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
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.
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.
I was out watching a high school softball game today (as I often like to do) on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. It was a well-played game overall, with a few good hits and some excellent defensive gems as well.
There was one thing I saw, however, that kind of bothered me. First let me set the scene.
The home team was in the field, and was trailing by a few runs. The visitors had a couple of runners on base. Bases may have even been loaded – I usually don’t pay that much attention to the specifics.
The pitcher threw a pitch and the hitter turned on it, driving a sharp two-hopper between the shortstop and third baseman and into left field. The left fielder came charging up to field the ball gloveside. That’s when disaster struck.
The ball took a nasty hop right over her glove and to the fence. Two runs scored, extending the visitors’ lead, and there were still runners on. That’s when I heard it.
The pitcher lost her cool and yelled “Outfielders, you have to get in front of the ball.”
She was correct, especially in that particular situation. The left fielder was going to have no play by charging the ball hard, so should’ve made sure it stayed in front of her. But…
It’s not the pitcher’s place to chastise her fielders. She needs their support. Pitchers should either say something positive and encouraging to their fielders or keep their mouths shut, in my opinion. Chastising the fielders is the coach’s or the catcher’s job. Giving the fielders a hard time will do the pitcher no good, but it could do some harm.
Personally, if I were that left fielder and got called out like that, I would not have been happy. When the pitcher rolled the first pitch to the next batter into the plate (as she did) I might’ve been tempted to yell “Pitchers, you can’t roll the ball in to the plate.” See how she likes it.
Pitchers have to understand that just as they don’t usually walk batters or hit them on purpose, fielders aren’t trying to make errors. They just happen. Also keep in mind that runners on base don’t just materialize from nowhere. If there weren’t other errors already, they got on by a hit, walk or HBP, so the pitcher has some culpability for those baserunners that scored.
Again, unless they can strike out every opposing batter every time, pitchers need everyone pulling in the same direction behind them. Getting mouthy to their fielders isn’t the way to accomplish that.
They’ll be better served by staying cool and demonstrating leadership. It’s the better choice not only for the immediate game but for the season.
Last night I was watching Texas and Arkansas on the SEC network. It was a good game, with great plays and the lead changing a few times. I got to see an Arkansas home run record set and two teams playing all out.
Also saw a pitcher get her first-ever start for Arkansas. I didn’t catch the back story, but apparently she’s is normally an outfielder. But due to some sort of circumstances she was pressed into action. I think she’d been a high school or travel ball pitcher, but at Arkansas she’s an outfielder. Good for her for stepping up when the team needed her.
The thing that struck me, though, was what happened in the bottom of the 7th. Arkansas, the home team, was down a run. The leadoff batter went to first after being hit by pitch, and the next hitter – a power slapper – drove a ball just out of reach of the center fielder. The runner on first scored and the batter ended up on third.
So Arkansas was in a tie game with a runner on third an no outs. Oh, and all-important momentum on their side too. I thought for sure they were going to pull off a victory. All they needed was a ground ball with eyes, or a sac fly. Statistically, the run expectancy in this situation is at least one run for the inning.
Of course, that’s why they still have to play the game. The next hitter popped up. The one after that grounded out weakly to the pitcher, who held the runner at third. The next batter struck out, stranding the runner on third. Texas scored in the top of the eighth and held on to win the game.
Which brings me to my point. In this sport, especially when you’re the underdog, you have to find a way to capitalize on your opportunities. I’m sure the three hitters on Arkansas didn’t purposely try to make outs, but make outs they did. By not scoring that one more run they made it more difficult on themselves.
Maybe they were nervous, or trying too hard. Maybe they were thinking too much about outcomes (or the result of messing up) and took themselves out of it. Or maybe the Texas pitcher, faced with a tough situation, rose to the occasion. All I know is Arkansas had a great chance to pull off an upset but couldn’t quite get it done.
If you’re in that situation, it’s important to focus on the task at hand. If you’re the hitter, do your best to relax and just try to hit the ball hard – same as you always do. Because you may not get that chance again next inning, which means you have to take your opportunities when they come.
University of Arizona head coach Mike Candrea is famous for saying that the difference between boys and girls is that boys have to play good to feel good, and girls have to feel good to play good. There is a lot of truth in that as anyone who has ever coached both can attest.
But how do you get girls to feel good so they can play good? To some people it seems to mean always saying something positive, even when it’s not earned. I disagree.
Girls are smart, and they tend to be more self-aware than boys, especially in the teen years. If they mess up and you say “good job” they know you’re lying, or saying it to try to make them feel good. It doesn’t take long before even sincere compliments are treated with skepticism.
If you really want to help a girl play good (and yes, I know the correct word in English is “well” but let’s stay with the theme), the way to make her feel good is to help her learn to play better. If they are hitting well, they will continue to hit well. If they believe they can hit well, because they’ve seen themselves do it, they will hit well (eventually). The same goes for pitching, fielding and running the bases.
Understand, though, that most people don’t get better by getting yelled at. That is something many coaches seem to forget. If they were spoken to at their jobs the way they speak to their players in practice or at a game, they’d quit. So why expect any other result if you’re constantly yelling at and berating your players?
If you want to help them get better so they can perform better, teach them. Or find someone else who can. Be patient. Explain not just what to do but why. Help them see the big picture, which is not something that usually comes naturally to young people male or female. Give them context and a reason why doing something a certain way will help and they’ll be much more likely to do what you want them to do.
One of the things I dislike most during a game is when a player screws up – say drops an easy pop-up – and coaches or parents say “nice try.” That’s not a nice try, it’s an error. A nice try is when you dive after a ball that ends up just out of reach. If you set the standard that a nice try is muffing an easy play, how is that player ever going to improve her game?
When you give sincere feedback, even if it’s corrective, the player knows you have her best interests at heart. The message you’re sending is “I know you can do (whatever), here’s how to make it happen.” That goes a lot further than saying “nice job” when the player knows it wasn’t.
Of course, there are a lot more things that go into a player feeling good than just what happens on the field. But you can’t control most of those. You can work with her, however, to develop her skills so at least that’s one less thing she has to worry about. Do that and you’re sure to end up with a player who’s more game-ready every game.