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Understanding the power of Neuroplasticity

They say 90% of the game is mental. Few would argue with the role your mental approach has in your success as a pitcher (and pretty much anything for that matter). In part I of this series on the mental game of pitching, I talked about some practical steps you can take with your mental approach on the mound. If you missed it, you can read it here: The Mental Game of Pitching: (Part I)

In part II, I want to talk about something that doesn’t get much attention in baseball circles…


Big word, I know. Don’t worry, the concept is simple. Neuroplasticity is basically the brain’s ability to physically change and grow. Pretty wild stuff when you think about it!

How important is your brain really as a pitcher?

I mean, you don’t throw the ball with your brain, and I’ve known plenty of good pitchers who weren’t exactly rocket scientists. And, of course, there’s that great line from Bull Durham:

“Don’t think; it can only hurt the ballclub.”

“Why does he keep calling me Meat?”

And to some extent that’s very true. Any time you start thinking too much out there you’re done. This goes for any athlete performing their skill during competition.

So when talking about the role of the brain and your mental approach, we’re really talking about your…

Ability to FOCUS.

The higher you go in this game, the more the talent pool levels off. What really sets the most successful pitchers apart is their ability to achieve peak performance more consistently than the rest. Ultimately, this comes down to keeping their minds calm and clear when the pressure is on.

And most coaches and players get this. You hear guys talk all the time about the importance of being Confident and “Mentally Tough.”

But here’s the problem…

How much TIME do most pitchers spend on mental training?

Probably the biggest disconnect in all of sports is the gap between the importance we place on the mental game and the actual time we spend on mental training.

Guys have no problems spending 2-3 hours at practice and another hour in the gym. But when it comes to their brain, most ignore mental training completely. Why is this?

Some possible reasons for not devoting more time to mental training:

1. Results aren’t always tangible:
  • It’s easy to see results from the weight room. You lift more, eat more, you get bigger and stronger.
  • You can work on your command of your pitches in your bullpens, and you get instant feedback.
  • How do you tell if you’re improving your ability to focus under pressure?
2. It’s too touchy-feely:
  • It can feel a little unmanly sitting in a room with other guys focusing on your breathing.
  • There’s a perception that acknowledging you need to work on your mental game means you are mentally weak (imagine if guys took this approach with their strength training).
3. It doesn’t feel like you’re really working:
  • In college, our coach’s way of teaching us mental toughness was to have us run sprints until someone puked. And in some ways this worked. It taught us what it meant to really work hard, and how to dig deep and persevere when we thought we couldn’t go any farther. But it didn’t teach us how to relax and perform with confidence and a calm mind in the heat of competition.
  • When you work on your physical game, your body feels it. Spending 10 minutes on focused breathing and meditation is a very different experience.

Now I’m far from an expert in this area, but as someone interested in maximizing human potential, the idea of being able to improve brain function and the actual physical structure of the brain fascinates me.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal explains how mental exercises like controlled breathing and meditation not only help improve focus, but actually cause physical changes in the structure of the brain. A number of studies have shown this in recent years.

This article highlights some key findings:

“They found that meditating actually increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula…. The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex.”

Here’s a link to the study cited: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002

If you want more evidence (or like me are just intrigued and want to learn more about how this works) here is a great article. It lays out all the ways studies have shown meditation and breathing exercises lead to beneficial changes in the brain:

Meditation and Brain Changes: Recent Research and New Applications

Still skeptical or think meditation is too touchy-feely? Maybe take a lesson from the Navy SEALs. When you’re talking about mental toughness, these guys are as hardcore as they come. According to the above article:

“Currently, SEALs are using meditation in training, based upon neuroscience data of increased gray matter volume and better synapses in the pre frontal cortex. These brain changes lead to improved ability to have attention control triggers of the amygdala fear responses. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program showed decreased stress, and improvement in concentration, memory, performance of complex tasks, and regaining focus after stress.”

Here are 2 simple mental exercises you can do in 5-10 minutes a day:

1. Breath Counting:
  • Start by finding a quiet, comfortable place to sit down free from distraction.
  • Close your eyes, and begin breathing deeply. Try to keep the breathing slow and relaxed.
  • On your exhale, count “one” to yourself. Count “two” on your next exhale, and so on until you count “five.”
  • Repeat, starting with “one” again.

To keep it simple, do not count above five. If you catch yourself counting up to 8,9,10 you know you are losing focus.

Try doing this for 5 minutes a day. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Just get back to it the next day. The more you practice, the more you’ll benefit, and you may find you like stretching it out to 10, 15 or 20 minutes.

2. The Mental Movie Technique

This is something I talked about in another article on Visualization.

  • Start by finding a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Close your eyes and take 4 slow, deep breaths, saying to yourself “relax” as you exhale.
  • Get a clear image of yourself out on the mound, feeling great and performing with total control and confidence.
  • Engage all of your senses to make this as real as possible.
  • Pay attention to how good you feel – enjoy it!

Bottom line:

Treat your brain like a muscle. Breathing exercises with an emphasis on relaxed focus will strengthen it, actually physically change it in a way that will help you relax during an outing and stay focused on the task at hand.

And when it comes to pitching, that’s what it’s all about…

Your Next Pitch.


Other resources:

Meditation timers

Lifehacker.com – A Guide to Meditation for the Rest of Us


“The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification”
Eileen Luders, Florian Kurth, Emeran A. Mayer, Arthur W. Toga1, Katherine L. Narr and Christian Gaser

“Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”
Britta K. Hölzela, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia