Category Archives: Mental game
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.
Every fastpitch softball player faces this situation sooner or later: it’s game day, and you’re just not feeling it.
Maybe it’s been a long season and you’re tired. Maybe it’s hot and humid out and you don’t handle hot and humid well. Maybe all your non-softball friends are doing something and you wish you could do it too. Maybe you’re so nervous about a big game that you just don’t feel like yourself.
Whatever the cause, feeling that you’re not feeling it can definitely get in the way of your performance. That’s where it helps to take a lesson from some famous musicians.
I’ve read interviews with several famous musicians who were asked how they managed to put so much energy into their performances night after night despite the grueling toll it takes to go from city to city and play for months at a time.
The answer they give is typically something to the effect of: “Yes, it can be hard, and there are times in the hotel or backstage that I just don’t feel like playing. I think maybe I can get by giving it just the minimal amount of effort. But then I think about the fan who saved his/her money to come and see me play, and this will be his/her only chance this year. Maybe it’s a first date, or an anniversary, or a birthday or something else special. Maybe it’s just someone who needs a little lift in their life. When I think about that, I realize I owe it to that person to do the very best I can, if for no other reason than to thank them. And I want them to walk away feeling like it was more than worth the money they spent.”
What a great attitude. They realize that in the line of work they’ve gone into they’ve made a bargain, and they need to keep up their end of it.
For fastpitch softball players it’s a little different. In our case, yes, there are the fans who came out to see the team play. It might be someone’s grandma who finally made it out to a game and hopes her granddaughter’s team will win. Or a little sister who is going to draw her impressions of the game by what she sees on the field. Or the brother home on leave from the military who wants a little piece of home in his life before he goes back to wherever he’s stationed.
But there might also be a college coach, or someone connected to a higher-level team, watching as well. What that person sees, that day, will be his/her first and most lasting impression of you. A great performance might catch his/her eye for the future. A poor one might get in the way of your goals down the line.
Even if none of that is the case, however, think about your coach. He/she made a decision to put you on the team and give you an opportunity to play. You also owe that person your very best. Every. Single. Time. You. Play.
Always remember that putting on that uniform and taking the field is a privilege. A lot of things had to happen the right way for you to have that privilege – starting with being born in a country where playing fastpitch softball is even an option.
Learn to appreciate the opportunity you have and you’ll learn how to feel it even when you’re not feeling it at first. And that, more than anything, will help you become the player you’re destined to be.
Once again an odd title for a fastpitch softball blog, but bear with me. It’ll make sense.
Adversity is one of those things most fastpitch softball players have to face at one time or another. Our sport is hard, and it’s unforgiving.
Just a few inches either way on a pitch can mean the difference between a backward K and walking in the tying run. It can also mean the difference between a line drive single and a line drive out.
When too many bad things start to happen, it can quickly become overwhelming – especially for young players contending with all those hormones, social pressures, and other things we adults tend to forget about as soon as we can. It can definitely get players feeling bad about themselves, and into a mindset that they are the only ones it’s happening to.
So again, thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber. He was one of the heroes of the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016, coming back from a knee injury to play a key role in several victories. A guy who seemingly had it all knocked.
Well, if you don’t follow the Cubs you may not be aware that for the last couple of weeks he wasn’t with the Chicago National League ballclub . Instead, he was down on their AAA affiliate in Iowa.
The reason? After all his heroics and accolades, he’d lost his swing this year. Just couldn’t quite seem to get into a groove, relax and hit. So the Cubs thought they’d take some pressure off of him, let him go into the minors for a few games to get his swing back away from the glare of the spotlight in Chicago.
It seems to have worked, because he’s back with the Big Club now. (Glad I checked that – gotta love the Internet.) Hopefully he’s exorcised his hitting demons and will start tearing it up again.
The lesson here for young fastpitch softball players is that it can happen to anyone. Schwarber gets paid millions of dollars to play a game that bears a lot of similarities to ours. If he can lose his swing, what makes a fastpitch players whose parents are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for them to play think it can’t happen to them?
Fastpitch players may not have a lower-level farm team to go to when they are in trouble, but they can certainly follow the same principles:
- R-E-L-A-X (mixing a little football in here, even if it’s from a team I despise) – The world isn’t coming to an end, and peace in our time isn’t riding on your next at bat. You already know you can do well because you’ve done it before. Worrying won’t help. Just get out of your own head for a bit and try to ease the tension.
- Go back to basics – Work on your fundamentals. If you’re having trouble hitting, jump on a tee and take some quality swings. If you’re a pitcher who has lost her control, work your way back from the end of the pitch and see where the problem is occurring.
- Stay positive – It’s easy to fall into the negative thinking trap. But having trouble doesn’t make you a bad player, or a bad person. It just makes you human. Try a little positive self-talk. Think about what it felt like when you were successful. Focus on the good and it will come back a lot faster.
- Know you will come through it – I remember reading about something called the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great. If you want the long version, follow the link (I highly recommend it). Otherwise, here’s the short version. When you’re in a tough situation, you need to do two things. One is know you’ll come through it. The second is don’t put a timeline on when you will come through it, because if you don’t come out of your funk by the next day, or the next tournament, or the next whatever deadline, you’ll get more depressed and make your situation worse.
If a player like Kyle Schwarber can hit a point where he needs to take a step back in Iowa, it can happen to anyone. Just know you’re not alone, and remember that often the only way out is through.
Photo by Minda Haas, @minda33, Instagram minda.haas
Fastpitch softball players know there’s nothing quite like getting caught in the “death spiral.” That’s one of those bad times when it seems like nothing goes right.
For pitchers, it’s giving up too many walks or hits – especially cheap ones. For fielders it’s those bad hops, or those throws that start to sail on you no matter what you do. For hitters, it’s all the things that go with being in a slump.
Things don’t go right for a bit, and you start getting down on yourself. The death spiral part comes when you start over-thinking things, or worrying too much about what your coach thinks, what your teammates think, what the peanut gallery up in the stands think, what the media thinks, even what strangers on the street think. Pretty soon it seems like the whole world is stacked up against you.
It’s at that point that you have to remember the wise words of Tom Cruise’s character Joel from Risky Business: Sometimes you just gotta say what the (heck). (WARNING: Joel doesn’t actually say “heck” in the clip. The link is NSFW, so turn the sound down. If you are not in high school yet, all I can say is don’t click or earmuffs.)
Easier said than done, sure. But I can attest it works, because one of my students went through that this year in her high school season, and that was how she turned it around (although I doubt she used the NSFW word.)
She’d gotten off to a rocky start hitting. This is a girl who can really bang the ball, a true five-tool player.
She’s also someone who really cares about doing well for her team, so underperforming really bothers her.
I hadn’t had a chance to get out to one of her games until a couple of weeks ago. By then I had heard she’d turned it around. I was talking to her and her parents during and after the game, and they all told me the same story.
As she put it, “I went out to play that day and I just said to myself, ‘I don’t care.'” Not that she didn’t care about the game, but she decided to quit worrying about the results and what everyone else was thinking.
It worked like magic. She relaxed and the hits started coming.
Bad things happen to everyone. Even good players. Even great ones. No great hitter ever had a career that didn’t have a slump at some point.
When it happens, just remember: sometimes you just gotta say what the @#$%.
As important as it is, timing is one of the most challenging things for fastpitch hitters to work on. You can build your swing on the tee all day every day. But it isn’t until you have to actually face a moving ball that it really becomes game-like hitting.
What you’re really trying to do with timing is find the ball in space. What I mean is that you have to deliver the bat not only to the right height, as you do on the tee, but also in a plane that extends from where the pitcher releases the ball to the optimal (hopefully) point near you that yields the best contact.
For many hitters, figuring out where that point is can be difficult. Many tend to wait too long, letting the ball get too deep. When that happens they may make contact, but it probably won’t be strong contact.
At best, especially if the pitch is on the outside half of the plate, they make get a sharp ground ball to the opposite field. But even then they won’t really be driving it. And forget about crushing an inside pitch over the fence on their pull side, no matter how strong they may be.
The problem isn’t a lack of conscious understanding. I’ve worked with plenty of hitters who understood exactly where they needed to make contact. If you asked them they could quickly give you the right answer. But put them up against a moving ball and they just can’t pull the trigger on time to do what they just told you they should do.
Speed doesn’t matter either. They get the same results whether they’re facing a 60+ mph fireballer in a game or a coach lobbing meatballs in front toss. It’s not a question of when so much as where.
If you have (or are) one of those, here’s a trick to try. Place a second plate immediately out in front of the one you’ve been using. (It helps if the two plates are different colors.)
Tell the hitter to line up with the back plate, but base her hitting off the front one. Then have her take a few swings.
What you will probably find is that she is suddenly able to get the bat to the ball on time. Honestly, I’m not sure why that is; perhaps a psychologist could explain it.Then again, I never saw a pitch I didn’t like. The simple act of placing that second visual seems to help. It certainly did with Emma, who is pictured here. (In case you’re wondering, that’s her dad Mike lurking in the background. :-))
Once that second plate went down she not only started hitting the ball better, but actually started pulling front toss pitches that were inside. The visual helped break whatever was locked into her mind so she could cut loose and attack the ball instead of taking a more defensive, don’t let the ball get through approach.
The next step is to take the front plate away to see if she can maintain the “hit it out-front” mindset. If not, put it back and keep working. Then try it again next practice. Eventually her brain will re-calibrate and associate that space just in front of her with where the contact point should be.
I prefer the “all or nothing” approach with the second plate to moving it back slowly. I’m just afraid with most hitters, if you move the front plate back a little, you’ll drag the hitting zone back along with it because the front of that plate will still be a reference point. Better to take it away entirely and see whether it has translated yet or not.
By the way, I have my theories as to why hitters get into the mindset of waiting until the ball is practically on top of them to swing. One idea is that when they are playing rec ball early in their careers, they’re not sure of where the strike zone is (or if the pitcher can hit it), so they wait until they’re absolutely sure they know where the ball is.
Since most kids don’t hit the ball particularly hard at that age, the bad placement isn’t really noticeable. But as they progress in the game and hitting gets better, those who don’t make the adjustment get left behind. .
My other thought has to do with tee placement. How many times have you seen a player (or a well-meaning but under-informed coach) plop the tee right in the center of the plate, which places the ball right about at their bellybutton? Those ubiquitous tees with the plate for a base certainly help reinforce that concept.
So after hours of practicing that way, where do you think a hitter is going to expect to hit the ball? And once that mindset is locked in, it can be tough to break.
So give the second plate idea a try and see if it helps. Then let me know your results in the comments below. Also, if you’ve found other successful tricks to help hitters understand how to hit the ball in the proper space as it’s moving, please be sure to share them with everyone here.
The #KyleSchwarber coming back from a knee injury storyline is getting a lot of coverage right now during the World Series. But I think I have a fastpitch softball story that can top it.
Taylor Danielson, whom I have written about before, hurt her knee playing high school softball back in the spring and wound up missing the whole summer. This would have been more worrisome since this was to be the summer between her junior and senior year, but fortunately she had already verballed to a college. (I won’t say which quite yet due to superstition, but check back in a couple of weeks.)
When the injury occurred she was told she wouldn’t get back on the field until 2017. While that is a good prognosis for an ordinary person, Taylor is hardly an ordinary player. She worked her butt off rehabbing her knee, and was finally cleared for limited action for the end of the fall ball season.
There were some caveats. No catching (she’s an awesome catcher), and while she could hit, she couldn’t run full out. No stretching a single into a double, or going from first to third. She was under strict orders to run base to base and that’s it – a shame since she has 2.8 speed from home to first.
Since she couldn’t run like she wanted, Taylor decided to address it her own way. The video shows how – she hit the ball so far she was able to jog her way around the bases. All of them.
Just goes to show where there’s a will there’s a way. And you can’t keep a great player down.
Recently I had the opportunity to see the movie “The Right Stuff,” about the start of the U.S. astronaut program, again. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s really worth checking out.)
Early in the movie they show the efforts to break the sound barrier. Test pilots had gotten close before, but there were real concerns that if you actually got up to the speed of sound (Mach 1) that the vibrations would tear the plane apart and the pilot would die. For that reason many believed it couldn’t be done.
One who didn’t was test pilot Chuck Yeager. When he sees a new X-1 jet come in he decides he wants to go “chase that demon” that lives out at Mach 1 and see what really happens. The next morning he hops in the plane and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier.
Interesting, you say, but what does all that have to do with softball? Simple. Like then-Col. Yeager, nothing great happens for players when they stay in their comfort zone. It’s only when they get out to the edge of their abilities, where the “demon” of errors lives, that they can truly advance their skills and become the players they’re meant to be.
For pitchers, that means trying new pitches in games. Often times, pitchers will work and work to learn a new pitch. But then when game time comes they’re afraid to throw it for fear of looking bad, or the softball equivalent of the plane breaking apart, happening.
But here’s a little secret: No matter how poorly you throw a pitch, it’s only worth one ball on the hitter. That’s right! Whether you miss by an inch or chuck it over the backstop, the hitter is awarded only one ball. You don’t avoid throwing your fastball if you throw a ball, so why should it be different for any other pitch you’ve prepared. Get out there, keep throwing the pitch and get comfortable with it.
For fielders it’s pretty obvious. They only go after balls they’re sure they can get to. Or they make soft throws because they’re afraid if they really crank it up and throw hard it won’t go where it should.
Again, here’s a hint: if you’re worried your hard throw won’t go where it should, you need to practice throwing hard more. Even if that means you throw some balls away in practice. Find out what you can do. Get out there on the edge. On the fielding side, start diving for the ball instead of watching it go by or drop in front of you. Stretch yourself, try that new technique. You may just find it works.
Hitters often make it even worse. They either try not to strike out by only swinging at perfect pitches (never a good approach), or they fall back on just trying to make contact instead of trying to make hard contact. Quit playing it safe! Work on driving the ball and helping your team win.
Coaches can help in this regard. Yes, we all want our teams to play perfect softball. But if you’re always yelling at your team about mistakes they’ll play not to make mistakes (and get yelled at) rather than to win. They won’t develop their full skill sets, and each year they’ll fall further behind.
While you don’t want to see mental mistakes due to lack of focus, physical errors are going to happen when players get out of their comfort zones. Instead of yelling at them or giving them a hard time, praise them for making that extra effort. Even if they came up short. Perhaps in a couple of more tries that extraordinary effort will become more routine, and you’ll win more ballgames in the long run.
When Col. Yeager chased the demon he didn’t know if he would get it or it would get him. But he didn’t let the fear of failure (which had much higher consequences than losing a softball game) keep him from finding out. Thanks to that spirit, incidentally, the world’s fastest jet, the SR-71 Blackbird, flies at 3 times the speed of sound. That’s 2,193.2 mph.
Softball players need to do the same. Chase your demons and play to the edge of your abilities to see if you have the right stuff.
It’s not only the way to make yourself better. It’s a lot more fun.
Getting hitters started on time is often a challenge. You work, and work, and work on developing proper hitting mechanics. You hit off the tee, soft toss, front toss and everything else you can think of.
Then the next game comes along and it seems like it all falls apart. That hitter that was bombing balls in practice stands there frozen at the plate until the ball is on top of her, then quickly executes what I can only call a “panic swing” – one that says “Oh crap, I better swing.”
There can be reasons for it, although most tend to lead back to fear of making a mistake. So the hitter waits and waits and waits, then realizes she ought to be swinging. At which point it’s too late to hit the ball well.
One long-standing way of attempting to overcome this was of thinking is to say you should be thinking “Yes, yes yes” and then either yes or no. In other words plan on swinging until you see otherwise.
Another common way of expressing it is the pitch is a strike until you see otherwise. In other words, plan on it being good, and then hold up if it’s not.
Here’s a little different way of approaching it. When the hitter is taking too long to decide, she is essentially trying to determine if she should start her swing. Of course, by the time she starts it she is already too late. So tell her she shouldn’t be thinking about whether to start the swing. She should start it every time, and then while she is in her swing decide whether to continue or stop.
If the hitter is using good mechanics, i.e., starting the swing with her hips, followed by her shoulders and then her bat, she’ll have plenty of time to hold up before committing the bat to the swing. In the meantime, she has her body in motion, developing power and preparing to apply it to the ball. Her eyes are also gathering information about the speed, location and spin of the ball, helping her to decide whether to take the swing.
So if she’s started her swing, the only thought should be whether to stop if the pitch is a bad one.
Give it a try, and let me know if it works for your hitters.
Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.
Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.
In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.
With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.
The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.
And that brings us to today’s
sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.
Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.
Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.
As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?
Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.
Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.
There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.
This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.
More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.
It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.