Avoiding the Biggest Mental Trap in Sports
By Dr. ALAN GOLDBERG
There's no question that your mental toughness depends primarily on your ability to concentrate correctly. Faulty concentration will sabotage both your hitting and fielding. Any slumping ballplayer knows this all too painfully because the major reason slumps happen is because the athlete concentrates on the wrong things at the wrong time.
If you want to dramatically improve your ability to handle pressure, come through in the clutch and avoid performance slumps, you must learn to recognize the biggest mental trap out there. This trap is at the very heart of choking and hitting slumps. This trap has driven more players out of the game and undercut their dreams of playing in college or the big leagues. This trap is a nasty performance killer. What am I referring to? The dreaded UCs. The Uncontrollables!
What are the uncontrollables? Nothing more than all the things in softball that are directly out of your control. What's directly out of your control as a ballplayer? The playing conditions, the umpires, weather, temperature, field conditions, play of your opponents, a bad bounce, your coach and how much playing time you get. Also, anything in the past such as an error or the last time you faced this pitcher, winning the game or getting a hit, etc.
You might look at this list and say, "Wait just one minute! I can control getting a hit!" Actually you can't. You may hit the ball with power and get robbed by a great defensive play. What you can control when you step into the batter's box is staying calm, keeping your hands loose, seeing the ball clearly and taking a good, powerful cut. Whether you actually come up with a hit or not is in the future and therefore out of your control. Why does focusing on the UCs send a ballplayer down the road to destruction?
When you focus on an uncontrollable before or during performance, three things will most likely happen. First, you'll start getting nervous, which will leave your muscles too tight to play well. Second, your confidence will begin to spiral downward. Third, how well do you think you'll play if you're uptight and have no confidence? You guessed it! Not very!
Last year I worked with a talented pitcher who could throw with speed and accuracy in the bullpen but would consistently fall apart on the mound. Why? In the bullpen he kept his concentration on things that he could control, such as the target, keeping his arm loose and throwing one pitch at a time. As he headed out to the mound in a game his mind would start entertaining the UCs. What if I let in a run (a future focus)? What if I lose control again (a past and future focus)? What's the coach going to think (the coach)? There are more pro scouts in the stands today. If I screw up I'll never get signed (scouts and the future). His focus on all these uncontrollables tightened him up so much that he rarely lasted more than an inning.
How should you deal with these uncontrollables? First you have to know which UCs get to you. Make a list of all the uncontrollables you tend to dwell on when you get in trouble. Becoming aware of your own personal traps is the first step in avoiding them. Remember, you cannot avoid a trap unless you can see it clearly. Second, practice the concentration rule if you find yourself giving too much air time to the UCs, That is, recognize that you're focusing on an uncontrollable and quickly and gently bring yourself back to something that you can control.
What does this actually mean? If you're up at the plate and worrying, "I've gotta get a hit!" (an uncontrollable because it's in the future), shift your focus to your breathing, feeling your hands loosen or making sure you pick the ball up quickly from the pitcher's release point. If you find yourself really getting uptight because of that focus, briefly concentrating on your breathing will help you move away from the future into the "now" of the game. If you're in the field and thinking about the ball you just booted which caused a run to score (the past), bring yourself back to your ready position and making sure you get set as the pitcher goes into his motion.
Uncontrollables seem to have more power over you when you're under more pressure. Therefore, it is important to learn to recognize what these performance traps are so you can avoid them. In fact, you might even want to take this a step further and use the uncontrollables for your competitive advantage. How do you do this? Let's say the playing conditions are nasty, i.e. the weather is cold and windy. Most players will get distracted by this. Use the knowledge that these are uncontrollables to build your confidence by explaining to yourself that most people will be distracted, but you won't since you know how to handle the UCs.
Remember, if you want to bust out of that slump, avoid choking and play mentally tough, then you have to know what your UCs are and train yourself to give them almost no air time in your mind. You can't get uptight and lose your confidence in crunch time if you don't focus on the UCs. Keep your concentration on things that you can control. The one most important thing you can learn to control? Your reaction to all the uncontrollables.