Most professional athletes avoid using the word “slump” when they are in a downturn in their performance. It’s because they never want to allow their brain to communicate with their body that things aren’t going well. Athletes think if they don’t use the word that they can keep themselves free of a slump for a longer period of time. There is some truth to this. If an athlete begins to think that he is struggling at the plate, he will begin to press a little more, chase some bad pitches, or watch pitches come down the middle of the plate that he would otherwise smash. I’ve already written an article on the physical aspects of breaking out of a slump, so this article seeks to help hitters understand how to employ the brain to break free from a dreaded slump. There are a few different strategies that will help any struggling hitter improve: developing a good solid plate philosophy, obtaining relaxation, and mental rehearsal. As I lay these three out one by one, it’s vital to remember that one can’t employ these techniques inconsistently. Just as it takes time to train the physical part of hitting, it takes time and effort to train your brain in how to think. It’s only when both the physical and mental aspects are under control that athletes ever achieve their peak.
I can recall one major slump in my career where it felt like I was trying to guess what pitch was coming. This caused indecision and I wouldn’t pull the trigger on pitches down the middle, and swing at pitches that were out of the strike zone. Of course these poor results caused more thinking to go on in my head and I continued to second guess myself instead of just reacting to the pitch like I’d been trained to do. I had lost my plate philosophy and had absolutely no plan whatsoever at bat. I define a plate philosophy as simply a strategy a hitter employs that is based upon recognizing his own strengths and working each at bat around those strengths. It’s extremely important for all hitters to develop a concrete hitting philosophy prior to struggling at the plate. As my collegiate coach said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” I’m sure he didn’t make that up, but it got the point across to me. The concept of how to develop a plate philosophy is the topic of an article I wrote – Creating A Plate Strategy. It’s simply too long to do justice in this paragraph, but well worth going over. You’ll find a video of me teaching this concept to hitters as well.
Slumping produces stress, and stress produced tense muscles. Because of this, hitters’ bodies don’t work as fluid as they should. The most common way I’ve seen coaches trying to help athletes in this state is by saying, “Just relax and keep your head down on the ball”. Both of these pieces of advice drove me nuts when I was playing. I had thought to myself that I WAS tying to relax, and I obviously I was trying to keep my head down and hit the ball. What I needed, as do most athletes, is HOW to achieve relaxation. There are a couple ways to achieve relaxation, though one technique that is most overlooked is deep breathing. When the hitter is under stress, his breathing is shallow. Much like it is when we watch a suspenseful movie. When hitters takes a minute before stepping into the box and breaths in deeply through his nose and out through the mouth, it releases tension from the muscles. Once this occurs, the muscles are much more adept to perform as the hitter needs them to. Without getting into the physiology of it, deep breathing sends a message to the brain to relax. Think about when you are just about to fall asleep. Your breathing is slow and deep. That’s when you are most relaxed. Relaxed hitters are confident hitters. Next time you’re struggling remember to consciously take a couple deep breaths as you enter the batters’ box.
My senior year of college I remember I had an eight-game home run streak going during the season. I remember I would let some of those home runs that felt particularly good to me run through my mind throughout the day. Sometimes I’d catch myself in class with my mind wandering as I’d picture myself crushing a ball to deep right-center field. Without knowing what this was called at the time, I later learned that I was practicing mental rehearsal. I took the at bats from games and relived them away from the ballpark. At the time, this was just natural for me; I enjoyed the feeling of smashing a fastball out of the park and so I wanted to relive the feeling of the swing as much as possible. During a tough streak, these types of memories are harder to access as it will seem like you’ve been struggling forever. This is why when you are seeing the ball well, you’ll want to use mental rehearsal and store these images of yourself in your memory bank to use later. Once your mind can recall positive results, it will pass that information on to your body quicker. It will reduce the length of slumps and increase the duration of hot streaks where you simply feel you can’t miss anything and you crush everything. .
Finally, it’s important that I restate that there are no quick fixes to any slump. They stem usually from a few issues, both physical and mental. Just remember that you must practice the mental tips I’ve provided in the above paragraphs even when times are good. These aren’t “rainy day” remedies. Hitting a baseball well takes a lot of work as well as a great deal of consistency. Therefore, until you’ve found yourself some rhythm and consistency of work habit, you’ll always have shaky results. Those guys you see playing Major League Baseball are there for a reason; it’s no accident.