Choking Part Two
Last week we examined some of the situations where baseball players “choke”, and found that “pressing” usually results in “choking”.
Now we’re going to learn how not to press and therefore not choke.
Prepare – Physically, and Visually
Preparation is the key to success in any sport (or business, for that matter). When you practice, you are prepared, and when you are prepared, you are confident. When you’re confident, the worries go away. Without worries, you won’t feel the need to “press”, or otherwise attempt to go above and beyond your capabilities.
Naturally you will practice your skills before a “big” game — you should be practicing all the time, regardless of the “importance” of a particular contest. As with a “regular” game, you should be thinking about what, specifically, you need to address. For example, your opponent may be adept at stealing bases and bunting; in preparation, you (as a coach) would want to provide extra drills in those areas. As a batter, you may know that the opposition’s starting pitcher has a blazing fastball; therefore, you’ll want to dial up the pitching machine to acquaint yourself with the velocity. As a pitcher, you may be going into a park with unusually short fences; as a result, your plan might be to spend extra time in bullpens pounding the bottom half of the plate.
In addition to your physical practice, mix in visualization. See yourself in various situations and moments in the “big” game. Close your eyes and picture the field, smell the grass, hear the crowd cheering. Always “feel” like it’s a 1-1 game, bottom of the ninth, two outs — so that when and if that situation does come up, you’ve already been there (sort of).
Stay Within Yourself
I think I heard this cliche about ten thousand times during my high school career (this and “Keep It Simple Stupid” were the catch-phrases in sports during the 1980s). But unlike many buzz words, this one has some validity.
If you’ve never heard it, or numbed yourself from its meaning, “stay within yourself” means to to understand your skills and limitations and perform within them. Some people confuse this idea with a lack of effort, but that would be misunderstanding the concept. For example, if you’ve never thrown a baseball more than 82 MPH, don’t go out and try to crack 90. Instead, do all that you can do with that 82 — thread a needle, make it dance, change locations, work something offspeed from it. Similarly, if you are a contact hitter with 3 career homers in 10 years of competition, and you find yourself at the plate with the bases-loaded, two outs, and your team down by three, don’t swing for the fence. Stay within your limitations — as you would in any other at-bat — and do your best to put the bat on the ball. Focus on the pitch, find the ball, get the barrel out to it — from there, whatever happens, happens.
We used Alex Rodriguez as an example of someone in the big leagues who presses in the postseason. He’s arguably the best hitter in all MLB, yet once the playoff start he (admittedly) has a tendency to get away from the best use of his talents by expanding the strike zone (swinging at pitches that are not strikes). That’s a prime example of not staying within one’s self — because part of A-Rod’s success is his ability to recognize and demolish pitches in certain areas of the strike zone, and the moment he changed the approach of waiting for those pitches, he was no longer the future Hall of Famer named Alex Rodriguez. After all, not even A-Rod can hit everything.
Put Things Into Proper Perspective
This can be the hardest part, and really is the root of pressing and choking: perspective. The reason athletes press is because they place undeserving importance on an event. Yes, a particular game may seem to mean everything to you, but stand back from the situation for a moment and look at game for what it is in grand scheme of life and the world — it’s a game.
I’ve used quotation marks in this article when talking about “big” games and “important” games because they’re only “big” if someone thinks they’re “big”. Realistically, how truly “important” can a baseball game be? This isn’t a bullfight or an encounter with a black bear — it’s a baseball game, and no one dies at the end. Even at the big league level, if A-Rod hits a homerun to help the Yankees win a playoff game, it’s not like cancer will be cured. At the end of the game, when the final score is burned into the scoreboard, it’s still a game — one relatively meaningless pin in the haystack of life.
One of my semipro coaches from a long time ago addressed it this way:
“You think there’s pressure in getting a squeeze down in the bottom of the ninth down one run? That’s not pressure, that’s fun. Pressure is when you have a wife, a kid, another on the way, a mortgage to pay, and you’ve just lost your job — THAT is pressure, son, not something that happens in a baseball game.”
Look, we all know that people wouldn’t play baseball if it wasn’t important to them. Of course there is importance, and there are “big” games in our lives. But the point is, if you can feel that apple swelling in your throat just from thinking about the “big” game, the easiest way to reduce the swelling is to reduce its importance — think about where it truly fits into the grand scheme of things, and you’ll likely begin to feel the tension subsiding.
Focus and Control
There may be some folks who don’t buy into the reduction of importance. For some, to quote Vince Lombardi, “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing”.
Problem is, few people know the rest of that famous quote. It goes like this:
Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit.
People mistake Lombardi’s “winning” as being defined by final scores and team records. In fact, what Lombardi meant was that “winning” was a way of life, the way you conducted yourself — and if you always conducted yourself as a winner, and fostered winning habits, then in the end you had the best chance of being on the winning side of a final score.
During the course of a baseball game, yes, you absolutely must know the score (and the outs). But it doesn’t help your cause to worry about the score, or to concern yourself with what the final score will be — because it’s out of your control. You may think that you can directly impact the final score with a solo homer — and you can — but you can’t control what the pitcher is going to throw, nor where he will throw it. You can think “if the pitcher throws me a first-pitch fastball, chest high, inside part of the plate, I’m going to hammer it”, but you can’t think, “I’m going to hit a homerun”. There are simply too many factors out of your control (the wind, a leaping outfielder, an intentional walk, etc.).
Playing baseball is difficult enough when you have intense focus — the minute you allow other things to enter your mind (such as the final score), you’re taking away from that focus. For example, much is said about players’ batting averages with men in scoring position. When there are men on second and third, and it’s a tight ballgame, of course you want to get a hit. But if you think that broadly, and think about something out of your control (the hit itself), then you are not applying your best focus to the task at hand.
Instead of thinking about “getting a hit”, narrow your focus to what is in your control: seeing the ball, recognizing the pitch speed and location, deciphering whether you can get good wood on it, and then telling your hands to get the sweet spot of the barrel through the middle of the baseball. Remember you need to think about all this in a few tenths of a second — so that last thing you want to do is cloud your focus with useless thoughts (such as “getting a hit” or the final score). If you are intensely, narrowly focused on a specific task, you won’t have to worry about pressing or choking — your brain won’t have room for it.
Again, it’s easier said than done, but perhaps if you understand why players choke, and how to combat the “pressure” of a baseball game, you will have a head start on playing to your peak performance — regardless of the “importance” (or “unimportance”) of a specific game.