In Choking/Fears/Slumps and Blocks

BIG PAPI has been struggling mightily up at the plate and it’s been going on now for a little under a year. His long batting slump has prompted all kinds of “experts” to come out of the woodwork with possible solutions. It’s all in his eyes. He needs to get his eyes checked. He should turn more to religion. He just needs a little spiritual guidance. (Papi hit his second home run of the season after receiving hand-made wooden rosary beads from a fan He’s just tired and needs a rest. (so Sox manager Terry Francona benches Ortiz during a three game series in Seattle in mid-May). It’s all in his head…..

He’s just thinking too much and trying too hard. Ask any mental toughness exper and this is exactly what they’d say about these kinds of extended slumps. Ortiz’s concentration is off and he’s simply pressing too much. Former Major Leaguer and second baseman Steve Sax who certainly knows a lot about extended performance problems in the game takes a more home grown approach. Don’t listen to the experts! “Sports psychologists never played the game so don’t take much stock in what they say!” Instead, keep it simple. Don’t focus on mechanics. Instead, see ball, hit ball! It’s just a confidence thing. There’s nothing wrong with him. Hitting is just relaxation and rhythm. When you’re in a good zone, it’s a feeling. That’s what he has to get back.”

While Sax’s advice may sound pretty basic and simple, it’s much easier said than done. The problem with hitting slumps is that very often they take on a life of their own, fueled by a failure-over thinking-trying too hard and then more failure cycle. The athlete has a bad game and can’t stop himself from obsessing about it. When he gets up at bat in the next game, he’s over-focused on outcome (“I’ve got to get a hit”), physically tight and pressing to “make something happen so I can bust out of this thing.” This urgent approach leads to another bad at-bat, which, in turn leaves the athlete frustrated, plagued by even more thoughts and trying even harder.

In Ortiz’s case, I believe his slump is being fueled by past injuries. Your body always memorizes past trauma and that unconscious memory stays in the back of your mind. This body memory triggers your body’s self-protecting response to misfire. That is, when your up at the plate, at the scene of the original injury, your body remembers the swing injury and reads the situation as dangerous. The result? You either take a pitch you should’ve hit or your swing timing and/or mechanics are slightly off.

Last June and July 2008 Ortiz missed 45 games with a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist which had to be surgically repaired. In early August, he told reporters that he was bothered by a clicking sound in his wrist whenever he swung. “It gets in your head. Should I take another swing? Should I hold off.” Into last year’s playoff Ortiz hit a dismal .186.

You don’t get over slumps by trying harder. You don’t get out of slumps by just telling yourself to relax. You have to get to the underlying roots of the problem, in Ortiz’s case, the body memory of his wrist injury, and then you must help him process it out of his body. This is how he’ll be able to relax and focus up at the plate.


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