One of the things I love about coaching and training pitchers is the variety of challenges it brings. Every pitcher is unique, each presenting with their own set of issues. Some may need to work more on mechanics, others on improving their strength and mobility, others on command of their pitches. Recognizing and understanding which needs are most pressing is part of what makes coaching so fun.
Yet, when it comes to the ultimate goal of preparing them for competition, one challenge presents itself time and time again…
How do we get pitchers to take what they know how to do in practice and bring it to their performance in the game?
Often, in the heat of competition, things tend to speed up. You have the added elements of the batter, the umpire, the crowd, the weight of consequences and being the one in the spotlight, all eyes on you until you make your pitch. The best athletes in any sport are able to rise above these distractions, slow things down, and perform “in the zone.”
For me, this is where Visualization comes in. Visualization can be one of the most powerful tools for helping a pitcher (or any athlete) achieve peak performance. There’s a great story (that may be sort of an urban legend) about a serviceman who was a P.O.W. for seven years. While in captivity, he maintained his sanity by playing golf in his mind. Visualizing his swing, perfecting his stroke, seeing himself perform perfectly, putting the ball in the hole again and again. When he finally returned home, in his first time back on a golf course, he shot the best game of his life.
You can think of Visualization as your mental blueprint, a sort of programming for your brain. When done effectively, it allows you to virtually experience how you’d like to perform during competition, when the pressure’s on (which raises the question, does “pressure” really exists, or is it all in our minds – something worth discussing separately).
Phil Cundari’s work with the Seton Hall pitching staff is one great example of the power of visualization. Cundari (recently promoted to Associate Head Coach) was named Collegiate Baseball’s Pitching Coach of the Year for 2011, and in this article he discusses the important role visualization played in the success he had with his pitchers.
One of the things he discusses is the idea of introducing visualization to his pitchers gradually. Visualization is a learned skill, and like any other skill, it takes practice. The more you work at it, the more natural it will become and the more powerful it will be.
In my experience, most understand the concept and the benefits of visualization. That’s great and all, but how do you actually practice it?
Here are some simple steps for more powerful Visualization:
Decide how you want to see yourself: You might choose to see yourself dominating on the mound. Totally poised and confident, totally in control. Pay attention to how you carry yourself when you’re in this mode. You might recall a time when you had a dominating performance or felt totally in sync and “in the zone.”
Breathe and relax: Take 4 slow, relaxing breaths. Each time you exhale, mentally say to yourself “Relax.” This calming process will put you into the right state of mind to maximize your visualization practice.
Make it real: To really be powerful, it has to engage your senses. Make the scene as clear and bright as possible. Smell the fresh cut grass, hear the buzz of the crowd. The more real you make it, the more powerful your mental blueprint will be.
Decide your point of view: There are two ways you can practice visualization, two ways to see it – as if you’re living it, or as if you’re watching yourself in a movie. Play around with both vantage points, both are powerful.
Pay attention to how you feel: If you’re visualizing positive end-results, you should be feeling calm, confident, unstoppable. Enjoy these emotions, really FEEL it. The more you can charge these images with positive emotion the more powerful they become in your mind.
Before going to bed: If you have a specific goal you’re working towards (and you should), visualize achieving that goal every night before going to bed and whenever you get a chance to close your eyes and relax throughout the day.
Before each game: As part of your pre-game prep, visualize facing the lineup in your mind. Visualize pitch sequences, setting the hitter up, positive outcomes, feeling in control and confident. When the game comes, you’ll be better prepared and it will be as if you’ve already done it before.
Before each pitch: When on the mound, visualize the pitch before executing it. Commit to the pitch (selection, location), see yourself making the pitch, and once you see the ball hit the glove in your mind, take a relaxing breath and execute the pitch.
These are just some simple steps, but if you’re serious, I’d recommend doing more homework and reading some good books on the subject.
The best I have read is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. In addition to just explaining how it works and why it’s important, the book serves as a very clear how-to guide to help you actually implement the techniques.
And that’s really the most important thing, after all. You have to put into action!