This year I spent my first season coaching varsity-level baseball. It was… an interesting experience, to say the least. Now that the season is over and I’ve had a couple of days to sit back and reflect on this year, I really feel like I learned a lot and, hopefully, accomplished a lot.
I spent a good piece of my young life playing baseball. I’ve always loved playing ball. I remember one of my first tee-ball games in Venango, I was playing left field and I had to pee. Not wanting to have to leave the game, but not knowing what else to do, I peed my pants. When I got back to the bench, I remember my mom asking me something along the lines of why I would do that. Not thinking anything of it, I shrugged and went up to get my at-bat. I didn’t want to leave that field until I absolutely had to.
Growing up with a disposition like that towards baseball, I always knew that I wanted to succeed. It was one of the few things in life that I worked hard at around through my elementary and high school years. I feel that even though I put all that hard work into baseball, towards the end of my time playing I had a completely skewed perspective of how to measure success. Part of that I guess I would contribute to youthful ignorance. However, another factor that I think contributed was that I wasn’t ever really taught how to measure success. Now, I’m not intending to lay blame on anyone, by any stretch of the imagination. I had some great coaches from tee-ball all the way up to varsity baseball. However, I feel that with all of the time that I spent developing the physical tools to succeed, (i.e. keeping my hands back on offspeed pitches, fielding ground balls, hitting cut offs, etc.) I had no idea how to approach the psychological aspect of baseball.
Now I sit here at 27 years old and through all of the life experiences I’ve had so far, I’ve finally realized how important the mental aspect of baseball is if you want to be successful.
As I continue to coach baseball over my next few years at Maplewood, I would really like to help young athletes develop a mental approach to baseball. That’s what separates the good baseball players from the great ones. Once you start competing at levels above high school, everyone is talented. Everyone was an All-County athlete and can throw hard and run fast. The cream of the crop is the group of players that not only can hit and field, but understand how to approach hitting and fielding.
One of the hardest things for most baseball players to understand is how to deal with ‘failure’ in baseball (the word ‘failure’ should never really be used, but that’s a whole different topic on its own merit. I digress). If I formally asked, I would wager that most players on my time would measure their success based on their at-bats (which is just one part of the game. But I digress yet again). Most players would consider a successful at-bat based on whether they get a hit or not. I know this because after watching a lot of my players’ at-bats, after they popped up or grounded out or struck out, they walked back behind the fence, slammed their helmet down, and then went to the bench and sulked. If you understand baseball, you can imagine how frustrating it must be to measure your success based on whether you get out or not. Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters to ever step into a batter’s box, once hit .406 in a single season. That means that 60% of the time he went up to bat, he didn’t get a hit.
If you try and measure success in baseball by your batting average or how many hits your get, you’re going to be a very unhappy ball player.
Stop and think about it for a second. As a hitter, once you swing and put your bat on the ball, you can’t dictate what happens. It’s completely, 100% out of your control. What a hitter can control, however, is his approach before that at-bat. And that’s what I really want to stress to these kids. They’re at an age where they can and need to understand the difference between setting goals. Most of these kids set result goals, which are completely out of their control, like hitting .300 or driving in 20 runs. Those are ends, not means.
What I really want this kids to work on instead is an approach to the game. I want them to set behavioral goals, which are things that are within their control. If I can get my players to set behavioral goals, when they start to struggle (which the law of averages states they will), they will have something to focus on and think about. An approach is what leads towards positive results, and if they can see it in action, well then maybe they’ll be able to start to wrap their heads around what it means to be successful in baseball. Success is not the batting average, the hits, the home runs or even the wins. It’s about understanding what you’re about as a ball player. It’s being able to ignore other people’s expectations and achieving functional goals you set for yourself. It’s about making adjustments in the the middle of game or an at-bat. Letting rational thought consume you instead of emotion or perceived emotion (I can get a primate to slam its helmet off the ground after he strikes out. What I need is a ballplayer to set his helmet down and stop and think about why he struck out so the next at-bat he can go out there and stick that pitcher).
When people found out that I was coaching baseball or after they knew that I was coaching, the first question they ask is, ‘How’s your team doing?’ The literal translation of that is, ‘How many games have you won?’ Some people will ask that outright. Other people will try and tip-toe around that topic, like a dammed pink elephant in the room. Don’t pussyfoot around that question if you want to know. Please. Unless my team out-right gives up, I’ll never be embarrassed about wins and losses. Do I enjoy losing? Not at all. Am I going to allow the identity of my team to be measured in wins and losses? Absolutely not.
I’m not naive enough to think that I can come in and wave a magical wand over Maplewood High School and think that I can change the mentality of hormonal teenagers over night. However, I’m going to work my ass off these next couple years to try and get my point across. I’ll make sure we take care of the physical conditioning, but they’re going to have to put the time in for the mental end of it.
Like the players, however, as a coach, I can only control what I have the capability to control.