“The pitcher with a winning mental approach will appear to rise to the occasion in big games, when in reality he is the one who successfully keeps his head while others around him are distracted by the moment.”
“The mentally tough pitcher can focus on the things he can control and not let the things out of his control distract him.”
So says legendary college baseball coach Joe “Spanky” McFarland. McFarland coached 38 years at the college level – 18 at James Madison University. Equally impressive, he coached 55 players on their way to the big leagues (including Kevin Brown of the Los Angeles Dodgers).
Many say that mental toughness is an ability that is born into a pitcher, but with some work and effort all pitchers can create a winning mental approach. In this chapter we will look at identifying problems and then offer advice, drills, and practice ideas to help pitchers create a winning mental approach.
Factors the Pitcher Can’t Control
The first step to becoming mentally tough is to figure out the factors you can control as a pitcher and those things that are out of your control. The list of things out of your control is much longer than the list of things within your control. First you determine those factors out of your control and then you learn to deal with them.
- Weather conditions – these include wind, rain, sun, cold, and heat. You can dress appropriately, but you cannot do anything to control the weather.
- Field conditions – these include wet field, dry field, poor field, dimensions of the field, poor lighting, and the height and condition of the mound.
- Teammates – a pitcher cannot control his teammates and their play. They may score 0 runs when you pitch; they may score 10 runs. This is true of errors too. Your team may field great when you pitch or they may make several errors. You can’t do anything about errors or run support.
- Umpires – as umpires determine their own strike zone, the pitcher will need to adjust to that zone for the day. A pitcher can’t control whether or not the umpire makes all the correct calls during a ball game.
- Unruly fans and bench talk – fans or opponents will try to disrupt a pitcher by verbally abusing him. You can’t control fans; when you acknowledge their remarks, it gets even worse. Sometimes opposing teams will try to get a pitcher out of his game by bench talk.
- The batter – once the baseball leaves a pitcher’s hand, the batter has the control. The batter decides to swing or take. The batter will determine whether to hit the ball hard by his swing.
The pitcher may affect some of the factors with his performance, but he cannot control them. So he should not worry about them. A pitcher cannot focus on or spend time and energy on things out of his control.
Factors the Pitcher Can Control
Be concerned with those things and only those things that a pitcher can control: himself and his actions. A pitcher must first learn to be responsible for himself and his actions.
- A pitcher cannot control the weather, but he can pitch accordingly and give himself a better opportunity to be successful.
- A pitcher cannot control the condition of the field, but he can pitch accordingly and give himself a better opportunity to be successful.
- A pitcher cannot control the play of his teammates, but he can help himself by playing good defense and being positive in the dugout; he can pitch accordingly to ensure his own success.
- A pitcher cannot control umpire decisions; but he can make adjustments to different strike zones, affect umpiring decisions by his actions, and pitch accordingly to ensure his own success.
- A pitcher cannot control what is being said about him or to him from opposing teams or fans, but he can choose whether to let them affect his game.
- A pitcher cannot dictate what the batter will do with a certain pitch; but by studying hitters and learning weaknesses, he can pitch accordingly and ensure his own success.
Instead of focusing on things out of his control, a pitcher must take each set of circumstances and pitch or act accordingly to make himself succeed.
Each pitch and each situation involve a new set of circumstances. How he reacts to each new set of circumstances or situations is within his control, and this is where he can start to make a difference.
Assess the situation, make the appropriate decisions, make the appropriate pitch or play accordingly, and then accept responsibility for the result. Understand that the pitcher starts and affects the action of the game with each pitch more than any other single event in the game; this is crucial for a winning mental approach.
The pitcher is the only player on the field who has the power to act. All other players on both teams only have the power to react. Use this power and act accordingly to each new set of circumstances and each new situation to help ensure your own success.
The key to a winning mental approach is not to focus on the things a pitcher cannot control but to be consumed by the things a pitcher can control.
Telling a pitcher not to worry about the fan in the fourth row who is riding him hard or not to worry about the umpire whose strike zone appears to be on wheels and is moving around is as effective as telling someone not to think about an elephant that’s standing in the room.
Instead, create a pitcher who is consumed with the next pitch and is focused on what he can do in the next set of circumstances, no matter the current situation.