Not too long ago I was recommended the book, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. At first I was a bit confused as to why my friend was recommending that I read a tennis book. After all, I hate playing tennis; I can’t keep the ball in the court. I tend to see the fence over my opponent’s shoulder at imagine it’s the right-center wall. Top spin isn’t in my DNA. I did end up picking up the book and I’m glad I did. Gallwey finally brought to life a concept ALL baseball players struggle with continually throughout their career. The idea I’m referring to is the continually conflict in an athlete’s mind about thinking too much vs. just doing, or letting muscle memory take over. I want to use this essay to sum up Gallwey’s argument and twist it into a baseball context. Whether you’re a parent, coach, or athlete, you need to understand this concept. It’s a game changer for sure.
Just for a moment I want you to picture yourself in the batter’s box. The situation is that you’re struggling at the plate and the tying run is on third base. There are two outs and it’s the last inning. The guy on the mound has carved you up all game like a turkey at Thanksgiving. Also, you’re having a tough time picking up his fastball for some reason. What happens to your body when you begin to process this scenario as you step into the batter’s box? You body becomes tense and your mind is flooded with a barrage of thoughts you can’t seem to get out of your head. Before you know it you’re down in the count and thought of failing yet again enter your mind. You watch strike three down the middle without even flinching. Game over, you lose.
I know, dismal scenario. Funny this was, as I was writing it, I began to remember some of those same thoughts over a decade ago when I struck out five times in a game for the first time in my career. My inner voice tormented me; I couldn’t relax and just play. It’s this problem Gallwey tackles head on.
Gallwey writes that it’s interesting to begin to think about the interference in your mind in these situations as conversations between two people. These two people are called Self 1, and Self 2. Self 1 is put in charge of providing commands, directives, and not helpful observations. It’s the voice of Self 1 who says, “This is a pressure situation and you’re struggling.” Or, “You better not strike out again, that will be five on the day!” Or, “It’s your stride, you’re not getting your foot down in time.” In general Self 1 is like a loud mouth drill sergeant that occasionally will have something good to say, but most of the time is irritating and loud. To contrast, Self 2 is put in charge of simply doing (muscle memory). Once Self 2 has spend enough time working on skills, it’s best just to let him take the ball and go, so to speak. The less interference with Self 2, the better. When Self 2 is relaxed, he is able to do his job much more efficiently.
Jumping back to our scenario in the second paragraph, it is now clear which of the two (Self 1, Self 2) was in charge of the at bat. Self 1 heavily dominated the at bat by issuing harmful reminders of previous at bats, the pressure of the situation, etc. The voice was loud and totally disrupted the ability of Self 2 to relax and perform how he had been trained. The problem is that even once the game had ended, Self 1 would still be screaming away with commands and observations that only make the next performance all the more difficult to Self 2.
Hopefully by now you fully grasp who this Self 1 and Self 2 are in your own head. Some athletes have an easier time than others regulating how much they allow Self 1 to get to Self 2. Part of that is in the temperament of an athlete, and the other part is in how well he understands the mental game of baseball. The question then is how do you effectively shut up Self 1 so you can focus and let your body’s muscle memory (Self 2) perform in a relaxed state?
There are two things you can do you silence Self 1. Both require giving him something to keep himself occupied. The first is to learn how to breathe effectively. The key is to learn how to focus on your breathing patterns for a few deep breaths. Breathing deeply (from the stomach, not just upper chest) is an amazing relaxation tool. Don’t believe me? Try taking a few deep breaths now and see how much more relaxed you feel. Deep breathing relaxes your muscles and allows you to utilize your quick twitch fibers more efficiently. When you’re tense your breathing is shallow and your muscles will not work in the same relaxed fashion. You can also listen to yourself breathe deeply which will help even more with the relaxation. I would suggest doing this before heading up to bat as well as taking one big deep breath just before you step into the batter’s box.
The second technique you can utilize to quite the frustrating Self one is to learn how to “feel” your hitting mechanics instead of thinking about them. I’ve devoted an entire other essay to this topic which you can find here. Learning how to master this skill takes a lot of time, though if you plan on playing this beautiful game for the long term, you’ll need to understand it.
One of the best ways to continue learning on the subject of the mental game of baseball is to join our email list at The Pitching Academy. On the margin to the right, you can enter your email and we’ll be in touch with lots of good training information. I hope to connect with you in the future and would love to have more dialogue on this subject as it’s hugely important to your success.