By: Alan Jaeger
“If this game was only about physical skills and ability than every first round pick would end up in the Big Leagues. The reality is that only a small percentage do”
Steve Springer, Former Major League Player and Scout
Like most other sports the game of baseball has evolved a great deal over the past 20 years. Today’s players have access to more quality information and instruction than ever before. A great deal of this “new” information has brought exposure to the field of Mental Training. Sports Psychology, Yoga, Meditation and Visualization are training methods that are now more readily accepted by today’s players and coaches than in the past — it’s more common now to hear about a player work with a Sports Psychologist or take a Yoga class to strengthen their mental approach toward performance.
The main reason for this receptivity is because players and coaches are beginning to realize just how mental this game of baseball truly is. As important as physical practice is there is a growing realization that today’s baseball players, for several reasons, have more “mental” demands than ever before. For example, players now have access to a significant amount of quality information and instruction. This seems to have leveled the “physical” playing field and intensified the degree of competition. Showcases, scholarships, scouts, and the money and fame awaiting in professional baseball have put a players actions between the lines under a microscope. This once seemingly innocent game of playing catch with your father has been infused with pressures, distractions and self-consciousness. The net result is that baseball has become a head game.
Another reason baseball is so mentally challenging is because baseball has so much down time or “dead time” throughout a players performance (a hitter will come to the plate about once every 30 minutes). Dead time gives players time to think. Where other sports like Football, Basketball and Hockey are action and reaction oriented, baseball players have to learn how to get into an action or reaction mode. They don’t have the luxury of being in action for continuous periods of time. It is the inactive time that gives the mind an opportunity to inhibit or sabotage performance if not trained properly.
Practice Plans: Time For An Adjustment
Where the demands on the mental game has increased significantly our response to it hasn’t. Though these factors have forced a change in the level of awareness in the baseball community it’s remarkable how little is still being done about it. It’s nice that the majority of coaches and players agree that 90% (or more) of this game is mental, but when are we going to take action? When are our “practice plans” going to reflect this?
Traditionally, practice plans are designed to prepare players for the real thing…game situations. Thus, hitters take batting practice, pitchers bull-pen, infielders take ground balls and outfielders take fly balls. Stations are set up to work on other various skills including bunt defense, pick-offs and run downs, pitchers fielding practice and base running. The problem is that these “practice” stations focus on physical execution. Game situations, when consequences are at stake, are based on physical and mental execution.
How come we haven’t integrated “mental” stations designated for “mental practice” into our practice plans? Why would we expect to be relaxed and confident in “game situations” when we haven’t practiced this form of training? Do we expect a clear and focused mind to just show up on game day because it should? Would you expect your arm to be strong if you never threw a baseball? Would you expect to hit well if you never picked up a bat? Then why would you expect your mental game to be “in shape” if you don’t consistently work at it?
Yes, physical training is vital in the development of a baseball player but does that mean that physical mechanics are the only adjustments we make? Doesn’t there come a point where physical mechanics must be supplemented by mental permission to execute these physical mechanics?
We can put pitchers in the outfield to shag fly balls for an hour but we can’t find 15 minutes a day to teach our players how to relax, clear their minds and learn how to trust (be confident) themselves? We can’t put aside 15 minutes to develop mental resources that are untapped, yet available to us through practice? Isn’t there a mixed message to our players when we allot 40 hours a week for physical practice and 0 hours a week for mental practice?
The bottom line is this. Once physical practice has been “accounted” for it really comes down to our ability to relax (mental) and trust ourselves (mental) to execute the right action (mental) in a “game environment”. Physical preparation is accounted for — mental preparation is not. And the only way to account for anything is to do address it by doing something about it.
It’s Time To Change
So, why haven’t we done anything about it?
I have found three logical reasons why: 1) Mental Training is a part of the game that doesn’t have protocol because it hasn’t been passed down from generation to generation, like hitting and pitching mechanics, 2) Though the field of Mental Training is more widely accepted there are very few coaches who have extensive training in this field…it is difficult to know what to teach and how to integrate it into their practice, and 3) Though there is more interest and acceptance in the Mental Training field, baseball is still a very traditional sport. Not only is tradition being challenged but human beings characteristically are resistant to change.
The truth is that as long as we talk about how mental this game is and do so little about it we are going to continue to work at those skills that are already spoken for (physical) and neglect those (mental) that aren’t. We are going to continue to wonder why our physical preparation in practice doesn’t necessarily translate into success during performance.
It is time to make an adjustment.
The Link Between Mental Training And Peak Performance
Over the years, I’ve asked many players and coaches to describe what they feel are the most important “mental” attributes or state of mind to possess during performance. Here is a list of those words that were most often cited: Confident, Trusting, Relaxed, Clear Minded, Concentrated, Uninhibited, Natural, Instinctive, Loose, Free and Joy. These same attributes also happen to describe those feelings that are activated when an athlete is having a peak experience.
Over the years a great deal of research has been done on the effect of peak experiences on athletes. Peak experiences may be defined as an unusually heightened state of mind that may occur periodically to an athlete during performance. Athletes often describe this state of mind with such phrases as “I’m Unconscious”, “I’m in a zone” or “I’m Locked-In”. What the athlete is really saying is that his natural talents and abilities are taking over without any interference from his mind because his mind is free of thought.
This is a unique state of mind because the mind is used to thinking. It is not used to being silent and still, especially when there are distractions or consequences at stake. This “non-thinking” state of mind usually only comes from mental training. In the case of a peak experience it just “happens”. And anyone who has ever experienced this feeling knows how empowering it is. It takes you to a completely different level. It also takes you beyond your physical technique.
Conveniently, these same types of characteristics common to a peak experience can also be effectively promoted in a mental training environment — experienced during a mental training practice. The link between these two experiences are very strong. You might say that peak experiences become an extension of your mental practice. Mental practice gives you an opportunity to integrate these qualities into your life on a daily basis.
Familiarity Through Practice
A Zen Master once said, “gaining enlightenment is like an accident. The more you meditate, the more accident prone you become”
Mental training is first and foremost a practice. It is a daily commitment to putting yourself in an environment where you can practice being in a quiet, relaxing and trusting space. It is getting to know these qualities as a part of who you are when the “dust” clears. It’s also teaches you that the commitment to being in a intended space on a daily basis acclimates your body and mind to these feelings…to these experiences…to these skills.
Mental practice promotes this because you are developing skills in the same manner in which you would develop any other skill — through discipline, repeated exposure and consistency. These skills can become second nature in time because you are more familiar with this state of mind (and body). As this feeling becomes more familiar through practice it becomes something that can be relied on and recalled during performance. You have created a program in your computer that you are familiar with (like throwing a baseball) and can now be applied.
Keep in mind that the aforementioned characteristics of trust, relaxation and clarity of mind don’t just appear because you want them to when the game is on the line. Without mental practice what is there to be recalled?
The Time Is Now
After taking thousands of ground balls I can understand why a shortstop would expect to field a ground ball in a game situation or an outfielder would expect to catch a routine fly ball. But why on earth would we expect a hitter or pitcher to be relaxed when the bases are loaded and the game is on the line when these are non-routine, pressure filled situations. Why would we expect a hitter to be confident when he is mired in an 0 for 20 slump?
If mental practice is not part of your daily routine the next time you step on the rubber or up to the plate, if you aren’t successful because you weren’t relaxed, focused or confident, don’t be upset with yourself. Why would you be…these are mental skills that are earned through mental practice.
All of the physical practice in the world can be of such diminished value if the mind is vulnerable and unprepared in game situations, when the mind is tested the most. Like any test, if you haven’t studied why would you expect to pass?
Alan Jaeger has worked privately with several professional players and has consulted with several college/high school programs including Cal State Fullerton & UCLA. Long time students include All-Stars Barry Zito & Mike Lieberthal. His mental training book “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”, Arm strength and conditioning throwing program, “Thrive on Throwing” (Video/DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) are available at www.jaegersports.com or 310-665-0746.
Part 2 (The Practice)
Getting Started: A Daily Mental Training Practice
Whether you practice your Mental Training on the field or indoors one of the most important principles is continuity. Continuity requires that a commitment is made to a daily practice. Even if you can only put aside 10 minutes a day, keep your practice consistent. Also, try to implement your mental practice as a prerequisite to the rest of your practice plan. This will help to maximize the effect of “bringing” the benefits of the mental practice (i.e. clarity, relaxation, focus, good attitude) to the field which in turn can increase the productivity of the practice.
One of the benefits of mental practice is that things begin to change relatively quickly. Even if they are small changes feeling relaxed or clear minded throughout the day is a very reinforcing feeling, which leads to motivation to continue your practice.
The following mental training exercise is designed to keep your mental practice simple and attainable on a daily basis. Although it will only address the role of the breath, breathing is the most essential aspect of mental training. A more comprehensive mental training practice involving mental imagery and visualization is outlined in my book, “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”. This, or any other book on the topic of mental training, would be an essential part of developing, facilitating and maintaining your mental practice.
Breathing: The Foundation Of Mental Training
“As the breath goes, so goes the athlete. If the athlete is to master his sport, he must first attune himself to his breath”
The role of breathing cannot be overemphasized in the mental training process, for breathing is perhaps the most essential and fundamental qualities of all human beings. Like a silent partner, it is with you every step of the way. If this partner is calm and under control, then likewise you will be calm and under control. If it is tense and stressed, then you will be tense and stressed. Your breathing is a constant measure from moment to moment of your state of being — your state of mind.
Learning to breath correctly (deeply and fluidly through your diaphragm) is the single most important part of your mental practice. Even though diaphragmatic breathing is the natural way to breathe most people in our culture do not breathe this way. Because we live in a fast paced society we do not take the time to let the breath descend into the cavity of our diaphragm. Instead we take short, choppy breaths from the chest. This is known as “chest breathing”. Chest breathing is “stressful” breathing because not enough oxygen can reach the vital organs of the body, thereby causing the body to strain for its ample supply of air. Oxygen plays a vital role in many areas of the body including proper circulation, increased energy, detoxification, and mental clarity.
The Practice Itself
The following practice is designed to last 10 minutes. In time, it can be lengthened as your practice evolves through familiarity and repetition. Again, once a connection has been established with your breath other beneficial tools like guided imagery and visualization can be incorporated. The initial goal here is to build a foundation with your breath by getting acquainted with it.
Finding the right space to practice in is initially as important as the practice itself. Choose a place that is absent of avoidable distractions. For example, unplug phones and put a “do not disturb” sign on your door if necessary. Try to pick consistent times (in the morning, mid afternoon, and before you go to sleep). Wear comfortable clothes and try to sit on an incline (a reclining chair) as opposed to lying down so the mind can stay more alert.
Step 1: Observational Breathing (3 Minutes)
Bring your attention to your diaphragm (stomach region) by putting your hand on your stomach. Breathing through your nose, allow your stomach rather than your chest to initiate the inhalation phase of your breath. There isn’t a right or wrong amount of oxygen to inhale. Just let the breath dictate the quantity. Also, let it dictate the pace. Your job is to watch the breath do the work. Just as you are watching the inhalation phase of the breath create its own pace, breathing through your nose, do the same with the exhalation phase of your breath. In essence, you are allowing the breath to do the work. It’s as if your breath is breathing you just as your eyes blink on their own without telling them when to blink. You are just the witness.
Your job is to keep your attention committed to this part of the practice for three minutes. It’s not so much a hard and tense focus. It’s similar to a hitters’ soft focus prior to the pitch. Just observer your breath this way for three minutes.
Step 2: Cadence Breathing (4 Minutes)
After three minutes of observational breathing you are ready for step two, your cadence or rhythmic breathing.
Once you have begun to acclimate yourself to your breath through observational breathing the next step is to “influence” the breath by creating a rhythm or “cadence” to what is called an exaggerate deep breath. An exaggerated deep breath helps to reinforce the correct way to breathe, helps the body and mind take in more oxygen and provides a format that can deepen your state of relaxation. This method of breathing is physiologically more beneficial and also provides muscle memory which can serve as a trigger (recall) away from your practice.
To begin your cadence breathing when you feel the next inhale come in from your diaphragm increase the amount of oxygen you take in through your nose so it lasts two long seconds (a two count). Next, hold or retain the oxygen calmly, without tensing for four seconds (four count). Finally, release the air as slowly and evenly paced on your exhale for eight seconds (eight count). When the inhale comes back to you instinctively, repeat this process.
You’ll need to experiment at first. You will find yourself taking in too much air or not enough air on the inhale, holding the breath too tightly on the hold phase and running out of breath after the exhale. In time, things will get smooth and rhythmic. That is the true goal because then you know that breath is being dispersed properly.
Step 3: Observational Breathing Revisited (3 Minutes)
Once you have worked the cadence for approximately 4 minutes, allow your breath to return to it’s natural pace. You’ll tend to find that the pace of your breath has significantly slowed down from the first two steps. Good things are already happening.
Your practice is to finish with the same observational breathing as you started with at the beginning of your practice (just watching the breath without influencing it). Again, though the breath may be slower and more rhythmic than in step one the approach of observing is still the same. Allow the inhale and exhale to dictate it’s own pace. Your job is to observe.
Tips For Your Mental Practice
Though it may not seem that difficult to spend 10 minutes concentrating on your breath it is not as easy as it sounds. The first thing you may notice is that your thoughts are very active, or perhaps you are impatient. These are all mental “testers” of your concentration and commitment. Working through these testers becomes the catalyst to your mental growth and development.
Remember, your mental practice is designed to bring out, among other qualities, relaxation, clarity and trust. These qualities are earned through tests. So whether you are observing your breath or working on your cadence if thoughts come into your mind leave them alone. Just like a bird flying across the horizon will eventually fade away, these thoughts will also fade away if left alone. This ability to let things go and stay focused on your breath is a crucial component to your practice. This commitment to your breath is what allows your body and mind to relax as your breath becomes familiar and comforting. A realization occurs that your breath is there to activate those qualities (relaxation, clarity, confidence) that matter most to you in sport and life. And these feelings can be accessed and sustained through your relationship and familiarity with your practice and your breath.