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Mental Training - Keep the Mental Distractions Off the Field

By Laurie Soltman, Instructor
National Fastpitch Coaches College

Gather any group of players or coaches together and look at the off-field matters they are dealing with. You will immediately recognize common concerns including divorce, grades, illness, finances, relationship issues and job uncertainties.

It could be players at the collegiate level starting to wonder what’s next, or a coach wondering if his/her performance is worthy of a contract extension. It could be a high school player wondering if he/she can perform at a level that will afford him/her a scholarship.Softball tips - mental distractions are part of the game and coaches have to teach how to keep the mental distractions off the field

Suddenly, instead of playing just for the purity of the competition and focusing on the on-field tasks at hand, mental focus shifts and performance inevitably suffers.

Worry is an enormously draining and consuming mental expenditure. As needless as it is, it remains commonplace. A key characteristic of an elite athlete is the ability to discern what thoughts are needed, to control those thoughts, and to use the necessary on-field thoughts on the field and leave the off-field preoccupations off the field.

One of the more interesting techniques used to do this is something I have seen used with a wide variety of professional baseball players. It’s simplicity belies its effectiveness.

Take a set of objects. Looking at my desk, for example, I’ll take a pen, a computer mouse and a piece of paper.

Next, earmark three major concerns that may be impacting the athlete or coach’s work or ability to focus.

For example, one of those might be the relationship with his/her family. He/she can represent that with a piece of paper. “blank” in terms of how to enhance his/her relationships with his/her family and thus will remember that the blank paper represents that concern.

Another concern he/she may have is about finances. That’s a very common worry. Perhaps the pen best represents finances because of writing down a budget or signing a check.

The computer mouse might recollect a paper or report that is imminently due or overdue.

All of those worries sit right in front of the person. What he/she does next is pick up each one and talk about what each represents. Then, he/she places each object (each concern) into a duffel bag or coat pocket or any other storage unit. Next, put that carrying item out of sight. A coach or player might leave that bag in a corner of the dugout, in the clubhouse, in the van or back in the office or dorm. An athlete or coach needs to be mentally and emotionally freed to focus on what he/she needs to focus on when on the field.

It’s especially important when you’re dealing with a family member that’s ill, a divorce, or any situation where you’re worrying about another person, to give yourself the right to leave that worry alone and deal with what you have to deal with in order to function at peak performance for that duration of time.

Many times coaches or athletes feel guilty if they have a sick parent or some sort of relationship issue because they feel that they are betraying that person or issue in some way if they don’t think about it all the time.

The fact is, you can absolutely permit yourself to leave that worry in that bag away from the field and give yourself those two hours. That’s not selfishness; that’s functioning. That issue is not going to go away. That piece of paper, pen or computer mouse will not disappear from the bag; they are simply in a different location to be dealt with at a different time.

You’re not saying you don’t care or you’re not compassionate or responsible. You are saying you are going to manage your concerns and worries in a way that will allow you to perform your other responsibilities. This is something that coaches absolutely need to know how to do so that they can model it to their players.

Players need to know how to do it so they can function in a more liberated way, a way that allows them to play unencumbered by so many monkeys on their mental backs at the same time.

Every player and coach you see on the field is a very complicated individual with a very complex life. Everyone has a lot of different issues going on, but those who excel are those who, when you see them on the field, are thinking about the next pitch, about where the ball’s going to be hit, and about what they will do if it is hit to them. They are focused on the task at hand; they are not mentally divided.

There’s no question that players, coaches and teams don’t reach their full potential because the issues that they cannot leave off the field. At the elite level, the physical difference between players is unquestionably less significant than the mental difference.

One key factor is their ability to focus their attention on what they need to be doing at the time they desire to perform at their peak level. This, like all mental and physical skills, can be learned and constantly improved with diligence and persistence.

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