I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Baggett Stadium watching the Cal Poly Baseball team play game 3 of a series against Hawaii. I bring my binoculars to sporting events so I can see the faces of the players. My specialty is the mental aspect of sports and I am less concerned with the outcome of the competition and more concerned with the mini-mental battles throughout the whole game that most people never see.
Get Your Head in the Game
Here are two examples on the importance of getting your head in the game from Sunday’s game.The first is the Cal Poly pitcher who started the game for the Mustangs fresh off rehabbing from surgery. As I watched him pitch I knew right away he was not ready to be on the mound. It had nothing to do with his form; in fact, he looked very strong as he sauntered up to the mound. He had heat on the ball, so it wasn’t his pitching speed. I knew he wasn’t ready because after every pitch he would look up and to the right, searching for someone in the stands. This happened every time. I tried to pick out who he was looking at but I could not tell. Perhaps his girlfriend was in the stands, or maybe he was seeking approval from his father, I do not know. All I know is he was not fully committed to pitching that day and for that reason he faced only 6 batters and allowed 2 runs to score.Then there was the Hawaii 3rd baseman. He made an error at the bottom of the 2nd inning and his strategy to get his mind right was to drop his head and curse. I leaned over to my bride and said, “Watch 3rd base. The next ball hit to him he will miss.” Two batters later, the ball was hit directly at him and it bounced off his glove, allowing a runner on first. That runner eventually scored. The explanation is easy: he was still stewing about the first error.
Mistake Recovery Ritual
Mistakes are inevitable in sports. When a mistake happens and the game goes on, the ability to recover and be ready for the next challenge becomes the most important thing an athlete can have in that moment. I teach my athletes to create a mistake recovery ritual to help them move on from an error so they can be ready for the next challenge. For a baseball player maybe that means lifting up the lid, dropping the error into the toilet, flushing it, then closing the lid. Yes, its silly, but the next pitch is coming and you need to clear your head of the mental funk that has set in and won’t leave until you intentionally let it go. I know a gymnast who, after making a mistake, pretends to open the door for the mistake then kicks it on its way out the door, slamming that door behind the mistake. It is hilarious to watch, but it works. She is back on her game and no longer thinking of the mistake. Then there is the basketball player who, when he misses his shot, wipes the miss off his shoulder and does not give it another thought.These are strategies that keep your confidence high throughout the competition. Make up one of your own and do it in practice. Having a mental strategy is worthless if you do not remember to do it in a game.
James Leath is a youth sports psychology consultant with over 15 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sports psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters in Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath, or visit his website jamesleath.com.