Bringing The Mental Game Into Your Awareness - Part 1 of 2
“If this game was only about physical skills and ability than every first round pick would end up in the Big Leagues. The reality is that only a small percentage do”
Steve Springer, Former Major League Player and Scout
Like most other sports the game of baseball has evolved a great deal over the past 20 years. Today’s players have access to more quality information and instruction than ever before. A great deal of this “new” information has brought exposure to the field of Mental Training. Sports Psychology, Yoga, Meditation and Visualization are training methods that are now more readily accepted by today’s players and coaches than in the past -- it’s more common now to hear about a player work with a Sports Psychologist or take a Yoga class to strengthen their mental approach toward performance.
The main reason for this receptivity is because players and coaches are beginning to realize just how mental this game of baseball truly is. As important as physical practice is there is a growing realization that today’s baseball players, for several reasons, have more “mental” demands than ever before. For example, players now have access to a significant amount of quality information and instruction. This seems to have leveled the “physical” playing field and intensified the degree of competition. Showcases, scholarships, scouts, and the money and fame awaiting in professional baseball have put a players actions between the lines under a microscope. This once seemingly innocent game of playing catch with your father has been infused with pressures, distractions and self-consciousness. The net result is that baseball has become a head game.
Another reason baseball is so mentally challenging is because baseball has so much down time or “dead time” throughout a players performance (a hitter will come to the plate about once every 30 minutes). Dead time gives players time to think. Where other sports like Football, Basketball and Hockey are action and reaction oriented, baseball players have to learn how to get into an action or reaction mode. They don’t have the luxury of being in action for continuous periods of time. It is the inactive time that gives the mind an opportunity to inhibit or sabotage performance if not trained properly.
Practice Plans: Time For An Adjustment
Where the demands on the mental game has increased significantly our response to it hasn’t. Though these factors have forced a change in the level of awareness in the baseball community it’s remarkable how little is still being done about it. It’s nice that the majority of coaches and players agree that 90% (or more) of this game is mental, but when are we going to take action? When are our “practice plans” going to reflect this?
Traditionally, practice plans are designed to prepare players for the real thing…game situations. Thus, hitters take batting practice, pitchers bull-pen, infielders take ground balls and outfielders take fly balls. Stations are set up to work on other various skills including bunt defense, pick-offs and run downs, pitchers fielding practice and base running. The problem is that these “practice” stations focus on physical execution. Game situations, when consequences are at stake, are based on physical and mental execution.
How come we haven’t integrated “mental” stations designated for “mental practice” into our practice plans? Why would we expect to be relaxed and confident in “game situations” when we haven’t practiced this form of training? Do we expect a clear and focused mind to just show up on game day because it should? Would you expect your arm to be strong if you never threw a baseball? Would you expect to hit well if you never picked up a bat? Then why would you expect your mental game to be “in shape” if you don’t consistently work at it?
Yes, physical training is vital in the development of a baseball player but does that mean that physical mechanics are the only adjustments we make? Doesn’t there come a point where physical mechanics must be supplemented by mental permission to execute these physical mechanics?
We can put pitchers in the outfield to shag fly balls for an hour but we can’t find 15 minutes a day to teach our players how to relax, clear their minds and learn how to trust (be confident) themselves? We can’t put aside 15 minutes to develop mental resources that are untapped, yet available to us through practice? Isn’t there a mixed message to our players when we allot 40 hours a week for physical practice and 0 hours a week for mental practice?
The bottom line is this. Once physical practice has been “accounted” for it really comes down to our ability to relax (mental) and trust ourselves (mental) to execute the right action (mental) in a “game environment”. Physical preparation is accounted for -- mental preparation is not. And the only way to account for anything is to do address it by doing something about it.
It’s Time To Change
So, why haven’t we done anything about it?
I have found three logical reasons why: 1) Mental Training is a part of the game that doesn’t have protocol because it hasn’t been passed down from generation to generation, like hitting and pitching mechanics, 2) Though the field of Mental Training is more widely accepted there are very few coaches who have extensive training in this field…it is difficult to know what to teach and how to integrate it into their practice, and 3) Though there is more interest and acceptance in the Mental Training field, baseball is still a very traditional sport. Not only is tradition being challenged but human beings characteristically are resistant to change.
The truth is that as long as we talk about how mental this game is and do so little about it we are going to continue to work at those skills that are already spoken for (physical) and neglect those (mental) that aren’t. We are going to continue to wonder why our physical preparation in practice doesn’t necessarily translate into success during performance.
It is time to make an adjustment.
The Link Between Mental Training And Peak Performance
Over the years, I’ve asked many players and coaches to describe what they feel are the most important “mental” attributes or state of mind to possess during performance. Here is a list of those words that were most often cited: Confident, Trusting, Relaxed, Clear Minded, Concentrated, Uninhibited, Natural, Instinctive, Loose, Free and Joy. These same attributes also happen to describe those feelings that are activated when an athlete is having a peak experience.
Over the years a great deal of research has been done on the effect of peak experiences on athletes. Peak experiences may be defined as an unusually heightened state of mind that may occur periodically to an athlete during performance. Athletes often describe this state of mind with such phrases as “I’m Unconscious”, “I’m in a zone” or “I’m Locked-In”. What the athlete is really saying is that his natural talents and abilities are taking over without any interference from his mind because his mind is free of thought.
This is a unique state of mind because the mind is used to thinking. It is not used to being silent and still, especially when there are distractions or consequences at stake. This “non-thinking” state of mind usually only comes from mental training. In the case of a peak experience it just “happens”. And anyone who has ever experienced this feeling knows how empowering it is. It takes you to a completely different level. It also takes you beyond your physical technique.
Conveniently, these same types of characteristics common to a peak experience can also be effectively promoted in a mental training environment -- experienced during a mental training practice. The link between these two experiences are very strong. You might say that peak experiences become an extension of your mental practice. Mental practice gives you an opportunity to integrate these qualities into your life on a daily basis.
Familiarity Through Practice
A Zen Master once said, “gaining enlightenment is like an accident. The more you meditate, the more accident prone you become”
Mental training is first and foremost a practice. It is a daily commitment to putting yourself in an environment where you can practice being in a quiet, relaxing and trusting space. It is getting to know these qualities as a part of who you are when the “dust“ clears. It’s also teaches you that the commitment to being in a intended space on a daily basis acclimates your body and mind to these feelings…to these experiences...to these skills.
Mental practice promotes this because you are developing skills in the same manner in which you would develop any other skill -- through discipline, repeated exposure and consistency. These skills can become second nature in time because you are more familiar with this state of mind (and body). As this feeling becomes more familiar through practice it becomes something that can be relied on and recalled during performance. You have created a program in your computer that you are familiar with (like throwing a baseball) and can now be applied.
Keep in mind that the aforementioned characteristics of trust, relaxation and clarity of mind don’t just appear because you want them to when the game is on the line. Without mental practice what is there to be recalled?
The Time Is Now
After taking thousands of ground balls I can understand why a shortstop would expect to field a ground ball in a game situation or an outfielder would expect to catch a routine fly ball. But why on earth would we expect a hitter or pitcher to be relaxed when the bases are loaded and the game is on the line when these are non-routine, pressure filled situations. Why would we expect a hitter to be confident when he is mired in an 0 for 20 slump?
If mental practice is not part of your daily routine the next time you step on the rubber or up to the plate, if you aren’t successful because you weren’t relaxed, focused or confident, don‘t be upset with yourself. Why would you be…these are mental skills that are earned through mental practice.
All of the physical practice in the world can be of such diminished value if the mind is vulnerable and unprepared in game situations, when the mind is tested the most. Like any test, if you haven’t studied why would you expect to pass?
Coming November 15, 2006 Part 2 of 2 "The Practice" by Alan Jaeger.
About the Author
Alan Jaeger has worked privately with several professional players and has consulted with several college/high school programs including Cal State Fullerton & UCLA. Long time students include All-Stars Barry Zito & Mike Lieberthal. His mental training book “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”, Arm strength and conditioning throwing program, “Thrive on Throwing” (Video/DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) are available at http://www.jaegersports.com or 310-665-0746.