This summer, Mental Skills Coordinator Graham Baughn will be running weekly meetings focusing on the mental side of the game, as well as spending time with our players on the field and helping them optimize their mental skills. These Mental Skills sessions are designed as an educational time for our players to learn about various topics relating to high performance between the ears. The first two weeks have focused on the foundational topics of goal setting and routines, here is Graham’s breakdown of the basics on these two topics.
Goals are the roads that provide direction in our training. Without them, we wander around hoping we’re making progress to the end of our journey. This is true in athletics and in life. But what should our goals look like? This blog post will examine the two main types of goals and how to utilize them both to guide your training at Rogue and beyond.
Process vs Outcome. This has become a popular topic in athletics thanks partially to the success of Nick Saban and Alabama football. Saban is notorious for his focus on the process of improvement and how outcome focuses can inhibit growth. Process refers to the method of improvement, while outcome refers to what happens. In terms of goal setting, these are both important pieces. I like to refer to outcome goals as the mountaintop. This is the thing we ultimately want to achieve. Playing college baseball; making the varsity roster; throwing 90 mph; etc. These goals are our ultimate guide. Think of them as the end destination on a map. You know where you want to go, but by themselves, we’re driving a bit blind in how to get there. Process goals become our navigator; our steps to the top of the mountain. Process goals are the specific steps you take to achieve your outcome goal. You want to play college baseball? Great.. now how are you going to achieve that? You need to identify the steps to take to get that goal.
SMART. Now that we know what process and outcome goals are, how do we create our specific steps? Enter SMART Goals. SMART is widely considered the most effective design for goals. S is for specific; you want to make sure your process goals are as specific as possible. M is for measurable; your goals need to be measurable in a way that makes sense. A is for adjustable; be willing to adjust your goals if they’re too easy, too difficult, etc. R is for realistic; your goals need to be challenging, but obtainable. Making goals unrealistically difficult only leads to frustration and increase the likelihood that you’ll give up on them. And finally T is for time-bound. Give yourself a deadline on when you want to achieve your goal. Without that, it can be easy to procrastinate.
It can seem daunting to figure out how to get where you want to go. The coaches at Rogue are here to help. If you’re not sure what kinds of goals you should be setting, talk to us. Properly structured goals will transform your off-season training and preparation so you have the best opportunity to achieve your desired outcome.
Routines allow us to have a sense of control, and in this blog post we’ll discuss 3 different kinds of routines that you can develop to increase your confidence, comfort, and opportunity for success on the diamond.
Pre-game routines. What we do before the game starts is our first opportunity to set ourselves up for the best chance for success. Most players have some sort of routine before games. We stretch and throw. We may hit in the cages. We take groundballs or flyballs. We throw in the bullpen. But often, there isn’t much structure to these routines. We do them because coaches tell us to do them and that’s it. There is great opportunity here to be intentional and make your pregame routine into something that prepares you for success. What you need in your pregame routine is specific to you, but there are a couple general things to consider:
1. Energy level: Do you need to be ready to run through a wall, or more relaxed and laid back? Or somewhere in-between? Think of your best performances and reflect on your energy level in those moments. That can give you an idea of where to start. Once you identify where your optimum energy level is, you can use various methods to get yourself there (music and/or breathing exercises are great tools).
2. Threat v Challenge: We often think of anxiety/nerves (increased heart rate, butterflies in our stomach, sweating, etc.) as a negative and that we shouldn’t have them before games. Ultimately, this physiological reaction is completely normal and can be beneficial if you know what it actually means. We cannot fully control our stress response, but once we realize that our stress response is necessary for our body to meet the demands of stressors, we can use it to optimize our performance. If we’re able to view the game/moment as a challenge (something that we can overcome) rather than a threat (something that we fear) then we can utilize our stress response to enhance performance.
3. Flexibility: As we’ve seen this Spring and the start of Summer, weather can wreak havoc on routines. Sometimes you’ll have an hour to get ready, sometimes you’ll have 20 minutes. Regardless of how long, you’ll need to be ready by the first pitch. Avoid creating routines that are concrete in their structure or that incorporate things that you HAVE to do. Instead, think of how you want to feel entering a game and design your routine around how you can create that feeling. We can hyperfocus on what is out of our control, but if we can recognize and capitalize on what IS in our control, we can create effective and flexible routines.
Pre-pitch routines. Routines in-game differ significantly from pre-game routines. Our routines between pitches need to be quick and efficient. There is a lot of information available between each pitch; it’s up to the individual to decide what is most important for them. It’s easy to overly focus on what just happened or what will happen. I believe it’s most helpful for the pre-pitch routine to focus on how you can stay in the present. Grounding techniques are used to help keep us in the moment and can be an excellent tool for pre-pitch routines. This can be something as simple as tuning your attention to a specific part of the field, your glove or bat, cleats, etc. This allows you to focus on something tangibly present and maintain your attention on the here and now. Combining this with controlled breathing exercises can prepare us in the 15-20 second span between pitches can help us stay present and let our preparation lead us to success.
Switch routines. Failure will happen during games. Switch routines allow us to flip the switch from the negative consequences associated with failure back to the present so we’re prepared for the next opportunity to make a play. Switch routines can be structured very similarly to your pre-pitch routine, with added emphasis of non-judgmental evaluation of what occurred. This means evaluating what caused the failure and moving the focus to correcting it and attention on the next pitch. The use of cue words/actions (Flush it, Brush it off, Next pitch, etc.) can help with redirecting attention to what is relevant so we don’t dwell on the negative consequence of the failure. You will be upset with yourself for failing because it’s important to you. In the moment, you can acknowledge the disappointment and at the same time revert your focus to the present using your cue word/action.
Own your routine. Make it something that’s yours, that’s flexible, and that’s designed to put you in your optimum performance state. Creating your routine is a process and it is likely to evolve as you develop as a person and athlete. We will be discussing more tools that you can add to your routine as you see fit throughout our Summer mental skills meetings, starting with next week’s topic of visualization.
Visualization and imagery can be a powerful tool utilized to reinforce mechanics, train situational awareness, and/or improve confidence. Coaches and athletes used to believe that the only way to improve was to put in physical work (throw bullpens, swing a bat, etc.). While this still remains the best way to improve your skills, it’s not the only way. The field of neuroscience learned decades ago that the brain’s neural pathways for physical movements can be strengthened in different ways, one of which is to use your imagination. Here’s a quick video that can show you the power of visualization: Lemon Visualization Exercise. If your mouth watered as you visualized biting into the lemon, you have a good idea of the power that visualization has to create physical outcomes.
Visualization (often referred to as imagery) is the use of your imagination to reinforce and strengthen neural pathways. Everything we do, we do because the neurons in our brain and throughout our body fire in a specific, interconnected manner. There are several ways that visualization can improve performance. I’m going to cover three different ways in this blog:
1. Training physical skills
2. Situational awareness
3. Addition to your pre-game routine
Training a physical skill
When we’re training a physical skill such as swinging a bat, throwing a ball, catching a ball, etc., we are training our brain and body to fire those neurons in a distinct way. When we’re first learning the skill, our neurons fires inefficiently and out of sequence, but the more we practice the skill, the neurons fire more efficiently and effectively. As we continue to practice, our neural pathways get more and more efficient, removing unnecessary neural connections and strengthening necessary ones. Unfortunately, our body can only do so many repetitions before fatigue sets in and we hit a point where we start getting worse. This is where visualization can be added as a supplement to physical training. Creating a visualization script that allows us to use our senses to recreate the physical skill/movement we’re practicing will continue to fire those neural pathways in the same manner that physically performing the movement would. Your neurons/nervous system can’t tell the difference. There are a few points of emphasis to note when doing visualization:
1. Be as present and grounded as you can before going into your visualization. Distracting thoughts or distractions where you are will make it more difficult.
2. You want to use as many of your senses as possible; especially the visual and kinesthetic (feel of your body) senses. The more you can use, the more of the neural pathway you’ll activate.
3. Visualize yourself doing the movement exactly as you want to do it. You don’t want to visualize improper movements because that’s going to activate the wrong neural pathways.
4. Repetition is key! Your body isn’t exerting itself so you can do as many as you reps are able to in your mind!
A big disclaimer: your neurons don’t fire at the same intensity when you use visualization as they do when you actively do the movement/skill. So this shouldn’t be used as a replacement for physical practice, but as a supplement to enhance physical practice!
If you struggle with situational awareness, or undesired anxiety in certain situations, visualization can be an excellent tool to train yourself. Write out situations where you have struggled in the past (2 strike approach as a hitter, controlling the strike zone in the first inning as a pitcher, making a play after committing an error in the field, etc.) and use the process of writing out the situation to build yourself a script to guide your visualization. The points of emphasis from the previous section are applicable to this use as well. Record yourself reading your script so you can play it back. This is an effective way to help guide your visualization in the moment.
Visualization is an excellent tool to add to your pre-game routines. Sometimes it can be difficult to manage your energy before a game. Using visualization to hype yourself up, or calm yourself down can be a quick addition to the end of your pre-game routine. There are easy 5-minute energy visualization scripts you can find and use online; many have recordings you can download and add to a pre-game playlist. If you know what your role (pinch-hitter or pinch-runner late in the game, first out of the bullpen, defensive replacement, etc.) will be going into the game, adding a visualization script for that role to go through pre-game can help you prepare yourself for success. You can do this before 1st pitch, or an inning or two before you think you’ll go into the game. This will also help keep you engaged in the action on the bench (a major difficulty for younger players).
Visualization is one of the most powerful performance psychology tools by professional performers/athletes. The ability to prepare for any number of situations, to reinforce skills, and/or to add it to your routines can increase your confidence and create comfort when it’s time to perform! Remember, like any skill visualization takes time to master. If you feel like you’re not any good at it to start, that’s normal. Keep working on it and you’ll continue to get better with it. Start with free scripts you can find online until you get comfortable enough to personalize your own scripts to take your performance to the next level.
How many times have you had a coach get your attention during a big moment and mime to you to take a deep breath and relax? I would guess more times than you can count. There’s a reason coaches use these cues so often; a relaxed athlete performs to the best of their abilities more often than not. And the best way to reach relaxation in a “big moment” is to control your breathing. In this post, we’ll be discussing a few different methods to control your breathing and how to be a relaxed performer.
Breathing is an automatic response that occurs without us needing to focus on it. However, in stressful moments, our breathing can get shallow and rapid because of our fight/flight/freeze response. Shallow/rapid breathing causes our heart to pump faster, getting more blood/oxygen to our muscles to prepare us to fight. This is great when we’re running from a predator! Not so great when we’re trying to process our thoughts, see the ball out of the hand of a pitcher standing 60’ away and have less than half a second to coordinate our body to hit a ball moving 90 mph.
In these moments, we can take control of our breathing to help control that response and give ourselves a better chance to perform. How do we do that?
1. Step one is to simply bring awareness to your stress response. How fast is your heart beating? How shallow is your breathing? If you aren’t aware of what your body is doing, you won’t be able to regulate it.
2. I like to incorporate grounding/mindfulness into breathing routines. Once we’re aware of how our body is responding, use a grounding technique that you’ve developed to bring yourself into the moment. Find a spot on your bat, your glove, or on the field (the foul pole is a good one) to focus on. Attempt to clear your mind as you devote 100% of your focus on that spot.
3. While maintain your focus on that spot, take a controlled 2 second breath in (breathing from your belly, not your chest), hold it for 2 seconds, then breath out for 4-5 seconds. This will start to deactivate your stress response and put you in a more relaxed state.
You might need to do this a couple of times, so feel free to call time as a batter and step out of the box, or step off the rubber as a pitcher. As a fielder, you don’t have control over how much time you have between pitches, but you can continue this routine after each pitch, if necessary. There are several other breathing routines (trapezoid method and box method for example) that you can find online. Take ownership and find a routine that works best for you. Try them out in practice to see how your body responds. The more you practice controlling and regulating our breathing, the better you’ll get at it so you can use it in more situations to regulate yourself.
For this post, we are going to focus on physiological relaxation rather than cognitive relaxation, as they are two different concepts. Relaxation techniques often combine breathing with visualization, so while this is a different section of the blog, it goes hand in hand with the breathing section and the previous post on visualization. Relaxation techniques are designed to reduce the fight/flight/freeze response that can cause poor performance. Relaxation and anxiety are opposite physiological responses; it’s impossible to be relaxed and feel anxiety at the same time (cognitive anxiety/anxious thoughts might still occur). Let’s go over a couple of ways to utilize relaxation techniques:
1. The most common way to incorporate relaxation techniques is to add them to your pre-game routine. It can take a bit of time to create a relaxed state when you first start incorporating them. Adding a Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) script to your pre-game routine can help put you in an optimal relaxed state before first pitch. These scripts can take anywhere from 5-30 minutes depending on how detailed they are, so it’s worth trying these out well ahead of game-time when you first start out. PMR scripts involve tensing up different body parts/areas and using breathing and visualization to get rid of the anxiety progressively throughout your body.
2. Using a quick body scan and doing a shortened PMR script to release anxiety from a specific area or two. Many of us hold our anxiety/tension in certain areas (commonly our shoulders, jaw, back, or hands). If you are aware of where you hold your tension, you can incorporate a quick tension/release technique to create relaxation in that one area. These can be done between pitches, or between innings when you have a bit more time.
When our muscles are tense, it’s tougher to move in-sequence and we move more robotically. Any coach will tell you they want their players to be athletic and fluid. Relaxed muscles are efficient, explosive, and fluid, and allow for optimal physical performance!