Question #1 – What suggestions do you give pitchers on how to regain lost focus while they are pitching? Thanks!

This is a great question because a common obstacle for athletes to overcome is falling into the trap of distraction. It is imperative that a pitcher maintains focus each pitch because it could mean the difference between a great pitch and a poor one.

First of all, pitchers must know what to focus on, i.e. the situation, the current pitch, the catcher’s glove, simple mechanical cues, etc. What gets a pitcher into trouble is when he/she focuses on the wrong things, i.e. how good the hitter is, the previous pitch, how bad the umpire is, etc. A pitcher must be taught to recognize that when they are focusing on the wrong things (the things they cannot control), it will have an adverse affect on their performance.

In terms of regaining focus, a pitcher could do a few simple things to bring them back. A coach should teach their pitcher to not address the mound until they are ready to focus on “this pitch”. Once on the rubber, it is helpful for the pitcher to say a simple mechanical cue or affirmation before they start-“smooth and easy” or “stay back”, are examples of phrases I used as a collegiate pitcher. The key is simplicity and effectiveness.

Also, in their book “Heads Up Baseball”, Dr. Ken Ravizza and Tom Hanson talk about using a deep breath as a “release” or flushing mechanism. Not only is the deep breath powerful in what it does, but it is also powerful in what it symbolizes for the pitcher-the last pitch is over, now focus on the present.

These are just a few strategies of many that elite pitchers use to regain focus once it is loss. Chances are, a pitcher is not going to be focused on 100% of their pitches, however the great hurlers have the ability to regain focus quicker than the mediocre pitcher.

Question #2 – I have coached a group of young kids for the past 5 years.  There are several very good pitchers.  Physically they are near the same levels but come game time there are some that perform and others that seem to self destruct.  With all things being equal what kinds of drills or psychology can be used to bring those self destructive kids along and have confidence with their mental approach to the game?  In practice situations they are very good, even in some games they do well, but the bigger the game the more the pressure, the more challenging it is for them to perform or self destructive they become.  Any suggestions?

This is a very common phenomena amongst youngsters. I am currently coaching a team of 11 year-old kids and run into the same thing. I have done a few things to enhance their performance in the big games. First of all you mentioned how they “self-destruct”, in the sport psychology world we call it self sabotage. This occurs when they get in the way of their own success through negative thinking, which ultimately has a physiological affect, that leads to poor performance. Why does this happen? Lack of confidence.

A reason for lack of confidence is due to the fact that they’ve never experienced that kind of pressure before. One way to help your athletes gain confidence is to put your players in “big-game” situations in practice. Set the stage, put runners on, and put the ball in their hands. It’s amazing to see how they respond! They respond the same way they do in games, they get nervous, their mechanics fall apart, and they begin to lose confidence in their stuff. Then after they unsuccessfully do the drill, you do it again, then again, and then again. Before you know it, those pressure situations become second nature to them, because they practiced it, then when the big game comes up and they are in the spot light, they are going to have the confidence because they have “been there and done that”.

Another reason athletes crumble under pressure is because their lack of belief in their talent, which is why as a coach we teach these youngsters to master their mechanics so that it breeds confidence which translates into a performance where you trust yourself rather than question if you are good enough.

Question #3 – I have a kid or two on my team that are afraid of the baseball (both batting and fielding).  Other than getting hit by a pitch, neither has ever been injured by the baseball.  How do you break the fear of the baseball?  When a hitter gets into a slump it seems that they think about the slump and the inability to hit every time they get to the plate.  How do you break that negative aura?

The reason they are afraid is because something has happened in the past that has linked hitting or fielding to pain. The way to break that linkage and form new ones is a process, and it begins by starting over. Their fear of the baseball is taking their focus off the things that matter most-executing correct fundamentals, and focusing on something that is hurting their performance-getting hit. When I work with these players, I take them back to the very basics. I have them take their gloves off and roll them easy ground balls, and help them focus on mechanical cues. I’m rolling the ball so easy that the fear of getting hurt is nowhere near their minds, they are just concentrating on getting into the three-point stance and receiving the ball out in front. If it’s hitting I play pepper with them, or soft toss, just focusing on mechanics.

Gradually, I progress in difficulty; however I make sure not to move too fast. I’ve worked with a number of players who eventually got over the fear of getting hit by focusing on the things that mattered most. Just a heads up though, some players will take longer to change than others.

To answer your question about overcoming slumps, first thing we must realize is that it happens to the best of them. I always share with my players who are slumping that David Ortiz of the Boston Redsox was 2 for 49 when he started the season last year (2009), and went on to the All-Star game…Slumps happen! Now the key is, how you react to your slump. Help your player focus on “this pitch”. What youngsters tend to do is, carry their last 3 at-bats into their current one, and they are already 0-2 mentally. Help them realize that their current at-bat is independent of their last one or last four for that matter.

Slumps deteriorate confidence, so it’s important for them to remember the moments they were on fire, and to revisit those moments in their minds. Also, to realize that slumps are temporary and that some last longer than others but that eventually they will get out of it. I tell my hitters who are in a slump that I still have confidence in them as a hitter and I see them as a time bomb ready to go off!