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How To Replicate In-Game Situations During Practice So Your Players Are Ready Come Game Time

As a coach, you’ve probably encountered the following scenarios many times. A hitter is swinging the bat well in practice all week, but freezes at the plate in a game. The pitcher who looks like he could throw a no-hitter during warm-ups suddenly can’t find the plate when it counts.

Why do some players excel in practice but wilt under the pressure of a game?

One reason, according to the peak performance site Competitive Advantage, is what they call “outcome focus.” Athletes believe they have plenty of chances to get something right in practice, but only one shot in a real game. If you fail, there is no second chance.

That’s true, of course. Intentional or not, many athletes mentally relax during a workout, then put excessive pressure on themselves in competition. (Sometimes, coaches and parents can add to that anxiety with their own unrealistic expectations).

How can an athlete change this mentality? Competitive Advantage recommends letting go of motivational phrases like, “it’s do-or-die” or “there’s no tomorrow.” Such thinking causes players to believe their performance is larger than life. Sure, winning is important. But disciplining yourself to focus on executing your role, whether it’s hitting, pitching, catching or fielding, can actually improve your chances for success. Constantly worrying about what will happen each time you strike out or give up a home run will almost certainly lead to failure.

Dan Keller, a youth coach who has run camps and presented at baseball Dan Keller.jpeg and seminars for 16 years, has another theory. He believes players spend too much time having to think about what to do in a given situation. If a ground ball is hit to a middle infielder during a drill, for example, and it pulls him closer to the bag, does he immediately know to field it underhand, as opposed to an overhand dart if he has to move away from the bag? If he’s practiced the scenario enough, he should make the play without thinking.

“The goal is to practice so well that the game becomes autopilot,” explained Keller, CEO of DugoutCaptain.com, an online resource providing drills, videos and practice plans for coaches. “We want the kids to play free, so if you’ve prepared them well enough, they’ve gotten enough reps and they’ve had that experience, they’re thinking on the fly and making decisions without consciously thinking.”

Tim Saunders, head baseball coach at Coffman High in Dublin, Ohio, says the key to developing a player’s muscle memory and mental focus is repetition.

“There is a process that we follow each year, and early in the season we want repetitions,” Saunders said. “After we get in a few scrimmages, we then look at what we need to work more on. We are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating where we are and what we need, so the process is continuous.”

While Keller agrees baseball is a game of repetition, he advises coaches to mask those reps with a drill structure that’s both fun and educational. Make sure all players are engaged, whether it’s the talented ones being challenged or your less talented athletes getting the time and attention they need. It’s also important to define your drills.

“If the focus of a drill is more instruction, the theme, layout, and execution is far different because we’re trying to create a learning environment,” Keller explained. “If it’s repetition-based, I might back up with a fungo, tighten my lips a bit and let the kids experience more of the repetition: see spin, see hops, take a ball off the chest, etc., because the goal might be (to get reps).”

Having a plan is critical, not for just one practice, but an entire season. Keller recommends starting with a fundamental, apply it in a game, then add variables, such as number of outs or position of a baserunner, then add more live simulations as the season goes along.

“When you get into a game, not only are we prepared for the situation, but we’ve had a chance to learn a process,” Keller said. “We learn the fundamental, we apply (it), we tweak, we test, we get repetitions, then we start challenging with game-like situations.”

Getting the most out of each player during a game isn’t easy, and some athletes may never completely overcome their anxiety in pressure situations. But coaches can make the process easier in practice by teaching correct mental focus and automatic response through repetition, proper drill structure, and careful planning through the entire season.

From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr

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