The great dis-connect: the improving impact of the mental game in baseball

In sports, people are always looking for a way to get an edge on the competition. Over the past few years, we have seen a meteoric rise in the once-neglected fields of nutrition, weight training, video review, and more. Players, parents, and coaches have collectively spent millions of dollars investing in dietitians, cutting-edge conditioning programs, top-of-the-line HD cameras and anything else in hopes of helping players get the most out of their God-given talent.

With all the changes in the current amateur baseball climate (roster limits, scholarship constraints, bat restrictions, a new RPI formula, and the pitch clock, to name a few), many amateur teams and professional organizations are just looking for some consistency with their game. Over the past few years, there is another field that has arguably gained as much ground as any, utilizing a much more advanced tool- that space between your ears.

Yes, the power of the mind and its importance has seen a dramatic rise of lateā€¦ even for baseball players.

“Back when I played it was more physical- go do your job, just go out and play,” said Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, who has taken his Tigers to 13 consecutive NCAA Regionals. “Today, the mental side is a big part of the game. You have a much better chance to be successful if your mental attitude, your confidence level, and your focus is where it needs to be.”

Jaeger Sports founder Alan Jaeger has seen his field grow exponentially since he began in 1992. “Back then, you had the feeling that the perceptivity level was not great. People thought that if you needed mental training, you had a problem. Let’s face it; people looked at it like a weakness. It’s neat because things have happened so fast, just like with technology. In the last five years, people like Brian Cain came on the scene and really helped kick the door open.”

Cain, founder of Brian Cain Peak Performance, has also seen the trend. “People realize the impact and the power of mental conditioning,” he said. “When you realize every MLB team has a mental conditioning coach and that universities are hiring full-time guys in their department, people are more aware of it and its benefits. It’s kind of where strength and conditioning was 20 years ago- where some people dabbled in it, it caught on, and now everyone does it- and if you don’t, you’re looked at as someone who’s not committed.”

Another leader in the industry is Geoff Miller, who is currently the Mental Skills Coach for the Atlanta Braves organization and has also penned a book titled Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game-in Baseball and in Life. “The public view of baseball psychology has changed greatly in the last ten years,” Miller observed. “It has gone from being seen as something meant only for people who have ‘problems’ and is now seen as an essential part of the complete development of players.”

So what is ‘mental toughness,’ anyway?

“People think mental toughness is something you’re born with, and it’s not,” Cain noted. “It’s something that can be trained, a skill set that can be learned, just like being able to bunt or throw a curveball. If talent was everything, every first-round pick would make it to big leagues and they don’t- it’s less that 47%- and less than 30% make it longer than three years.”

Just like the best hitting coaches who practice many different ways to teach essentially the same idea, these mental masters have their own unique styles.

“My philosophy is all about application,” Cain adds. “When I work with a team or coaches, I trim the fat and get right to it on what the coach and athlete needs to do, so they know what to do, when to do it, and how to practice it. I see myself as more of a coach instead of a psychologist.”

“At the end of the day, be great at your process! Everything else is going to, for the most part, be a distraction (i.e. being too attached to the outcome rather than the process),” Jaeger notes. “It’s very simple but it’s not easy to pull it off, that’s why some form of mental practice is so important. I think for the masses, to really have a fundamental change, you have to be trained to let go of the old program of all the stuff that typically goes on in baseball to breathing, focal point, neutrality- whatever your buzz words are- and that to me is where the major sustaining new mentality can really take over.”

“My primary goal with each player is to help him understand where, when, why, and how he experiences pressure,” Miller adds. “That could be a different conversation with everyone I meet, but the process is really about getting to the root causes that get people off track so they can effectively understand where pressure comes from and make long-term changes.”

Before you bury your nose in books detailing the mental game until the spring, wait! Make sure you don’t miss what Jaeger considers to be the biggest misconception of all. “I think the part that gets lost in the shuffle is mental practice,” he says. “If you’re going to get better at ground balls, hitting the ball the other way, or anything in life, it’s tons of reps- that’s how skills change. It doesn’t make sense to tell someone ‘you’re more confident now’ unless they have a practice in place to help develop those skills (physiologically practice breathing, relaxation and clearing their minds) that lead to a more authentic confidence and other beneficial skills.”

Jaeger notes that for coaches, implementing the mental game is equally as demanding. “How significant would the effect on the players be of having a mental station for 10 minutes a day? People don’t realize how there is a tangible effect that could be greater for the player than anything you’re going to teach them physically, ever. This is how to finish the job- coaches have to take the responsibility to know how to walk kids through some basic breathing exercises and clear their minds. The teams that are starting to become more ‘active’ that will see the big results.”

Unlike fielding, hitting, or throwing a curveball, helping players excel in the mental game can benefit them far beyond the playing field.

“We all get into sports because we know they teach life lessons, but the pressure created from the importance of producing results can sidetrack us,” said Miller. “When their careers are over, players who have learned how to properly deal with pressure, who know themselves, and who can evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses are the ones who are able to transfer the intangibles they developed on the field into productive post-playing careers.”

Cain agrees. “I’ve seen [the mental game] help people in academics, relationships, leadership ability, character development, and in their lives. It transcends what goes on on the field- how to have focus on controllable aspects of life, how to have routines that can have consistent performance, how to deal through adversity. If you’re not teaching the mental game, how are you teaching life skill through sport?”

“I don’t think you’ll ever have a player come back to you and say ‘thanks for teaching me how to hit the ball the other way’ or ‘thanks for teaching me how to throw a curveball, it changed my life,'” Cain continued. “Instead, you’ll have ‘thanks for teaching me how to work, have character, be honest, and understand the value of the process over selling out for the outcome.”

For more on Cain, Jaeger and Miller…

Check out Brian Cain’s website, briancain.com, where you can get his free newsletter and audio report “Top 10 things world champions know that you don’t”

Visit jaegersports.com for more on Alan Jaeger, including his J-bands, books and DVDs

Visit thewinningmindinbaseball.com information on Geoff Miller’s book; site also includes a blog and other helpful tools