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.