Category Archives: Mental game
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.
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.