Today I want to cover just a piece of the mental side of the game of baseball. With summer ball coming up where kids are going to be playing in all-star games or select teams, the pressure on the kids to perform will increase. So as the pressure builds for players, it begs the question as a coach on how you handle keeping your kids focused in a pitch by pitch way rather than worrying about external thoughts that keep a player from performing at a high level. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject:
- Make sure you keep your emotions in check. This can be hard to do. Your invested in coaching a team and getting them ready and your competitive juices will be flowing just like the kids. I know, I've been there and in tight situations where something doesn't go your way there's probably a part of you that wants to react in a negative way. Maybe yelling at the player that made the mistake or kicking the dirt in disgust. What you have to, and I mean HAVE TO realize is that behavior will do nothing to improve team or that players' performance. Instead it will add additional stress to that player. Thoughts of not wanting to get in trouble will be in the player's mind going forward, confidence will be low, and focus on the task at hand will be diminished. So, as a coach, be there to support all your players and realize they are feeling pressure to perform and nobody wants to let the team down. Support your players in a positive way. When they make a mistake, be there to show them that you have confidence in them and try to make them realize that it's just one play and a game is not won or lost on one play. So don't dwell on it and look forward to playing the rest of the game.
- I've been doing some research on professional players who are "In the Zone", basically playing at the top of their game and I wanted to try to apply that to youth baseball. I want to give some insight (take it or leave it) to the question of "How can we help kids play to their best consistently?" Below are my thoughts on the research of how we can try to accomplish this.
- Clear Objectives - when a player goes to bat, or is pitching, or playing in the field, what are they trying to accomplish? Many players will focus in on the result. "I hope I get a hit", "I hope I can strike this batter out", "I hope I can make a good play if the ball is hit to me". As coaches we want players to not think about the results but think about the task at hand. Each pitch or play in a game is what all players should be focusing on. So instead of thoughts of "I hope...", thoughts before the pitch should focus on the situation and a good approach to that situation.
- Fielders - How many outs? Who's on base? Where do I need to go with the ball when it's hit to me? The when is key as we want players to have confidence that they can make the play. So try to get them to think that the ball will come their way every time the ball is pitched. We don't want anyone to have thoughts of "please don't have the ball hit to me." Thinking about the situation is focusing in on the task at hand which is the next pitch. So work with your players on a pre-pitch routine that focuses on the next pitch. Try to get them to quickly replace any negative thought with self-positive talk about the situation.
- Pitchers - What I said above about fielders, applies to pitchers as well. Before they step on the mound they need to be aware of the situation and where they are going with the ball if it's hit to them. As they take the mound, then the next mental thoughts need to be focused on that next pitch. Now there can be a book written on things a pitcher can evaluate about a particular batter, but for a youth pitcher they are often facing hitters they have never seen before. So they don't know what they can do or even if they are a good hitter or not. Here are my thoughts on how you can help your pitcher out.
- Remind them about the mental side of being positive and believing in their ability to get hitters out.
- I think the one easy sign a pitcher can use is to watch the warm-up swing of the hitter. Normally their practice swing is directly proportional to the pitch they like to hit the most. Of course there is a lot of kids that like center of the plate and thigh high. But some left-handed hitters love the ball low and in and you can see that with the practice swing. So if your pitcher sees that it gives him valuable information on how to locate his pitches for this batter. For right-handed hitters, in my experience, it seems to be the opposite. Some right-handed hitters like the ball up and struggle with pitches that are down. So again if you pitcher sees a practice swing that seems high you can bet that's where the player wants the ball. With these hitters it's often difficult to stay off a pitch that is higher then they would like. So your pitcher can work the batter vertically pitching low, then high (out of the strike zone) to see if the hitter will chase it.
- Track what you see on a clipboard. If you see something about a particular hitter, write it down. Before the pitcher goes out for the next inning see if there is anything he should know for the first 3 batters. Again this is a great opportunity to keep your pitcher in the game and thinking in a positive way.
- Tell your players to be aware in the dugout. Watch the pitcher and analyze.
- How hard does he throw?
- What pitches does he have?
- Can he throw all those pitches for strikes?
- How is his control?
- Does he tip his pitches? Different arm angle or something else when he throws a curve-ball vs. fastball? Does he slow his arm down when throwing a change up?
- I also tell my kids to not swing at a bad pitch when on deck. You don't want to do it when you're up to bat so don't do it in the on deck circle. There is plenty of time to loosen up when a live pitch isn't thrown.
- Think about approach. One of the big things I try to teach my players is to be very aware of the count. 0-0 - make sure you know what zone you want the pitch to be in as you step in the box. If the pitch isn't there don't swing. No sense grounding out to the second baseman if the pitcher makes a really good pitch, or going to a 0-1 count because you player swings at a bad pitch. After the first strike the hitter should think about expanding the zone to the regular strike zone. After the second strike he should expand it a little further to cover those inch or so out side the strike zone that the umpire may call for a third strike. The player should think about this on the on deck circle, so he has a plan for the at bat.
I hope, as always, if you liked this blog post that you will forward it to other coaches and your league. I want to continue to try and reach more and more youth coaches but since as all my content is free on the website, I don't have the budget to do much advertising. I'm hoping you will help out by forwarding on this post or my website: qcbaseball.com