by Drs. Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza
Take a breath. Have a routine. Go to your focal point. Play one pitch at a time. All these are solid tips for improving your players’ mental game. Having a simple routine can help a player be more confident, focused and consistent. But if that’s all you teach your players about the mental game, you’re leaving a lot of good performance and life-enhancing learning on the table. The truth is, it’s not that simple.
The mental game is complex. It’s messy. It can’t be taught or learned overnight and almost no one “masters” it. You can go from feeling unstoppably confident to feeling totally lost in a day —or even one pitch.
We’ve heard MLB players say, “I stink. I can’t hit. I have no idea what I’m doing up there.” World champion pitchers dominate one day (or one week, or one season)…and then a moment later may doubt every pitch they throw. One long-time, highly successful Major Leaguer you’d know admitted, “The most common thought I had during my career was, ‘I’ll never get another hit.’” Confidence is fragile!
We often hear a player say, “Oh, I see what you mean by playing ‘one pitch at a time.’” And then a couple months later the same guy says, “Oh, now I understand playing ‘one pitch at a time.’” And then years later he’s taken it to another, deeper level of understanding and applied it to the “real world.”
Each player needs to figure out his own mental approach and develop his own skills. Despite roughly 70 years of helping coaches and players with the mental game, we can’t tell a player what he should do. A strategy that helps one player may mess up another. Going to the mound to “dominate” may be the best approach for one pitcher, but a terrible idea for another.
The mental game isn’t something you master and “have down.” It’s a ride you ride. A path you walk. A journey you take. A career-long adventure filled with ups and downs. Top players accept they are always “in school,” learning how to get a little better at dealing with the reality of competing in baseball. A player with a “good mental game” is good at riding the ride. He enjoys it when he feels confident, and he compensates and adjusts when he’s riddled with doubt and fear. Each pitch is a new situation and he has to find a way to get his talent to show up for it.
The player with an underdeveloped mental game rolls over and lets a lack of confidence or success cripple his performance.
Coaching the Mental Game
1. One size does not fit all. If you have a grasp on the mental game, you know you can’t just have every player adopt the same mental approach. Act as a guide to help each player figure out how to get 100% of what he’s got right now to win the next pitch.
2. Work on your own mental game. The better you know yourself, the more perceptive and helpful you can be with your players. Top coaches we know such as Augie Garrido, Dave Snow, and John Savage are constantly seeking new knowledge about how to help their players be more competitive. Be a “learner” (I can always get better), not a “knower” (I already know everything).
3. Realize the mental game is not about “tips” or “tricks.” It’s complicated. Give your players the best mental game tools you can find and help them develop their mental skills just as you help them develop their physical skills.
Ultimately, the combination of the complexity of baseball and the infinite variability in the humans playing it mean that the pitch that is about to be thrown has never been thrown before and it will never be thrown again. You and your players have to continually get better at dealing with that.
We called this article The Truth about the Mental Game. The truth is… we don’t know the truth! We have a lot of experience and have helped a lot of players and coaches, but we’re constantly learning and developing ourselves.
Our mission is to help coaches and players get better at riding the ride, taking the journey, and finding out how good they can get at competing in baseball.