Every hitter wants to be mentally tough. Every coach wants mentally tough players on their team. Yet do we really know what that means? Do we have a complete understanding of what it means to be mentally tough and how to become a mentally tough player? Many times we think of mentally tough athletes as the players that come through in the clutch. Players who have the ability to ignore “pressure” and still perform regardless of the situation. These athletes are able to routinely come up with the game winning hit time after time. Maybe they’re able to ignore injury or pain and still perform at a high level.
However you define mental toughness it really boils down to the same thing. Mental toughness is nothing more than a hitter’s ability to be in the present moment. What we don’t realize is that “pressure” is nothing more than how we are perceiving what is going on around us. For example: Let’s say you’re hitting in the 9th inning of game 7 of the World Series with the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on 2cnd. Many would argue that this situation is one of the most pressure packed situations that a hitter can encounter. However let me ask you, what makes this situation more pressure filled and ultimately more difficult than hitting in a meaningless game with nobody on and 2 outs?
I know, I know there’s much more at stake but yet that answer just proves my point. You see it’s our perception that this situation is more important than hitting with nobody on in a meaningless game that causes it to have more “pressure”. Your thoughts about what will happen if you do or don’t produce a hit cause your mind to take you outside of the present moment. You begin to think about events in the future and as a result aren’t completely focused on what you are doing now.
Essentially your job as a hitter in this situation remains the same. The steps you need to take in order to give yourself the best opportunity to succeed don’t change simply because you perceive this at-bat to be more important than another. You still need to track the pitch into the hitting zone and then execute a mechanically sound swing. Anything outside that takes away from your ability to execute the steps necessary to allow the results you desire to manifest themselves.
It’s important that we understand that if we are feeling the “pressure” then we need to recognize that we are not currently present and as such need to take the steps necessary to become present. Focusing on your breathing for example is a great way to eliminate the mental chatter that is creating your stress response and to become one with the present moment.
A classic example of mental toughness occurred during Game 1 of the World Series in 1988. Kirk Gibson who was unable to play due to some serious leg injuries was able to come off the bench and ignore the pain and hit the game winning home run. For those of us who are old enough to have witnessed this event it truly was one of the iconic moments in baseball history. More recently we saw something similar with Tiger Woods winning the US Open despite a serious knee injury. It was these two athlete’s ability to become present that allowed them to perform regardless of their injury. They still felt the pain, however they didn’t allow thoughts of future pain prevent them from executing now.
Let me see if I can explain a little better. As some of you know a few years ago I participated in a martial arts class called “Combat Training” as a means to test myself and become more mentally tough. Combat Training consisted of 5-7 of us allowing our instructor and each other to beat on us twice a week for an hour. We did things that even now make me think back and cringe. We were hit with baseball bats, sticks, we did knuckle push-ups on concrete and then punched phone books, we hung from pull-up bars and allowed every person in the group to get 2 free shots at our torso as hard as they could. We basically did everything we could to push our limits physically and mentally.
Needless to say the pain experienced in these sessions was far greater than anything I had ever encountered. Time after time I found it hard to get myself to drive the 4 miles to the facility however I continued to go simply because I wanted to be more mentally tough. After a few months of training I began to discover things about myself that had a huge impact on my philosophy of human performance. I found that humans have an incredible ability to endure and deal with anything that is in front of them at the present moment. I also found that it is either fear of the future or regrets of the past that inhibits our performance and cause us the most pain.
What do I mean? Well, believe it or not getting hit with a bat wasn’t nearly as bad as the thoughts of what it was going to be like to be hit by the bat. When the actual event transpired I found that it was much worse in my mind then it was in reality. My thoughts of future or past events (thinking of the previous training session) created within me fear and resistance that made the experience tougher and more physically and mentally painful.
This realization allowed me to then focus on becoming present both before and after training sessions eliminating the resistance I had previously experienced. I was able to get through the sessions with very little physical pain even though I was being pushed harder than I’d been early on. What this showed me was that most if not all of the resistance that we create in the batters box be it mental or physical is the result of us not being present.
So what is mental toughness? In my opinion mental toughness is a hitter’s ability to become one with the present moment regardless of the external situation. Luckily this ability can be developed and you don’t have to go through months of painful combat training to do so. By simply meditating for 15-20 minutes a day you are training your mind to become present and to stay present over an extended period of time. This ability becomes very valuable when you are faced with what other’s would deem a “pressure” situation at the plate. You’ll be able to perform at your highest capacity regardless of what’s going on around you. You’ll experience less emotional highs and lows and your enjoyment of the game won’t be tied to the result you produced. As a result you’ll play at a higher and more consistent level. So if you’re looking to be more “mentally tough” simply focus on becoming present. Spend time in meditation and the rest will take care of itself.