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How to Properly Prepare Relief Pitchers to Enter a Game

It can be a challenge to get relief pitchers ready to enter the game. As situations rapidly change, the need for a reliever can go from mild to urgent in the blink of an eye. Yet, good communication and clear terminology can help any bullpen run smoother. In this article, we’ll explore how pro teams warm their pitchers up and give actionable advice for your team.

 

Pitching Coach Terminology & Strategies

If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video below as a substitute and/or supplement for this article. This 15-minute video discusses everything we’ll cover today in even more detail.

 

First: Goals When Warming Up a Reliever

There are a few things to consider when relievers are preparing to enter a game. They need to be warm, but not fatigued. They need a clear idea of what their job will be during a specific game situation, and they need to know their role on the team. Here are four goals to consider.

1. Have a reliever throw the right amount of warm-up pitches.

Just enough to be perfectly ready to go – not too many, not too few. Too many relievers throw WAY too much because their coach doesn’t explain the plan (more on this later). Or, we can have a reliever who goes to warm up yet doesn’t realize the urgency of the situation and fails to warm up fast enough. Neither of these outcomes is good.

 

2. Have a reliever enter a game as soon as possible after he’s warm.

We do NOT want a pitcher to get fully ready, then sit around for a long time before he enters. Throttling up and throttling down, so to speak, is a part of life as a reliever. Yet, good communication can help pitchers pace themselves to make sure they’re not ready too soon.

 

3. Give relievers a clear idea of what their job will be, so they can mentally prepare.

Explaining the situation, expectations and duration of his outing is ideal. This can be done in just a few quick phrases if a coach explains his terminology and expectations to the team as a whole before the season begins. Getting everyone on the same page only takes 5-10 minutes and can

 

4. Put relievers in a situation where they are likely to succeed

Try to define roles that fit relievers’ skillset, mentality and experience level. Putting your pitchers in a situation that fits their personality, ability, and mindset will pay off for the entire team. Once you define and explain their roles, they’ll be able to predict when they’re more likely to enter a game, which makes the warm-up process even easier.

 

Actionable Ways to Accomplish Goals

With some of our main goals now defined, let’s discuss actionable ways to accomplish each of these.

#1: “I need you ready in three hitters”

This means that after three hitters have come to bat, the reliever will pitch to the fourth.

Asking a pitcher to get ready in two hitters is too short – three is typically the minimum to ask.

Yet, using a tangible number of hitters is a specific, albeit somewhat imprecise way of explaining when a reliever needs to be warm. It’s imprecise because the duration of an at-bat could be one pitch—and thus a mere thirty seconds long—or it could be five minutes.

However, the average duration is about three minutes per batter, and so if you ask a pitcher to be ready in three, four or five hitters, he’ll usually have at least 5-6 minutes to get ready. Again, two hitters are too few, and one is entirely unacceptable.

This method isn’t 100% precise because of the nature of baseball and how fast situations can change. Yet, giving a reliever a target number of hitters to be ready in allows him to watch the game and throttle up or throttle down the speed at which he is getting warm. Being a relief pitcher means accepting a certain amount of variability, yet this allows relievers to take control of their own relief speed because they can see when “their” hitter is nearly at bat.

Even young players will understand this method, and if you see them get ready too fast or too slow, you can easily correct and explain that they need to properly fit their warm up into the speed of the game.

 

#2. “I need you ready to face the 7-hole hitter—#17, the lefty.”

This is either an alternative to explaining the number of hitters or just an addendum to it. “You’re pitching to the 3-hole hitter if he comes up, which means you have four hitters in which to get ready.” This is very specific and gives the reliever all the detail he needs to be mentally and physically prepared to be on time with his warm up. On time simply means that he’s warmed up the right amount when he’s needed—not too much, not too little.

 

#3. Pitch-for-Pitch Readiness

Sometimes, it’s not clear when a reliever is needed. Perhaps a starting pitcher is getting near his pitch count limit, or we’re trying to help him make it through one more inning and work out of a jam. It’s important for young pitchers to get out of jams themselves and learn how to pitch when fatigued, with runners on base, etc. Often as coaches, we’ll leave pitchers in a bit longer to wait and see if they can succeed when times get tough. But, we still need to keep the score in check and not let things get out of hand.

So, in this case, we might warm up a pitcher to 80-100% and have him go “pitch-for-pitch” with the starter.

This means that when the starter throws a pitch, our reliever throws a pitch in the bullpen—pitch-for-pitch. We can also tailor this to the situation: if we are confident the current pitcher will complete his inning, we might ask the reliever to throw one pitch every time the starter throws two, or even three. This way, he remains somewhat close to ready if things escalate, but he doesn’t tire himself out throwing for the entire inning.

This is the best tactic to use when it’s a wait-and-see situation where the goal is to get through the current inning with the current pitcher, while still maintaining a safety net.

With pitch-for-pitch readiness, a reliever can be ready to enter in as fast as one batter if needed. A few quick warm-ups plus the eight pitches on the game mound should be enough if this is done right.

 

#4 Talk With Pitchers About Roles. Be Honest.

Look, it’s hard to tell a pitcher that he’s not good enough to pitch in a tight game. However, telling him that “right now, we’re using you only if we are behind, but if you pitch well that can change” gives a pitcher reason to go out and compete for better, more exciting roles. No pitcher wants to be on “mop-up” duty, entering games in blowout situations, but someone does have to mop up the messy games.

Especially in high levels of baseball, relievers know where they stand and the roles they’ve earned. They also know that the better they pitch, the better the role they earn. Coaches insert the pitcher they trust most to get out of the tough situations and save the less-skilled pitchers for times when the game isn’t on the line.

Being honest while still leaving room for optimism gives relief pitchers a good idea of when they’ll enter the game. This helps them mentally prepare for their name to be called.

And, in the case of youth baseball, telling pitchers who is “up” (available or expected to pitch) or “down” (not available or unlikely) helps them stay in the game and be mentally ready. Then, by telling them the role and situation you anticipate for them, they can watch the game and get excited as the stars align for their time to shine.

As a professional reliever myself, I earned the role of setup man in my fifth season. My parents knew that I was going in the game only if my team was up by 1-3 runs late. If it was a blowout, I mentally relaxed and they drove home early. If the game was tight, I was mentally absorbed and ready to go compete for a victory. I knew, my parents in the bleachers knew, and all of my teammates knew when it looked like Dan’s situation to pitch. This a great state to be in because I could begin mental and physical prep earlier, maximizing my chance at pitching my best.

 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

If nothing else, just communicate. Be open and honest. Tell your players what you expect and how you believe you’ll use them in a game, tournament, and season. If their role changes, tell them. As a coach, you’ll be planning ahead anyway, so letting them in on your plan will make the whole machine run more smoothly.

 

Want to Learn More From Coach Dan?

Check out his online baseball and softball courses – they’re designed to walk players, coaches, and parents through advanced concepts in baseball and softball. Follow this link.

If you’d like to test-drive one of his courses, his How to Throw a Hammer Curveball course is released for free on YouTube here.

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4 Steps to Building a Winning Mindset for Baseball Players

We have all heard that we need to build from the ground up.  If we try to build a pyramid from the top first, it would not be sustainable.  The pyramid will collapse and you will have to restart from scratch.  This concept holds true for building a winning mindset.  As a player, we can have all the tools we need physically, but if we do not have the right mindset, it will be very tough to reach our ultimate goal.

There are many components that go into a winning mindset, but there are four that stick out the most.  Having played baseball for 20+ years, from tee ball to affiliated ball, it is interesting to see who makes it and who does not.  There are many players that seem destined to become a big leaguer from the time they were 12 years old, and there are many players that looked like they had no chance of playing past high school.

If the game were based on skill alone, it would be fairly easy to see who would make it to the “Big League” and who would not.  As we all know, that is not the case.  A ballplayer’s mindset becomes the separator between the best and the average.

Luckily, our mind is like a muscle.  We can work on it just as we would any other muscle group.  Developing a winning mindset takes the same amount of time and effort that you would put into working on perfecting your swing or your pitching.  Here are a few tips to build your winning mindset:

 

Always Looking to Learn and Grow

You are never too old to learn.  It does not matter if you are in Little League or in the Big League, every great player understands that they must grow.  There is an abundance of resources out there now, which makes learning much easier.  Those who take advantage of that are the ones who will move onto the next level of the game.  They make it because once they learn something new, they implement it into their game and become a better player.  Every ballplayer must understand that if they are not trying to grow, other players will catch up and surpass them, potentially stealing their starting role or their spot on the team.

 

Having Drive

Having drive means that you are willing to do what it takes to reach your dreams.  If you want to be a big leaguer, you will do everything in your power to accomplish them.  One thing that separates the best from the average is the drive and the player’s willingness to do what is necessary regardless of how they feel.  The best players build discipline into their daily lives so that if they do not feel like getting in the cage or the weight room, they do it anyway.  Their drive keeps them going and does not allow them to relax.

 

Develop Confidence

Confidence is one of the biggest key components that every successful athlete has.  Without confidence, especially in baseball, chances of success are very slim.  Confidence is believing in yourself and your abilities and trusting that it is more than enough to get the job done.  You know you are confident when you are completely relaxed in any given situation including a “high pressure” situation.

Knowing that your abilities are more than good enough to compete relieves the anxiety and self-doubts.  We all face self-doubts and have negative thoughts, but we are in control of those thoughts.  We can counter them by saying something positive to replace the negative thought.  This, along with finding other ways to create belief in yourself, breeds confidence.

 

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is knowing the details of what is going on in yourself and your environment.  The more details you can pick up, the more self-aware you are.  The reason self-awareness is so important is that you can now make the necessary adjustments to get better in any aspect.

Mentally, being aware of your thoughts can be extremely powerful.  We have control over our thoughts.  Everyone experiences negative thoughts, but if we are not aware of them, there is no way to fix them.  Also, if we are aware of our positive thoughts, we can now intentionally have them more often.

Physically, being aware of the small details along with the larger ones will help tremendously.  Breaking a situation down into smaller details helps us to gain the edge on our opponent.  Baseball is a game of inches.

Let’s use base running as an example. If you round first base by stepping on the middle of the base versus the inside corner of the base, that could be the difference between being out or safe.  If you are an important run, now that hurts your team instead of helping them.

All components together make up a winning mindset.  Every single player has the ability to develop this and it will help them to succeed in their baseball career and in life.

Four Mental Training Tips for Baseball Players

Mental skills in baseball are often overlooked and very undertrained. Today, we’ll cover four tips that can help any baseball player improve on-field performance and handle pressure situations like a champ.

 

#1: Start a Simple Meditation Practice

The word meditation sounds weird and scary, right? Many players think that only monks, hippies or yoga enthusiasts take time out of their days to meditate. But meditation doesn’t have to be a big scary thing. Rather, athletes should just think of it as quiet time to sit, reflect, and let their minds get a break from everyday life.

Here’s how easy a meditation practice can be:

Step 1: Find a quiet place where you can sit where you won’t feel self-conscious or nervous. A place out of the public eye is ideal.

Step 2: Find a comfortable cushion to sit on or lay flat on your back. Propping up the back by sitting against a wall can be good, but I don’t lay down in a bed or another place where falling asleep is likely.

Step 3: Set a timer for 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Start shorter—10 minutes is a good starting place where you can get your feet wet.

Step 4: Sit still, relax, close your eyes, and let your mind wander wherever it wants to go.

Step 5: Breathe in and out through the belly—pushing it out and in—and consider counting each breath. Counting belly breaths helps keep your mind present, where you’ll feel less distracted by things from the past and future that you’re concerned about

That’s it! Keeping it simple will help you get started, and the quiet meditation time will help reduce the anxiety and stress we athletes feel in pressure situations on the mound.

For a deeper explanation of meditation, as well as the other three tips outlined in this article, check out the video below:

 

#2. Visualize Yourself Succeeding

Visualizing success is an important part of an athlete’s mental skills routine. If we don’t deeply believe that we can accomplish goals, become who we dream of, or execute on a very specific task…we never will. The self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept in which when we believe something will happen, it becomes more likely to actually happen. Thus, if we believe we’re destined to fail or choke under pressure, we increase the likelihood that we’re correct.

Expect and visualize yourself succeeding—the positivity will carry you through hard times and tough situations. Visualize the good swing you’ll put on the ball, the flight of the pitch you’re about to make and yourself competing in the Major Leagues in front of thousands of fans. If you do that, it becomes more likely that it will actually happen.

 

#3. Have Confidence and Create a Fight Mentality

When under pressure, it’s easy to want to pull back and be passive, hoping you can get the outcome you want. Rather, we have to get even more aggressive when we get nervous in games, reminding ourselves that we CAN do it, and that we’re going to pull through no matter what.

As athletes, we need to truly believe we can succeed. By both imagining it and reminding ourselves that we’re capable of anything we put our minds to, we can maximize our chance at success.

A lot of times in a game, it comes down to the fight or flight dilemma: when we’re scared of giving up the game-losing hit or we’re nervous about not getting the game-winning hit as a hitter, we pull back and play the game scared. Athletes play their best when confident and aggressive—trying to take the fight to the other team, forcing them to play scared. When times get tough, show those teeth like a wolf and fight for yourself and your team.

 

#4. Use Positive Comparison

Find players in the Major Leagues who you look up to, who possess similar qualities or characteristics. How would your heroes respond if placed in the situation you’re in? Would they come through and get out of a bases-loaded jam? Would they have a good at-bat when the team needs a big hit? Would they feel nervous or afraid?

Find a player or players who share similar qualities and ask yourself if he wouldn’t be afraid, why should I? If so-and-so would confidently walk to the plate with the game on the line and have a great at-bat, why can’t I? If he could beat this team, I can too because I’m a lot like him.

Use positive comparison as a tool to remind yourself of the special skills you do have, that you might forget when you’re nervous or lacking confidence.

 

Use These Mental Skills Tips as Part of Your Routine

Nothing happens overnight, so get started today with building new, positive mental habits. Mental skills training is very overlooked despite the fact that most players will report that they feel themselves struggle with doubt, anxiety and low confidence on the field. Make a change today and start seeing how good you could be if you played with confidence and a clear mind every single day on the diamond.

 

Need Help Building a Mental Training Practice for Yourself or Your Team?

I have a step-by-step mental skills video course called The Resolute Athlete. It’s 40+ videos of instruction and stories, along with seven worksheets designed to help you learn the high-level mental skills possessed by the game’s best players. It’s perfect for teams and individuals.

And for more free baseball and mental training videos, subscribe to Dan’s YouTube Channel here.