Building Mental Toughness in Youth Baseball
The coach of a 12U baseball team asked what he could do to increase mental toughness among the players on his team. The following response was prepared after consulting with specialists involved in sports psychology at the university level, MLB level and those in private practice.
Mental toughness is something that every coach and scout is looking for, every parent is proud of and every player could use more of. While there is no consensus among sports psychologists as to exactly what it is and how to develop or improve it, coaches, teammates and parents know it when they see it. It’s Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson staring down a hitter, Nolan Ryan showing Robin Ventura why you don’t mess with Texas. It’s Pete Rose sliding head first into third base and sacrificing his body by crashing into Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game. It’s a gimpy Kirk Gibson hitting a walk-off HR off future Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley on a 3:2 slider in game 1 of the 1988 World Series to propel the underdog Dodgers to World Champion status. It’s a relatively small Phil Garner playing so hard in Pittsburgh that he earned the nickname “Scrap Iron.” It’s Cal Ripken, Jr playing 2,632 consecutive games. It’s Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 and changing the World despite racial discrimination from fans, opponents and some of his own teammates.
Many in the game will tell you that mental toughness is a determining factor that that can separate the average from the good and the good from the great. Now, let’s look at what it is and discuss a few things that “experts” say can be used to help improve it.
What is mental toughness? Mental toughness is one of the most used and overused terms in sports by athletes, coaches, team owners, sports writers, analysists, parents and fans. In the past it was believed to be a personality trait and reporters and fans took delight in describing a competitive pitcher as someone who “would knock his own mother down”, or an aggressive baserunner as someone who would “run through hell in a gasoline suit.” According to Webster, mental toughness is “the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.” Coaches say that mental toughness is resilience; the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty, failure, and defeat. Many sports scientists say that mental toughness is an acquired positive mindset.
What are the characteristics of mentally tough athletes? Sheard1 says that mentally tough athletes have clarity of mind and firmness of purpose. They desire to be great, and settling for good is never an option. They know how to win and stand tall in the face of adversity. They make fewer mistakes and possess a work ethic, winning mentality and self-confidence. Mentally tough performers refuse to be intimated. They are able to stay focused and manage pressure. Winning is important, but not at any cost. Character matters and it is important to compete with talent, enthusiasm, guts, dignity and integrity. They hate to lose, but don’t dwell on defeat. They accept losing as an inevitable consequence of meeting someone better on a given day. They are gracious in defeat and positive about the future. They believe in themselves and are positive about the future.
Despite what some who write and talk about sports think, mentally tough athletes did not come out of the womb with a mentally tough attitude. Toughness is developed over time and with multiple opportunities to succeed, fail, adjust and move on.
How do you become mentally tough or tougher? This is the million or sometimes the multi-million-dollar question. There are a number of effective approaches that baseball players can take to help develop and improve mental toughness. There are number of excellent sports psychologists that can help as well as reputable self-help books, articles and internet websites4-6. There are also a few basic things that all players can do that have been shown to be effective first-steps to include the following:
- Control what you can control. Nolan Ryan2 says that you should never lose because the other team was better prepared than you. The only thing that you can control is how you prepare for the game. That includes how much sleep you get, timing, frequency, size and quality of meals, emotions, body language, mental state, work ethic (consistency of skill work, physical conditioning and recovery techniques), body language and response to success and failure.
Randy Johnson3 said that he went from being a good pitcher to a great pitcher when Nolan Ryan helped him control his emotions and body language both on the mound and in the dugout. Nolan explained how his body language and emotional response to failure could have a positive effect on the opposition and negative effect on his teammates. Once he understood this and was able to control his negative thoughts, poor body language and emotional outbursts, his mental attitude, confidence and performance improved significantly.
Are you the guy who shrugs his shoulders and puts his head down when you give up a run or a teammate makes an error? Do you sit in the corner of the dugout after you make an error or strikeout with the bases loaded, or are you the guy who says “my bad – get him next time,” stands up and supports your teammates? Your actions and reactions can affect not only your performance, but that of your teammates and opponents.
Controlling what you can control is an effective first step to improved mental toughness and performance. The season is long and every day presents new opportunities to contribute to your team. Helping the team doesn’t always come from pitching a shutout, hitting a home run or making a diving catch. You can help your team by being a good teammate, getting on base, making a play in the field, expanding the opposing pitcher’s pitch count, advancing on a passed ball, etc. Help comes in many forms. At the MLB level, most managers ask their players to do three things to help the team win: 1) be on time; 2) be a good teammate; and 3) respect the game. They don’t ask for shutouts, game winning hits, hi-lite plays or home runs.
A good teammate has a good work ethic, takes care of his body, shows up early, stays late, has a team-first attitude, doesn’t sulk when he fails or gloat when he succeeds, doesn’t point fingers, picks his teammates up, accepts blame and gives credit. If you are on time, a good teammate and respect the game, the other things will take care of themselves.
- Have a Positive Attitude. Your attitude and emotions can affect how you and your teammates perform both on and off the field. Don’t let your performance affect your attitude and emotions. Coaches, teammates, parents and fans should not be able to tell what kind of game you had after a win or loss. Remain even keeled after both wins and losses. Be happy after a win and determined after a loss, but don’t get too high or too low after either. The season is too long to be riding an emotional roller coaster after every win or loss. Be happy after a win even if you had a horrible day. Be disappointed and determined after a loss even if you had a great day. Good teammates are able to control their emotions and have a positive attitude even under unpleasant circumstances.
- Dictate your attitude. Don’t let your personal or team performance dictate it. Having a positive attitude makes you look good in the eyes of your coaches, fans, parents and teammates. Be in control of your attitude when you show up to the field, during the game, after the game and on the ride home. Leave what you did yesterday in the past. You can’t change it. Don’t worry about the future. You can’t control it. Control what you can control. Stay in the present, trust your preparation and make the most out of the game in front of you.
- Do the Hard Things First. Determine your weakest skill and work on it first both at home and during practice. If you are having trouble with backhand plays, work on them first when your body, mind and reactions are fresh. Don’t save them for last when you are fatigued. Fatigue inhibits performance. Avoid doing the most important thing when you are tired. If you are having trouble with your breaking ball, work on the spin first at a shorter distance, say 20-feet. A sprinter who is having trouble with his start, doesn’t run 100-yards every rep. He shortens up and works on getting out of the blocks and his first 3-4 steps. If you can’t control the spin at 20-feet, throwing 60-feet won’t make it better.
The same goes for hitting, catching balls in the outfield, blocking balls behind the plate and running the bases. Work on what you are having trouble with first. You going to be only as good as your weakest link. Working on your strengths will not improve your weaknesses. Identify your weakest links and address them head on the first thing every day. Work smart. Have a plan, execute the plan, reevaluate the plan and make adjustments when and where needed.
If you are a catcher and having trouble blocking balls, determine if it’s your lack of skill or lack of strength and mobility. Your body is a 3-link chain – 1) your hips and legs, 2) core and 3) upper body, arms and hands. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You initiate force in the lower body and transfer it through the core to the chest, shoulders, arms and hands. You can have the fastest hands in the league, but if your legs or core are weak, you will not have the strength, mobility and speed to get your body in the right position for your hands to do their job. Conditioning enables an you to put your body in the proper position to effectively perform the drills enough times (reps) to improve performance. If you are not in shape to do the drills properly and repeat them enough times to enhance performance, you are wasting valuable time. Get in shape to do the work and then work on the things that you can’t and don’t like to do first.
If you are lifting weights, do the exercise you like least first when you are fresh. If you wait, chances are you won’t want to work on your weakness or you will not give it your best effort. When you choose to do the hard things first, you develop mental toughness and the game and life become easier. When you choose the easiest first, you get mentally weaker and the game and life become harder.
Developing and improving mental toughness and effective performance is not a quick fix. You can’t microwave toughness or skill. You can, however, focus on what you can do on a daily basis to make yourself and the team better. The goal should be to make your team more successful, and this starts by making yourself better.
1. Sheard, Michael. Mental Toughness: Mental Toughness: The Mindset Behind Sporting Achievement, Second Edition. Routledge, New York, NY, 2013.
2. Ryan, Nolan. Pitchers Bible. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 2001.
3. Randy Johnson – How Nolan Ryan Turned My Career Around. http://baseballstrength.org/randy-johnson-nolan-ryan-helped-turn-career-around/
4. Taylor, Jim. Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanhan, MD, 2016.
5. Yukelson, David. What is Mental Toughness and What Can You Do to Improve It. http://baseballstrength.org/mental-toughness-can-develop/
6. Taylor, Jim. In Sports You Need to Fight from Start to Finish. http://baseballstrength.org/in-sports-you-need-to-fight-from-start-to-finish-by-jim-taylor/