What is the mental game? Many people talk about it, but few understand what it is. The mental game is nothing more than teaching life skills to our athletes. We can help them with their motivation, enhance their well-being, teach them to focus better, get the most out of their training, and be more resilient. The qualities highlighted above will help any ballplayer not only in baseball but throughout their life. Let's look at each in turn.
Motivation-ultimately it is the person’s responsibility to be motivated. We can help them with their motivation, or we can negatively impact their motivation. Unfortunately, the latter happens too frequently. When were you most motivated? Did your boss tell you how to do everything? Did you feel connected to your coworkers? When you became competent with new methods and skills, did you feel ready to attack the world? As a coach, what are you doing to give them some autonomy, make them feel connected to each other and their community? Are you teaching for outcomes, or are you building their competence? How many of you out there know why your players are playing the game? Focusing on autonomy, relatedness, and competence and understanding their why will increase the athlete's motivation to be their best.
Think back to a job where you excelled. Were you mentally and physically on top of your game? When we go to work and feel good about ourselves, mentally and physically, we give ourselves the best chance to succeed. Tired? Unhappy? If we are, we probably won't perform as well. We can teach our players how to be at their best mentally and physically. . We can improve their mental outlook with some simple exercises to improve their mood. Practicing gratitude is one way to do this. If we feel good, we enhance our chances of maximizing our performance.
Focus, this is what most of us think when we hear "mental game." Focus is a skill, just like a physical skill. We can teach the players to focus on the right things at the right time. We can also teach them how to refocus when their focus is lost. Have you ever asked your players what they need to focus on and when? I have asked players what they focus on as the pitch is being delivered? Very few could tell me. That step alone may help enhance their focus and, as a result, their performance.
Coach, do you get frustrated that your players aren't getting the most out of practice? That is a normal feeling. There are steps you can take to enhance the quality of their practice. Do we just give them drills to do, or do we explain why they do the routine and how it will improve their performance? Do we ask the player what they are working on each day? If you have 35 players and only four coaches, that means you have precious few minutes of one-on-one instruction. Having them develop personal practice goals that are related to preparing to perform, can improve their motivation, focus and also the quality of practice they achieve.
Do we challenge our players during practice? Hitting a 65-mph ball down the middle of the plate may make them feel good, but how does that translate to hitting an 85-95 mph fastball and then adjusting to an off-speed pitch? Make part of your practice harder than it will be in a game. We learn from the inevitable failures in a well-thought-out practice plan.
We all want the player that bounces back after a tough loss, bad at-bat, or error. Resilience is the cumulative effect of their motivation, well-being, ability to focus, and enhanced skills from conducting quality practices. We can build that resilience now for when the face the inevitable challenges life throws at us.
Dr. Brian Zuleger of Adams State University developed a mental strength model that centers on developing motivation, well-being, focus, quality practice, and resilience. His model is a mental strength model for sports, but more importantly, it is a life model, and if you think about it, leadership as well.