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Mental Training - How to Build Confidence

By Wes Sime
Sports Psychologist - University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Do you know when you are in control of the mind game?

When you are easily distracted by mistakes, by expectations of success, by negative thoughts or other unproductive moments - you definitely are lacking control. In baseball and softball we are expecting new methods of systematically refining the goals and objectives necessary to achieve high levels of confidence, trust and the ability to come back when needed. Control of thoughts is essential for that purpose. This article discusses a number of methods for locking in to “an approach” that controls unproductive thoughts.

Softball tips - mental toughness is important for softball pitching as demonstrated by Alicia HollowellBeing in control is like having the remote in your hand for the video game played in your head. What I hope I can control is all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions about the game, about the coaches, the fans, the weather, the umpires and especially about my opportunities at the plate, in the field or on the mound. I know I can’t control how the umpire calls the game or what the coaches say, but I can control how I adapt to both of these challenges.

I would like to be able to say that I will simply choose to “react to the game situations without thinking” but that turns out to be a very difficult challenge for most developing athletes. On the other hand, professional and Olympic players all have discovered a way to do it most of the time, but they still waiver and struggle on occasion. Ironically, they may have no explanation as to how they control the thoughts and feelings that undermine confidence and trust. It may develop naturally with repetition and practice, but then totally break down again, unexpectedly, under adverse conditions, i.e., after a bad call, a bad hop or a series of bloop hits that turn the score of the game into an embarrassment.

Taking responsibility for your thinking is not easy, especially after an error, getting struck out looking or giving up the home run to a weak hitter to lose the game. These can be overwhelming “crapola’s” (that’s the equivalent of toilet crayons). In fact, it’s because these “stinking thinking” responses come out so automatically that you “gotta” check your thoughts every few minutes and flip the remote control back to the preferred channel (positive thinking). Another appropriate analogy is that controlling your mind in a difficult game situation is a lot like weeding a garden or keeping flies and mosquitoes from biting your legs at a picnic. Unfortunately, there are no herbicides or insecticides for the “blooming thoughts” in your mind. In hitting or pitching, you can have tremendous physical potential, but never reach your highest aspirations because your mind is overloaded by distractions and obsessed with negative outcomes.

In 1987, Mark McGwire was the AL Rookie of the Year, hitting 49 homeruns and 118 RBI’s. He had such great talent and potential, but by 1991, instead of having shown improvement he had dropped to 22 homers and only 75 RBI’s. Following that season, Mark got some help to straighten out the distractions in his life, because he knew something was wrong and he took responsibility for it. Mark was quoted recently as saying, “What I know now (about mental training) I wish I had known when I was younger. While it takes physical ability to make it to the big leagues, it’s how strong your mind is that keeps you there.”

So how do you develop a strong mind? You can’t see the way it operates (like we can see the bat and ball come into contact; you can’t touch and feel emotions; therefore, how can you possibly know what makes the mind stronger? Some people describe it as discipline; others call it focus of attention; many say you just have to concentrate. But the question remains, “how do you learn to concentrate, to focus your attention and stay disciplined over a two or three hour period of the game? There are some who seem to have this skill naturally; they turn it on and they turn it off between pitches.

To “zone in” completely on the catcher’s glove came naturally to softball pitcher for the Canadian national team, Lori Sippel. She culminated her career at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 by demonstrating an uncanny ability to block out distractions and pitch her way to victory. Over the 24 years of her softball career, Lori had great success many times; but, she also had some failures. She learned the most from her failures. Once she learned how to critique rather than criticize, she was able to make positive adjustments to her game.

If she could do it all over again, she would practice smarter. Experience is knowing what is important and what is not important to the final outcome. Trimming the junk thoughts and staying focused on high quality repetitions is the essence of success in the game.

Lori says that, “the most important lesson in the mind game is understanding what is in your control and what is out of your control.” If that is true, then take control.

Steps in the process include:

1) Forget about the weather, the field conditions or the intimidation of the other team. Just take care of the business at hand between you and the catcher or you and the pitched ball.

2) Leave the blaming others and excuses for not performing well at home. That does not mean hits and strikeouts - it means good at-bats and good strategy and control of emotions on the mound.

3) Find a central focus point (a flag, a banner, a tree) and discover how long you can maintain clearly defined attention to it without disturbing thoughts or playing around with other kids.  

4) Capture the feeling of your most recent successful swings or pitches. See the ball going to the catcher or off your bat into the outfield gap. Make the picture very real and stay with it.

5) Practice simple eye concentration exercises (these are usually available from a sport optometrist or from sport psychologists).

6) Approach every opportunity with the greatest amount of trust you can muster up. Sometimes you have to fake it til you make it and that is “OK” if you can build confidence from it.

7) Accept the level of strength , speed or power that you have for throwing, running and hitting, Extra effort to compensate for feeling small or weak usually causes errors or missed pitches.

8) Go home from the game or practice having fun. Remember the good plays more than the bad. Analyze mistakes and learn, but leave them behind in your next attempt or your trip home.

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