Is Your Head Getting in Your Way As a Ballplayer?
"BASEBALL IS 90% MENTAL AND THE OTHER HALF IS PHYSICAL!" - Yogi Berra
What has sports psychology got to do with you and your baseball? Well, if you understand old Yogi's wisdom, PLENTY!!! Years ago a sports psychologist colleague of mine who was working with the pitching staff of the California Angels once said that on any given day a minor leaguer can play ball in the Majors. He has the skills and talents to hold his own with any ball player at that level. However, the reason that he's in the minors and hasn't yet made it up to the "big show" is because he can't play like that every day. Why? Because he lacks the mental skills to consistently perform under that kind of pressure.
I don't know what level you play or coach at, and I'm not sure what dreams you have for yourself and your game. I do know, however, that to truly reach your potential in baseball you have to develop a solid working knowledge of sports psychology. You have to learn how to become mentally tough. Without the necessary mental skills to effectively handle big game pressure, quickly bounce back from bad at-bats, errors and tough breaks, the ability to focus on what's important and block out everything else and that all important belief in yourself, you'll remain a baseball player with "permanent potential." In other words, you won't go anywhere!
Two years ago a Division I baseball player was referred to me because his game had been steadily going down the proverbial tubes. He had been a dominant, gutsy pitcher in high school and his physical skills and intensity on the mound had earned him a four-year scholarship to a big baseball program down south. He was the kind of pitcher who could go into a game with runners on, the count against him and the crowd screaming bloody murder. He'd keep his cool and slowly and methodically pitch his way out of the jam. Like all mentally tough ball players, his strength lay in his ability to put himself on automatic on the mound and just not think.
You play your best baseball when you're trusting yourself and "unconscious", that is, not thinking. Thinking tightens your muscles up in knots, distracts your focus from the task at hand and kills every part of your game. Baseball skills happen too quickly for your thoughts to be able to keep up with your actions. Thinking slows your reflexes and reaction times way down. Not to mention, making them uncoordinated.
Shortly after he joined his college team several of his older teammates, jealous of his skills and potential to make the Majors, began to razz him after he threw a pitch in the dirt during a scrimmage. They nicknamed him "the wild-man" and mercilessly kept on his case. After several weeks of this goading he became shaken by what they were saying and began to think too much on the mound. "What if I throw a wild pitch? What if I lose control again?" Etc. Soon his worry about losing control became a regularly thing. "Paralysis by analysis" soon set in. The worry led to him getting tighter and more tentative, which led to more loss of control, which got him thinking even more.
You cannot play good baseball by thinking about it. Thinking gets you trying too hard and pressing. Trying too hard is the "game of diminishing returns in baseball." That is, the harder you try, the worse you play. To be at your best, you have to be relaxed and on automatic in what I call a "let it happen" mode. Remember back to the 98 season when Big Mac and Sammy were chasing each other and Maris's single season record for home runs. Talk about an awesome display of mental toughness and concentration! How do you think you can keep hitting home runs when you're in a fishbowl and the whole world is hanging on every at-bat you take? Both McGuire and Sosa did not go up to the plate thinking about hitting home runs, Maris's record or how the other was hitting. My best guess is that they stepped up to the plate with an empty mind, staying loose and focusing on just one pitch at a time and making good contact. Nothing more!
Just what do you think Yogi Berra meant when he said "a full mind is an empty bat?" If you step up to the plate with thoughts like "gotta get a hit.haven't hit in 5 games.I won't get more playing time unless I can get on" then you will come up empty. Sosa and McGuire hit all those homeruns by not trying to hit them!
In no time at all he found himself on the bench, feeling like a total head case. The coaches had lost all confidence in him and that just added to his growing self-doubts. Now he even dreaded having to go out and start a game. A trusted teammate suggested that he talk to someone who knew about sports psychology, but this pitcher thought that sports psychology was just for "crazy athletes." The teammate laughingly explained, "sports psychology is for anyone who wants to raise the level of their game. It will help you build back your confidence, strengthen your ability to block out all the garbage the guys have been throwing your way and it will get you throwing great, like you used to at crunch time! Practicing sports psychology exercises are just like doing weights man! Weights help you build up physical strength so you can throw and hit harder. Sports psychology will help you build up mental toughness strength. Hey, even I saw a sports psychologist last year!"
By the time this pitcher contacted me he was ready to give up on his dream. His self-confidence was shot and he had little hope that he would ever play the game again the way he once did. If mental toughness was a scale of 1-10 he was a -3! Sports psychology? Yeah, he'd try anything! He was desperate.
So what did I tell him before we got started? "I'm not going to teach you anything that you don't already know how to do! You have everything that you need inside you right now in order to play the way you once did! Just think back to some of those great games that you used to play. Remember what they felt like! All those skills and feelings are still there. We just have to help you get back there." .and we did by putting together the building-blocks of mental toughness.
Mental toughness in baseball starts with your ability to handle failure. You can't be good in this game without the ability to quickly bounce back from errors, miscues, lousy calls and strikeouts. If you have trouble letting go of your failures and tend to carry them around with you, then chances are good that you'll consistently play way below your potential. How about pressure? Do you know how to stay cool in the clutch? Can you effectively manage the stress of big game competition? Without the ability to relax you can't play good ball. Don't forget your concentration skills. The cornerstone of peak athletic performance on the ball field is your ability to focus on what's important and block out everything else. What kind of focusing skills do you have? Can you block out the razzing crowd, your rowdy opponents and the scouts in the stands? Let's not forget self-confidence and that all important belief in yourself. Mental toughness is also made up of your ability to effectively prepare for upcoming games. Do you know the best way to program in success ahead of time? Too many baseball players mistakenly set themselves up for failure during the days and hours leading up to a big game. How about your ability to handle self-doubts and negative self-talk? Are you your own worst fan out there?
If you can learn the game of baseball, then you can learn enough sports psychology techniques to help you develop a solid mental game. This pitcher did! A few months after we worked together he was able to get his game back on track and after his college career ended he was signed by a Major League team! How important is the mental part of your game? Do you think Yogi is right?