To review our mental game series, we have covered a variety of concepts which include learning how to breathe, designing an approach, controlling the controllables, creating routines, and developing a release.  While this doesn’t summarize it all, it’s a great start to helping your kids develop the game between the ears.  All that’s left at this point is arguably the most important skill of them all: COMPETING!

Competing, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated and undervalued skills in youth baseball today.  A large reason why I believe this is because of the culture we have created at the youth level.  Instead of developing competitors, we are developing “lesson babies” who believe their secret pill to success is in some small mechanical tweak.  Just underneath the ball? Make sure you keep your hands up!  Hit a ground ball to short?  Make sure you don’t roll those wrists!  Oh, and don’t forget to stay back, step straight, and take your hands to the ball while managing to track a pitch traveling through space at 90 miles per hour at the same time.   

As a result, we’ve created kids who can’t stop thinking about their mechanics in games when mechanics are the last thing they need to be thinking about!  Hitters have under three tenths of a second to decide pitch type, speed, location, and whether they should swing or not.  Any focus that is not on the baseball is wasted.  Did you seriously think reminding Joey about his back elbow would be a good idea when he’s got fractions of a second to do arguably the hardest thing in all of sports?  

As a baseball community, we need to get away from this fixed mindset of thinking that mechanics lead to success.  If mechanics are the reason why athletes succeed, why have no two people in the history of baseball ever had the same exact mechanics?  Why do some guys who have pretty swings never make it out of high school, while some others with “bad mechanics” play professionally?  The answer lies between the ears.  If you’re an aspiring player and you want to maximize your window in baseball, forget the mechanics and get great at competing.     

What is Competing?

In Heads Up Baseball 2.0, Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza define competing as “giving 100% of what you’ve got right now to win the next pitch.”  Note they did not say anything about feeling good, having your best stuff, or needing perfect conditions.  Competing is messy and demands everything you have – but nothing more.  Some days will be great, some days will be alright, and other days will be just plain ugly.

Jon Lester talks about this saying out of 30 starts in a big league season, he will have his “A” game for 5, his “C” game for 5, and the rest he will have to battle with his “B” game.  Those 20 starts with his B game are where his season is made.  Great competitors find ways to adjust, compensate, take punches, and return punches regardless of how they feel.  In Ravizza’s words, “Are you really that crappy of a baseball player that you have to feel good to perform well? Feeling good is overrated.”  

Anthony Rizzo, All-Star First Baseman for the Chicago Cubs, talked about the importance of competing saying, “The key for me is just competing and not really worrying from pitch to pitch about how my swing feels or how I’m feeling mechanically that day. It doesn’t matter how I feel today, I’m going to beat you. I’m going to will it to happen.

Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Super Bowl champion, uses competition as his overarching theme for the Seahawks.  In his book Win Forever, Carroll talks about how he instills an “always compete” mindset into his players. Whether it’s their competition, teammates in practice, or themselves, Carroll wants his players to constantly strive to compete and get the most out of their abilities.  

Dean Smith, Hall of Fame basketball coach at North Carolina, used competition in every drill he organized for his teams.  There was always something on the line and a consequence for the loser.  Through this structure, he was able to teach his players to compete just the way they would in a game.  

Ron Wolforth at the Texas Baseball Ranch uses competition on a daily basis to help get the most out of his pitchers.  Athletes call locations out loud and are forced to do a punishment for every target missed. When athletes become accustomed to challenges, they are forced to adapt to a new circumstance (different sloped mound, weighted baseball, fatigue induced, etc.).  Those who love competing thrive.  Those who can’t crumble under the pressure.  

How to Implement  

The good news is that competing is a skill and can be taught – just like any other skill.  The biggest predictor of competitiveness, according to Milwaukee Brewers pitching coordinator Jake McKinley, is the environment the athlete has grown up in.  It’s no coincidence many great athletes spent their youth years competing in backyard sports.    

In McKinley’s 2019 ABCA convention presentation, he broke down competition into three different components: Self-competition, competition against others, and unspoken/organic competition.

Self-competition is any sort of challenge aimed at developing a specific individual beyond their current capabilities.  Examples of how to utilize this include:

  • Constraints
    • Ex: Using obstacles to teach right-left infield footwork, how to avoid baserunner on double plays
  • Variability
    • Ex: Different length/weighted bats, different size/weighted baseballs, plyo balls
  • Targets
    • Ex: Pitching to a specific target, hitting a certain part of the cage/field
  • “Edge” training (getting guys to compete at levels that just exceed their current skill level)
    • Ex: Moving the hitter closer/farther away from a pitching machine to simulate different velocities, lifting heavy weights
  • Stopwatch
    • Ex: Making plays from the infield in less than four seconds, plays from the outfield in less than seven seconds
  • Radar gun
    • Ex: Needing to hit three out of five balls over 85 mph, beating a personal record in throwing velocity

Competition against others is exactly what you see in a game: Man vs. man – one winner, one loser.  You can get as creative with this as you’d like, but the idea is simple: Beat the guy in front of you.  Below are some ideas to help you design your own:

  • Pair people of similar abilities for challenges
    • Ex: Do a velo competition with guys who throw hard, command competitions with your highest strike percentage throwers
  • Use handicaps for guys of different skill levels
    • Ex: Have a slower athlete start at a shorter distance than a faster athlete, give less powerful athletes +5 mph on their exit velocities
  • Physical challenges can be great ideas, but also poor ones
    • Speed is a great skill to enhance using competition, but doing as-many-reps-as-possible (AMRAP) push-ups for a minute is a great way to reinforce poor movement patterns. The emphasis must always be on good movement.
  • No gray areas, no ties
    • There are no ties in baseball games. You either win or you lose. The winner and loser must be clear.
  • Teach kids how to be their own officials
    • 21 is a great game to teach catch play, but also a great way to teach kids how to resolve conflict. A winning-at-all-costs mindset is dangerous. Play the right way, accept defeat, move on to the next challenge.
  • Reward effort, don’t undermine it
    • Give points for accomplished tasks, refrain from subtracting points for miscues. You want to create athletes to rise to the challenge over athletes who are afraid to screw up.
  • Create teams for challenges
    • Have kids draft teams and get after it. After all, you are competing against a team in a game.
  • Encourage emotion, involvement from teammates
    • Competition will bring out the best and worst of everyone. Let kids be who they are and encourage their teammates to cheer them on. Use this energy to enhance the environment.

Unspoken or organic competitions are ways to help create competition by unifying your team to accomplish different objectives.  Since competition can bring out the worst in people, unspoken competitions are a great way to create cooperation while still increasing the intensity of a challenge.  Some examples include:

  • Having to hit a certain number or percentage of balls over 80 mph
  • Throwing at least 60% strikes throughout a team bullpen session
  • Taking a clean round of infield before ending practice
  • Completing a physical challenge under a certain time
  • Posting leaderboards of batting exit velocities, command percentage, throwing velocity, weight room personal bests, etc.
  • Celebrate when kids crush records. A candle does not lose its light when it lights another candle.  

*See the entire presentation here.

Overall Notes for Competition

  • Keep verbal involvement with competitions at a minimum.  The environment you create as a coach is the most important aspect of competition – not verbal feedback.
  • Let kids fail.  We learn the most from our biggest setbacks.  Be there to lend a helping hand, but let athletes work through the challenges themselves.  Considering the failure rate of some of the best hitters in the game, it’s important to let kids cope and respond to it.  
  • Create challenges that have immediate feedback.  This includes numbers, scores, exit velocities, batted/thrown ball feedback, and other results.
  • Self, others, and unspoken competition do not have to operate exclusively.  Combine these to get the best bang for your buck.  
  • Make sure athletes have some sort of adequate skill level before turning it into a competition.  Challenges should be stimulating and push athletes just on the edge of their abilities – not over or underwhelm them.
  • Be creative.  No one drill will make or break an athlete.  Designing competition has no limits.
  • Use your athletes as feedback.  They will tell you whether the challenge is too hard or too easy.
  • Competition brings out an innate quality in human beings that pushes performance to the limits.  If you want to bring the best out of your athletes as a coach, it must be utilized as much as possible.  
  • When athletes hang up the cleats for good, they will soon enter the real world where they will have to compete for jobs.  Sports are an incredible platform to teach qualities that will help them compete beyond their playing days.  At the end of the day, we’re trying to build better men and women through sport.  

As always, reach out to us with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.

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