When everything is going well for a player, it can often seem to them as if there is nothing they need to think about.
Instincts and feel for the game take over.
Controlling the mind’s potential impact on the game becomes much more of an issue when players are struggling.
“When you’re going well, the mental game is a piece of cake,” Dr. Ken Ravizza told baseball and softball coaches at the Joe Maddon and Friends Coaching the Coaches Clinic in Hazleton, Pennsylvania in December. “You have all the confidence in the world.
“But, when it isn’t going well, the simple gets complex real quick.”
A professor of applied sports psychology, Ravizza has worked with elite athletes, including Olympians. He has consulted in professional baseball and football, and in college sports including baseball, basketball, football, field hockey, volleyball, water polo, figure skating and gymnastics.
Ravizza said there are unique challenges on the diamond because of the pace of play.
“Baseball and softball are hard games,” Ravizza said. “There are two major obstacles in these games. Boredom and frustration.”
Ravizza illustrated the pace by creating some of that boredom in his speech to youth, high school and college coaches. He talked about a three-pitch at-bat, describing the first pitch, counting slowly from 1 to 15, describing another pitch, counting slowly again, and then another pitch.
“The mental game is between pitches,” Ravizza said. “The mental game is, ‘when does the last pitch end and the next pitch begin?’”
Ravizza talked about managing the clichéd concept of “one pitch at a time.” As he talked with coaches, he challenged them to intensify their concentration in blocks of 20 seconds at a time to show how each could pick up more details and observations during that higher concentration.
Coaches can talk their players through the same concepts — insisting on higher concentration in short bursts and discussing what happens with better concentration. The challenge is to take that concentration level into each pitch, without letting other mental issues cause distractions.
“When I’ve got my ‘A’ and I’m the man, certain things work for me,” Ravizza said. “When I have my ‘B’ game, all of a sudden I do certain things a little differently.
“And, when I’m seeing a ball the size of a pea and I’m hoping the guy in front of me makes an out so that I don’t have to hit, I’ve got to do something different then, too. I’ve got to have something to go to.”
Ravizza suggests breathing exercises to help players remain in control emotionally.
“You have to be where you need to be when you need to be there,” Ravizza said. “If the pitcher beat me on the first two pitches, I’ve got to be present on that third pitch. That’s your job.”
Coaches can lead players through breathing exercises in team meetings and talk about learning to relax by thinking about their breathing.
“Baseball and softball are sports you have to play with controlled intensity and relaxed concentration,” Ravizza said. “It’s not football where you can just go all out and slam into somebody.
“You have to know yourself and recognize when you’re trying too hard and are a little too intense.”
Pitchers and hitters can be reminded that they have control, starting with their breathing — inhaling and exhaling — as they prepare for the next move. Breathing exercises can help them recognize when they start to inhale and finish exhaling.
“Baseball and softball are so different,” Ravizza said. “The pitcher has the rubber to get on when ready. The batter gets into the box.
“In softball and baseball, soft hands are critical. Soft hands are quick hands. Tension is the body’s way of asking for attention.”
Put to practical use, Ravizza said coaches can teach hitters to think about their breathing as they take a slow, controlled walk from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box.
“Self-control leads to body control, which leads to skill control,” he said. “How do you know you’re in control of you? Inhale. Exhale. It’s a good starting point.”
While coaches may not be able to make players confident, they can try to assist players in dealing with negative thoughts and processes.
“I personally think confidence is overrated,” Ravizza said. “It’s great when you have it, but I’m concerned with how you perform when you don’t have it.
“How many players can I have present each pitch?”
The coach that can get more of his or her players ready on each pitch can improve his or her team’s hope of finding success.