Mental Breaks- In Game and Out of Season
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.