Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2021

The Change Up: What is the Mental Game?

by Jonathan Reinebold

Brian Zuleger Pyramid Model of Mental Strength 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 coaches 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. 

As a coach, what are you doing to give them some autonomy? Do you dictate everything about practice and technique? There is more than one way to do many of the physical skills required to play the game. Teach them multiple ways and let them experiment and determine which way to attack the game. Have you ever asked your athlete(s) what they think they need to work on? Little things can change the dynamics of practice, and a small bit of autonomy can make a huge difference. 

Coach, do you make your players feel connected to each other and their community, or is the atmosphere everyman for himself? Getting our players to play as a group instead of individuals has benefits beyond better play. Have your players decide on a community project that benefits others. That is just one way to build relatedness and cohesion and thus improve motivation. 

Are you teaching for outcomes, or are you building their competence in the skills required to play the game? The best way to get the result you want is to be as skilled as possible and then giving the players the freedom to fail. If we can create a culture of competence, instead of evaluation, you will likely improve on the field and have more motivated players. 

How many of you out there know why your players are playing the game? That conversation can make a huge difference in how you relate to your players. One collegiate player I worked with played with joy and ease because he had a cancer scare and thought he would never play again. Thankfully it was just a scare, but that conversation made us closer, and it helped me understand he played simply for the joy of the game and the competition. It is much easier to relate to your players when you know their why.

If you want to get the most out of your players, work on the areas above. Know why they play the game. Give them autonomy so that they have some skin in the game. Build an environment with task and social cohesion. At the same time, you are building your culture, focus on building skills, creating a culture of competence. 

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 also boost their mental outlook with some simple exercises to improve their mood and exercise the gratitude that lies within. Having the players do random acts of kindness, contemplating their best selves, and journaling what went right are a few ways of bolstering their view of themselves. 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 many younger 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 a 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 they face the inevitable challenges life throws at them. 

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, a leadership model as well. 

Jonathan Reinebold played baseball at and graduated from West Point. A former Army Special Operations aviator, he retired from the Army and has coached at the youth, high school and collegiate level. In addition to coaching baseball, the 10-year ABCA member utilizes his education in Applied Sports Psychology teaching the life skills mentioned above.

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