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Building Mental Toughness in Baseball

I’m linking to a very important article from Dr. Gene Coleman on building mental toughness in baseball. Dr. Coleman is a strength and conditioning consultant in the MLB and has written numerous articles on the mental and physical sides of the game.

This article comes from the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society and I invite you to read the entire piece here…

I’ve highlighted and quoted some of the key passages that I believe would be most useful for players:

What is mental toughness?

Webster’s dictionary defines, mental toughness as “the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”

That’s actually a pretty good definition.

“Coaches say that mental toughness is resilience; the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty, failure, and defeat. Many sports scientists say that mental toughness is an acquired positive mindset.”

What are the characteristics of mentally tough athletes?

“Mentally tough athletes have clarity of mind and firmness of purpose. They desire to be great, and settling for good is never an option. They know how to win and stand tall in the face of adversity.

They make fewer mistakes and possess a work ethic, winning mentality and self-confidence. Mentally tough performers refuse to be intimated. They are able to stay focused and manage pressure. They hate to lose, but don’t dwell on defeat.

They accept losing as an inevitable consequence of meeting someone better on a given day. They are gracious in defeat and positive about the future. They believe in themselves and are positive about the future.”

How do you become mentally tough or tougher?

“This is the million or sometimes the multi-million-dollar question. There are a number of effective approaches that baseball players can take to help develop and improve mental toughness.

There are number of excellent sports psychologists that can help as well as reputable self-help books, articles and internet websites. There are also a few basic things that all players can do that have been shown to be effective first-steps to include the following:

Control what you can control

Nolan Ryan says that you should never lose because the other team was better prepared than you.

The only thing that you can control is how you prepare for the game. That includes how much sleep you get, timing, frequency, size and quality of meals, emotions, body language, mental state, work ethic (consistency of skill work, physical conditioning and recovery techniques), body language and response to success and failure.

Randy Johnson said that he went from being a good pitcher to a great pitcher when Nolan Ryan helped him control his emotions and body language both on the mound and in the dugout.

Nolan explained how his body language and emotional response to failure could have a positive effect on the opposition and negative effect on his teammates.

Once he understood this and was able to control his negative thoughts, poor body language and emotional outbursts, his mental attitude, confidence and performance improved significantly.

Are you the guy who shrugs his shoulders and puts his head down when you give up a run or a teammate makes an error? Do you sit in the corner of the dugout after you make an error or strikeout with the bases loaded, or are you the guy who says “my bad – get him next time,” stands up and supports your teammates? Your actions and reactions can affect not only your performance, but that of your teammates and opponents.

Controlling what you can control is an effective first step to improved mental toughness and performance. You can help your team by being a good teammate, getting on base, making a play in the field, expanding the opposing pitcher’s pitch count, advancing on a passed ball, etc.

Help comes in many forms. At the MLB level, most managers ask their players to do three things to help the team win: 1) be on time; 2) be a good teammate; and 3) respect the game. They don’t ask for shutouts, game winning hits, hi-lite plays or home runs.

A good teammate has a good work ethic, takes care of his body, shows up early, stays late, has a team-first attitude, doesn’t sulk when he fails or gloat when he succeeds, doesn’t point fingers, picks his teammates up, accepts blame and gives credit.  If you are on time, a good teammate and respect the game, the other things will take care of themselves.”

Have a Positive Attitude

“Your attitude and emotions can affect how you and your teammates perform both on and off the field. Don’t let your performance affect your attitude and emotions.

Coaches, teammates, parents and fans should not be able to tell what kind of game you had after a win or loss. Remain even keeled after both wins and losses. Be happy after a win and determined after a loss, but don’t get too high or too low after either.

Be disappointed and determined after a loss even if you had a great day. Good teammates are able to control their emotions and have a positive attitude even under unpleasant circumstances.”

Dictate your attitude

“Don’t let your personal or team performance dictate your attitude. Having a positive attitude makes you look good in the eyes of your coaches, fans, parents and teammates.

Be in control of your attitude when you show up to the field, during the game, after the game and on the ride home. Leave what you did yesterday in the past. You can’t change it. Don’t worry about the future. You can’t control it.

Control what you can control. Stay in the present, trust your preparation and make the most out of the game in front of you.”

Do the Hard Things First

“Determine your weakest skill and work on it first both at home and during practice.

If you are having trouble with backhand plays, work on them first when your body, mind and reactions are fresh. Don’t save them for last when you are fatigued.

Fatigue inhibits performance. Avoid doing the most important thing when you are tired. If you are having trouble with your breaking ball, work on the spin first at a shorter distance, say 20-feet.

A sprinter who is having trouble with his start, doesn’t run 100-yards every rep. He shortens up and works on getting out of the blocks and his first 3-4 steps. If you can’t control the spin at 20-feet, throwing 60-feet won’t make it better.

The same goes for hitting, catching balls in the outfield, blocking balls behind the plate and running the bases. Work on what you are having trouble with first. You going to be only as good as your weakest link.

Working on your strengths will not improve your weaknesses. Identify your weakest links and address them head on the first thing every day. Work smart. Have a plan, execute the plan, reevaluate the plan and make adjustments when and where needed.

If you are a catcher and having trouble blocking balls, determine if it’s your lack of skill or lack of strength and mobility. Your body is a 3-link chain – 1) your hips and legs, 2) core and 3) upper body, arms and hands. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You initiate force in the lower body and transfer it through the core to the chest, shoulders, arms and hands.

You can have the fastest hands in the league, but if your legs or core are weak, you will not have the strength, mobility and speed to get your body in the right position for your hands to do their job. Conditioning enables an you to put your body in the proper position to effectively perform the drills enough times (reps) to improve performance.

If you are not in shape to do the drills properly and repeat them enough times to enhance performance, you are wasting valuable time. Get in shape to do the work and then work on the things that you can’t and don’t like to do first.

If you are lifting weights, do the exercise you like least first when you are fresh. If you wait, chances are you won’t want to work on your weakness or you will not give it your best effort. When you choose to do the hard things first, you develop mental toughness and the game and life become easier.

When you choose the easiest first, you get mentally weaker and the game and life become harder.

Developing and improving mental toughness and effective performance is not a quick fix. You can’t microwave toughness or skill. You can, however, focus on what you can do on a daily basis to make yourself and the team better. The goal should be to make your team more successful, and this starts by making yourself better.”

Pitchers Are Made in the Off-Season

When planning an off-season baseball conditioning workout for pitchers, think about the nature of the work.

A pitcher completes a very explosive movement that lasts about 3 seconds and then rests for 20 seconds. The goals for pitcher conditioning should be to mimic the physical stresses of competition and train the same energy system.

Interestingly, the right kind of physical conditioning during the off-season can be as vital to a baseball pitcher as working on throwing mechanics.

I’m linking to two interesting articles regarding the best plans for pitchers in the off-season.  One by Steven Ellis at BaseballPitchingTips.com, the other by Phil Wallin at Stack.com.  You will notice that both are similar in scope.

Some of the similarities:

The Design of the Program

Overall, a baseball pitcher’s workouts are designed to produce desired training effects that include:

  •  increasing pitching velocity
  •  improving velocity endurance or “late-inning stamina”
  •  reducing the risk of injury

Do sprint work, not distance work

As Phil Wallin says, “pitching a baseball places an explosive, intense demand on your central nervous system. Thus, you need to train in a similar manner. The perfect type of training stimulus for this is sprints—not long distance endurance running, which over time teaches your body to become slow”

Focus on the Core

Per Steven Ellis, “rather, engaging the core for pitching training involves doing anti-rotation exercises in order to strengthen the midsection. Cable anti-rotation presses, medicine ball throws and planks should be used for a pitcher’s core work.”

Do Push-Ups, not Bench Press Work

According to Wallin, “push-Ups are a great closed-chain exercise. To complete the entire movement, your entire body must remain stable. Barbell Bench Presses lock the shoulders in a susceptible position. This is a good enough reason to leave them out of your training program. Push-Ups are a much safer option for working these joints and muscles.”

Other Programs – ZB Velcoity by Jordan Zimmerman

Similarly, one of the best programs available in the greater Phoenix area is Jordan Zimmerman’s ZB Velocity Training – I’ve written extensively on Jordan’s “Velo” program and its benefits…you can find out more about that here.

I’d invite you to dig into the articles and links posted above…as I’m sure it will help you gain strength, stamina, and prevent some injuries!

Baseball Coaching Drills for Youth Teams

I’ve been coaching youth/club baseball with my friends Matt Palmer, Kevin Bacchus, Brian Beltramo, and Bret Prinz for many, many years.  We’ve had a blast together…and we have been given the opportunity to coach some fine players.

Matt and I were talking the other day, looking back at some of the great times and great teams we’ve been fortunate enough to coach.  We reminisced about how our practice plans were extremely simple – and that the skills we were instilling helped our players win more than a few ballgames.

Not to say that the practices were unscripted or easy (they were neither) – but we relied on a handful of drills to help develop proper fundamentals and simulate game situations.

Interestingly enough, in a little under 2 hours a few times a week, we essentially did the same, relatively simple team drills with all of our players. 

We would take the last 45 minutes or so for batting practice and bullpens…so that left us 75 minutes for all of our defensive related drills.

We did these drills EVERY practice.  Here are our 4 favorites:

Bare Handed Ground Balls

We would line the players up in either one or two lines and roll them ground ball after ground ball.  Our focus was to have the players not rely on their gloves, but have soft hands, and field the ball out in front of them in a proper fielding position.

Then they would consciously watch the ball all the way into their hands, then gather the ball with their eyes still on it, and step-and-throw.

Triangle Drill

We would put one third of the kids at shortstop, a third at first, and a third behind the plate.  The coach hits a ground ball to the shortstop, who fields and throws to first, and the first basemen throws to the catcher. 

Each player then follows his throw to the next position (short to first, first to catcher, catcher to short). 

Not only are we working on fielding, throwing, and catching – we are working on team play and endurance.  Don’t underestimate the cardiovascular workout with this one!

4-Corners Drill

We would place players at all 4 bases and throw the ball around the horn – home to first, then to second, next to third, and finally to home for starters. 

We would then switch directions…and the players would switch positions on the field so everyone would have a chance to play all positions.

Sometimes they would be force plays, other times, we would have them catch-and-tag.

Relay Drill

We put the players in 2 or 3 groups (depending on the number of players) – and space them out about 60 feet apart in groups, essentially two or three long lines of players from foul-pole to foul-pole.  The ball would start at one end and be thrown from player to player until it reached the other end.

We worked on game simulated relays in this fashion, focusing on body positioning and feet movement.

At the end, we would hold a competition or “race” to see which team could perform the task the quickest and most effectively.  If a team drops the ball, they pick it up and keep going. 

As you can imagine, the most proficient team with the fewest or no drops would always win, regardless of the speed of the transition from one player to the next.

I can’t stress more strongly the need for these types of drills, especially with younger players.  Our teams were fundamentally strong, for the most part, and they were able to execute team plays quite effectively…even at age 10.

If you’d like to find out more about practice planning for young players, do feel free to reach out, as I’d be happy to share more.

Visualization – A Great Baseball Mental Exercise

I’m linking to a fantastic article from Geoff Miller at The Winning Mind regarding visualization and it’s fantastic capabilities to help baseball athletes prepare.

What is Visualization?

Visualization is the widely used mental technique of “seeing” your performance in your mind.

The technique is generally done by closing your eyes and imagining a play or action.  It can also be used as a primary training device to take the place of actual physical activity when a player is unable to practice.

You can read the entire piece here…and here’s a little bit about Geoff Miller and The Winning Mind:

Geoff is an expert in baseball psychology and manages sport programs at Winning Mind. Since 2005, Geoff has provided mental skills coaching services to the Pittsburgh Pirates (2005-2009), Washington Nationals (2010), and Atlanta Braves (2010-2014.) 

Why Does Visualization Work?

Per Miller’s article, visualization is effective for two primary reasons:

1. “It strengthens neural pathways, the roads that our brain uses to send out messages to our bodies. A strong neural pathway is like an exact route you know to get from your house to the airport, the mall, etc. The more you picture yourself executing your skills, the stronger your neural pathways become until eventually you feel so comfortable playing your game that the movements feel automatic.”

2. “Our brains see real performance and imagined performance the same. We experience this phenomenon often in our dreams.  For example, you might dream that you are falling and wake up bracing yourself or dream that you are in a panic and wake up sweating.  When you’re awake you might experience a real feeling if someone describes that light, tingling you get that resonates from the bat all the way down your arms when you connect with the ball on the barrel or the stinging in your hands when you get jammed on a ball.”

How Do You Do It?

Miller continues: “When practicing visualization, you should describe the sounds and feelings that go along with swinging the bat, fielding the ball, and throwing pitches. In comic books, Batman and Superman would beat up the villains by punching them, but to get added effect, the artist would draw in a big POW and BAM. When a bomb went off, you’d read KABOOM! These words strengthen our pictures and make our visualization exercises more effective.

Pitching words: fastball ZIP, curveball DIP, slider WHOOSH, POP into the glove

Hitting words: CRACK, SLAM, WHAM, CONNECT, LIGHTNING, POW

Fielding words: GLIDE, REACH, STRETCH, SCURRY, LEAP”

In Conclusion

The biggest issue that many players have with using visualization is not that they can’t imagine the details of their performance, but that they can’t see themselves succeeding.

If this is the case, I’d highly recommend that you read the complete piece here.

The goal we are trying to reach in using the mental game is to know what to do without thinking about it. As Miller says, “using visualization helps us practice our skills so we are more familiar with them and we feel like we’ve already “seen” our performance happen when it does.”

Off-Season Baseball Strengthening and Flexibility

I’m linking to a great article from COR (a California based physical therapy firm) that outlines specific, baseball related strengthening and flexibility exercises.   

Baseball is unique in that many typical weight training exercises can be counterproductive, as players really need to stay flexible, but strong at the same time. 

Doing bodybuilding type work can actually be detrimental, as you can’t play baseball effectively if you are muscle bound!

Many of these exercises shown in the COR sequence are similar to what Jordan Zimmerman uses with his ZB Velocity and Strengthening program – and you can find our more on that here…

Here’s their concept:

Let’s explore what makes great exercises for baseball players. You need to know which exercises are blunders so you can pick the best for your performance and your body. Great exercises for baseball players do the following:

  • Train the entire body
  • Improve explosive power
  • Strengthen and protect the shoulder
  • Improve mobility of the thoracic spine
  • Improve ankle, trunk, and shoulder mobility

What exercises should not be are painful. Don’t shy away from soreness, but don’t fall victim to the ridiculous myth – “no pain, no gain.”

Baseball players need to focus on balance, explosive power, agility, and rotational power. Strength-training helps baseball players achieve these results, but only if the exercises are done properly and with the mechanics of the game in mind.

What baseball players need to avoid are exercises that exhaust only certain muscles, such as muscles in the shoulder. Doing so causes significant imbalances and leads to injury instead of success on the field. Baseball is a full-body sport, so the greatest exercises for baseball players must address all the muscles, not just a select few. 

I highly recommend that you go through this link and take a look at the exercises and make them part of your routine. 

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