Just Breathe!

As discussed before, I think most people would agree the mental game in baseball is a crucial skill to help players succeed at high levels of competition.  Due to the long season, the time between action, and a multitude of other factors, players of all abilities are vulnerable to poor thinking patterns which can erode a player’s confidence and hurt their performance.  Having a strong mental game helps players get control of themselves so they can compete in all environments and learn how to deal with failure, manage success, and keep their emotions from ruining their love of the game.  


Like anything else, the mental game is a skill and must be practiced for you to get better at it!  Therefore, coaches must find ways to incorporate the mental game into practice so kids can learn and work at it!  Looking at the mental game as a whole can be overwhelming, so over the next several blog posts I’m going to be posting simple ideas that all coaches can use to help train it.  If it’s good enough for Mike Trout, Anthony Rizzo, John Maddon, Manny Ramirez, Derek Johnson, and many more – it’s good enough for you.  

The first step to building a strong mental game is mastering the most fundamental element of life –
breathing!  A quality deep breath does wonders for an athlete and should the first step in learning how to manage the game from the neck up.  In the words of Alan Jaeger, “The breath, like the engine to your car, is the key to keeping the body and mind running smoothly and efficiently.”  

As for physical benefits,
the breath brings oxygen to the brain to help you think clearly.  This is crucial because the brain cannot differentiate between different types of stress.  In other words, it cannot tell the difference between you on the mound in a pressure situation, or you being chased by a sabertooth tiger!  Both will take an according toll on your body despite being completely different circumstances!    

This may sound funny, but
your brain’s number one priority is survival.  Any sort of threat will turn on the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) in your CNS.  If you cannot get oxygen to your brain and rationalize the situation, your body will go into the “flight” stage, shut down, and allocate all resources towards keeping you safe.  This is great for when you’re being chased for your life, but not so great when it comes to executing fine motor skills.  Don’t make baseball a life or death situation when you’re up to bat with the game on the line – just breathe!    


Along with this, breathing helps release tension throughout the body.  Loose muscles are fast muscles.  Any sort of tension from toes to fingertips will keep you from moving freely, athletically, and will have a negative impact on balance, rhythm, and timing.  Breathing, on the other hand, will do just the opposite.  For players who struggle with this and controlling nerves before/during games, get them to focus on the exhale portion of the breath.  On the contrary, focusing on the inhale is a great way to help increase energy levels.

Another physical benefit to breathing is it shows
positive body language.  A quality deep breath should be noticeably different from just a regular breath.  Athletes must learn how to enlarge their diaphragm by puffing their chest and elevating their shoulders.  This expands the lungs and helps counteract bad body language such as lowered eyes and hunched shoulders. Psychologists will argue that up to 70% of your communication is done non-verbally.  Be careful of the message you’re sending to other team.  Hitters are like sharks, and they feast when they smell blood.

As for intangible benefits, the breath is a great tool to
let go of the last pitch and get focused on the next pitch.  There is great freedom is enabling athletes to play with their sole focus on the pitch they are about to see.  If they’re constantly bogged down by the emotions of the last pitch or any pitch before that, their performance will snowball out of control.  Breathe in the emotions, bad thoughts, anxieties – and then exhale them out. Be where your feet are.    


The breath is also a great way to “check-in” with how an athlete is feeling physically and mentally during training or competition.  If an athlete is unable to get a complete inhale and exhale without being cut short, it is a sign that they are losing control.  As Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza say in Heads Up Baseball 2.0, “Your breath is something to go to to determine if you’re in control of yourself, and it simultaneously helps you get control of yourself.”  Awareness is a crucial part of the mental game, and you can’t be aware of how you’re feeling if you’re not aware of how you’re breathing.    


Lastly, breathing helps you transition from training to trusting.  If you were to think about your most successful performances, I think most all of you would realize that you weren’t really thinking about anything at all.  This would be known as trusting – letting the work you’ve done unfold on the field without any conscious thought.  Confident and successful athletes keep things simple, minimize thinking, and play with their eyes.  While there is a time and place for training and conscious thought, it is not on the competitive field.  Use what you have, trust the work you’ve put in, and compete with everything you have to win the next pitch.  Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.  


Implementing the Mental Game into Practice


Coaches – In your practices, keep it simple for kids: get them to first learn how to take a deep, visible breath.  If you can’t tell they’re breathing from the dugout, they’re not doing it correctly.  Also, do not let kids rush the breath – let them take their time on the inhale and completely exhale the breath.  The exhale should be forceful enough so that kids are able to feel the tension being released from their body.  Kids can add to this by shaking their arms, legs, and releasing their shoulders at the conclusion of their breath.  

Another huge point is 
the breath must have a purpose behind it.  If kids are breathing but putting no intent behind it, they won’t get anything out of it – just like going through the motions in anything.  To help with this, get athletes to notice the air coming in, the air going out, and how each breath makes them feel. Utilizing a quality deep breath is a great way to slow the athlete’s heart rate.  If they still feel tension and anxiety after a few breaths, get them to slow things down and create a purpose behind each breath by bringing awareness to it.  


Once you’ve taught athletes how to breathe, get them to incorporate it into their daily practice routines!  Teach them to use the breath in the warm-up and how to exhale as they reach the end range of motion in their body (yoga had this figured out a while ago).  When an athlete boots a ball, get them to take a deep breath and release the error they just made. If a hitter rolls over a ball they know they should have crushed, tell them to step out, look at a letter on their bat, and take a deep breath before stepping back into the box.  Get your pitchers to take quality deep breaths between every pitch – in practices and in games. If you don’t do it in practice, don’t expect it to magically show up in games.  


Be creative in how you teach each kid to utilize the breath, but keep the main thing the main thing: When the game starts to speed up, get kids to breathe and slow it down!    


For more information about different ways to use the breath, when to use it, and how to improve it, Alan Jaeger’s blog (see Mental Practice: A Daily Routine and Mental Training Talk and Practice) thoughts from Lantz Wheeler, and Heads Up Baseball 2.0 are a good place to start.  


Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns!  


Keep learning and growing.    

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