and gently bring yourself back. Spend 3-4 minutes at a time with this exercise. If you find that you’re getting good at it, add some distractions. For example, place the ball on top or directly in front of a TV set and turn it on without any volume. Repeat the same exercise trying to maintain your focus. Next, turn the volume up and try the exercise.
Avoid the UC’s
In a previous article I wrote about the UC’s, the “uncontrollables” as the biggest mental trap that slumping ball players fall into. The “uncontrollables” are quite simply all the things in a game that are directly out of your control. When a ball player focuses on the UC’s three things will consistently happen to him. First, he’ll start to get nervous and physically tight. Second, his confidence will start to slide. Third, his play will begin to suffer.
Sal’s problems on the mound highlight just how much “air time” he was giving to the uncontrollables. Here’s a sampling of some of his UC’s bouncing around inside his head: In the bullpen and throwing well - “Oh God. I’m throwing strikes here and that means that I won’t be able to do this in the game!” (The UC here is the future. Sal was ahead of himself). On the walk to the mound - “I can’t let my team down.” (The UC here of course is your teammates and coaches and their expectations of you) “I can’t throw balls.” (When you’re walking to the mound, throwing balls is an uncontrollable because you’re not pitching at that moment. Your pitching is in the future. Plus whether you throw balls or not is also directly influenced by the umpire and the kind of strike zone he’s calling). “There’s scouts watching.” (The opinions of scouts, like the media, fans and everyone else at the game are completely out of your control). On the mound - “I gotta get this guy out.” (There’s two UC’s here, the opposing batter and the future. Sal is again too far ahead of himself). After walking the hitter - “Here we go again“ (Sal’s head is in the past thinking about other times that he’s lost control). After his shortstop boots an easy grounder that allows the runner to get on base - angrily “I can’t believe that crap! I worked so hard to get this hitter and (his player) goes and does that!” (The play of your teammates is a huge UC.
While there are a whole host of other uncontrollables (score of the game when you go in, weather and field conditions, the importance of the game, how much playing time you’re getting, condition of the mound, etc.) you’ll only stress yourself out and kill your confidence when you pay too much attention to them. Sal had to learn to recognize what his UC’s were and then quickly and gently bring his focus back to those things that he could control.
Utilizing a Championship Game Plan
One way that I helped Sal do this, get back on track and avoid the UC’s was by encouraging him to put together what I call a Championship Game Plan. While it’s useful to know what you’re not supposed to do in a game, it’s even more important to know what you need to do. A Championship Game Plan is a series of controllable goals that the ball player takes with him into the game and focuses on accomplishing. When these goals are achieved then the chances that that athlete will play well are exceedingly high. These goals serve a much more constructive function that the typical goals (which are usually uncontrollables) that ball players carry onto the field, i.e. “I want to go 4 for 4”, “I don’t want to make any errors”, “I want to win”, “I want to throw a shut-out”, etc. Outcome goals such as these more often times than not get athletes pressing too much. When an athlete channels all his energies into accomplishing the goals of his Championship Game Plan, then his outcome goals will most likely happen all by themselves.
The following is an example of a typical Championship Game Plan that was developed for Sal:
#1 Pitch (hit, play, field) in the NOW - The NOW is the only time zone a ball player has control over. I encouraged Sal to stay in the now by focusing on one throw at a time. The most important pitch in any game is the one that you are throwing right now.
#2 If you find yourself “time traveling” back to the PAST or ahead to the FUTURE, then recognize that you’ve left the now and quickly and gently bring yourself back to it - Getting distracted and leaving the now is not a problem as long as the ball player is on top of his mental drifting and can bring himself back immediately. On a bad day the athlete may have to bring himself back a lot. How many times you drift is not nearly as important as how often and how quickly you bring yourself back. With Sal, it was important that he not “beat himself up” for losing his focus. This is why I use the word “gently” when you bring yourself back. Getting angry at yourself for drifting is a terrific waste of energy and will only further distract you.
#3 Keep track of the “uncontrollables.” - As a pitcher it was critical that Sal be aware of his UC’s so that he inadvertently didn’t give them too much air time. If he did recognize that he was falling into a UC trap, he was instructed to go back to goal #2, i.e. recognize that you’re focusing on it and quickly and gently bring yourself back.
#4 Use focal points - A ball player has to have something neutral or positive to focus on when he brings himself back from drifting. A focal point is something that you can lock your attention on to help distract you from the distractions all around you. For many pitchers and hitters their pre-pitch or pre-hit ritual provides them with these focal points. If you make the steps of your ritual simple and controllable, then it will be much easier for you to stay calm and focused when the heat of competition is turned up high. For Sal, focusing all his concentration on his breathing before each pitch helped him empty his mind and stay in the now. The nice thing about focusing on your breath is that it will always help you stay in the NOW of the game. As I mentioned earlier, Sal also used the catcher’s mitt and a loose feeling in his arm as focal points.
#5 Stay Calm - If you go into a game with a goal of maintaining your cool and staying physically loose, you’ll set yourself up to play to your potential. You can’t play good ball if you’re too uptight. You can only play well if you’re physically and mentally relaxed. I taught Sal several quick relaxation techniques to help him accomplish this goal.
#6 Trust yourself and let it happen - When you press and try too hard your muscles work against themselves and end up tied in knots. You’ll throw your best and hit your hardest when you trust yourself and let the performance happen by itself. Like every athlete who plays this game, your best performances come out of this “let it happen” mentality. Trying too hard in baseball is a losing game. Trust your training. Trust your skills and try “softer” instead of harder.
#7 Forgive your mistakes and leave them in the past - While this is virtually the same as #1, many ball players need to have a separate goal of letting their mistakes go quickly and forgiving themselves for them. If you carry your errors or mistakes into the next pitch, you can be sure that you’ll make another one. To help Sal leave his bad pitches and walks in the past we developed a little “mistake ritual” which he would use on the mound. The ritual included special self-talk, (“relax…let it go…one pitch at a time…stay here NOW…etc”), breathing a certain way, imagining he could exhale his mistakes away and refocusing on specific focal points.
#8 Use negative self-talk as a signal to refocus on the important task at hand - Negative self-talk frequently will creep into a pitcher’s mind when he’s under stress. The important lesson to keep in mind here is that you can learn to pitch through the negativity without it adversely affecting you. You can neutralize negative thinking by not responding to the content of the self-talk and instead using the negativity as a signal to quickly refocus on what’s important. It’s as if the negative thoughts were spoken in a foreign language. In that situation you can hear the sounds but you don’t get a content meaning. Sal learned to train himself to ignore the content of his inner chatter and quickly refocus whenever a negative “tape” started playing in his head.
The proper way to use a Championship Game Plan is to take those goals that are specifically important for you and jot them down on a small card. The player can then refer to this card before a game, an at bat or when in the dugout to be sure that he’s staying on track. After each one of Sal’s outings he and I reviewed his game plan to check which goals he had accomplished and which he needed more work on. As he became more successful in keeping himself in the now, quickly bringing himself back whenever he drifted, leaving his mistakes in the past, avoiding the UC’s, utilizing focal points, staying calm, and using his negative self-talk as a signal to refocus his control began to return and his confidence started to rise. As a consequence he began to get more playing time. As the starting pitcher in one particularly big game, in front of a lot of pro scouts, Sal pitched brilliantly. He had come full circle and was back not only mentally tougher, but that much closer to his dream.