To review our mental game series, we have covered a variety of concepts which include learning how to breathe, designing an approach, controlling the controllables, creating routines, and developing a release. While this doesn’t summarize it all, it’s a great start to helping your kids develop the game between the ears. All that’s left at this point is arguably the most important skill of them all: COMPETING!
Competing, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated and undervalued skills in youth baseball today. A large reason why I believe this is because of the culture we have created at the youth level. Instead of developing competitors, we are developing “lesson babies” who believe their secret pill to success is in some small mechanical tweak. Just underneath the ball? Make sure you keep your hands up! Hit a ground ball to short? Make sure you don’t roll those wrists! Oh, and don’t forget to stay back, step straight, and take your hands to the ball while managing to track a pitch traveling through space at 90 miles per hour at the same time.
As a result, we’ve created kids who can’t stop thinking about their mechanics in games when mechanics are the last thing they need to be thinking about! Hitters have under
As a baseball community, we need to get away from this fixed mindset of thinking that mechanics lead to success. If mechanics are the reason why athletes succeed, why have no two people in the history of baseball ever had the same exact mechanics? Why do some guys who have pretty swings never make it out of high school, while some others with “bad mechanics” play professionally? The answer lies between the ears. If you’re an aspiring player and you want to maximize your window in baseball, forget the mechanics and get great at competing.
What is Competing?
In Heads Up Baseball 2.0, Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza define competing as “giving 100% of what you’ve got right now to win the next pitch.” Note they did not say anything about feeling good, having your best stuff, or needing perfect conditions. Competing is messy and demands everything you have - but nothing more. Some days will be great, some days will be alright, and other days will be just plain ugly.
Jon Lester talks about this saying out of 30 starts in a big league season, he will have his “A” game for 5, his “C” game for 5, and the rest he will have to battle with his “B” game. Those 20 starts with his B game are where his season is made. Great competitors find ways to adjust, compensate, take punches, and return punches regardless of how they feel. In Ravizza’s words, “Are you really that crappy of a baseball player that you have to feel good to perform well? Feeling good is overrated.”
Anthony Rizzo, All-Star First Baseman for the Chicago Cubs, talked about the importance of competing saying, “The key for me is just competing and not really worrying from pitch to pitch about how my swing feels or how I’m feeling mechanically that day. It doesn’t matter how I feel today, I’m going to beat you. I’m going to will it to happen.”
Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Super Bowl champion, uses competition as his overarching theme for the Seahawks. In his book Win Forever, Carroll talks about how he instills an “always compete” mindset into his players. Whether it’s their competition, teammates in practice, or themselves, Carroll wants his players to constantly strive to compete and get the most out of their abilities.
Dean Smith, Hall of Fame basketball coach at North Carolina, used competition in every drill he organized for his teams. There was always something on the line and a consequence for the loser. Through this structure, he was able to teach his players to compete just the way they would in a game.
Ron Wolforth at the Texas Baseball Ranch uses competition on a daily basis to help get the most out of his pitchers. Athletes call locations out loud and are forced to do a punishment for every target missed. When athletes become accustomed to challenges, they are forced to adapt to a new circumstance (different sloped mound, weighted baseball, fatigue induced, etc.). Those who love competing thrive. Those who can’t crumble under the pressure.
How to Implement
The good news is that competing is a skill and can be taught - just like any other skill. The biggest predictor of competitiveness, according to Milwaukee Brewers pitching coordinator Jake McKinley, is the environment the athlete has grown up in. It’s no coincidence many great athletes spent their youth years competing in backyard sports.
In McKinley’s 2019 ABCA convention presentation, he broke down competition into three different components: Self-competition, competition against others, and unspoken/organic competition.
Self-competition is any sort of challenge aimed at developing a specific individual beyond their current capabilities. Examples of how to utilize this include:
- Ex: Using obstacles to teach right-left infield footwork, how to avoid baserunner on double plays
- Ex: Different length/weighted bats, different size/weighted baseballs,
- Ex: Pitching to a specific target, hitting a certain part of the cage/field
- “Edge” training (getting guys to compete at levels that just exceed their current skill level)
- Ex: Moving the hitter closer/farther away from a pitching machine to simulate different velocities, lifting heavy weights
- Ex: Making plays from the infield in less than four seconds, plays from the outfield in less than seven seconds
- Radar gun
- Ex: Needing to hit three out of five balls over 85 mph, beating a personal record in throwing velocity
Competition against others is exactly what you see in a game: Man vs. man - one winner, one loser. You can get as creative with this as you’d like, but the idea is simple: Beat the guy in front of you. Below are some ideas to help you design your own:
- Pair people of similar abilities for challenges
- Ex: Do a
velocompetition with guys who throw hard, command competitions with your highest strike percentage throwers
- Use handicaps for guys of different skill levels
- Ex: Have a slower athlete start at a shorter distance than a faster athlete, give less powerful athletes +5 mph on their exit velocities
- Physical challenges can be great ideas, but also poor ones
- Speed is a great skill to enhance using competition, but doing as-many-reps-as-possible (AMRAP) push-ups for a minute is a great way to reinforce poor movement patterns. The emphasis must always be on good movement.
- No gray areas, no ties
- There are no ties in baseball games. You either win or you lose. The winner and loser must be clear.
- Teach kids how to be their own officials
- 21 is a great game to teach catch play, but also a great way to teach kids how to resolve
conflict. A winning-at-all-costs mindset is dangerous. Play the right way, accept defeat, move on to the next challenge.
- Reward effort, don’t undermine it
- Give points for accomplished tasks, refrain from subtracting points for miscues. You want to create athletes to rise to the challenge over athletes who are afraid to screw up.
- Create teams for challenges
- Have kids draft teams and get after it. After all, you are competing against a team in a game.
- Encourage emotion, involvement from teammates
Competitionwill bring out the best and worst of everyone. Let kids be who they are and encourage their teammates to cheer them on. Use this energy to enhance the environment.
Unspoken or organic competitions are ways to help create competition by unifying your team to accomplish different objectives. Since competition can bring out the worst in people, unspoken competitions are a great way to create cooperation while still increasing the intensity of a challenge. Some examples include:
- Having to hit a certain number or percentage of balls over 80 mph
- Throwing at least 60% strikes throughout a team bullpen session
- Taking a clean round of infield before ending
- Completing a physical challenge under a certain time
- Posting leaderboards of batting exit velocities, command percentage, throwing velocity, weight room personal bests, etc.
- Celebrate when kids crush records. A candle does not lose its light when it lights another candle.
*See the entire presentation here.
Overall Notes for Competition
- Keep verbal involvement with competitions at a minimum. The environment you create as a coach is the most important aspect of competition - not verbal feedback.
- Let kids fail. We learn the most from our biggest setbacks. Be there to lend a helping hand, but let athletes work through the challenges themselves. Considering the failure rate of some of the best hitters in the game, it’s important to let kids cope and respond to it.
- Create challenges that have immediate feedback. This includes numbers, scores, exit velocities, batted/thrown ball feedback, and other results.
- Self, others, and unspoken competition do not have to operate exclusively. Combine these to get the best bang for your buck.
- Make sure athletes have some sort of adequate skill level before turning it into a competition. Challenges should be stimulating and push athletes just on the edge of their abilities - not over or underwhelm them.
- Be creative. No one drill will make or break an athlete. Designing competition has no limits.
- Use your athletes as feedback. They will tell you whether the challenge is too hard or too easy.
- Competition brings out an innate quality in human beings that pushes performance to the limits. If you want to bring the best out of your athletes as a coach, it must be utilized as much as possible.
- When athletes hang up the cleats for good, they will soon enter the real world where they will have to compete for jobs. Sports are an incredible platform to teach qualities that will help them compete beyond their playing days. At the end of the day, we’re trying to build better men and women through sport.
As always, reach out to us with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.
This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks.
Next up on our mental game series is a routine I think is so important I devoted a separate article to it: developing a release. A release is a physical action that a player uses to help transition from the past to the present. The action signifies that the player is moving on from what has happened and is refocusing on the present. Athletes get into trouble when the past interferes with what they are currently doing, so utilizing a release is a great way to transition to what is most important -
Constantly hanging on to baggage from the last pitch will erode your abilities and ruin your enthusiasm for the game by constantly dwelling on moments where you couldn’t get it done. This negative self-destruction cycle happens more often in baseball because of the game breaks between pitches, action, and at-bats. These breaks allow players time to think about what has happened prior - good or bad. If players are not able to move on from recent negative outcomes, game breaks will eat their confidence away by constantly reminding them how much they suck. The less confident we are, the more likely the ball is going to come our way soon - and the result won’t be pretty.
Coaches: To avoid this snowball effect of negative thoughts, teach players how to utilize a release. We want to create athletes that live in the present and play with great joy, courage, and enthusiasm. Physical mistakes are a part of the game. Former MLB Performance Coach Steve Springer likes to say, “If you haven’t gone 2-20 at some point in your career, you haven’t played long enough.” If kids are going to fall on their face at some point, we need to teach them how to deal with failure - not to avoid it.
As for what a release looks like, there is no one answer. Aaron Judge picks up a handful of dirt and tosses it to the ground to “throw away” the last pitch. Evan Longoria picks up the foul pole and takes a deep breath before stepping into the batter’s box. Sports psychologist Ken Ravizza had Cal State Fullerton players flush a miniature toilet in the dugout whenever they wanted to “flush their mistakes away.” Oh, and they went on to win the national championship that year.
An important point to remember when developing a release is it becomes much more powerful when utilized with a deep breath. By adding a breath, the physical action takes on a new meaning by coupling it with a mental state of relaxation. The combination creates a powerful message for the player and helps give the release a purpose - be where your feet are. Doing the action by itself will not help players - it must be purposeful to the athlete! When the game speeds up, don’t let kids forget how to breathe!
How to Implement
Keep it simple when it comes to creating a release: Make it consistent, repeatable, and practical for competition. Examples include taking your hat or helmet off, unstrapping and re-strapping your batting gloves, looking at a spot on your bat, picking up a spot in the outfield, wiping away dirt with your cleats, grabbing a handful of dirt, stepping behind the mound, or taking a few more moments before stepping into the box/on the rubber.
Once you figure out something, make sure you and the athlete both know it. This is crucial because the release is a way to signal to your coach that you’re getting re-focused on the next pitch. If your coach cannot see you go through your release, it is a sign that the game is speeding up and you are losing control. If you cannot be in control yourself, you’ll never be able to control your performance. Release the bad, bring in the good.
When you can figure out something that makes sense for each player, make sure it is used all the time! Practice is a great way to work on your release after you have a bad swing, boot a ball, or throw a bad pitch. Like anything we’ve talked about on here, you must practice it for it to show up in games. Point out when athletes do it well and encourage others when it’s not done so well. Have athletes describe what it feels like when it’s done well compared to when it’s not done so well. Using a release should help a player clear their mind, relax, lose unnecessary tension, eliminate doubts, and create confidence. If the athlete cannot feel any of these things, it’s worth revisiting their release to see how it can be done better for next time.
The bottom line is this: Athletes are not perfect and they are going to make mistakes. If our practices demand perfect conditions and leave no room for physical errors, we’re simply not preparing kids for games. Jonny can field every single ball cleanly in practice and feel great, but the whole ball game changes when he boots the first one he sees in his game.
While every drill and rep needs to be done with game-like intensity, it will only harm your athletes if you scald every physical mistake made in practice. Instead of creating competitors who love to take on challenges and better themselves, you’re going to create players who are afraid to fail. If our goal is to teach players the skills they need to compete in games, we are doing a disservice if we don’t teach them how to address and deal with failure. Creating an individualized release for each player on your team is a step in the right direction.
This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks.
Next up in our mental game series is the idea of routines. Routines are consistent habits that players use to get themselves in a frame of mind where they’re physically and mentally ready to compete. These include what you do before, during, and after competition. Some routines change and evolve over time, while others remain consistent. However, it’s impossible to modify your routines if you don’t have any
Below are some ways to introduce routines into your training sessions. Some ideas are more flexible or specific, but all of them are ways to purposely prepare players for training and competition. Routines are something we can control at all times and are going to be there for us in any kind of situation. When (stuff) hits the fan - and I assure you, it will - we need something to go back on and help us re-set. This is where routines come into play.
One of the first things we do with our hitters is address their current routines. Training sessions are not a race to see who can speed through the bucket the quickest and get the most reps. Every single rep we take must be done with a purpose, and many times that requires the athlete to simply slow down. We’re going to get plenty of swings in within a half hour session, so the focus must then turn to the quality of reps we’re taking.
To start, teach your hitters how to step into the box by escorting their feet with their eyes. If the tee is set up at the front part of the plate, we teach our athletes to line their front foot up with the break in the plate (where the plate starts to angle into a point). This gives hitters the ability to work behind the tee since we know the average hitter moves forward when they stride.
We then teach our hitters to tap a part of the plate. We do this so they consistently know how far away they are from the plate whenever they step into the box. After they tap the plate, we teach kids to create rhythm by taking their hands towards the pitcher and back. We then encourage athletes to keep this rhythm by moving their barrel and keeping their body in a relaxed, constant state of motion.
Some guys do things a little differently, but what we want to prevent is hitters who turn into statues when they step into the box. We are governed by the laws of physics, and the law of inertia states that a body in motion stays in motion (vice versa). We want to match the pitcher’s rhythm, tempo, and timing, and that starts by keeping some sort of movement as we anticipate the pitch about to come to us.
From here, we encourage hitters to use their eyes and pick up an area where they want to hit the ball. On the tee, we set up the baseball so two seams of the ball are facing the hitter and tell hitters to hunt the inside seam. When we advance to a moving object, we encourage kids to stretch their eyes and pick up where they want to hit the ball. This could be the screen, back part of the cage, top part of the cage, or something outside like the outfield fence.
Once a routine is established, it is crucial to reinforce the routine on a consistent basis. Have the athlete practice stepping out of the box and stepping back in, touching the plate, creating rhythm, and stretching their eyes. After a bad swing or two, have the athlete step out and re-set by going through their routine. If you let kids get away with it in practice, they’ll never have something to go to in competition when the game starts to speed up.
In your average nine-inning baseball game, a fielder will see anywhere between 120-150 pitches. Of those pitches, as little as 2-5 of them will decide the game. Since we can’t predict when these pitches will take place, it is absolutely crucial all nine positions are completely locked into each and every single pitch. You may be locked into 119 of those 120 pitches, but the one you take off could decide whether your team wins or loses that night.
To maintain focus, concentration, and improve reaction time off the bat, we teach our infielders and outfielders to get into a pre-pitch ready position by stepping into the circle. This can be done by stepping forward with both feet, one foot, or even adding a hop after both feet land. It is to be done as the ball is about to enter the hitting zone (around when the ball enters the dirt circle). Following the rules of inertia, we want players to be moving before the ball is put in play so they can get a better first-step read off the bat.
While everyone is different, we highly encourage kids to take a hop step after stepping into their circle. This move is seen a lot throughout professional tennis (see examples from Andy Murray and Roger Federer) Considering they see serves upwards of 140 mph, I think their pre-serve actions are incredibly useful to baseball players.
Here is a video I took of Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres. Notice how his actions mirror the ones from Murray and Federer.
If you ever get a chance to attend a baseball game, pay close attention to the pre-pitch actions of all seven fielders. You might pick up a thing or two from them.
As a coach, be deliberate in how you teach this to kids. Draw a circle in the dirt and have kids step in and out of it. Stepping into the circle is where they lock in and take their focus to the plate, while stepping out is when they can relax and prepare for the next pitch. Preach it when it’s done, point it out when it’s not done. It’ll seem tedious, but it will build good habits that will really help kids out when the game starts to speed up.
Other Notes on Routines
- Learn how to utilize the breath when performing your routines! Breathing helps create clarity, calmness, and focus by slowing your heart rate down and getting oxygen to your brain. For more benefits on the breath, see our recent blog post “Just Breathe!”
- Teach kids good pre and post training/competition routines. This includes a proper warm-up, recovery, nutrition, hydration, and journaling. We’ll get more into these topics in the future, but start with something and be consistent with it. It’s all about building good habits.
- Some routines are built into the game, such as warm-ups in between innings. Every position should treat these like game-reps. If you play shortstop for 24 innings in a tournament and get 3 ground balls every inning, that’s 72 opportunities for you to improve your craft.
- Mental routines are every bit as important as physical ones. Visualization, simulating at-bats, self-talk, re-set buttons, and other actions to fuel the mind are critical to game performance.
- Try different routines, experiment, and figure out what works best for you. As a coach, give kids freedom to do so - but make sure they are actually developing some sort of consistency.
These are only a few ideas, so feel free to come up with anything on your own as it relates to routines. If it can be done consistently and help a kid perform to the best of their ability, use it!
Please reach out to us with any questions or concerns. We love to hear what you’re doing!
Keep learning and growing.
This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks.
Once your players have their breath under control (see the blog post below), one of the next steps in teaching them how to build a strong mental game is educating them about controllables. The idea behind them is no different than anything in life: There are always going to be things we can and cannot control. The key is to understand where we choose to invest our energy and where we choose to let go.
Stressing over things you can’t influence can lead to a snowball effect which degrades performance and can ruin enthusiasm for training. On the flip side, investing your time and energy into things you can control helps you take ownership of your career by understanding what you can influence. A healthy combination of the two helps lead to a strong mental game, but a lack in either category can send a player spiraling for confidence. How do we prevent this? Well, it starts with understanding the difference between what we can and cannot control.
To start, I think it’s crucial people know what they can control before they understand what they can’t. Jon Gordon does a great job breaking this down (see image below) by saying at all times, we control our attitude, effort, behavior, and actions. This includes how we think, respond to adversity, treat other people, let go of the past, and focus on the present. By process of elimination, anything that doesn’t lie within these four controllables is ultimately something we can’t control! This includes our environment, adversity, the past, and the thoughts, feelings, and actions of other people.
Let’s think of this in terms of a baseball or softball setting. On the diamond, there are plenty of things we cannot control which include weather, field conditions, how you feel that day, your opponent, and the umpires - to name a few. With this, how often do we find ourselves complaining about how hot or cold it is outside? What about a bad strike three call we got rung up on? Or how about the fact that the mound isn’t made exactly to your liking and you can’t get a great grip? The bottom line is this: If we know that we can’t control these things, why do we spend so much time and energy worrying about them?
As humans, we have a limited amount of time and energy that we can spend throughout the day. If we are constantly worrying about things we can’t influence and playing victim to our situation, we’ll lose sight of the things that we can actually control. Is it the tournament’s fault that they scheduled you for an 8 a.m. game and you’re exhausted, or is it your fault that you were up playing video games until 2 a.m.? Was wearing short sleeves a good idea when the forecast for game time read a staggering 38 degrees? Was it the umpire’s fault you struck out on a borderline
It may be brutally cold outside, but it’s not any warmer for your opponent! The mound might not be in great shape, but they’re not rolling out a brand new one for the other team’s pitcher! The same problems you’re dealing with are probably the same problems everyone else is dealing with. The difference? Your opponent is figuring things out by focusing on their controllables. You, on the other hand, are getting worked up over things you can’t control and turning into a victim of your circumstances.
This is part of the reason why it is so huge to have a strong mental game: You have control over it at all times! Only you can control how you breathe, respond to adversity, and get 100% committed to winning the next pitch. Your process and commitment to executing it are always within your control. Sometimes we might not get the result we want, but we always have the ability to regroup and get ourselves ready to win the next pitch. If we’re constantly worrying about the field conditions, weather, or any other distractions we don’t have control over, we’ll never be able to do this.
How to Implement
Coaches: Keep it simple, get kids to control their attitude, effort, behavior, and actions to become great teammates! If Jonny strikes out, lift his chin up and get him ready for his next at-bat. He can’t control what’s already happened, but he can control his attitude, effort, and how he approaches his next at-bat. If Sam dogs out a ground ball to the shortstop because he’s upset he just missed it, pull him aside and let him know he’s letting his teammates down by letting a poor result dictate how he feels and acts. If Joey can’t throw strikes because the umpire’s zone is too tight, don’t feed his negativity by arguing with the umpire as well. Instead, get him focused on a consistent, attainable goal where he’s going to make adjustments, compensate, and compete so he can give his team a chance to win the game.
On the contrary, commend kids who show up, get after it, and own their controllables! Make sure Jonny knows you love the attitude he brings to practice! Give Sam a pat on the back when he shows great effort and sprints as hard as he can through first base every time he puts the ball in play. If Joey picks up his teammate after he strikes out, recognize it and let him know what a great teammate he’s being! For every action we find that we may not like, find something worth celebrating. You want to create enthusiasm for playing the game with great energy, attitude, and effort - not scolding kids every chance you get because they aren’t “mentally tough.”
The next time one of your players gets upset at practice or a game, make him ask himself: “Is this something that I can control?” If it is, make an adjustment and get them back on their feet so they can compete and be a great teammate. If it’s not, tell them to leave it where they found it. This game is going to beat you up enough on its own - don’t add to it by worrying about things you can’t control.
This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks.
As discussed before, I think most people would
Like anything else, the mental game is a skill and must be practiced for you to get better at it! Therefore, coaches must find ways to incorporate the mental game into practice so kids can learn and work at it! Looking at the mental game as a whole can be overwhelming, so over the next several blog
The first step to building a strong mental game is mastering the most fundamental element of life -breathing! A quality deep breath does wonders for an athlete and should the first step in learning how to manage the game from the neck up. In the words of Alan Jaeger, “The breath, like the engine to your car, is the key to keeping the body and mind running smoothly and efficiently.”
As for physical benefits
This may sound funny,
Along with this, breathing helps release tension throughout the body. Loose muscles are fast muscles. Any sort of tension from toes to fingertips will keep you from moving freely, athletically, and will have a negative impact on balance, rhythm, and timing. Breathing, on the other hand, will do just the opposite. For players who struggle with this and controlling nerves before/during games, get them to focus on the exhale portion of the breath. On the contrary, focusing on the inhale is a great way to help increase energy levels.
Another physical benefit to breathing is it
As for intangible benefits, the breath is a great tool
The breath is also a great way to “check-in” with how an athlete is feeling physically and mentally during training or competition. If an athlete is unable to get a complete inhale and exhale without being cut short, it is a sign that they are losing control. As Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza say in Heads Up Baseball 2.0, “Your breath is something to go
Lastly, breathing helps you transition from training to trusting. If you were to think about your most successful performances, I think most all of you would realize that you weren’t really thinking about anything at all. This would be known as trusting - letting the work you’ve done unfold on the field without any conscious thought. Confident and successful athletes keep things simple, minimize thinking, and play with their eyes. While there
Implementing the Mental Game into Practice
Coaches - In your practices, keep it simple for kids: get them to first learn how to take a deep, visible breath. If you can’t tell they’re breathing from the dugout, they’re not doing it correctly. Also, do not let kids rush the breath - let them take their time on the inhale and completely exhale the breath. The exhale should be forceful enough so that kids are able to feel the tension being released from their body. Kids can add to this by shaking their arms, legs, and releasing their shoulders at the conclusion of their breath.
Another huge point is the breath must have a purpose behind it. If kids are breathing but putting no intent behind it, they won’t get anything out of it - just like going through the motions in anything. To help with this, get athletes to notice the air coming in, the air going out, and how each breath makes them feel. Utilizing a quality deep breath is a great way to slow the athlete’s heart rate. If they still feel tension and anxiety after a few breaths, get them to slow things down and create a purpose behind each breath by bringing awareness to it.
Once you’ve taught athletes how to breathe, get them to incorporate it into their daily practice routines! Teach them to use the breath in the warm-up and how to exhale as they reach the end range of motion in their body (yoga had this figured out a while ago). When an athlete boots a ball, get them to take a deep breath and release the error they just made. If a hitter rolls over a ball they know they should have crushed, tell them to step out, look at a letter on their bat, and take a deep breath before stepping back into the box. Get your pitchers to take quality deep breaths between every pitch - in practices and in games. If you don’t do it in practice, don’t expect it to magically show up in games.
Be creative in how you teach each kid to utilize the breath, but keep the main thing the main thing: When the game starts to speed up, get kids to breathe and slow it down!
For more information about different ways to use the breath, when to use it, and how to improve it, Alan Jaeger's blog (see Mental Practice: A Daily Routine and Mental Training Talk and Practice) thoughts from Lantz Wheeler, and Heads Up Baseball 2.0 are a good place to start.
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns!
Keep learning and growing.
This article was written by staff member Andrew Parks.