Historically there has been some stigma around mental training and mental toughness. For the bulk of baseball history it’s been thought that mental toughness is something that you either have or you don’t. It can be embarrassing to admit that you need help with your mental game and for that reason players can feel alone, like they’re the only one’s who are struggling. Yet when questioned as to what percentage of their teammates struggle with the mental side players routinely answer 90% or more. This tells us that needing help developing the mental aspects of performance is more the norm. Player’s that seem to just “have it” are the outliers and not the other way around.
Fortunately for the bulk of us who aren’t just blessed with a high performance mindset mental skills are just that… skills. The good news is that skills can be learned, developed and mastered. If you’re a hitter that wants to develop that elite level mindset at the plate then you’re in luck, the following skills will help you achieve just that.
One of the biggest misconceptions about mental toughness is that the mentally tough don’t experience the same thoughts and emotions that other athletes do. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The bottom line is that everyone struggles at some point. Regardless if you are experiencing a lack of confidence, frustration, performance anxiety, or whatever it’s going to happen. The question isn’t how do you eliminate these limiting thoughts and emotions? The question is what tools or skills do you have in place to help you when they arise? Achieving a level of proficiency at these skills will allow you to have a number of tools in your mental toolbox so that you always have access to them when you need it most.
This is our foundational skill for many reasons. First and foremost it’s THE skill that gives us direct control over our mental and physiological state. How we breathe has a direct impact over our nervous system. When we’re anxious, nervous, frustrated, angry or tense we are in a sympathetic state (fight/flight response). Our breathing allows us to become much more parasympathetic which is a much more relaxed state. Being more parasympathetic during your AB allows you to access your higher brain functions. Which translates into greater focus and pattern recognition (the ability to recognize pitch type and location easier). In addition, it allows us more access to our fine motor skills which increases the likelihood of quality swing execution which as we know increases the likelihood of creating the results we want at the plate. The more precise we need to be (and in hitting we need to be very precise) the more important it is to stay calm and alert. Our breathing allows us to do just that.
In addition to regulating our physical and mental state our breathing gives us an anchor. In order to succeed at an elite level our ability to stay focused in the present moment is crucial. With everything that’s vying for our attention (the count, the score, the crowd, bad call from an umpire, our mechanics, the coach, etc.) it vital that we have something to anchor us in the present moment and our breathing does just that. It allows us to step away from the thinking mind and to truly focus on the pitch we’re about to see. This is a big reason why “Breathe” is included at step #2 of my Process for Hitters. Focus on the breath allows the hitter to control their breathing to achieve the optimal physical and mental state and allows them to let go of their result based goal for the pitch as well as avoid thinking about something mechanical. It simply returns them to the present moment which is where all peak performance flows from.
How to utilize the breath:
- Start with slow, controlled nasal breaths into the diaphragm. You should feel your belly expanding and not your chest.
- Try to have an optimal breathing rate of about 6 breaths/minute. This equates to a 5 second inhale and a 5 second exhale.
- At the plate, after you’ve gotten your sign from your coach, surveyed the situation, stepped in the box and are staring out at the pitcher your focus should be on your breathing. Connect to some physical sensation of the breath. Feel your belly rise and fall, feel the air flowing in and out of your nose, hear the sound of the air moving in and out of your body. Whatever sensation you choose just connect some physical sensation connected to your breath.
- If you’re experiencing any negative emotion be it anxiety, anger, frustration, or anything that’s preventing from turning the page from what just happened and are unable to completely focus on the here and now make your exhales twice as long as your inhales. This would look like a 5 second inhale and a 10 second exhale. You can also shorten your inhale and do a 4 second inhale and 8 second exhale. When we breath in this way it allows us to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system in order to calm both our mind and body.
2. Self Talk
Whether you realize it or not you’re constantly talking to yourself. The inner monologue that we engage in greatly determines our mental and emotional state. How we feel about ourselves or about the situation we find ourselves in is impacted by the story that we tell ourselves. Our confidence, for example, is directly linked to this story. If you want to feel more confident simply change the story. This is easier said than done. Primarily because so few of us are actually aware of the self talk that we’re using. Some of us that are aware are using some pretty harsh and negative commentary about who we are as a player or about the situation we find ourselves in. We need to be aware of when we’re saying things like, “I can never hit this guy” or “I always struggle with 2 strikes.” and then consciously change the story.
A good rule of thumb concerning our self talk is to imagine you’re talking to a friend or teammate. Most of us after a bad AB, after producing a less than desirable result, or when we’re struggling are BRUTAL on ourselves. We would never speak to a teammate the way we speak to ourselves when they are struggling. Instead, most of us would be encouraging or supportive. We might say things like “You got this!” or “You’re ok. It will come. Just keep working.” When it comes to ourselves however we’re much more destructive. This has a massive impact on our confidence and our mental and emotional state. As we discussed this impacts our ability to produce results on the field. Now I’m not going to lie, changing our self talk isn’t easy. We must first become aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves before we can change them. Once we become aware we have to exert much more conscious effort to change what we’re saying. It won’t be easy or automatic. In fact it might even feel unbelievable. That’s ok. Understand that we’re wired to focus on the negative so negative story lines are much to get wrapped into. Consciously being aware of and then shifting any negaitive self talk IS the training. Every time you consciously shift yourself from negative to positive you’re strengthening the mental muscle necessary to maintain good self talk in pressure situations when you need it most. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen.
How to utilize Self Talk:
- Become aware of the story you’re consistently telling yourself during AB’s, after bad calls, in situations you struggle, after you’ve had success, whatever.
- Consciously shift the story from negative to positive
- Be Preemptive… When you find yourself in a pressure situation or a count or situation where you struggle don’t allow your mind to default to the negativity. Recognize that you’re in a challenging situation and consciously direct your self talk. Tell yourself positive affirmations or simply tell yourself “I got this!”
Visualization is a tool I’ve written about before and is a powerful tool that can be utilized both in and out of competition. First of all it’s important to understand that our mind can’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined. Regardless, if you’re imagining yourself executing a perfect swing or if you are actually, physically executing that swing the same neural pathways required to execute the skill fire. So whether you’re sitting on your bed with your eyes closed imagining your swing or you’re actually in the batting cage executing good swings you’re still going to see some benefit.
Visualization can be used together with physical drills to help improve swing mechanics or it can be used to help a hitter with pitch recognition or becoming better at hitting a particular pitch and/or location. Personally, I like to use it beyond just physical aspects of hitting. I like to implement visualization in any count or situation where one of my hitters consistently struggle. Typically players struggle in certain counts or situations because there is an unconscious shift in their mindset which directly impacts their physical performance. I like to have the players I work with visualize those counts or situations and not only see themselves succeeding but also thinking and feeling in a way that gives them the best chance to be successful in that situation. Overtime this allows the hitter to develop the mentality they need to feel comfortable in any situation they find themselves in.
How to utilize Visualization:
- Sit down, close your eyes, and slow your breathing. Take 10 slow breaths and try to relax.
- Imagine yourself executing your swing or an AB either through your own eyes or watching yourself from a far like you’re watching yourself on video.
- Try to incorporate as much of your senses as you can. Really put yourself there. See it, smell it, hear it, feel it.
- See the pitch or situation in as much detail as possible.
- Visualize pitches coming in on deck prior to an AB.
- Visualize an AB in the dugout after the AB making any adjustments you want to make from the AB.
- Lay on your bed and visualize whole games. See the pitcher you’re about to face or replay the game you just had except see yourself making the adjustments you need to make and having the success you wanted to have.
Special Operators in the military know the value of purpose. Having a purpose greater than yourself is one of the best ways to improve performance both on and off the field. Often you’ll hear special operators talk about being there for the man next to him. It’s not about saving their own life but rather about saving the lives of their brothers in arms. Any time we serve a greater purpose we are taking the focus off ourselves which allows us to get out of our ego mindset and allows us to minimize our stress response. For this very reason I love to have my hitters spend some time thinking about what their overall purpose is. Their purpose for playing the game of baseball, their purpose for the game they are about to play, and the purpose for their current at bat.
Players tend to play the game without any real thought to why they play. I like to have the hitters I work with use a journal to reflect on what their purpose might be. How can they best serve their team, organization, school, community, teammates, coaching staff? Asking questions of this nature can help a player develop a purpose greater than themselves and allow them to get into a more optimal mindset. I know for me it’s been a complete game changer. For example: If I’m about to give a big presentation and I feel nervous I know that I’m focused more on myself. I’m worried about doing a good job or how the audience might perceive me and my work. If I simply shift my focus to how I can serve the audience or how I can provide them with the best experience possible my anxiety almost vanishes instantly. It’s an extremely powerful performance enhancer that can be utilized in almost every aspect of sport and life.
How to utilize Purpose:
- Get a journal and ask yourself “What is my purpose in the game of baseball/softball?”
- Answer the question of “How can I serve…through the game of baseball?” Think about teammates, coaches, school, organization, team, community, family, etc.
- Revisit that purpose prior to each practice or game as well as anytime you’re feeling nervous, anxious, frustrated, angry, etc.
5. Process Orientation
This is probably one of my favorite mental skills but also one of the most cliche. For that reason I almost always cringe when I bring it up. Social media, coaching sound bites, blog posts such as this one, podcasts are all filled with coaches saying the now famous “Focus on the process”. Unfortunately, most don’t go a step further and explain what that means or what the “process” is. For us as hitters its almost doubly confusing because the “process” in our craft is always sold to us as a result based goal. Hitting coaches and mental coaches a like will tell you that “hitting the ball hard” is process oriented. Let me be 100% clear here…. Hitting the ball hard is a RESULT! Just like any of the other number of results we’re trying to achieve. Hitting the ball hard is no different than trying to get a hit, drive a run in, move a runner over, etc. These are all results NOT the “process” that leads to those results.
Before I go any further let me explain why process orientation is so effective. At the end of the day it all goes back to certainty vs. uncertainty. As humans any time we enter an uncertain situation we activate our stress response. Even on a minor level our stress levels increase which as we discussed earlier has a negative impact on our performance on multiple levels. In hitting we enter into an entirely uncertain situation. We don’t know what pitch is coming and where. We don’t even know if we do everything perfectly if we’re going to be successful. In order to avoid activating our stress response and limiting our performance we need to base our success and focus our attention on aspects of hitting that are more certain. To do so we have to ask ourselves a very important question… “What controllable steps do I need to execute to put myself in the best position to be successful on this pitch?” As hitters, this is all we really can control. All we can really do is put ourselves in the best position to achieve success pitch to pitch. It’s important that we have a deep understanding of what drives our success at the plate. Whether it’s a certain mindset, execution of a certain aspect of our mechanics, or swinging at certain pitches in certain locations, it’s important to understand what controllable steps that you execute increases the likelihood of success. Once you have that understanding the execution of these steps becomes how you gauge your success at the plate. For example: If getting your front foot down on time leads to quality swing execution which increases the likelihood of success for you on any given pitch then your goal for the AB becomes getting your front foot down on time. Your success on any given pitch isn’t based on whether or not you hit the ball hard or got a hit but rather if you were successful in executing the controllable skill you intended to.
Approaching hitting in this way allows a hitter to stay more process oriented at the plate. It takes the focus off of the results we’re trying to produce and focuses it more on the controllable steps that lead to success. This increases our feeling of certainty at the plate which helps mitigate our stress response and keeps us in a more optimal mental state.
How to use Process Orientation:
A Hitter’s Process at the Plate
- Set your intention for the pitch (this is the controllable step or steps you need to execute to put yourself in the best position to be successful)
- Breathe (Once your in the box let go of that intention by focusing on your breath to bring yourself back to the present moment)
- Execute your job (track the pitch into the hitting zone and execute a quality swing)
- Evaluate and Adjust (were you able to execute your intention on the pitch? Why or Why not? The answers to these questions formulate your intention on the next pitch)
The mental skills listed above are each valuable and can be utilized at different times. No one skill will work 100% of the time and so it’s important to look at these skills as tools in the tool box. When we’re experiencing less than optimal mental and physical states at the plate it’s beneficial to have multiple tools to pull from. Over the course of my own career and as I became more proficient as using each of these skills I found tremendous benefit from each one. What I wasn’t anticipating however was how much these skills would impact my everyday life. I’m often awed by how much I lean on these skills as a husband, father, coach, or any other aspect of my daily life I want to experience better performance, more peace of mind, or more enjoyment out of. Spending time each day developing and mastering each of these skills will have positive ramifications on your performance at the plate or any other aspect of life you choose to apply them to.