Sport Performance and Mental Skills Resources

 Are We Coaching the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?

Are We Coaching the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?

By Jim Koerner

Throughout our country, baseball practice is taking place nearly every day. You can go to almost any area and find a field where players are being run through a series of defensive and pitching drills, base running, and batting practice. Well-intentioned coaches from the little league level on up are instructing our young players on the proper ways to play the game. These coaches from various backgrounds are applying methods mostly learned from either playing, watching, or reading about baseball. These methods are inducing a positive or negative response in each athlete, directly affecting the confidence level at which these athletes perform. How can we ensure that we are building these young athletes into instinctively driven, confident players that can maximize their athleticism? The answer is easy, but the implementation will be challenging.

Coaches will need to rewire some of their own belief systems, temper some of their own importance in the game's outcome, or even how the game is played. They will have to suppress their own impulse to over coach and direct every movement as well as how they potentially react to the result of a certain plays. In some cases we may even have to redefine why we are coaching. Is it for personal gain, where we are looking to pad our winning percentage, or is it truly for the betterment of the athlete? Movement restrictive drill sequencing, restrictive verbal cueing, reactionary coaching habits, and the inability to simply let players fail all lead to robotic, tentative and scared athletes.

Imagine a scene where all the neighborhood kids get together to play baseball. They improvise for bases, bats, and balls. They separate teams on their own, and most importantly, there are no adults to interfere. If done consistently, besides the occasional argument, what do you think would happen over time? It is my belief that the kids would begin to make intuitive and instinctual based adjustments on their own. Players would figure out such things as how big a lead they can take, how and when to go first to third on a single, when and when not to take an extra-base, how to position against certain hitters, and what pitches to call, among numerous other advantages. Personal limits would be pushed without fear of repercussion from a pre-programmed coach.

Now, if we can incorporate this type of mindset into a structured practice routine, a lot can be accomplished that will positively affect the overall development of our players.

Let's examine what a movement restrictive drill looks like. In its simplest form it's any drill that puts a limitation on a player's ability to move a body part. For example, let's look at all the hitting, throwing, and fielding drills we've seen over the years that have our athletes move in compartmentalized progressive steps.

Each step cuts the kinetic chain and forces the body to restart while losing feel, athleticism, and adjustability.

The result in a lot of situations is a stiff and robotic athlete. Drills that promote adjustability and free flowing energy transfer are more likely to allow your athlete to gain the "feel" that they are looking for and the ability to organize their body for the desired result. Other examples of movement restrictive drills that are less obvious happen during base running every day.

From a very young age, kids are taught that the third base coach directs all the traffic on the bases. Kids are more worried about "picking up" their coach than watching the ball and reacting to what they see. In most cases, if a coach has to direct a player to advance a base or go first to third on a single, the delay in reaction will cause the runner to be out. Instead of forcing these players to pick up the coach, why don't we teach them to read a defense by judging the depth of the outfield and their positioning? Let's teach how the speed of the batted ball will affect how far the runner can advance and define how the different angles an outfielder can take to a ball will determine whether or not advancement is possible. By doing so, we are allowing our athletes to trust what they see, rely on their own instincts, and play the game at a faster level.

Our cueing as coaches also has the potential to be a detriment to how a player performs. It's imperative that our players fully understand what we as coaches are trying to convey when using certain terms. Among others, phrases like "stay back" or "get on top" can cause a great deal of mechanical failure when misinterpreted. We also need to understand that these cues can be interpreted completely differently from one player to another. That is why it is important to have an individualized understanding of each player's needs. What works for one may not work for another. Consistency in how we communicate these terms and in what context can also help establish an understanding of the feel we are trying to create. Wrongly interpreted cueing can make the most athletic player look lost. Coaches must also avoid using the words always and never. I can still hear coaches telling me to always use two hands in the outfield or never swing at a 3-0 pitch. Over the years, I've found that the best outfielders I've coached primarily caught the ball with one hand. Why?

Because it is a less restrictive movement, and ultimately more athletic than when reaching with two hands, again allowing athletes to be athletes. As we've seen over the last several Major League Baseball seasons, depending on the situation, the 3-0 pitch might be the best pitch of the at-bat. Instead of coaching our hitters to always take that pitch, let's coach them to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, so they're prepared to hit every pitch.

Another step towards building a confident and successful athlete is for the coach to avoid putting their players in a box. My interpretation of a box is when a coach has a preconceived view of what something should like and then works towards that desired result. Not all boxes are bad, but every coach must understand the difference between style and technique. Style has no bearing on performance, while the technique can and will affect the outcome. How a player stands in the batter's box, how a pitcher goes through the windup or how an infielder throws may all look a little different and shouldn't necessarily be coached. If we're spending time on coaching someone's style we again could be hindering the player's ability to configure his body into an athletic movement. There is an old adage that says don't fix what's not broken. To be fair, I will say that there are some circumstances where someone's style may affect their technique. In these cases, adjustments do need to be made.

We hear coaches at all levels frequently talk about being process-driven. We need to hold true to that philosophy. Let's briefly analyze a scenario when a coach exhibits two different reactions on two similar plays. In the top of the third inning, with a 2-0 lead, the runner at first base does a great job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. The throw by the catcher is high, and the runner is able to slide under the tag. The player is praised appropriately by the coach. In the very next inning, with his team still leading 2-0, a different player also does a nice job reading a dirtball out of the pitcher's hand. Only this time the catcher does a great job recovering and makes a perfect throw to the bag. The runner is out. The coach immediately drops his head and as the player jogs back to the dugout, you hear the coach say "you need to be smarter than that." This scenario consistently plays out throughout amateur baseball. It is this type of mixed messaging that can cause a player or team to lose aggressiveness or confidence in what they are doing. We as coaches need to understand that if it is a part of our system and we are allowing players to react to what they see, then there are going to be times when things don't work. We need to avoid responding to outcomes but be more in tune with processes.

If the player hesitated and was thrown out in the above situation, you can communicate where the process broke down. If the process is flawless, encourage your player to stay aggressive and keep trusting what he sees. The bigger issue may come from the coach not having a system at all. A coach that has strong situational and philosophical beliefs allows one to communicate expectations in a clear and concise way.

A strong belief system that is communicated properly doesn't just help your players with their performance, it also helps the coach with the consistency of their response.

Mistakes happen all over the field. Coaches need to be aware of their body language and how they respond to these mistakes. Negative reactions or the need to overcorrect can hinder the athlete's ability to perform at a high level. Ask yourself these questions. Does a player's failure on the field elicit a response in us that threatens our own coaching ability? Are we worried about what others will think? If you answer yes, you're letting your ego drive your reactions. It's not about us, it's about the reason for the player responding the way he did. I find it important to ask the player why. Instead of immediately telling a player what they should have done, or reprimanding him for the mistake, take a moment to ask "what did you see," or "why did you make that decision." If the player has sound reasoning for the decision, you might be more likely to move on. If the player's thought process wasn't correct, now you can coach them in a much more productive manner.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that baseball is a difficult game to play and becomes much more difficult if our players lack the confidence and freedom they need to be successful. Coaches, understand your role in the development process and how your words, actions, and beliefs play a role in how your players develop and perform.

Jim Koerner is currently the Director of Player Development at USA Baseball. Koerner has 21 years of college coaching experience, including 18 years at the D1 level. He spent 13 years as a college head coach, with ten as an NCAA D1 head coach. Koerner has coached over 30 MLB draft or professional Free Agent Signees, 11 All-Americans, 4 Conference Players of the Year, 4 Conference Rookies of the Year, 2 Conference Pitchers of the Year, and over 60 All-Conference selections. Additionally, Koerner is a 2x Conference Coach of the Year and 2021 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division Champion..


 Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Player: “Coach I’m really nervous to pitch in this game.”
Coach: “Don’t be nervous… just have fun!

Player: “Coach I feel so sad cause I let the team down.”
Coach: “You shouldn’t feel sad. We won the game anyway!”

Player: “Coach it frustrates me that I’m striking out a lot recently.”
Coach: “Why? Just work harder in practice.”

Although these conversations may be the extreme side of player/coach interaction, we have more than likely experienced a similar back and forth at some point in our careers as player or coach. What is the problem with these types of interactions though? We want our players to have fun. We want them to be happy that we won the game. We want them to work harder in practice. What is missing is the coach, first and foremost, validating the emotional state of the player—that is the problem. Consider these different responses:

“Sounds like this game really means something to you, and is making you nervous.”
“I understand you feel down about how you played, and you may feel you let the team down.”
“It is frustrating to strike out, and that’s a hard part of the game.”

What is so important about this process? (For more in-depth study, see Validating Emotions). For one—we should not disagree with an emotion that a person is feeling. If a person says they are “feeling embarrassed,” they feel embarrassed. We may disagree with the action they took to become embarrassed, or perhaps the way that they dealt with the embarrassment, but if they feel embarrassed, they are embarrassed. Second, when we validate a person’s emotional state, several physiological things happen. The validation itself has the effect of slowing down the heart rate, dilating veins, and calming down the amygdala (the fight or flight portion of our brain). All these physical responses are beneficial to performance and working through the emotion.

Validating the emotions of our players does NOT mean they cannot also be disciplined, focused, and fiery competitors. Moreover, although we should not challenge the emotions that players are feeling, we can confront the actions/behaviors they take to deal with that emotion. If players slam their bats after a strikeout, or throw their gloves in disgust after giving up a homerun, we can discipline them for the way they dealt with the emotion. But we can also help them work through that emotion by acknowledging that we understand what they are experiencing (e.g. anger, frustration, sadness). Remember too that is often easier for players to deny the emotion, to put their heads down and pretend to “move past it.” It is actually more difficult to recognize the emotional space we are in, or to help someone recognize it. Do we want our athletes to take the easier route (deny what they feel and ignore it) or to take the more difficult route (engage with the emotion and work through it)?

The author would like to thank Jake Mencacci, Assistant- Coaching & Player Development, from the Pittsburgh Pirates for his input and edits to this article.

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.

 Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season

Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Focus and concentration are crucial to success in baseball and softball. We need to be locked in on every pitch and every at bat. How often have we heard coaches or players say that the reason they lost the game, or made a costly mistake, was due to lack of focus or concentration? It is ironic that in order to maintain focus and concentration in the moment (i.e. pitch to pitch) or long term (i.e. high school, college, professional) we actually need to take time NOT to focus and concentrate.

Roughly ten years ago a study was conducted on elite tennis players and their physiological arousal levels (how locked in they were at any given time) during the entirety of a match. What the researchers found was that the most successful players, and those who were better able to keep their endurance focus up at the end of matches, were able to “switch off” their focus between points. They went into an idle state in the seconds between each point, and the minutes between each game. They weren’t even thinking about the game and were actually allowing their minds and bodies to go elsewhere. The players who were able to engage in this idle state were the ones who were most energized and focused when the game was on the line.

Is there a good time for an idle state in baseball and softball? Even a few seconds between pitches may trigger a renewed focus on the next pitch. Instead of clinching your teeth when you hear “idle” chat in the dugout about a non-baseball event, relish it. These mental breaks are not mutually exclusive from focus on the game. They do not affect the player’s ability to recognize and appreciate the count, the situation, and the propensities of the batter at the plate. To restate: There is nothing wrong with allowing the mind to wander during breaks in the action of the game. In fact, allowing our minds to wander, and not focus on the game, might be the best way to STAY focused on the critical moments of the game itself.

Let’s take this a step further. We want our players to stay motivated and dedicate the offseason to working on their craft when others will not. But should there be mental breaks during the offseason, comparable to the idle state during the game? Definitely. We know that an over-commitment to one sport can lead to physical and psychological burnout. But it is also true that over-commitment can lead to reduced focus and concentration. Encourage your players to take time out of season NOT to work on baseball or softball. Just like taking breaks between pitches not to focus on baseball or softball, we also need time out of season to take weeks to not focus on baseball or softball (NOTE: This is why this ad campaign may do more harm than good to our young ball players). Our athletes should take time away. Go play another sport. Go on a vacation. Try other creative outlets like theater or music. The best way to maintain focus and discipline toward a sport? Spend time doing things that are not that sport.

Our mind and bodies were not designed to stay mentally focused on one thing. We crave stimulation and variety. To ask our athletes to stay locked in on baseball or softball at all times during a game, or at all times during a year, is not simply impossible—it is also an ineffective to help them maintain focus during a game—and, unfortunately, an effective way to deplete their desire to continue playing at all.

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.

 In a Slump? Adding Variation Can Help

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

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.