There’s a myriad of books that have been written about the importance of the mental game—in business, sports and life as we know it. You could fill a bookshelf with “mental game” books focusing on baseball alone. It is unquestionably a separator at every level of competition. But it is much easier said than done. Finding the time to devote to mental training is priority number one. Individual morning/evening routines work well for most people, but how about when you are training a team? What if you want to implement this within all the moving parts of a baseball season or even a practice session? It’s another concept that is easier said than done. For starters, guided meditation and breathing exercises are great ways to “open the door” of the mind. Once that door is opened, you have a figurative room to fill that should include your playbook on small ways to heighten your awareness and focus your mind on the present. For pitchers, establishing a mound routine is a good first step to this.
If you watch closely enough, you will find that every hitter, fielder and pitcher has a fairly specific ritual that they go through in the intervals of time between pitches during a game. Adjusting hats, focusing on a fixed object or sticker on a bat, kick some dirt, take a deep breath, rinse and repeat, over and over. These routines may look mindless—and many of them probably are. But some of the best players are able to attach real value to these movements to develop their pre- and post-pitch routines.
For pitchers, the mound routine represents any actions and thoughts a pitcher goes through while the ball is in their hand. The first concept is the reset button. Once a pitcher gets the ball back from the catcher, other defender or umpire, it’s important to acknowledge and calm the emotions of the last pitch, good or bad. A blown call, an error behind you, a great pitch, a double play, there are many emotions that a pitcher can “bring back to the rubber,” so getting back to neutral is important. By neutral, we just mean the optimal state of mind for a particular player. Clearly “different strokes for different folks” applies here, as different athletes will have different levels of emotion present throughout their performances. Think of the difference between watching Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks. Your players have different levels of intensity that are optimal for them to operate within during competition, but a pitcher—much like a quarterback—needs to be able to stay in the present, not in the past.
The reset button can be adjusting the hat, swiping dirt around the rubber, moving the ball back and forth between the glove and the bare hand, almost anything. Giving your pitchers a physical cue of when to “clear the mechanism” (see: For Love of the Game
) is as important as teaching them how to do it in the first place.
That “how” starts with the breath. We know that a deep breath reduces stress because it essentially sends a message to the brain to relax the body, and a relaxed body and mind has a better chance to repeat trained thoughts and actions. So establishing a deep breath in between pitches as a routine can train your pitchers—and any athletes for that matter—to respond to stressful situations not perfectly but optimally, which as a coach is the best you can hope for over time.
The final piece of a solid mound routine is the mantra. This can be called many different things—final thought, anchor statement, etc.—depending on the program, but what it means remains the same. The mantra is a short, simple phrase that is unique to each player. Depending on the levels of intensity mentioned earlier, this phrase may vary greatly amongst your pitching staff. Since it is quite difficult to train the mind to actually “clear the mechanism” and think of nothing, giving it a phrase to repeat consistently is the next best thing. A few PG-rated examples are below:
- Been doing this my whole life
- Aim small, miss small
- Me vs. you
- I dare you to hit this
Having your pitchers write down their mound routines and posting them in your locker room/clubhouse is a way to reinforce the importance of mound routine and acknowledge the unique personalities on your staff. It can also help your players to stay accountable to something they created for themselves and ideally, improve in their mental game and physical results.
There are certainly many more aspects of the mental game that can be explored, especially when it comes to pitching. Having a foundation that starts with breathing exercises and accompanying that with something like a mound routine can help your pitchers take some positive steps to establishing or improving their mental game.