By: Connie Clark
Originally Published in: Practice Perfect Softball - NFCA
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Sports performance specialist Dr. Ken Ravizza, one of my mentors, has a saying: "Ain't no use worrying if it's in your control, and if it isn't in your control, then ain't no use worrying."
Getting your pitcher and catcher to hone in on controllable items within the game is the first step in developing the right mind-set. Our game has many uncontrollable pieces, such as weather, umpire decisions, defensive blunders, and offensive miracles. I call them miracles because crazy results can occur when a hitter contacts the ball. A pitcher may execute her intent, but a check swing can wreak havoc. The teaching point is to celebrate the process and the execution of the pitch. The other point is to respect the game, because results and miracles are out of our control. The mental game separates good athletes from great ones.
Routines and Strategies
I was fortunate to have access to Dr. Ravizza while I attended Cal State Fullerton and pitched for Hall of Fame coach Judi Garman. At Fullerton, Ken, a professor on campus, worked with our team as well as with Augie Garrido's baseball squad. He has worked with a number of MLB teams as well as Olympic athletes in several sports. Ravizza is an expert in his field. His book Heads Up Baseball lays out the process for playing the game one pitch at a time. He helps us understand that mental routines must be developed just as physical ones are. He uses a simple cycle to help athletes move through their mental routine:
A pitcher needs to be in control of herself before she can attempt to con¬trol her performance. At times, moving through the cycle is easy because things are going smoothly. When challenging situations occur during a game, the same process may become a little more intensive. A prepitch mental checklist would look like this:
Self-Control: Take a deep breath.
Plan: Get the signal from the catcher and develop a quick reactionary thought about the desired location and result.
Trust: Turn the brain off and deliver the pitch.
During stressful situations, when athletes may struggle to gain self-control quickly, mental strategies can serve as an important addition to the recommended cycle. Even if a miracle happens, strategies can prevent a big inning from occurring because a pitcher can regroup quickly and keep momentum on her side. The following strategies are useful in keeping players calm and focused.
Deep Breathing and Physical Release
We talked earlier about the importance of breathing. A pitcher who cannot control her breathing will never be able to control anything else. At times of high duress, the use of a physical release may be important as well. This action can be as simple as grabbing a fistful of dirt and tossing it. The act symbolizes letting go of the previous pitch or situation and moving the focus to the next pitch.
A focal point takes the athlete to an external focus as opposed to being stuck internally. When things get crazy in the middle of an inning, a focal point becomes something to rely on. A letter on the scoreboard, the flag, or a quotation or image written on the player's glove can all serve to get the pitcher or catcher out of her own head. The player recognizes that things are speeding up, but she has the ability to slow it back down by taking a little extra time to use her focal point.
Positive self-talk such as "We've got this" or "She's mine" will keep the pitcher in an attack mentality, which is what we want. Using a cue word for each pitch is another piece that Dr. Ravizza passed along to me. At times, a pitcher overthinks her mechanics and becomes overwhelmed by having too many teaching cues in her head. Have the pitcher come up with one word for each pitch. This simple plan can help her mechanically. My trigger word on the curve was "compact." It is crazy I remember that 30 years later, but the word reminded me to do the physical things within my control to make the best attempt at my desired result. The coach and catchers should know these words and use them when needed.
Strategies need not be used after every pitch and may not be needed in a given inning. The mental and physical pieces work simultaneously to keep the battery rolling along, but under duress the athlete may need to rely on something more than her routine.
Attacking the Hitter
Although attacking a hitter sounds purely physical, I placed it in the mental section because throwing your best stuff on any given day starts between the ears. Young pitchers typically expect their bodies to feel 100 percent every day and to have full velocity as well as great movement. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons they will not be at their best every day, so teaching them to embrace this reality is important. The pregame warm-up should include a discussion regarding strengths for the day. The pitcher needs to recognize
After the game is underway, the focus for our batter is to get ahead in the first three pitches. We absolutely want to be at a one-ball, two-strike count at this point. Hitting statistics jump significantly with a two-ball, one-strike situation. Many coaches want to get ahead on the first pitch, but I think that the first pitch can serve as a way to gather information. Was the batter overaggressive? If she took the pitch, how did she track the ball? What was her body position like? This information can set the tone as to how we set up the hitter the rest of the way. The pitcher's strengths, a hitter's susceptibilities, and the game scenario are all part of the process as well.