The Mental Side of Hitting (A Must Read)

Baseball Brain

Here is the final Hitting Key, which is arguably the most important of the eight (8) that I teach to my baseball and softball hitters.  I apologize for the long post, but I didn’t want to break up this important material.

Several years ago, Tim Gallwey was the speaker at a conference I attended.  Tim is a pioneer in the area of sports psychology and the author of several “Inner Game” books.  His first book “Inner Tennis” detailed his revolutionary approach to enhancing tennis performance by employing several very simple mental techniques.  Other books Mr. Gallwey has written include “The Inner Game of Golf”, “The Inner Game of Business”, “The Inner Game of Music”, and even “The Inner Game of Stress”.  Many of his mental techniques can be applied across all sports, as I have successfully done with baseball and softball hitters.

The basic premise of the “Inner Game” is we all have two potential sports personalities during athletic action.  He calls them “Self 1” and “Self 2”.  I personalize this for my hitters and change these labels to “Good _____” and “Bad ______”, filling in the blanks with the name of hitters. 

Let’s use Rick as an example. When “Bad Rick” is in the batter’s box and is thinking about his mechanics, his success (or lack of) against this pitcher, his father judging him in the stands, the math test he took earlier in the day, his last at-bat, or the error he just made at shortstop, these thoughts will negatively affect his ability to focus on the upcoming pitch.  On the other hand,  “Good Rick” steps in the batter’s box focused on only the release of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and the impact of the ball into the bat

In tennis, Gallwey asks his students to clear their minds and only observe the bounce of the ball and the moment of impact of the tennis ball into the racquet.  To accomplish this, he actually asks his students to say the word “bounce” when the ball bounces on their side of the court and the word “hit”, when the racquet hits the ball. The key is to only “observe” these two events. For my hitters, I employ a similar tactic, but I just change the words and the focus.  When the ball is released out of the hand of the pitcher, I ask them to say the word “release” out loud, and when the ball hits the bat, I ask them to say the word “hit” out loud.  I also tell them not to TRY  to hit the ball, but merely observe when the ball hits the bat. This simple exercise forces everything out of the mind of hitter, except what is important, which is the release of the ball and the moment of impact with the bat.  Of course, I don’t force hitters to say “release” and “hit” out loud in games, but I do ask them to say these two important words to themselves silently during each at bat.  However, during a front toss session or live batting practice, I ask them to say these words loud and clear.   Here is a link to an old video illustrating Gallwey’s basic teachings–http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzR8x5MgvDw

Observing Instead of Instructing

The key to Gallwey’s mental approach to sports is learning and improvement through observation.  The “release-hit” exercise is all about hitters observing when the ball is released and observing when the ball meets the bat. When the mind is truly observing something, there is an associated higher level of focus and the body is more receptive to change, based on this observation and focus.  After I teach the basic fundamentals of the swing, I try to quickly make the transition from a teacher to someone who will help hitters observe what they are doing, in order to more easily pave the way for change and improvement. 

Here are a couple of examples of teaching by observation, instead of instruction.  Let’s consider young hitters who “step in the bucket” during every pitch because they are either afraid of the ball, or that is just how they stride. “Instructing” a hitter to stop stepping away from the plate as the pitch is approaching is usually futile.  However, if I ask hitters to “observe” where the front foot finishes, this awareness leads to quicker adjustment and improvement.  To make the observation easy for hitters, I will tell them to visualize a clock in the dirt.  If the front foot ends up straight toward the pitcher, that is 12 o’clock.  For a right-handed batter, when the front foot hits the dirt, I ask them “What time is it?” after each pitch.  If they are really stepping in the bucket, they may say “ 9 o’clock”. For right-handed hitters, the time is usually somewhere between 9 o’clock and 12 o’clock.  By asking hitters to tell me what time it is, it forces them to observe where they are finishing in a non-threatening and fun way.  What typically happens is a player will call out the time after each pitch and eventually the time on the clock the hitter announces gets closer and closer to 12 o’clock. It usually only takes a few minutes until hitters are calling out 12 o’clock after each pitch.  Through observation, their body made the necessary adjustment. 

The only limitation of teaching through observation is the creativity of the instructor.  I can literally come up with an observation exercise like the “clock” for any change or improvement I would like to see in hitters. Here is another example of improvement through observation.  If a hitter is popping the ball up too much in batting practice or hitting too many ground balls, I will ask them to tell me after each pitch if they hit the top of the ball, the bottom of the ball, or “on the screws”.  I would say that 90% of the time after telling me if they hit the top or bottom of the ball, the next hit is a line drive, or “on the screws”.  Tim Gallwey would say this is a good example of the mind observing “what” needs improvement and the body naturally determining “how” to make the necessary adjustment to accomplish the improvement.  It is always fun for me to hear hitters say “on the screws” over and over during front toss or live batting practice, soon after they were failing to hit the ball squarely. Not only does the actual physical swing improve, but the confidence of the hitter skyrockets every time they say “on the screws”, instead of “top” or “bottom”.

Parents and coaches often ask me about my coaching/teaching philosophy.  I always enjoy explaining how I teach through observation.  I often use the example of the coach or parent who urges the pitcher to “throw a strike”.  Of course, the pitcher wants the same outcome, but telling them to throw a strike is not effective and usually is counterproductive.  I ask them to try asking the pitcher to observe how far from the strike zone the pitches are ending.  As they call out the distance after each pitch, the body quickly begins making slight adjustments.  The ball will get consistently closer and closer to the strike zone, until the majority of the pitches are strikes, or near strikes.  Not only is  teaching through observation more effective than instructing, it is less stressful and more rewarding for everyone involved.

Other Mental Techniques

In addition to the basic techniques I just described, I use many other mental techniques with my hitters that I adapted to hitting from Tim Gallwey. However, I have found two of them to be very effective with hitters.  The first is what Gallwey refers to as the “Doctrine of Easy”.  Without getting into too much detail now, it entails comparing a complex or difficult athletic action, like hitting a 90 mph pitch in baseball or 65 mph pitch in softball, to an action that is very easy to accomplish.  When I work with a hitter, we perfect the swing primarily through hitting off a tee or front toss.  During these drills, hitters rarely miss the ball and hit each ball with power and consistency. Using Gallwey’s “Doctrine of Easy”, when hitters are facing live pitching, they should visualize the ball coming at them as if I was tossing the ball to them from a few feet away or as if they were hitting off a tee.  When the mind makes this connection to a simple action, the body responds by being more relaxed and confident.  It also makes it easier for hitters to use the proper hitting mechanics we worked on. I have had many players tell me that this one technique has improved their hitting performance, especially against top pitchers. They tell me that when the ball gets close to the strike zone, they tell themselves it is just like an easy front toss from Coach Petricca. 

The second Gallwey technique I have applied to the baseball swing is to “ask” the body for improved performance, instead of “trying” to improve.  I must admit that this can be difficult to explain to hitters, but when they understand this concept, it enables them to take their hitting to a higher level, without much additional effort.  The first benefit of “asking” the body for performance starts with reducing the tension in the body. In sports, the harder an athlete tries to do something, the more tension and stress they feel.  If a hitter “tries” to hit the ball harder or “tries” to hit the ball to a certain area on the field, the total opposite typically happens, because muscles actually tighten and the mind places an equal amount of pressure on hitters to succeed.  As an example, if I ask a hitter to “try” to increase the reading on the radar when I am measuring bat speed, their bat speed will almost always decrease.  However, when I encourage them to “ask” their body for more bat speed, the readings typically go up.  What happens is the tension they feel by “trying” doesn’t show up and the body naturally knows how to find the additional bat speed.  This will vary by hitter, but when a player “asks” the body to do something, it usually knows how to respond. I am constantly encouraging players to ask their body for something.  I encourage them to ask their body to hit the ball to the opposite field, or ask their body to hit a long fly ball in a sacrifice fly situation, or ask their body to even hit a home run.  I always finish my requests by reminding them to “ask” their body and not to “try”. I am also a strong believer in visualization, which has always been a popular mental exercise in sports.  “Asking” the body to produce a certain outcome requires some level of visualization, which is always good.

I have found teaching the mental side of hitting to be the perfect complement to the hitting mechanics I teach.  Hitters who have great hitting mechanics, but are not very good at the mental game, will have difficulty reaching their potential.  Conversely, hitters who are still working on their mechanics, but possess have a solid mental game, often enjoy much more success than the hitter with great mechanics.  Hitters who excel at both are the ones who make the headlines in the newspaper.

I will periodically write more about the mental game of baseball in the future.  In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding more about the “Inner Game”, Tim Gallwey’s books are available online.  Or, you can visit his website at http://theinnergame.com/.

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