Where we last left off, we dove into a discussion about mental toughness, what it means, and the importance of having a plan. We have entered the era where athletes need to start being coached on the mental side at an earlier age. This is related to a couple of trends that have pushed youth athletes to perform at a higher level.
- Early Specialization: It is clear that more and more youth athletes are picking a sport and focusing their efforts to eventually play the game at a high level. With this, not only do the athletes put higher expectations on themselves at an early age, but in many cases so do the parents and coaches.
- Trend towards participation in exclusively private sports clubs/ teams. In many communities (especially in Southern California) participation in public/ community programs such as Little League and Pony Baseball have seen a decline in favor of private travel teams. By putting the kids in a position to “compete” for spots on a travel team, their mental maturity is tested.
RESULTS, RESULTS, RESULTS. As a culture we are obsessed with numbers, scores, grades, and ultimately, the status that comes with high achievement. This is a double edged sword. On the positive side, it has clearly increased the competition level of our young generation, in more ways than just athletics. On the downside, results have become the center of focus for our young generation, which has proven to be a complicated issue.
I always give the analogy of a the modern pitcher who is pitching in a big game. The pressure/ expectations are high, and the outcome (to them, to their team mates, and coach) is all that matters. How can this pitcher effectively grade the quality of his execution, pitch by pitch, with this kind of mentality? At the end of the day, the pitcher could throw the best pitch of his life, to the exact location he intended, but he still has to…
- Beat the hitter
- Rely on the umpire to call a strike
Let’s say the pitcher is able to pull off this “perfect pitch,” and the batter still manages to hit a home run… This pitcher is still pegged with an earned run, and ultimately failure with executing the pitch. At an emotional, and sub-conscious level, the athlete will be confused to say the least. They did everything and more they could have asked of themselves physically, and yet it was still not enough to get the job done. Usually, this manifests into the pitcher “trying to do more,” pressing to throw better pitches, and ultimately losing confidence and command of their zone.
On the flip side, sometimes the pitcher will get lucky. They will execute the pitch without command, tight spin, nor strong velocity. The batter may get caught off guard, or the umpire may give them a borderline call, yet, the pitcher is still awarded the strikeout and recognition of a job well done.
This leads me to my major take away, which is the fact that on the diamond, results are completely out of the player’s control. With this fact in mind, the only way the athlete can continue to develop, improve, and perform at their peak is if they are focusing on the process rather than the outcome. By focusing on the process, and action steps necessary for success, the results will follow! The process includes…
- The work they have done to prepare physically and emotionally for the moment they step foot on the diamond.
- The mental game plan they have established pre-competition.
- The trust to take their best stuff (aggressive) out onto the field, knowing that baseball is a game of adjustments.
- Un-relenting will power to stick to the above plan, even when things go haywire.
I always tell my players that number 4 can be the toughest to achieve, because when you are in the heat of the moment it is difficult to slow yourself down, think rationally, and more importantly make a conscious decision to stay aggressive, especially when everything and everyone around you is telling you to play it safer. By allowing these thoughts to change your physical action steps, the ball player is deciding to do something completely different than what they have practiced, engrained, and ultimately mastered for years of playing the game. How can the athlete or anyone for that matter expect high achievement under these circumstances, especially in a game that demands velocity, speed, and short burst explosiveness?
Next time, we will continue to dissect “the process” and ultimately come up with some action steps that can help every ball player take ownership of their mind and ability to perform under pressure.
Kyle Richter, CSCS, USAW, TPI
USC Baseball Alumni, BA Human Performance