Sport Performance and Mental Skills Resources

 In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help
(7/20/2021)
 
   

In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


Slumps at the plate are an inevitable part of baseball and softball. We have all seen them or experienced them. From the All-American to the bench player—everyone goes through those stretches when they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. It is important to recognize that slumps are natural and inevitable. But what can we do as coaches to help players going through a slump?

As coaches, most of the time our natural reaction is to go physical and mechanical. “What is going wrong with the swing?” “Let’s look at video to break down where the issues are.” Let’s get in the cage and talk about what needs to change.” “Let’s try to repeat the same swing over and over again.” Unfortunately, though offered with the best intentions, these mechanical suggestions and blocked drills are just not helpful.

Why not? First, we know that the most effective learning occurs with variation not repetition. It is physically impossible to repeat a movement pattern (Bernstein's Repetition without Repetition). We learn most effectively when we engage in variation not repetition. We are not asking our body to do the impossible: replicating a movement. We are asking it to address the same problem (making contact with the baseball) using numerous different methods (swinging from different stances, different velocities of pitch, location, etc.).

Second, and most important to the idea of a slump, is that variation helps the player “get out of his own head.” How many times have we heard the complaint, “I’m so in my head right now, I don’t know how to get out?” This is paralysis by analysis. When we ask our players to perform significant variations of their “normal” hitting stances, different areas of their brain engage and others disengage. Because these stances require different ways to stay balanced in order to make contact with the ball the vestibular system (responsible for balance) and dorsal stream (visual system responsible for balance) are kicked into high gear. Because these areas are engaged to a greater level, the player’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious thought, has to disengage slightly. The variation helps drown out the conscious thoughts and the player begins to “get out of his own head.” (See generally Hypofrontality Hypothesis.)

Remember the variation is to help the athlete mentally work through a slump. It is not a corrective skill as we are NOT asking them to then go into a game and swing from these different stances. Ask players to swing from different stances in the cage (thrown ball, not off a tee”). Feet slightly closed, slightly open, very open, closer together, further apart, off one foot, criss-crossed, etc. Just ask them to have fun with it. For 10-20 swings ask them to try and hit the ball using a different stance each time.

Slumps will happen—it is inevitable. As coaches we want to do what we can to help players work through those slumps as quickly as possible. We should avoid going mechanical or trying to tinker with them physically (nobody just suddenly forgets how to swing a bat). What can help them get back on track, and out of their own head, is to add variability into their drill work. Swinging from different stances, and even different sized and weighted bats, can help players move past the ‘paralysis by analysis’ that often accompanies slumps. There is a reason for the phrase ‘variety is the spice of life’!


Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.


 The Key to Not Thinking
(5/10/2021)
 
   

The Key to Not Thinking


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


The key to ‘not thinking’—thinking about ONE thing.

“Just don’t think out there!” “I am at my best when I am not thinking.” “They are thinking too much—they need to not think.” How many times have we heard, or even said, these phrases on the field? And while these statements carry with them good intentions… they are often times misinformed… and also impossible.

We can’t ‘not think.’ For one, our minds are not wired that way. And two, we would be dead if we were not thinking. With all of that in mind, the connotation that ‘not thinking’ carries with it, to let our minds and body be completely in the present moment and not allowing anything to take from our focus, is something we should aspire to.

Question: If I gave you an empty water bottle how would you get the air out of it? When asked this most people will say something like ‘crush it down’, ‘stick a vacuum cleaner it in’, etc. The answer is to fill it with water.

When our conscious mind is filled to the ‘brim’ with one single external thought—good things tend to happen. External is also vital to this process. The one thought should be about the outcome of the movement or something outside of our body (e.g. “See the ball early”, “Through the mitt”, “Drive off”, “Stay on top”, etc.) it should not be about the movement or our body (e.g. “Keep your elbow up”, “Drive my knee down”, “Keep my head steady”). NOTE: There are ways to change these statements to external: “Keep your elbow guard up”, “Drive toward the mitt” “Keep my helmet steady”. For more information regarding the benefits of external focus along with why the external focus tends to work better than an internal please click Constrained Action Hypothesis: Why an external focus may work better than internal.  

It is impossible to ‘not think’ (we should work to eliminate this phrase from our coaching vocabulary altogether because it is an impossible task). What we want from our athletes is to think consistently about ONE thing—particularly right before they step in the box or on the rubber. If we can help our athletes repeat that one clear external goal in their head we are on the path to helping them ‘not think’- being completely focused on one thing.


Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.


 Coaching Mental Skills
(2/17/2021)
 
   

Coaching Mental Skills


Mental Skills
By Andy Bass


“Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical”—Yogi Berra. Although Mr. Berra’s percentages don’t quite add up, it is uncontroverted that the mental game is imperative to elite performance and success. Mentality is what separates the good from the great. The solid high school player from the collegiate player. The fourth outfielder from the All-American. The cup of coffee big leaguer from the ten-year veteran. There is perhaps nothing in sport that is a bigger predictor of success than mentality.

Perhaps daunted by the importance of the mental game (90%), we may tend to overestimate the time and resources needed to develop it. I fell into this trap as a coach myself when I was in graduate school studying Sport Psychology. I thought we would have to spend dozens of hours each week discussing confidence, arousal control, visualization, self-talk, focus, performance under pressure, etc. After all, we only have so many hours with our players, and we need to get our work in on the field. We may not be able to allocate time for a TED talk in the locker room. We may not always have the resources to bring in a Sport Psychology consultant to work with our team for a weekend, three weeks in a row.

The truth is we don’t have to.

Five minutes. Can we spend five minutes before practice and ask our players to lie down in the locker room for deep breathing and mindfulness?

Two minutes. Later in practice, can we spend two minutes asking players what kind of breath they were taking as they struggled in batting practice off a hard velocity machine?

One minute. Can we take one minute in the dugout after a player struck out to remind him to bring focus to the breath—to come back to the present moment?

Thirty seconds. Can we spend thirty seconds texting out a visualization audio file for our pitchers to listen to on their phones before they come to practice?

Ten seconds. Can we ask a pitcher in the bullpen to take ten seconds between a pitch to breathe and visualize the low and away fastball he is about to throw?

Two seconds. Can that pitcher in the next game take two seconds to visualize that low and away fastball before he toes the rubber?

In our organization, our mental skills team works to find those moments in the day when we can bring attention to the mental game. We want to ‘be brief, be bold, and be gone’ in between rounds of batting practice as a player stands in the outfield and discusses his self-talk with us. This takes minutes. We can send a YouTube video to an athlete about confidence as we leave the field for the night. This takes seconds.

Mr. Berra also said, “We made too many wrong mistakes” Don’t make the mistake of equating the importance of the mental game in baseball/softball with the consumption of time or expense.


Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.


 Helping Your Athlete Manage Performance and Social Anxiety
(9/23/2020)
 
   

5 Strategies to Help Your Athlete Manage Performance and Social Anxiety


Suggestions to help athletes control their sport anxiety


Every athlete will likely feel some kind of nerves during practices or in competition. Some athletes thrive under pressure and embrace the nerves, while others will crumple if not bolstered by a supportive coach and team.

Nerves aren’t inherently bad, and they can actually indicate interest in sport, but it’s important for athletes to learn how to manage anxiety for long-term mental wellness, especially since the anxiety created by sport is often similar to the social anxiety experienced outside of sport.

To help athletes control their sport anxiety, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders , has some suggestions.

Sports should reduce anxiety, not cause it

Emphasizing the ‘fun’ aspect of sport is important at all ages, especially in the adolescent years. It’s easy to get caught up in the points spread or results as a coach, but that’s not the main reason sports matter for youth. Research has shown that playing sports can have positive impacts on mental health and anxiety in young people, and ultimately, it’s important to understand that for many young athletes, this will be the greatest benefit that sport will provide them. With that in mind, coaches and parents’ language and behavior should reflect that the goal of playing sport is the social and physical benefits, not the scholarships or tournament wins. For example, make your first question after a game, “What was your favorite part of the game?” rather than “What did you do wrong today?”

Teach mental strategies early and often

Coaches are often so bogged down by mandatory practices, busy competition schedules, and other demands on their time that they completely skip over the importance of teaching mental strategies to athletes. But visualization and other mental techniques have been shown to improve performance.

Start early in the season with a discussion of mental techniques and make practical recommendations, Chapman says. Walk athletes through a visualization exercise that they can do before games, have everyone download a free guided-meditation app, and have a discussion of what success looks like for this team, this year.

Avoid failure avoidance

When athletes are nervous or anxious, they often fall into a failure avoidance mentality, meaning that they begin to avoid taking risks that could end in failure. The problem with that, Chapman explains, is that while an athlete is avoiding failure, they are not going to be trying to win or to improve, they are just going to be trying to "not mess up.”

To avoid this mentality, explain early in the season that the goal for the team isn’t to win every game, or sink every shot, but to actually try new techniques, take risks, and make mistakes. Praise attempts, including the ones that fail, to create a culture where students can feel safe pushing their limits in sport.

Remembers, coaches can continue offering advice for improvement while fostering a positive outlook on failure. “Rather than saying something like, ‘Stop turning the ball over,’ a coach could try to say, ‘Focus on having better ball control,’” says Chapman. Flip your script to focus on positives rather than calling out errors.

“Punishment is meant to decrease behavior, whereas reinforcement is meant to increase behavior,” he adds. "And reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment. Therefore, the best way to get an athlete to do the right thing is to say something reinforcing."

Anxiety isn't always about winning and losing

According to Chapman, “The team dynamic piece is important and can cause a lot of anxiety as well. Social anxiety, fear of teammates making fun of you if you miss a shot, teammates won’t like you if you don’t act a certain way—that’s another huge contributor to anxiety in athletes. It always comes back to a fear of a negative evaluation.”

But this type of anxiety can be harder to recognize because, as the coach, you’re not in the same culture as the athletes. You aren’t privy to their texts and other communications, but you can help to create a team culture that doesn’t allow for bullying or the idea that winning is everything.

Listen to your athlete

There comes a point where the anxiety produced by a sport outweighs the benefits of playing. Chapman explains that if an athlete isn’t deriving any pleasure from playing, it may be time to consider a new sport rather than pushing through. “If an athlete is anxious before a game but always thrilled afterwards, that’s fine,” he says. “But if the anxiety never goes away, that’s a signal that there is a problem. I think that if they have a low desire, you never should push a kid to play, period.”

Takeaway

Sport anxiety is not preventable, but it should be manageable. It’s up to parents and coaches to communicate and behave in way that reduces anxiety around sport performance and reinforces the positive benefits of sport.



TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.


 Reducing Anxiety to Make Game Day as Good as Practice
(9/9/2020)
 
   

Reducing Anxiety to Make Game Day as Good as Practice


How to best support your team


Game-day performance anxiety is common in athletes of any age, but the worst possible time to start tackling it is, unfortunately, on game day. Yet most coaches ignore the potential for pre-game jitters until the last minute, when a pep talk is the best anxiety-reducer that they can provide.

But with a few shifts in your coaching throughout the season, you can help foster a team that’s as mentally prepared for game day as they are physically prepared. Specializing in sports-based anxiety, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, breaks down how you can best support your team.

Set expectations for competition that are process-oriented

According to Chapman, process-oriented goals give kids tangible things to focus on that they can control in a game. The more in-control your athlete feels, the calmer they will be.

“The reason outcome occurs is because certain athletes follow a process,” says Chapman. "To reduce anxiety and realize success, we can focus on processes like positive self-talk, game day tactics or strategies, mechanics or techniques, imagery and visualization, getting better, and having a learning mentality. When athletes focus on learning those things and perfecting them out of the love of the game, there’s always a successful outcome regardless of how bad or awesome an athlete plays.”

Watch your language around competition

Often, parents and coaches accidentally play into competition nerves. Telling your athletes that they are ‘absolutely going to wipe the field with the competition,’ screaming at competitors, and generally focusing on the score rather improvement is going to show athletes that winning matters most and everything else is a cause for distress.

Statements like “This is the big game,” or “This play could make or break the season,” are also likely to add to an athlete’s anxiety.

Help your athletes create rituals

To calm their nerves and focus on process, encourage athletes to create their own ‘down to business’ routines. That could mean creating a certain mantra, finding a lucky ‘talisman,’ or developing a ‘secret routine.’

“Most pro athletes have some kind of ritual, talisman, or secret pre-game routine that they do, and that's how they get into that game-day state,” says Chapman. "I think we really should be letting kids figure out what their secret routine is. What is going to help them feel focused and in the zone?”

Encourage your athletes to come up with their own rituals and stick to them on game day. For younger athletes, helping them write a mantra or practice visualization might work best.

Make practice like game day

If you can make some practices more like game days, then game days will feel more like practices, Chapman says. In more severe cases of performance anxiety or in higher-level sports, he actually will have hecklers in the stands during practice.

That may be extreme for a school or youth team, but as a coach, you can set up some practices to be like timed or scored competitions. Make it as realistic as possible: Set aside pre-game time for the usual pep talks and the time spent waiting for the game to start, have athletes do their own pre-game rituals, set up start and finish lines, put out the same food and drink you would normally have available on the sidelines, and even encourage athletes to wear their uniforms.

Takeaway

Game-day performances often look different from practice performances due to anxiety, which means that athletes need to focus on their mental preparedness as much as their physical preparedness. These strategies will get athletes mentally prepared and ready to manage anxiety to perform at their best on game day.


TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.