Friday, June 6, 2014
IT'S ALL ABOUT MENTAL TOUGHNESS
I was recently included in a presentation for a baseball training academy to speak to young softball players and their parents about my experience playing ball and what it takes to get to the elite college level.
One parent told me the story about a girl he had coached who had been an elite player in high school—she dominated the league with a .600 batting average—but when she made the jump to college ball at Fordham University, she found herself struggling to maintain her performance. “How can she fix this?,” he had asked.
As fans of the game, we have all seen the consequences when a player “makes the jump” to a higher level of play. Some of us may have experienced it in our playing career. Others may be seeing their sons or daughters struggling in their performance as they move up the competitive ladder in their sports.
The jump not only applies when we move age divisions or leagues, but can include phases of the season. How many times have we seen players perform spectacularly during the regular season only to choke when their team moves to the playoffs?
In baseball, we are regularly confronted with failure and every time our team or players hit a rough patch, we ask: “ How the hell do you fix this?”
The answer is one that is not elusive. As with many things in this sport, it all comes down to mental toughness.
Derek Jeter, who is retiring this year and is pretty much a guarantee for the Hall of Fame, gave a fantastic description of what it’s like to make the jump in an interview with Men’s Health magazine. Jeter, who boasts a .312 career batting average in the Majors, recalled his first year as a rookie where he had an anemic .210 batting average:
“I remember going from rookie ball to A, to double A, then to triple A. At every level it seemed like the game was getting faster. The bigger the situation, the more the game speeds up. That’s all mental. It messes people up. You think, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’ when in reality, all you have to do is the same thing you’ve always been doing. Slow it down. Realize you’ve been in this situation before. Be calm. The more you can do that, the more pressure you take off yourself and the easier it is to perform.”
So let’s take solace in the fact that Jeter—one of the greatest shortstops of all time—found himself struggling for the first time in his baseball career as a rookie and felt outmatched by what he viewed as the best players “in the world.”
But take a look at his answer. It wasn’t that Jeter’s athletic abilities had suddenly escaped him when he moved through the Yankees’ farm system. It was his mental outlook that needed adjusting. Jeter continues:
“[I] got an opportunity to see these players. And that's when I said to myself, 'It's not that they're throwing 100 miles an hour faster, or hitting 400 feet longer. They're just doing things more consistently.' And I thought, 'Well, I can do some of those things. Not as consistently, but I'm capable of doing it.' That was the defining moment that helped turn my career around."
Like so many things in baseball, success often comes down not to physical ability, but to mental toughness. As Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own said, if this game was easy “everyone would do it.”
Players that survive making the jump have done so because of their ability to adjust and persevere through all the failures this sport likes to throw our way. So for those that are experiencing struggle in the game or have loved ones that are experiencing difficulty in making the transition to a higher level of play, take heed in Jeter’s words and have faith in your competitive ability and re-frame your mental outlook.
--Alexis Garcia, BYB's "Eye on MLB" Columnist
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