This is not football, basketball or hockey – it’s baseball. And of the four “major” sports in the United States, baseball is by far the most mentally challenging and demanding.
Demanding, because there is so much dead time compared to other sports. Dead time gives baseball players lots of time to think, and thinking is often at the root of tension, pressure and anxiety.
Challenging, because baseball players spend most of their time on physical preparation and little or no time on the one area that is going to impact their career the most. Yes, the mental game is being talked about a lot more these days, but talking isn’t good enough. It’s time to cut to the chase. Doing something about it is where the rubber hit’s the road.
Addressing The Mental Game: Prioritizing Your Practice Plan
Practice plans have been passed down for generations, and they of course have plenty of merit. But at what point (and what cost) are we going to continue to center our practice plans around physical preparation when we know that between the lines, the game is at least 90 percent mental? Hitting, throwing and running bases are all indispensable, as is bunt defense, pitchers fielding practice and first and third run downs.
But this is the 21st century – times have changed.
People in all walks of life are looking deeper for answers. Major corporations are putting a ton of money into creating a (mentally) healthier work environment by putting time aside for “self improvement.” Among other things, motivational speakers and yoga instructors are being brought in to help people relax and be more effective. When it comes to big business, they understand the bottom line, performance.
Sacrificing some time out of an employees busy work schedule for “mental health” is viewed as a necessity. Yet, somehow this hasn’t seemed to translate into the baseball community. Not that some teams (The University of San Diego has incorporated relaxation exercises prior to every practice) and individual players haven’t made the adjustment, but quite frankly, it’s a drop in the bucket.
The good news is that society is changing for the better. More than any other generation in the past 50 years, this generation is privy to the reality that Mental Training is not only a credible field, but it’s application to sports and life is a essential. Which begs the question — what are you doing to act on this reality? Until coaches start recognizing that Mental Practice is also an indispensable part of their daily practice plan, players are going to be deprived of developing the single most important asset in their career (their life), which is their mind.
The goal of this article is not to suggest that coaches have to go back to school to get their Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology. It is to give coaches a deeper understanding into why players perform a certain way, and more specifically, what can be done on a daily basis to support the players both from a strategic (terminology) point of view, as well as a practical point of view.
Done as a precursor to practice each day, each coach will be given enough information to lead his players through a 10 minute, mental training exercise or session that revolves around breath work.
Ultimately, whether we call “mental practice” relaxation, meditation or mental focusing time, the application of these exercises on a daily basis will have the greatest and most profound effect on your players minds. For without practice how can you expect any skill to be developed and maximized.
Understanding Where We Want To Be: The Zone, Locked In, Unconscious
Having a great mental game is as much about understanding where we want to be, as where we don’t want to be.
When things are going well it seems like the mental game is simple. And when things aren’t going so well the game can be very frustrating and complex. Understanding “how” we go in and out of these states of mind is extremely valuable.
In sports, we actually have many terms for this “optimal” state of mind. It’s been referred to by many names, including “The Zone”, being “Unconscious” and being “Locked In.” The technical term for this state of mind is called a Peak State, and has very specific attributes, including:
- The absence of thought
- A complete immersion with the action
- A sense of being process oriented
- A sense of calm or peace
- A detachment from the outcome.
By understanding the components of a peak state of mind, we can better understand ways to train the mind in order to put it in alignment with this ideal state.
Identifying the Problem: Consequential/Result Oriented Thinking
To better understand how to access this peak state, we have to first ask a very important question – what is the current state our mind is in? To do this, we need to look further into those factors that are responsible for the infrastructure of how we think.
The most logical place to start with is the environment we’re raised in. If you were raised in the United States chances are that you were exposed to a culture that breeds a state of mind that in many ways is the antithesis of the components of a peak state of mind. What I mean by this is that most people have been “programmed” by a society that places a great deal of emphasis on thinking and a preoccupation with the consequences or results of their actions. This preoccupation with thinking as opposed to reacting, and attachment rather than detachment from the outcome have become part of our psychology, and on a physical level, our neural pathways.
Attachment to the outcome is what is referred to as consequential, or “result oriented thinking.” Due to the nature of society most people are exposed to a great deal of this programming at an early age, including how we are “graded” in school, and how we are judged by our peers. Couple that with the culture of sports, where we are constantly measured by our statistics, our wins, losses and teammates, and you can see why it would make sense that our minds are conditioned to think about the results of our actions, rather than the action itself.
More so, these behaviors are more likely to be prevalent in game situations, where a greater premium is placed on performance. Though a peak state of mind tells us that we would like to stay in the present and be detached from the outcome, the mind tends to default to it’s old programming, because this is what it knows – this is what it’s familiar with.
The “Default” System
Thus, you can see how vital a mental practice would for the typical player who’s default system is trending him away from a peak state of mind. This is where the role of mental practice becomes vital. Though good advice and mental strategies can be very effective toward changing the mind for the better, mental practice is at the root of “unearthing” old programming, and replacing it with new programming. Ultimately, we want the mind to be well practiced at being clear, relaxed and process oriented…we want the mind to default to a “peak” state…a state devoid (or at least minimized) of consequential or result oriented thinking.
This is perhaps the most critical concept to understand about making a change in your mental game for the better. For without understanding this “default system”, players may continue to put thousands of hours of hard work into physical practice and not understand why it’s not translating into game situations; why being “immersed in the present moment and detached from the outcome” is the exception, rather than the rule.
Understanding why the mind tends to default into consequential thinking when our sole objective is to be in a non-thinking and process oriented state, is crucial.
Creating A New Default System
One question I can hear being asked is, “Why is mental practice necessary if we could just tell our minds not to think about results or consequences, and just think about the “process?” Well, that would be a good start, but the mind has years of old programming, and to change the default takes a consistent and committed practice.
Ultimately, it is the practice that leads to the change of old ways of thinking, old behaviors and new neural pathways.
Breath Work: The Core Ingredient Of Your Mental Practice
Mental Practice is a very broad field that includes breathing exercises, imagery, visualization, affirmations, and so on. You can also get forms of mental practice from among other things, Yoga, Martial Arts and being in Nature. Anything that brings the mind into a state of “presence”, a state of peace and quiet can be categorized as mental practice.
But the most common element that I’ve found in mental practice revolves around the breath.
There are many reasons why the breath is at the center of mental training exercises universally, including several physiological benefits (relaxation, lower blood pressure, oxygenation), but some of the other profound benefits may be more subtle. For example, the breath is always happening now, which symbolically, can be extremely helpful in teaching the mind how to be present. The breath is not a thought, thus, the more time you spend with your breath, the more time you are training your mind how to be in a “no-thought” state. Again, the absence of thought and being present are two major characteristics of a Peak State of mind. Thus, the breath alone can be a catalyst in changing the mind from a result oriented default, to a process oriented default.
Other benefits that can often be associated with breath work include calmness of mind, improved concentration, focus, patience, discipline and inner trust. Inner trust, which is similar to the term confidence, is a by product of spending time in a relaxing and comfortable space each day, and getting to know your self and your inner workings. Considering that your breath keeps you alive 24 hours a day, it’s safe to say that a lot can be gained simply by spending time, appreciating and understanding our breath.
Looking where to begin?
Control your breath. Learn how to take deep breaths, in your your nose, out through your mouth. Let your belly expand, not your neck. Try this during your practice sessions and see how you fell. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be writing more on the mental game of baseball. Subscribe to the EBP newsletter to be sure you see the upcoming articles.
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