The Swing follows the mind, not the other way around
Hitting is not just about physical mechanics. Though, mechanics are important in the grand scheme of things, the support of a players mind, or lack thereof, is what ultimately dictates a hitters success.
When hitters go from batting practice to game situations they simply don’t forget how to swing a bat. They’ve had thousands and thousands of mechanical repetitions. But what mental repetitions have hitters earned through practice to rely on when they enter the batters box? What mental skills are in place to deal with the potential pressures, consequences and statistics of a game situation? What have hitters done through a daily mental practice to insure that their mind is Quiet, Clear, Relaxed and Free? Does a physically prepared swing necessarily translate into a prepared mind?
One of the major reasons why hitters may find that their physically prepared swing may not be translating into game situations is because they haven’t worked on their mental approach to hitting. In many cases, it may simply be because they’ve never delved into this part of the game…they’ve never identified what their mental approach is, and/or how to work on it through various Drills, Strategies and Mental Exercises (e.g. Relaxation, Imagery, Visualization).
The goal of this article is to do just that — to help you understand how to have a more consistent, mental approach to hitting by: 1) incorporating various mental drills that can be applied on a daily basis (at the practice field) without even swinging a bat, 2) understanding, philosophically, the importance of eliminating the distinction between the practice field and the game environment, and 3) developing a daily mental practice routine away from the playing field.
For unless the mental approach to hitting is identified and addressed, players (and coaches) may wonder why a physically, well earned swing, is not translating into game situations.
“It’s not your swing that changes between the lines”
In all of my years of consulting, it seems pretty clear that most hitters seem to make a major distinction between how they approach and experience the “practice” environment, and how they approach and experience the “performance” environment. For example, in the practice environment, players tend to get used to repeating their swing in a “relaxed” state of mind compared to the potential “stressors” of a game situation. They get “familiar” with this environment, as does their mind, because there aren’t any “real” distractions or consequences at stake (winning, losing, statistics, playing time).
As familiar as practice is, game situations are inversely “unfamiliar” (at least until the daily schedule of professional baseball). For example, the average at-bat in a game situation may last one to two minutes. Four to five at-bats a game equate to approximately five to ten minutes — five to ten minutes of being in an actual game situation “mind-set” pales in comparison to the countless hours a week in a practice environment. The reality is, players spend way more time a “practice” mode, and thus, tend to get a false sense of comfort with their preparation.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the typical characteristics that players will tend to associate with a “practice situation” relative to that of a “game situation”. These characteristics include: relaxed, clear minded, free, confident and the absence of major distractions (consequences, statistics, fans, media, umpires, scouts, etc.). Now let’s take a look at those characteristics that may be associated with a game situation because things “count”: tension, pressure, over-thinking and the presence of major distractions (consequences, statistics, fans, media, umpires, scouts, etc.).
What do you think happens when the typical hitter crosses the line and puts the uniform on? Do you think that their mind is as relaxed and comfortable as it is in practice? Do you think that they are the same hitter in the batters box on game day? For most hitters, “putting the uniform on” when “statistics count” can bring into play a lot more variables not only because “consequences” are now in play, but because the mind may be dealing with the foreign elements of a game situation. Unlike a players physical swing, which doesn’t need to “compute” the changing environment, the mind will tend to need some type of mental strategy and/or skill work to make the adjustments to this potentially foreign territory.
In short, the variables that a hitter must deal with in a game situation are relatively foreign compared to the familiarity of a practice environment. This is the irony of why a large percentage of hitters, who work so hard on their hitting in practice, may find it difficult to translate this hard work into a game situation.
Mental Training: Skills Are Learned And Earned
So, how do you work on your mind? How do you get your “mental mechanics” to be as reliable and consistent as your physical mechanics? Well, the first thing you must do is realize that you earned your physical swing mechanics, and that earning your mental mechanics aren’t any different.
The good news is that your mind, like your swing, wants to be trained, taught and practiced. But to do this, it needs your help…it needs input.
Files in the Computer
The beauty of a computer is that it can be programmed to do what you want it to do. It can store files that can be retrieved much in the same manner that the human brain stores memory that can be retrieved. This is the reason why you don’t think about “how” to ride a bike. You do it because the muscle memory has been ingrained and the brain “recalls” those “files”. It happens unconsciously.
Similarly, physical swing mechanics get ingrained due to muscle memory and become stored as a “file”. This is why you don’t think about your mechanics while you are hitting. You also just do it. Theoretically, you could say that from a physical standpoint, your swing mechanics also happen unconsciously.
But what happens when you haven’t “filed” away any mental mechanics? What happens when you get into a game situation and you want to recall such files as clear, relax, free, patient, disciplined, confident, and they haven’t been “programmed”? Not to mention that the computer tends to be more inefficient when it is cluttered by the potential additional “data” of a game situation (potential consequences, statistics, results, distractions). How efficient is your computer going to run now? How clear are your messages going to be? How smooth are your actions going to be? If you don’t store “mental files” through mental practice then how can you expect to recall any of this data from your computer?
4 Drills to Input Data (Files) into the Mind and Body
“Don’t just know your swing…know your mind”
The following 4 drills were designed to help hitters identify their mental approach to hitting by understanding what it means to 1) Get in the batters box with an ideal state of mind (Drills #1 and #2), 2) Get to know their ideal hitting zones through improved pitch selection and discipline (Drill #3), and 3) Learn to maintain the same approach by eliminating the consequences of the situation by committing to their process (Drill #4). Drill #4 helps hitters learn to focus on what they can control (their process) rather than those things that tend to be out of their control.
Drill #1: The Box of Unconscious
When you get down to the most fundamental elements of having a good at-bat, it would be hard to disagree with the notion that it starts with a clear and relaxed mind. When the mind is clear and relaxed, it’s safe to say that your natural instincts (reactions) are in the most ideal position to take over without any inhibition.
Likewise, physical muscle memory (files) can best take over when tension, stress and pressure is not blocking its path. A relaxed mind also allows you to see the ball better, longer and more specifically. In baseball terms, this equates, to more patience and better plate discipline. With improvement in those two areas alone, we’re off to a great start.
In order to develop a clear and relaxed mind in the batters box it would be helpful to learn how to “clear” and “relax” your mind prior to getting in the batters box. This can be done several different ways: 1) by taking 10-15 deep breaths, 2) by focusing on a specific spot on either your bat, batting glove or other specific spot on the field for a period of time, 3) by using an image or visual that helps you symbolically identify with this feeling, like a clear sky or placid lake (Note: The familiarity of a daily mental training practice, ie breath work, can be extremely helpful in enabling you get to this place more effectively (Please see Mental Practice Plans, Collegiate Baseball, January 2012 — https://www.jaegersports.com/press_articles.php?psid=31).
In any case, in Drill #1, the idea is to spend a few minutes getting as clear and relaxed as possible prior to entering the batters box. For many hitters, this alone can be extremely valuable by simply bringing into their awareness what their “mind-set” is like both outside, and inside the batters box. This Drill also provides a second major benefit in that the effectiveness of the next 3 drills are impacted by how clear and relaxed you can get the mind (and body) to be.
Drill #1 is called the “Box of Unconscious” for just this reason — the idea is that once the mind and body are in an ideal state, we want to transfer this state into the batters box without having any other thoughts on our mind, including, swinging the bat (all 3 drills are done with a bat in hand, but without swinging).
Since the batters box has a deleination already (the chalk), the idea is that once a players steps into the “Box of “Unconsciousness”, they are in instinct mode. No thought…pure reaction. This is an ideal state of mind because senses are heightened, and the mind can see things clearer (in the same manner that hitters will see a ball extremely well when they are bunting or given the take sign on a 3-0 pitch).
The rule of thumb here is that the hitter doesn’t step into the batters box until their mind is as clear, quiet and as thought-less as possible.
Thus, the hitter should draw a line in the batters box (if it’s not already chalked) and make a distinction between “inside” and “outside” the batters box. Inside the batters box represents “The Box of Unconscious.” Anything the hitter would theoretically want to think about (mechanics, the count, the defense, coaches sign, etc) must be done outside the batters box. The mind needs to be as quiet, silent and thought-less as possible before entering the box (they are allowed to have a “visual”, as will be discussed later).
Practice this drill each day, and see if you can get each hitter to a point where they are getting much better (skilled) at “getting into the batters box with little or nothing on your mind”. This is invaluable to not only understanding the importance of getting into the batters box “with a quiet mind”, but creating an awareness of their mental and physical state in the batters box. By learning how to get in the batters box with a clear mind and relaxed body in Drill #1, it not only bring a high level of awareness of optimizing your state of mind in the batters box, but again, sets the stage for optimizing drills 2, 3 and 4.
Note: If you find that hitters have a hard time making this transition from “thinking” to non-thinking at first, it‘s simply a sign that hitters minds may be typically more active then they were aware of. Naturally, this is very useful information.
Drill #2: Identifying Your Ideal State of Mind
“When you’re not free in the mind, you’re not free in the swing”
What is the most ideal state of mind to be in when hitting? If you asked 100 successful hitters you’ll probably hear them describe very similar characteristics: relaxation, clarity of mind, discipline, balance, confidence. Not that there aren’t other characteristics to include, but I think it’s safe to say that if a players mind is Clear, Relaxed and Confident, they are in a great position to excel.
Drill #2 is designed to help players become both aware of their ideal state of mind when they are in the batters box, and their ability to maintain this state of mind while tracking balls.
The way this drill works is each hitter should pick approximately three of the most ideal characteristics (have them write these down ahead of time) that they identify with both physically and mentally when they are in the batters box (e.g. Clear, Relaxed, Trusting). Next, have each player enter the “Box of Unconscious” experiencing these feelings as much as possible.
Once in the box, the goal of this drill is to see how well each hitter can maintain those characteristics that had previously been written down (e.g Clear, Relaxed, Trusting) as a ball is thrown to them by someone standing approximately 45 feet away (at about 50% of batting practice speed). As each hitter tracks the ball from the release point until the ball crosses the plate, they should rate themselves on how well they experienced and maintained these characteristics on a scale of 1 to 100. This rating is based on how each hitters mind responded in relation to their “ideal” state of mind. If the mind/body was completely immersed with these three predetermined characteristics (e.g. Clear, Relaxed, Trusting) then they would give themselves a high rating, in the range of 90-100. If the hitter felt considerably tense, anxious, impatient, over-analytical, etc., they would then rate themselves near the bottom of the scale, like 0-20.
As a side note, over a 15 year stretch of doing these drills with professional hitters for the first time, the typical “rating” would average around 55 — and this was done in a bull-pen environment, in the Fall, with very little distractions around (with practice, these numbers were consistently 80 and above). This shows you how much may be going on in the mind without even the potential added distractions, pressures and consequences of a game situation.
You can see that if a well prepared swing is guided by a mind that has not been trained to identify with it’s most strategically beneficial qualities (e.g. Relaxed, Clarity, Trust), it would be unrealistic to assume that these ideal characteristics would translate into game situation, where even a well prepared swing can be especially vulnerable to the potential stressors and consequences of a game situation without any mental practice.
Essentially, Drill #2 is designed to isolate the mind and evaluate its’ response to tracking pitches without worrying about having to focus on swing mechanics, or even hitting the ball. It’s the mind that you are working on here, not your swing. As you get more practiced at these drills, you will tend to find that your mind is more in tune and identified with this ideal state of mind rather than the typical things a hitter may think about in batting practice or game situations. And this is a major goal of mental practice — to train your mind how to default to those characteristics that are going to best support you in a game situation (e.g. Relaxed, Clarity, Trust), rather than those characteristics that may come with the environment of a game environment.
Drill 3: Plate Discipline — Identifying Your Hitting Lanes
Give the mind a reason to swing at strikes
Once you’ve become well practiced at entering the Box Of Unconscious with your Ideal State Of Mind, you are in an great position to see the ball longer, clearer and with more patience and discipline. For any hitter, this is so important because hitting is so much about pitch selection and plate discipline.
Drill #3 is about knowing the strike zone, and identifying your most ideal hitting zones or lanes.
As you know, there are 3 basic hitting zones: the inner (Lane 1), middle (Lane 2) and outer portion (Lane 3) of the plate. If each hitter sees the ball better as a result of getting into the Box Of Unconscious effectively (Drill #1), and having a 90-100 rating (Drill 2), then they are already in a better position to see and identify their specific hitting lanes more clearly. Seeing the ball more clearly naturally allows hitters to distinguish between those lanes that they want to swing at (green light) and those they want to avoid (red light).
In Drill #3, the goal of the hitter is to identify their ideal fastball to hit (you can eventually work on other pitches) on the inner third of the plate, or “lane” 1 (we’ll do lane 2 and 3 in a moment). The idea is that the “Lane” starts at the pitchers release point and ends at the point of contact on the sweet part of the bat. This lane should be at the ideal height over the inner third of the plate (e.g. thigh high), and should be a pitch that is drivable. To keep it very specific, the lane should be about the size of a softball in diameter (eventually, you’ll probably end up hitting balls well that are a little broader, or blend into your ideal lane 2 and 3).
The way this drill works is as follows — again, have someone throw fastballs at 50% speed from about 45 feet away. The hitters job is to say “yes” only if the ball is in lane 1, again, using the circumference of a softball as the measuring stick. The idea is to be so specific within this hitting lane that anything else becomes a “no” (even an ideal pitch in lane 2 or 3). The first time you do this, you may find it difficult to identify and isolate only lane 1, and if you are able to identify it as being in the correct lane, saying “yes” before the ball crosses the plate. With practice, hitters will tend to not only know their lanes more consistently, but the “yes’s” will tend to come with less “mental effort” and closer to the pitchers’ release point.
This is a powerful connection for the hitter to make. To be able to pick up the ball closer to the pitchers release point has so much to do with a clear, patient and disciplined mind. This drill would be extremely beneficial for a hitter who only has a split second to decide whether or not to swing. It also starts to reinforce to each hitter through repetition and muscle memory what pitches they will naturally swing at and what pitches they will naturally take. All of a sudden a hitters mind is getting used to swinging at specific hitting lanes (green light) while getting used to taking balls outside of these hitting lanes (red light).
One of the great benefits of this drill is that the mind wants to get specific — it wants a game plan — it wants to know where to go, and where not to go. With that in mind, Drill #3 is about teaching the mind how to “hunt” for those lanes it’s interested in, and leave alone those lanes that can get the hitter in trouble. This “sculpting” of the mind helps the mind assimilates to those specific, ideal hitting lanes, or “bread and butter lanes” (this drill is designed to optimize your most preferred zones in “luxury counts”).
This is why you hear hitters talking about “getting locked-in”. They may not realize it but their mind is so tuned into what it wants and what it expects. This expectation of the lane creates a sensation or “light” that attracts the muscle memory to respond to it because of the practice. What can then happen in a game situation is that if the pitch is a ball or outside the stored lanes, the mind can be in a position to not respond to it (red light). If you train the mind to look for something specific through repetition then it tends to gravitate toward that stimuli. This is classic habituation — the body responding to a specific reinforcement that has been repeated over and over.
The same is done for Lanes 2 and 3. Hitters should be only looking for the perfect pitch to hit in Lane 2. If the perfect pitch comes into Lane 1, the response is still a “no”. Remember, we are working on lane identification and plate discipline, not hitting at this point.
When a player can stand in the batters box with their mind at a rating of 90-100, and their “yes’s” are happening naturally and closer to the pitchers release point, than you know that their mind is being sculpted and developed just as their physical mechanics have been developed. And just as the physical swing has been well practiced to be relied on, the practicing of these lanes can lead to mental reliability in game situations. Remember, reliability leads to trust. Trust is the source of confidence.
Drill #4: Consequential At-Bats — Eliminating the Distinction
‘When the mind is consumed by the Process of hitting, consequences eliminate themselves”
Once players can get into the “Box of Unconscious” with a 90-100 state of mind, and have “filed” away both their hitting (green) and non hitting (red) lanes, you can now work on teaching hitters how to “stay connected” or default back to their mental practice (Drills 1, 2, 3) without focusing on the potential distractions of a game situation. Through this drill, you’ll find out if players are able to maintain these drills or approach (process) or whether or not they are effected by game like situations that are “simulated” in this drill.
For Drill #4, call out a specific, consequential situation (e.g. bases loaded, winning run on third) prior to each hitter entering the Box of Unconscious. Then, remind them that the situation is actually irrelevant because their process (commitment to the way they get into the box, and their commitment to the hitting lane they are looking for) is all that matters.
Next, ask each hitter to choose a lane (which is based on favorable counts, for example, 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1). When hitters have the luxury to look for a specific “bread and butter” lane, their mind will tend to want to “recall” those lanes that have been previously ingrained. Though, this approach is based on luxury counts, and specific lanes, a player still has a great chance of hitting other pitches that are “close” to this predetermined lane (green lights) due to previous mental practice. Even with two strikes, hitters can’t really afford to sit on one lane, they can still trust that their lanes will “take over” (Note: the more ingrained these lanes get the more a player can look for a specific lane and still react instinctively to the other lanes).
The idea of this drill is to prove to each hitter that when they trust their process, consequences are naturally eliminated. In other words, each hitter no longer needs to worry about the consequences of the situation because they are too preoccupied with their approach or process. This is the key to a great at-bat — to be so consumed by your approach that everything else becomes irrelevant — to be so consumed by the present moment that the past and future cease to exist.
Thus, Drill #4 is about learning to rely on a hitters process (Drills 1, 2, 3) rather than “buying” into the consequences of the at bat. By having the ability, through practice, to get into the batters box (Box Of Unconscious) with an ideal state of mind and know to look for an ideal lane (visual) that the mind has been trained to look for (green light), each hitter can learn to focus on committing to a plan (process) that has been put in place.
Ideally, when a hitter sees that the “bases are loaded” or the winning run is on third in a game situation, the situation can be seen as secondary if the mind has been trained to default back to its plan (process).
Heed The Call
“Prepare your mind and your swing will follow…not the other way around”
Physical mechanics rarely change unless the mind changes from one environment to the next. Because the mind is more of an unknown commodity due to its lack of training and skill development, it’s safe to say that until the mind gets a great deal more of the attention it deserves, hitters may be rolling the dice with their careers.
Remember, skills like Relaxation, Clarity, Confidence, Discipline and Freedom are earned. These four drills were designed to provide some “practice time” and mental development to prepare the mind so it can be better prepared to be relied upon — that it is in a better position to default to those things that have to do with your approach or process in a game situation. And once these drills have had a chance to be integrated, hitting can be simplified to mastering your process and recognizing that if anything else comes into your mind, it is secondary.
But keep in mind that as beneficial as these drills can be, they are just part of the training. I would strongly suggest that you consider and additional 10-20 minutes a day of some form of mental practice (Relaxation, Breath Work, Meditation, Visualization) away from the playing field to augment these drills (Please see Mental Practice Plans, Collegiate Baseball, January 2012 — https://www.jaegersports.com/press_articles.php?psid=31).
Remember, the mind wants to be developed like any other skill. I hope you make the time to nurture it.
Alan Jaeger has consulted with several high school/college programs including National Champions UCLA (2013), U of Arizona (2012) and Cal State Fullerton (2004), and MLB Organizations including the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians. For more information about Jaeger Sports and their products (“Thrive On Throwing 2” DVD or Digital Download, J-Bands and Mental Training Book, “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”), please visit their website at www.jaegersports.com or call 310-665-0746.