Who has seen the movie For the Love of the Game with Kevin Costner? For me, it is one of my favorite movies. It provides such a visceral experience of what it is like to be an established pitcher in the big leagues. At several points in the movie you get a glimpse of what it is like to pitch on the biggest stages, what his dialogues with his catcher/ teammates look like, and most importantly what his “self-talk” looks like. There are several points in the movie that really stuck out as being spot on, those points that you catch yourself saying “yah that is what it really must be like.” In one scene, however, “Billy Chapel” makes his way out to the mound at Yankee stadium and the place is rocking. He looks around and soaks in the raucous and screaming (hostile) fans. He then proceeds to get on the mound and say in his mind “clear the mechanism” and kind of glare into the catcher’s glove. At this point all the noise completely dies down, and the rest of the stadium sort of disintegrates into the background.
Now although I have never pitched on an MLB stage, I have pitched in a rowdy college stadium. What I can confidently say, is that the “clear the mechanism” scene is not reality. We are all human, we all have ears, we all have eyes, and we all battle nerves. For me, mental toughness is not some super-human ability to block everything out of your senses, but rather, the ability to redirect thoughts rapidly in a positive manner. It took me many of these moments, mostly post college, to come to the realization that the only way negative thoughts, feelings, comments, or words can affect a ball player’s performance, is if you allow it to change your physical action steps. What this means, basically, is never ever let negative thoughts change your physical play/ approach to the game. The human mind is extremely powerful. Mostly, your mind will work to help you stay “comfortable.” In a pressure-packed moment, adrenaline can either serve to help or hurt your play, depending on how you choose to act. Your mind will likely tell you to slow down, be cautious, stay square to your target, and demand you to “take control.” When this happens, it is absolutely vital for the player to stay on the attack, and trust the mechanics that have been engrained through countless repetitions. By staying on the attack, the ball player is making a conscious decision to play the game instinctually, to the best of their innate abilities.
The beautiful (and tough) thing about baseball is that most of the game is completely out of the player’s direct control. You can make a perfect pitch to the exact spot you were determined to hit and one of three things can happen; You can have the result you expected, the umpire can take away your positive result, or the batter can best you. Baseball is not a game of connect the dots; It is intricate, multi-faceted, and always changing. With this in mind, it is all about controlling only the things you can control. Next time we will start talking about what this process looks like, and how to take ownership of your mental approach.
Kyle Richter, CSCS, USAW, TPI
USC Baseball Alumni- BA Human Performance