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A Daily Mental Practice for Baseball Players

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:

  1. The absence of thought
  2. A complete immersion with the action
  3. A sense of being process oriented
  4. A sense of calm or peace
  5. 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.

 

Want to Learn More About the Mental Game of Baseball?

I have a book overviewing my approach that I think you’ll enjoy.  It’s called “Getting Focused, Staying Focused: A Far Eastern Approach to Sports and Life.”  In this book, I teach you everything you need to learn about enhancing your mental approach to baseball.  Get instant online access from EBP for only $17, or purchase my entire bundle including my arm care and year round throwing programs.

 

The Mental Pregame Workout: Improve Your Performance Using Your Brain

The act of mental visualization is one of the most underutilized tools in the field of performance psychology. Not utilizing visualization and the mental pregame on a daily basis, is basically short changing your success on and off the field!

Before I go on to explain the 3 Keys of of a Mental Pregame are and how it can benefit you, I need to let you in on a little secret….

Any single solitary person can apply and develop this skill. It can be used by athletes, business people, or even those that are looking to better prepare for their day in general.

I will explain to you in my own knowledge how you can utilize these three key concepts to improve your game. First, you will have to read this article to understand the idea of how to go about the pregame. When you’re finished and understand the concepts, close your eyes and give it a go!

 

Key #1 Visualize in the First Person – Details, Details, Details

You’re on the mound staring 60 feet 6 inches down at your catcher’s mitt, you feel the cool breeze against your jersey as the crowd and teammates quiet down. You receive the sign and prepare the pitch, wind up and you deliver the pitch to the glove as the batter swings and misses! STRIKEEEEEEE!!!!

Now….

I want you to visualize this in your own mind with as much detail as possible.

Don’t worry if you get distracted or are unable to really focus as detailed as you may have wanted. Each time you use the mental pregame try to incorporate more and more detail each time. For example: the weather forecast for the day, what the field looks like, the opponents team jersey, the green grass beneath you on the mound.

 

Key #2 Emotion & Confidence – Feel How You Want To Feel

The mental video you play needs to capture the emotional experience you want to have.

Through visualization you have the ability to create an alternative reality and reality involves emotions and feelings. The goal is to feel and experience confidence in your mental pregame, visualize how you will perform and how you want to feel when you get there on game day.

You may already be asking yourself, “why the heck am I doing this.” But if you got up to this point there’s a reason why you kept reading on, because you want an edge and you want to improve your game for yourself (that’s the real first step).

When you visualize the actual situation, you will be in during any point in time, and how you will feel during it, you are preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for what is to come. When this happens the frontal cortex of your brain has basically “seen the future” before you actually did with your eyes. Your brain is now subconsciously ‘priming’ itself to better handle your emotions and confidence level.

When you are more prepared for a situation, you improve your ability to react positively during game time.

 

Structured practice is all well and good- anyone can go on the mound and throw 50 pitches without any repercussions for miss pitches or hits. But if you’re a good player, basic practice is often little more than exercise. You want to simulate game conditions, put yourself in that mental frame of mind like when you are competing. Having this extra piece added to your practice can help you exponentially over time when added to your repertoire.

 

Key #3 Visualize in Real Time

Watch your mental pregame in real speed – the speed you want your performance to be. The key is to visualize the most important & specific moments of the game you may encounter, not in generalities.

For pitchers, it may be making that first strike to start the count, making that strikeout on a 3-2 count when the pressure is all on them or maybe pitching to the toughest player on the team.

Feel and see the speed of the game, the speed of the pitch, the speed of the swing. This will aid in making your mental picture more realistic.

 

Key Points to Improve Your Mental Game

Key points to take away from why you should incorporate a mental pregame as part of your routine:

  • When you are more prepared for a situation, you improve your ability to react positively during game time.
  • It can improve your confidence because in your ‘’mind’s eye’’ you have been here before.
  • Taking that extra step in your practice, over time, when utilized the correct way can exponentially improve your mental focus and performance.