Post by Ken Ansell, mental toughness trainer
Featured Photo sent in by Jeff Lewis, of his boy commanding the mound
As a long time baseball coach, I can’t count the number of times I have seen a pitcher have a great start then a few innings down the road, spiral out of control after something happens. Disaster is unfolding in front of your eyes. You don’t want to pull him. Burn a pitcher for the tournament and you risk not getting to the final. You can’t let the kid struggle and you can’t let it get out of control. What now?
PREPARE IN ADVANCE
Sounds too simple but it really is that simple. As coaches we spend countless hours preparing and building the physical skills of our players. Pitching mechanics, base–running skills, fielding drills, hitting mechanics….. Usually we end up with a pretty skilled team with all the hard work those players put in during practice, those private lessons and everything else. If you were to ask any coach, “What happened the last time a game went sideways and spiraled downhill?” I can almost guarantee it wasn’t the skills of the players. It is almost always a mental mistake; pitcher beans a batter, someone hits a dinger off of him, ump makes a bad call…. All of a sudden they can’t find the strike zone. Coaches spend so much time focusing on the physical skills of the game, but most teams spend very little time, many ZERO time, on the mental aspects of the game. One of the best things a team can do, especially in baseball where a 30% success rate is awesome, is to work on mental skills. Prepare in advance for what to do in those situations so when it happens, everyone will know how get themselves back on track.
Coach, when you go out to the mound, what do you say? “Take a deep breath,” “Believe in yourself,” “Don’t overthink things,” “Remember your mechanics,” “Start throwing strikes or it will be a long walk home” or something else and sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. If you prepare in advance with what to say to THAT pitcher when you go out there, you can refocus that pitcher and get them right back on track. With practice, they might not even need a mound visit.
Feel good first – It is a proven fact that when you feel good, you play good, when you feel bad, you play bad. Work on feeling good first because if you change the emotion, you change the outcome. The chemical changes that happen in the brain when you either feel good or feel bad directly affect performance.
When things start to go sideways, fear automatically kicks in. You think about the past (beaned batter) and you worry about the future (next pitch). There is no fear in the present. Only when thinking about what happened or worrying about what will happen is there fear. Focus on something that brings you back to the present. Your 5 senses work great for this as they are 100% what is happening now. Focus on something that when you see it, hear it, feel it, smell it or taste it, it makes you feel good. Figure out in advance what that is and work on it. Change the brain chemistry, change the outcome. Practice it, just like your physical drills. Maybe it is the feel of the seams of the ball in your hand, the color of the grass, the smell of your glove….. Find what works for you and use it to get present.
CHANGE YOUR FOCUS
Have one thing, or several things, that you are completely grateful for that you can count on to focus you back on this pitch. I worked with a young pitcher who immigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old. For him the thing that worked to get him back on track was the thing he was most grateful for.
His parents bringing him to the US. When something would happen and he needed to get back on track, he would call time, step off the mound and look at the American flag blowing in the breeze. That American flag was EVERYTHING he was grateful for. Being in a country where he was free, he could go to school and college, he was able to play baseball and have a future meant everything to him. He would feel great instantly every time he looked at that flag and focused right back to the pitch at hand.
When you visualize properly, it is easy to get yourself back on track by spending a few seconds visualizing the perfect pitch. Now many people teach visualization; lots do not do a very good job at it. Consequently, many athletes just don’t do it. Some important aspects of visualization are to make sure that you state everything in the positive, visualize what you want, not what you don’t want. Keep everything in the present. Do everything correctly from mechanics to the end success. Include emotion on how you feel and be very specific. From the way the ball feels in your hand to feeling your muscles fire as you push off the rubber, have perfect mechanics, follow through and the ball hits the target perfectly. Visualization takes a lot of work and practice to do well. Keep with it.
It has been said many times that if you do not control your emotions, they will control you. That can be very evident in sports. Anger is one of the emotions that can be extremely detrimental to sports performance, especially pitching. Anger should not be confused with focused intensity. My youngest son would change instantly if something happened like a home run got hit off him. People would say look out, now he’s mad!! His fastball would increase by 10mph I’m sure and deadly accurate!! I wished he was like that every pitch!! But he never got mad, he just got intensely focused. When anger sets in you lose fine motor skills, stress hormones increase and decision making skills suffer. Learning to control emotions is key. The other 3 tips can be beneficial in controlling emotion as well.
I attended a business retreat about 20 years ago and what that facilitator said has stuck with me ever since. She was talking about having the perfect employee, which can translate to the perfect baseball player, and she put it like this. When Sea World was needing a new killer whale for their performance, what did they do? Did they set out on the ocean in their boat, holding a great big stick out over the side and the first killer whale to do a flip over the stick, take it back to be the star of the show? NO. That would have been a long wait bobbing around in the ocean right? The truth is, they worked with what they had. Teach, reward, and develop the skills of what you have to work with to get that perfect performer. If you want to develop pitchers to have composure on the mound, include mental skills as a part of your practice routine to teach, reward and develop that perfect performer.
Ken Ansell is a mental toughness trainer, working with athletes all over the world, from all sporting backgrounds but specializing in the mental game of baseball. He has been a baseball coach for the last 13 years, certified through the National Coaching Certification Program. Combined with working as a sports and medical acupuncturist since 2006 and a massage therapist since 1994 gives him a very comprehensive background to the mental, athletic, and injury rehabilitation of sport. Ken’s mental toughness website is https://sportsmentaltoughness.ca and Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/sportsmentaltoughness/