Category Archives: Mental game
While the return of fastpitch softball to the Olympics was the big story for many of us who are fanatics for the sport, for the general populace of course one of the biggest stories was gymnast Simone Biles deciding not to compete in the team or most of the individual events. She did, of course, eventually take Bronze on the balance beam which is hardly her signature event.
It’s hard to imagine what a difficult decision that must have been for her. Here she has spent the last five years training for the opportunity to win more medals, presumably Gold medals, in her sport’s biggest showcase.
Yet when the time came something in her just snapped. She knew she couldn’t do it mentally at the level she needed, and that put her at risk of serious injury or perhaps even death given what she had planned to do. After one vault she decided it would be best to withdraw and give someone else a chance instead.
How did she get to that point? Part of it, of course, was relentless training. I doubt she’s taken many days off since she became a serious competitor, and that can take a physical and mental toll on you after a while.
While softball players don’t train at the same intensity or risk level as national team gymnasts (most of them anyway), it is possible to get so caught up in what you’re doing that you forget why you’re doing it. When softball starts to feel like more of a burden than an escape from life’s many real burdens, it’s time to take a little time off.
Another issue Simone Biles faced was a distinct lack of support, especially from people at the highest level of her sport. Those people loved showcasing her to the media to promote their own agendas, but when she told them about irregularities around the training they did their best to brush it under the rug and forget about it.
Parents, if your softball-playing daughter tells you physical or mental abuse is happening, don’t just tell her to suck it up or quit whining. Do all you can to find out if there is any reason to be concerned – even if it might mean losing a scholarship opportunity or being removed from a team that wins all its tournaments.
Your daughter’s safety and mental health are worth more, and not worth trading for any amount of money or plastic trophies. When she says something is wrong, be sure to listen.
Coaches, you have the same responsibility. If your player is suddenly having problems don’t get stuck thinking your job is simply putting a winning team on the field. Take an interest and find out what’s wrong.
Maybe she just has a softball version of the “twisties” and needs some help working through them. She’s lost confidence and needs someone to help her fill her confidence bucket back up.
Maybe she’s in a hitting slump and just needs someone to believe in her. The thing that prolongs most slumps is over-thinking the cause. Help her remember who she is and what she can do, even if it takes a little while. It will be worth the effort.
Or maybe, just maybe, something is going on at home or in her personal life that has her all off-kilter. You caring enough to find out and help her could have a lasting effect on her life that she will remember and appreciate long after she’s left her cleats at home plate.
Finally, when you’re performing at a high level there will always be haters – people who want to tear you down and then delight in your failure. Especially if you’re a female.
Many of the people leveling those criticisms have never put in the effort to do anything at a high level, But they’ll be more than happy to tell you why you’re weak and undeserving because you suddenly feel the pressure you were able to shut out before.
Players, don’t listen to them! Those ignorant couch potatoes know they don’t have the drive or dedication to be like you, so they want to drag you down to be like them.
Do what you need to do to get right in your own head – even if it means stopping for a bit to let it clear. This is the perfect time of year to do that, by the way.
The summer season is over, tryouts are over, and fall ball is still a few weeks away. Go to the beach or the movies or an amusement park. Listen to music all day, or sit and read a book or three. Hang out with friends who you don’t share a uniform with.
In other words, find something else to do with your day. Softball will still be waiting for you when you get back.
Anyone who has watched her career knows Simone Biles is the ultimate competitor. She’s never met a challenge she didn’t take head-on.
So when she says she has the “twisties” and the best way to deal with them is by pulling out of the Olympics it’s worth taking note.
If Simone Biles needs to walk away for a bit, the same can be said for any of us.
Take care of yourself, even if some around you don’t quite understand. Softball will be here when you’re ready. And you just may enjoy and appreciate it a little more.
Simone Biles photo from Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ask any coach, especially one whose teams play at a high level, how important the mental game is on a scale from one to 10 and you’ll probably get an answer of between eight and 10. Of course if you then follow up by asking them what percentage of practice time they spend working on their team’s mental game, the answer will likely be 10% or less.
Because while everyone will agree the mental game is important, spending practice time fielding ground balls and doing hitting drills, or doing anything physically active, just “feels” more like practice.
Now that Zoom sessions have replaced physical practices in many areas, however, it may be time to re-think what you’re doing. It’s the “making lemonade out of lemons” approach.
When you think about it, Zoom (or whatever communication tool you use) sessions actually lend themselves even better to the mental game than the physical game. With the physical game you have to set up a camera or phone and hope the players stay in range as they move around, doing drills. But with the mental game, most of what you need to do can be accomplished while sitting comfortably in a chair.
For example, you can quiz your team to see how well they understand the rules. The quiz can be an oral quiz on the spot, or you can email a document to all your players, have them fill it out in advance, and then go over the answers on the call. Some technologies even have polling features that can be adapted to a live quiz.
Another way to work the mental game is by doing a screen share of diagramming software such as this one or this one or this one to go over various plays. You can show new plays, or describe the situation and the hit and then ask your players what their responsibilities are.
A Zoom call is also great for helping players learn how to manage stress. There are all kinds of techniques, such as those found in Heads Up Baseball (one of my favorite books on the subject) that you can go over and have your players practice applying. For example, you can teach them the stoplight analogy and how to do it to keep themselves from getting out of control.
Another way to use a Zoom call to good advantage is to have them work on visualization. Studies have shown that visualization can be as powerful as physical practice in helping players improve their physical skills, yet when was the last time you took time out of practice to help your players learn to visualize success? Now you can.
If you need more ideas, just do a quick Internet search on “mental game exercises,” or follow this link to the search I did. There are tons of ideas out there that can help you develop mentally tough players, even from a distance.
Of course, in addition to developing your players’ mental game you can also use Zoom calls to build cohesiveness within the team. There are plenty of games and exercises you can use to help your players get to know each other better and create the sort of bonds that keep high-level teams performing at a high level.
As Steve Martin says in the underrated movie My Blue Heaven, “You guys see a problem. I see an opportunity.”
Take some of those Zoom sessions where you’re struggling to find a way to run a regular practice and focus instead on the mental game. You’ll be amazingly pleased with the results come next spring – or whenever you start playing regularly again.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
Setting goals is an important part of any sort of development, athletic or otherwise. Without them, it’s easy to meander your way through life. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice during her adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
One phenomenon that isn’t often spoken of, however, is what happens to us mentally after a goal has been met. It’s amazing how it can turn around.
I’ve seen this particularly after I started setting up a Pocket Radar Smart Coach for virtually every pitching lesson. Each pitch thrown is captured, and the result is displayed on a Smart Display unit in bright, red numbers.
I call it my “accountability meter” because it shows immediately if a pitcher is giving anything less than her best effort. A sudden dropoff of 6 mph is a very obvious indication that a pitcher was slacking off on that particular pitch.
Here’s the scenario I’m addressing. Let’s say a young pitcher is working hard trying to move from throwing 46 mph to 50 mph. She’s been practicing hard, working on whatever was assigned to her, and slowly her speed starts creeping up.
She gets up as high as 49 once, but then falls back a bit again. She knows she can do it.
Then the stars align and voila! The display reads 50. Then it does it again. And again.
There are big smiles and a whoop or two of triumph! Goal met! Pictures are taken and high fives (real or virtual) are exchanged.
A few weeks later, the pitcher continues her speed climb and achieves 52. Once again, celebrations all around and she starts looking toward 60 mph.
The next lesson she throws a bunch of 50s, but can’t quite seem to get over that mark. What happens now?
Is there still the elation she had just a few weeks before? Nope. Now it’s nothing but sadness.
That 50 mph speed that once seemed like a noble, worthy goal is now nothing but a frustrating disappointment.
That would be the case for Ajai in the photo at the top. She was all smiles when we took this picture a couple of months ago. But if that was her top speed today she would be anything but happy.
But that’s ok, because it’s all part of the journey. We always want to be building our skills; goals are the blocks we use to do it.
But once they have been met, they are really of no more use to us. Instead, they need to be replaced with bigger, better goals. That’s what drives any competitor to achieve more.
So yes, today’s goals will quickly become tomorrow’s disappointments. But that’s okay.
Remember how far you’ve come, but always keep in mind there is more to go. Stay hungry for new achievements and you just might amaze yourself.
One of the most well-known pieces of advice from the late, great Bruce Lee was a simple three-word statement: be as water. For those interested in more of what he meant, or who are just wondering who the heck Bruce Lee was, here’s a video:
While Lee’s advice was ostensibly meant to encourage martial artists to give up their old, rigid approach to movement in favor of one that was more free-flowing, I find it’s also great advice for fastpitch softball players. Here are a few examples.
When pitchers want to throw harder, they tend to tighten up their muscles and become very stiff. They also do it when they’re trying to guide the ball to a location (even if it’s just the general strike zone). Yet that’s the worst possible thing to do in each situation.
If you’re trying to gain speed, remember tight muscles are slow muscles. You can swing your arm around much faster if you relax and let it go versus trying to force it around.
Being stiff when trying to gain better control also works against you, and actually makes it more difficult. If you are tight and off-line somewhere in your circle, you will stay there and the ball will go somewhere you don’t want it to.
But if you are loose, a gentle nudge is all it takes to get back on-line. Plus, you have momentum working for you, because if you are loose and using good mechanics (i.e., those that follow the natural way the body moves) it’s a lot easier to follow the natural line.
To improve as a pitcher, be as water.
The same things about tight versus loose apply to hitters. If you try to muscle up on the ball you’ll lose the whipping action of the bat into the hitting zone, costing you valuable bat speed.
Being tight also makes it difficult to react and adjust to pitch speeds, spins and locations. A rigid swing will tend to continue going wherever it started to go; a relaxed swing allows you to make adjustments without losing bat speed.
Then there’s the mental aspect. If you are uptight generally (aka in your own head) you are going to be worried about far too many outside factors, such as your last at bat or the fight you had with your mother before the game, to bring your swing thought down to “see ball, hit ball.”
There will be no flow to your swing, just a sort of panicked flail as the ball comes in. You may even start seeing things that aren’t there, or lose your perspective on exactly where the strike zone is. Much can happen.
To improve as a hitter, be as water.
As a fielder, you want to be able to move smoothly to the ball. You want your throws to be easy and sure.
That’s going to be tough if you are tight and rigid. The word “flow” is frequently used to describe a great fielder. And what water does.
Being rigid or mechanical in your movements is a sure ticket to many more errors than you should be making. And if you are that way because you are AFRAID of making errors and being pulled out of the game, it only gets worse. Forget about all that.
To improve as a fielder, be as water.
Approach to the Game
Perhaps the area Bruce Lee’s advice applied to most is your general approach to the game. In the video, he says that if you pour water into a cup it becomes the cup. If you pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Fastpitch softball players need that type of flexibility as well. You may be asked to play a position that isn’t your usual one. You can either resist or go with it.
Yes, playing outfield rather than catcher or shortstop may not be your preference. But if you go with it and prove yourself in the role you were asked to play you are far more likely to get the opportunity to show what you can do in the position you want to play. I’ve seen it happen.
You may not like your coach’s coaching style. Understood – there are some bad coaches out there. But often it’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s just different than you prefer.
Rather than bracing yourself against it like a rock, be as water. Adjust your expectations and get as much as you can out of the experience. Everyone has something to teach – even if it’s just not to be like they are in the future.
You may not be getting the playing time you want or feel you deserve. That may be true. But before you just blame the coach and jump ship, ask yourself if you’re doing all you can do to earn the spot you want.
Are you diving for balls in practice? Are you displaying a positive attitude? Do you go to the weight room, take extra batting practice or bullpen work, ask for one more ground ball if you pooch one in practice, help clean up team equipment at the end of practice or a game, etc.?
Maybe the answer is yes and you’re just not getting a fair shot. It happens. But before you decide that, determine whether you have been trying to shape yourself to the program the way water shapes itself to the cup or wishing the program would shape itself to you.
So after all of this, if I were to ask you which is stronger, the rock or the water, what would you answer?
Many would say the rock. Not a bad answer on the surface, because if you place a rock in a stream or river, the water will be forced to go around it.
Over time, however, the water will wear away the rock and any other obstacle in its path until it can once again flow smoothly.
So I ask you again: which is stronger, the rock or the water?
Be as water, my friend.
Those of you of a certain age (and you know what that age is) probably remember this great song from the ultimate 60s Motown girl group, The Supremes:
If you’re not familiar with the song, be sure to check it out. If you listen closely you’ll hear a lot of the foundational elements that today’s pop music is built on.
But what you’ll also hear is a message that also pertains to fastpitch softball players. Not to mention their coaches and parents.
We live in a world where we want what we want when we want it. We don’t like to wait – we want results NOW!!!! And we’re afraid if we don’t get them NOW!!!! we’re going to miss out on important opportunities.
Now, if you’re 16 years old or above, there is a bit of hurry up involved. If you’re planning to play college softball you don’t have much time to develop the skills required to be invited onto a team. If you’re not planning on playing beyond high school, the end of your career is looming.
The thing is, however, is that softball skills take time to develop. And repetition. Lots and lots of good repetition.
No matter how much you want to be successful, or how much you wish the time element wasn’t true, it is.
Now, a good coach or private instructor can help you shortcut some of that time. Back in the days when The Supremes were cranking out hit song after hit song, most softball skill learning happened through trial and error, and emulation of successful older players.
You looked at what those players were doing and you tried to copy it. Eventually, you figured out what worked best for you and you were ready to rock and roll.
A good coach or instructor will already have a pretty strong idea of what works and what doesn’t, and will be able to look at what you’re doing and help you throw out the stuff that doesn’t work faster.
Still, it’s a process. It may not take as much time as doing it yourself, but it will still take time. Lots and lots of time.
The more you practice with intention and a goal in mind, the more you’ll be able to shave off some of that time. But it will still take time. There is no getting around that.
It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. Here’s a great article that explains why. The short version is that you’re actually making physiological changes under the hood, rewriting what has been hard wired into your brain so you can do things differently/better. Here’s some additional information on it from a past post too.
It would be nice if that weren’t the case – if there was some secret shortcut that would get you to the destination immediately like a transporter on Star Trek. But there isn’t.
In fact, when I start with a new student I will usually place my hand on her head or helmet and tell her if I could just do that, say “Be healed” and instantly turn her into a great player I would.
Of course, I also point out that if I could do that lessons would be $1,000 each and there would be a line down the street a mile long to get some of that, because that’s the dream.
But I can’t. No one can. Each of us learns in our own way, and in our own time.
Put 10 players in front of any coach, have them all receive the same instruction at the same time, and guess what? The results you get will vary.
Some will get it right away, some will get it somewhat, and some may not get it at all and will need it explained differently.
It’s the same for the long-term. Learning anything, especially if you want to do it at a high level, takes time.
It would be nice if coaches could just show a player what to do and she’d be instantly perfect at it, but it doesn’t work that way. And thinking it could is likely to lead to disappointment, which leads to discouragement, which leads to players deciding softball isn’t for them anymore.
Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, follow the Stockdale Paradox. When you’re facing a challenge, like learning a new skill or a new position, know that you will succeed. But don’t put a timeframe or other limitations on it.
Instead, believe in yourself and just keep plugging away at it. Do the right things and you’ll get there. And what a story you’ll have to tell ESPN when they come to interview you.
One of the most intimidating things we can do as human beings is start something new. Especially when that something has been around for a while like, say, fastpitch softball.
We look at ourselves and see how ill-prepared we are. Then we look at others and see how much better they are – some are even experts – and we wonder how we’re ever going to survive.
The good news we all have to remember is that no matter how great others are at something, every single one of them was once a beginner. Just like us.
Arizona coach Mike Candrea didn’t start out with 1,500+ wins. He started with one, and probably felt fortunate to get it.
So if you’re a brand new head coach taking a team onto the field for the first time, remember you share that experience with one of the winningest fastpitch softball coaches ever.
If you’re a pitcher (or the parent of a pitcher) who is just trying to learn how to get her arms and legs going in the same direction and get the ball over the plate with arcing (or putting anyone around you in danger) take heart. Some of the game’s best pitchers ever had their struggles as well.
If you’re a hitter who is providing more on-field air conditioning than excitement with her bat, or a fielder who seems like she wouldn’t be able to pick up a ground ball in a game even if it had a handle…
Well, you get the idea.
Everyone has to start somewhere. The ones who go places, however, are the ones who don’t give up, even when learning takes a little longer, or it feels like others have more natural ability, or have a head start because they started at a younger age.
After all, it isn’t where you start the race. It’s where you finish that counts.
I remember as a beginning coach thinking how much better I would (hopefully) be in five years, when I had some experience and had learned more. But that thought didn’t do my first team much good.
So I buckled down, did the best I could, contributed where I knew things, and just faked the rest.
I was once amazed that other coaches could come up with the drills or explanations i would use. To know so much that you could think that way seemed like a hill too great for me to climb. Now, 800 blog posts and roughly 20 years of coaching later I come up with different ideas all the time.
So to all of you beginners and first-timers out there, I say don’t be intimidated. Don’t be concerned about your lack of experience, or get overwhelmed thinking about how much you don’t know.
Just buckle down, get after it, and remember every expert was once a beginner. But it’s only the dedicated beginners who become an expert.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for my annual battle with putting Christmas lights on the roof of my house, I came across the note pictured above. It was a message from myself last spring, when I took the lights down, alerting me to a potential issue with some of the strings.
(By the way, a tip of the Hatlo Hat to the TV show How I Met Your Mother for the whole Future Ken/Past Ken thing.)
I had completely forgotten the lights had fallen off the roof (better them than me!), so I was glad I’d done it. I was also quite amused by the whole concept.
Then last week at the NFCA convention I heard a speaker talk about how players should do the exact same thing prior to their season, to be opened at the end. In her case it was to be opened upon winning an NCAA D1 championship (which didn’t happen), but the concept is still a good one.
For players who are serious about their game, what better way is there to end a season than to look at the perspective of their (slightly) younger selves to see how it matched up to reality?
Here’s the idea. Before the season, the player sits down and imagines what the season will be like. Not just the quantifiable goals, but maybe how things went, what the experience was like, what they accomplished, what they liked and disliked, etc.
It should be a personal letter from Past (Player) to Future (Player). It could include encouragement, consolation, congratulations or whatever the player happens to be feeling at the time.
Then seal it up and put it away, not to be opened until after the season. Now that they player has gone through the entire season experience, she can compare what she thought would happen, and how she thought she’d feel, to what actually happened.
An exercise like this can help put things into perspective. For example, if the player is on the fence about whether to stay with this team or look for another, she can compare what her expectations were to what actually happened.
If she had a tough season, she can look back on how hard she expected to work and compare that to how hard she actually worked. If she was feeling awkward around new teammates in the beginning, she can compare that to how she feels about her teammates now. Maybe she made some great new friends and is just grateful to have been part of such an awesome group.
There are so many things to be gained from this exercise. If you’re a parent, try having your favorite player do it. If you’re a coach, have your team do it and hold the envelopes until the end of the season banquet/party.
By the way, this isn’t just for players. Coaches can do the same exercise as well.
I’ve had great seasons where you hated to see them end, and I’ve had seasons where it all couldn’t end soon enough. If nothing else it would have been fun to see how my earlier self viewed what was coming and whether it matched up to what actually occurred.
In our hyper-fast world we tend to only look at what’s right in front of us. In doing so we miss the benefits of a longer-term view.
By taking the time to write out this letter to their future selves, players and coaches can gain a longer-term view, and perhaps use that to change their next future.
So what do you think of this idea? Have you ever tried it? If so, how did it turn out? Leave your experiences below in the comments.
The other day I was reading an article’in the NFCA’s Fastpitch Delivery newspaper. It was written by Megan Brown, Ph.D., an assistant coach at Brown University, talking about what softball players can learn from UConn basketball.
Basically, it talked about an approach they use to improve pitching performance during practice, which improves performance during games. While the article was about pitching, it can be applied to other areas as well. I’ve been playing around with it a bit this week, and I think it’s pretty effective so I thought I’d share.
The crux of it is to ask the player to rate her effort on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being standing around talking about it (as you will be doing at that time) and 10 being putting every fiber of your being into the pitch, hit, throw, whatever.
The typical answer will be 5 or 6. If she says 6, you then ask the player what it will take to get that effort level up to a 7. How do you go that little bit harder?
Once she gets to 7, ask what it will take to get to 8, and so on. It really seems to help players loosen up a bit and worry a little less about “perfect” mechanics and a little more about going hard.
Of course, being a movie fan and a music fan, the whole idea of “turning it up” couldn’t help but remind me of this great scene from the classic movie “This Is Spinal Tap.” Sorry about the commercial in the front, but it’s worth waiting it out:
It’s very easy for players to slip into their comfort zone when they’re practicing or playing. Unfortunately, for many that comfort zone may be far less than they’re capable of achieving when pushed.
Maximum performance requires maximum effort. To help players get there, ask them to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, and then see if you can get them to make turning it up to 11 a habit.
One of the toughest things for any fastpitch softball pitcher is keeping control over her emotions. Pitchers are very exposed, and face a lot of pressure on every pitch, so it’s easy for them to get too high or too low depending on the outcome of the pitcher. Neither is terribly good.
This high/low issue was very evident in one of my pitching students, a 12U pitcher named Sarah. She’d throw a great pitch during a lesson and have a wide grin on her face. Then she’d try another, it wouldn’t work right, and the sad face came out.
It wasn’t just a little bit of disappointment. Her spirits would visibly fall – exaggerated by how high the last high was.
I would talk to her about needing to “maintain an even strain,” and she would nod, but the next time it would happen she’d do the same thing. I kept trying to think of how I could explain it better.
Then it hit me: Halloween was coming up, and with it Halloween merchandise. I thought about the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
If you’ve never seen it, the character is the Mayor of Halloween Town. He has two faces. One is a gigantic grin; the other is a sad face. (See the graphic at the top of the post.)
His head spins around to show the appropriate face, depending on his mood. There is no in-between. Just like Sarah, I thought!
I thought what better way to illustrate it than to pick up a Mayor doll of some sort and give it to Sarah. So I ran to Walgreen’s, and found the perfect representation. It was just the head, about the size of a Beanie Baby. It was the kind of thing she could keep in her bag as a reminder not to go into “Mayor mode.” And it was fun.
She got it immediately, and was happy to get the gift. But it’s what happened next that was most interesting.
In her next lesson, she was a lot more even in her moods. If something went wrong she was able to shrug it off pretty easily – much more so than before. When she did make a face, I’d just call her Mayor and she’d smile and come out of it. Seemed like the Mayor had done his job.
Fast forward to this past Monday. As she was putting her glove in her bag after her lesson she pulled out the Mayor, and that brought up a discussion. She said she had another girl on her team who would have even bigger mood swings, so she handed the girl the Mayor to help her pull out of a bad one.
Apparently the Mayor has become somewhat of a team mascot. Whenever someone gets down, they get the Mayor, and he helps them snap out of it. Fun to hear they’re all sharing him, and reaping the benefits.
Helping the mental game can be tough, because you never know what might work. But if you have a player, or a team, that is struggling with evening out their moods, get out and see if you can pick up a Mayor while Halloween is still going on. It just might do the trick.