Alan Jaeger has spent much of the past 29 years helping people get quiet, finding through research, feedback and practice that “getting quiet” is one of the true keys to life, on or off the field. While the mental game of baseball has surely received a great deal of attention over the past decade-plus, in Jaeger’s eye’s, mental “practice” is where the rubber meets the road.
“Mental Practice is a universal application that can be applied to anything in life”, says Jaeger. “If you study the ‘zone state’, one of the essential pieces of it is that you’re in a quiet, non-thinking place. And that’s the rub—we want our kids to be quieter, not only from a stress perspective in life, but to help optimize their performance on the field—and coaches could probably benefit from being quieter as well!”
We exist in the “noisiest” environment that has even been known to humankind. With the evolution of social media, videogames and cell phones, a great deal of our day is dominated by the “Generation Z” culture. And that’s just the beginning – when you factor in class time, studies and any kind of a social life, high school/college athletes are showing up to the field with more on their minds than ever before.
The irony is that we are living in a culture that tends to promote noise when we function at our best when our minds are quiet. Therefore, it would make a lot of sense to use the beginning of practice each day to help our players slow down, relax and get quiet. This would not only be a healthy practice for our players to learn about life skills and promote better mental health, but it would also help optimize the quality of their performance.
This isn’t to say that coaches don’t teach the mental part of the game—coaches tend to do a great job of creating a culture that helps build character, discipline, focus and teamwork. But the question to ask is, “am I doing something each day with my players to work on the mental side of their game through some type of practice?”
For a coach that doesn’t have any experience in sports psychology or meditation, it may seem a bit challenging to take on this role, and thus, find it much easier to bring someone else in (which is still a great idea). But when you consider that you are with your players each day, it would be ideal to gain even some basic insight into how to facilitate a mental practice exercise.
Naturally, if you look at it from this perspective, it changes the mentality of what the modern-day coach looks like—one in which facilitating some form of mental practice is part of the curriculum. In fact, one could argue that the ability to teach players to slow down, relax and get quiet could be the single most important element of their job. Therefore, we must not assume that the “practice” environment is simply for physical practice anymore. But what if you could learn how? What if you felt comfortable taking your kids through a breathing exercise? Indeed, finding the zone isn’t nearly as simple as heeding the instructions of a coach yelling “relax” at the top of their lungs. “There’s an art to it, of course,” Jaeger notes. “It’s one thing to say ‘take a deep breath, relax, slow down,’ but it’s a completely different experience to practice it—to experience what it’s like to get quiet.”
“If the most optimal state of mind is to be quiet, yet our mind has a lot of practice at ‘thinking’, it would make sense to designate some time to not think, and practice being quiet. It’s okay to let go, to not think,” says Jaeger. Like anything else, it’s a practice. The benefits can be taken from the practice field to the playing field. “I love the concepts of getting quiet, letting go and emptying the mind. Bruce Lee said ‘the quieter you are,the faster and more powerful you are.’ The Tao Ching talks about how inaction can be the highest form of action. And we hear sayings in life all the time like, ‘silence is golden.’ These may be new concepts to some, but if you look at most any art form out there: sports, music, dancing, martial arts, yoga—there’s a quiet and a calm involved when you are performing at your best.”
As with anything, the opportunity for players and coaches to improve ultimately depends on practice repetition. “It’s just like ground balls or bullpens or batting practice,” Jaeger adds. “If you want your team to improve in those areas, you practice them. Why wouldn’t you have something experiential to practice, mentally, within a three-hour practice plan?”
“The game is always adapting, therefore, as coaches (and players), we are always adapting. Considering that the research is already done regarding the mental and physiological benefits that meditation has to offer, it really just comes down to the openness and willingness to give it a shot. “Analytics may be what everyone is talking about now, but I believe mental practice is the next frontier.”
Try this five-step, five-minute mental practice exercise:
- Set the tone: turn off your cell phone, find a comfortable position; sitting in a chair is ideal, or laying down if that helps, and remind yourself that anything you need to do or think about can be addressed when the meditation is over.
- Awareness: take a quick inventory of your body and of any potential tension or stress in it. Then, take a deep breath and on the inhale, purposely tighten any area that may be tense and hold that area and the inhale for two or three seconds. Then release that area as you exhale slowly.
- Let go: take 30 seconds to notice any part of your body that is touching a surface (ground, seat, back) and try and get the sensation of allowing whatever is supporting you to do the work. If it wasn’t there to hold you, you’d literally fall through space and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.
- Breathe: start to follow your breath, noticing its four separate parts: the inhale, the space between the inhale and the exhale, the exhale, and the space between the exhale and the inhale. Do your best to simply notice these four parts and their transitions. Allow the breath to dictate the pace. See if you can get to the point where the breath is “breathing you”, rather then you are trying to breathe it (just as a surfer “allows” the wave to do the guiding).
- Culmination: ultimately, the idea is to get to a place where you are feeling some peace and quiet, as your breath begins to take over, and thoughts are able to slow down. This is where you may find yourself, instinctively, in a very healthy and comfortable place. Feel free to stay there as long as you can. When you feel ready to culminate the session, just slowly bring some awareness back to where you are by taking a few more deep breaths and slowly opening your eyes, with a smile on your face!
A Tool for Meditation: Neutrality
One of the most important strategies about mental practice to keep in mind is that thoughts and emotions coming up are actually okay! Researchers estimate that humans have between 60,000-80,000 thoughts per day, so you are not alone. The idea is to just “watch” those thoughts and not engage them—to stay in the space between the thoughts. This is the principle behind “neutrality”, a key tool to utilize during meditation (and life). A great analogy for this is that “birds are like thoughts, flying across the horizon— the key is to watch them, and just notice how they keep getting smaller and smaller as they fly across the horizon until you can no longer see them.